Tag Archives: Russian art

Prophecies in art, or Putin 120 years before Putin

I am side-stepping from the perfume & art topic to share a discovery I made today at Ilya Repin’s exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Ilya Repin began this painting in 1880 and it took him 11 years to arrive at the finished version. It’s title is “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire”. 

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It is a large canvas worth a thousands words about the cleverness of its composition, but I will do it later.

Sultan Mehmed wrote a diplomatic letter to the cossacks demanding their submission (in fact he wanted them to stop harassing his borders). The cossacks came back with the most vulgar and mocking reply imaginable. You can read both letters here., learning a lot about fancy swearing along the way.

Each and every Russian is exposed to this painting when he|she is young. Each and every Russian believes that’s the right way to answer any demands of any foreign power. This painting defines the way Russian diplomacy functions even without Russian diplomats being consciously aware what is the source of their immutable desire to behave in ways that are meant to disparage and humiliate their counterparts regardless of the real need to do it. That’s how influential programming at childhood could be, by the way.

Now, let’s zoom in to see the character hidden behind the laughing figurehead boss (or rather figurebelly boss).

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Yes, look at the guy in the grey & yellow hat.

Yes, Mr Putin was there.

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Except that he did shave off the lavish mustachio.

How’s that for a prophecy?

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He might have used the N-word, but he wasn’t racist!

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow announced today they x-rayed the original Black Square by Malevich and discovered two colour compositions they called proto-suprematist beneath the Square itself plus some text. The compositions seem to be quite suprematist but the research team refers to them as proto-suprematist because suprematism had not yet been invented by Malevich. While some art historians may consider it awkward, it’s a trifling matter. It’s the text that is important, and potentially quite embarrassing. 

Two things that you must know about the original Black Square are that it is not a square and it is not made with black pigment. Your eyes are fooling your perceptions that fool your mind that fools your response, and then you say “I could paint a square, couldn’t I?” No, actually you couldn’t, so let’s skip the discussion of whether the Black Square should be getting so much attention. It’s one of the most famous paintings in history, and that’s a fact.

To the text now.

The gallery said they couldn’t yet read the whole of it. First, their X-Ray machine seems to have been confounded by all the layers of different pigments in the Black Square, and second, Malevich had a terrible hand when it came to writing.

They deciphered the first word, and it is “Battle”.

Logic now tells the researchers it is going to turn out as “The Battle of the Negroes in the deep dark cave at night” which is an obvious reference to the eponymous work by Alphonse Allais (1893) who painted a simple black rectangle (indeed it was a perfect rectangle painted with perfect black pigment, and thus failed to become an artistic breakthrough).

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So, art lovers, critics, curators, and artists are asking each other a simple question: What do we have now instead of the Great Black Square which Malevich claimed to had painted in a trance under the influence of cosmic forces that were guiding his hand?

Does the new discovery send decades of critical thinking down the drain, and innumerable volumes of art history books in the dust bin? Did Malevich simply paint over something he didn’t want to show? Then he added a joking tagline, and art critics went bananas rushing to explain its deep meaning. Was it all a big fat case of over-interpretation?

Well, perhaps not. I have a theory.

I think, we have a successful attempt to cover a colourful suprematist composition (that Malevich thought of as a failure for some reason) with paint in a way that the colours would not show through the surface when it dries up. You can’t just over-paint red with black and expect the black to stay black, you know. So Malevich had to invent a certain mixture of colours that will dry up as black at the end but without the use of the black paint. It is also possible he intended the colour composition to be painted over, except that why would he say it was some divine intervention?

And, let’s not forget it, he chose NOT to make it a perfect square. After all, he might have had a creative revelation along the way.

Of course, it is just a theory.

The Tretyakov Gallery promises a new book on the Black Square this year, and we will see if Malevich used the N-word or not. But something tells me my theory can be the right one. A lot of great things in human history have been created out of necessity. Perhaps, the Black Square is just one of them. 

There’s only one thing that disturbs me. What if some years later some memoirs of a Malevich friend will surface up in which his buddy would casually remark about the drunken state of Kazimir when he was painting the Black Square. That would really kill the imperfect square thing. That would be really embarrassing.

PS Chagall is in the works, but there are some headlines I can’t skip. 

Misogynist profiling of full-face portraits

In art, just as in life, ability to create a strong first impression is often the only way to secure a second glance. Because, as Robert Hughes famously noted, full contemplation speed is 30 seconds per masterpiece.

On my recent visit to my favourite art dealer, she took out two female portraits by Dynnikov that turned out to be, actually, four. The artist was so destitute during his lifetime that he often used both sides of his canvases. I wrote about Victor Dynnikov before, covering his still lifes, his flowers with women, animals, and even philosophical musings about life and death.

The 2 double-sided paintings represent four very different characters…

4facesI am not a big fan of categorising people into archetypes, but I know nothing of these girls, so, my immediate archetypal take on them is like this:

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In simple, misogynist terms, it can be reduced to a few simple recommendations or commands (men are from the militaristic Mars, so commands are best):

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The reality about these girls can very different, I suppose. The “Run!” girl, having wiped off her blood-red lipstick, can become a most caring wife; the “Marry” girl can turn out to be a ruthless boss, et cetera.

For a moment I thought that the girl at the back of each portrait was an alter ego version of the girl at the front.

As I am a man, my take on the portraits might have been biased by my gender. Is it the same for women? Is it different for other men? Tell me how you see them!

These girls can’t be identified beyond their names now, but what a journey it could be to find out what they have become!

The power of these portraits is that they give the observer an immediate strong impression of the personality of the portrayed woman – and it is this initial punch that makes the observer interested in discovering more.

That power comes from their eyes, the tilt and turn of their heads, their hair, accessories, and clothes, but the background also plays a role.

Here’s a bulleted list of artistic devices for one of the portraits: it’s front and back side.

The Girl to Marry

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  • Absence of strong contrasts makes the painting “tender”
  • Orange reflections on the edges (face, shoulder) imply there’s more to the character than just “tenderness” and “softness”. Orange also adds “warmth” to “tenderness”.
  • She appears as if coming around a corner or opening a door, which makes her “sudden”: she just came out to the observer, and so the observer must react, not just watch her, must engage with her.
  • She tilts her head as if she’s ready to listen, as if she’s in expectation of the observer’s reaction. This, as well as the angle of her entry. is accentuated by the collar of her blouse: it is very tidy and symmetrical. So, the collar also tells you she’s very organised and attentive to detail.

So, my dear observer, don’t make a mistake. She’s watching you as much as you’re watching her, except that she’s watching you without prejudice or judgement. Her gaze may not be piercing, but she’s taking you in, seeing the real you with her huge blue eyes.

Somehow, It is both mesmerising and unnerving.

The GIrl to Bed

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  • Her cold blue eyes nail down the observer, and if that doesn’t happen the observer must see his nearest oculist at once.
  • The red band holding her hair is like a theatre gun that must fire at some point if it’s taken onto the set. Just imagine the passionate moment when she tears the ribbon off, and her hair cascade down on her shoulders.
  • She wears a robe that doesn’t seem to have any zippers or buttons. I don’t have to spell it all out.
  • The background is passionate red, with a dark burgundy area to the left of her that implies it is not going to be all red, passionate, and easy. The observer is given a trade-off: surrender to those blue eyes, and full lips and face some dark consequences or apologise, and run before it’s too late.

Now you can exercise your art appreciation skills and think what makes the other portrait interesting (click on the images below to get a bigger version):

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A cross between Stalin and Napoleon

Yesterday was the last day of the Victory Show at Moscow’s Central House of Artist, a monstrous box of concrete and steel that makes you wish the 1970s had never existed, at least architecturally.

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On symbolical dates, such as the WWII Victory Day, its bazaar mix of commercial exhibitions of Russian realist painters, fur trade shows, and antique fairs, is ousted by dedicated retrospectives of hundreds of paintings and sculptures. Fur trade shows quietly come back when the pomp is over,

The Victory Show was depressing. Not because the WWII or any war as a theme is depressing, but because the quality of art assembled to celebrate it was so low, propagandistic and false.

The best works there, actually, were a few drawings made by real war artists during the war. There was horrible truth in the bored faces of soldiers silently waiting for their train to arrive and take them to the front, and most likely to their deaths; and there was precious life in their unkempt uniforms, pot bellies, and oversized coats. I can’t show it, because it was badly lit, and, of course, no one cared to produce a catalogue, even though I would buy it to get those war-time drawings only.

Most of the exhibition’s hundreds of paintings were showing off athletic Soviet solders with beautifully chiseled faces and burning eyes intent on killing Nazis; desperate women who lost or were about to lose their husbands and sons in the hell pits of war; Germans torturing or killing Russian women and children, or Russian soldiers distributing their bread and porridge to kids in Berlin.

The similarity of these artworks to North Korean war posters was frightening. I could not but wonder if Russia was mentally ready for and welcoming another tyranny. The ubiquity of standard-issue symbolic images of loss, sacrifice and victory was awkward to see. I had a hope that Russian artists could do better than showing eyes full of tears to communicate the horrors of war.

It saddens me that Russian artists seem to be unable to find new ways to express their thinking on war in ways that would be true, sincere, and resonant with modern people. In ways that would make people want peace more than avenging their great-grand fathers who perished 70 years ago.

Yet, there were two works by living artists that I found powerful.

The first one was a lithograph by Albina Akritas, made in 1986, and titled “Coming Home”.

DSC_0482 - копия I am sorry for my reflection in the glass.

I love the pause that the soldier takes before coming home. Imagine what thoughts are rushing through his mind. He’s standing there, watching his house, thinking… what? I can list about a dozen questions that I could ask myself in this situation, and that makes me realise the horrors of war stronger than another hundred of paintings showing maimed bodies. I don’t want the horror of this pause in my life, and that goes under the assumption that I stay alive in a war.

And to make one think about the chances of staying alive and be able to celebrate victory, another female artist painted an almost abstract work titled “Watching the skies”.

The artist’s name is Lidia Skargina, and seeing her work in this exhibition was a surprise as I happen to own her large-scale still life. I assumed she only did pretty pictures. I couldn’t be more wrong.

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The text in the middle says, rather conversationally, “Not a single bloke made it back to the village of Sheldyakovo from that war”.

There are silhouettes of people watching the skies at the bottom: they give the painting its title. Why are they doing that?

Up, and to the left of the centre, there is a shape indicating a star-topped memorial to the fallen men whose bodies have never returned to the village for a proper burial. In the right side, there is a symbol of belief, a belfry with a broken cross on top, that resembles a candle, to make you remember the loss or pray for them. There are a few more recognisable figures, lest you forget this painting is not an exercise in colour and abstraction, but a monument to very real suffering in a very real war.

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Yet, these symbols are subtle, never pushed in your face, often barely discernible.

The main focus is on the colour conflict here.

There are patches of blue sky, patches of peace that the sacrifice of those men, made possible, and which are made all the more precious through their conflict with the burgundy colour of dried blood that fights against mouldy grey shapes.

This is a painting as much about the survivors as about the fallen.

It is a piece that makes you think about that particular war, and wars, in general. Great piece.

But all hopes for revival of non-propaganda art are killed at the exit from the show, by a firing squad of four portraits:

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This is Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, but above all them, there’s a portrait of Putin walking up the aisle made of flags and columns that morph into churches to deliver his inauguration speech. All by the same artist, who – together with the show organisers – is making a rather obvious point.

Is it a warm welcome to North Korea?  You could hear me optimistically saying “no” a month ago. I try to stay optimistic. It is sad, of course, to see the Personality Cult of the good ol’ Stalin’s days so effortlessly coming back, but (I am telling myself) it can hardly repeat itself in a 21st century information society.

Or can it?

Are the cossacks, who paid for and installed this bust of Putin in their village today, just a bunch of freaks with a fetish for military uniforms or kick-starters of a new trend? Is dressing Putin in Roman Emperor’s clothes bad taste or the first page in a new chapter of Russian history?

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On the bright side of it, you can still read my despatches from Moscow. So far, so good.

How do you feel about Russia nowadays? Tell me.

Another interpretation quiz and answer

Interpretation of art often depends on how far in time the interpreter is from the artwork. The young officer choosing stockings (from my previous post) would be interpreted very differently by his contemporaries 160 years ago, and modern observers.

But can there be any doubt on how to interpret this girl, sketched by Pavel Fedotov in 1848-49?

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What do you think is going on in this picture?

Continue reading

Not for idealists!

I love idealists. Their very existence in today’s consumerist world is a wonder (and a godsend for contemporary romance writers and Amazon).

Grown-up idealists are especially rare, because idealism is similar to a space rocket.  As an idealist matures, their idealism drops off as burnt-out ballistic stages, until the tiny manned tip comes into orbit in the cold void of adulthood.

Psychiatrists believe it is suspicious if someone stays an idealist past their teenage prime. No one over 15 can be THAT blissfully ignorant of the sad facts of life, they say. Yet, most agree that a certain (and generally acceptable) lack of education can insulate a mildly disillusioned Twilight fan from progressing to the consummate cynicism of American Psycho.

What is it a mildly disillusioned idealist should not know to keep the last threads of idealism?

They should never learn that their belief about “things being better before” is a lie. Why? Because this belief supports the hope all is not lost and things may get better after. Men were gentlemen, girls were ladies, kings meant more than “kingsize” in tobacco, and princes rode a single, but very real horsepower. If things could be that way before, they could become this way once again, couldn’t they?

If you know art history, you know the answer is no.

Hereditary noble classes have never been nobler than modern rags-to-riches bankers. Sex, power, and money used to be just as big, if not bigger than today, because gentlemen and ladies of the past didn’t have rock-n-roll for balance.

In fact, you don’t even need to know a whole lot of art history to see through the “better-before” lies. If you are English, you just need to be aware of William Hogarth. If you are French, Honore Daumier will be your guide to cynicism. If you are Russian, Pavel Fedotov will prove to you that people don’t change, not really. If you are American, try Grant Wood, and, if accidentally exposed to Norman Rockwell, rinse the exposed parts with Dr.House at once.


Pavel Fedotov is the artist from my last art quiz, here. I promised you to show more of Fedotov’s pictures, so now I am making good on my word.

This is one of his sarcastic drawings, the Fashionable Store (1844), a terrarium cage of the society’s best driven by utmost self-interest towards moral degradation.

Pavel Fedotov, Fahionable Store. 1844.

Pavel Fedotov, The Fashionable Store. 1844

We find ourselves in the midst of an abridged drama of Anna Karenina in the centre of the picture. An old husband reaches into his deep pocket to pay for the load of goods his beautiful young wife has selected. She is buying “half the store”: their liveried footman is loaded down with her purchases.  Her son reaches out to his mum: he probably saw something he wants in the cabinet behind the counter, but his mother cares more about getting a secret love note from the handsome officer to her left than about her importunate child. Her dog is making advances to another visitor’s puppy as a symbol of infidelity that runs in the family.

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The bored and somewhat irritated face of the husband who “knows it all” (but in fact knows nothing) runs in stark contrast to the careless expression of the young lover, who pretends to be busy with a jar of perfume while anticipating the smell of passion only a hungry wife of a senile husband can offer to a capable man.  Maybe tonight!

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In the left corner, we see a couple that seems to be in disagreement about their budget. The lady has picked up some lace that her husband can’t afford: he shows her his pocket-book of expenses, and, quite possibly, gaming debts, This brings his wife to hysterics: in tears, she throws a length of lace she selected to the floor in indignation.

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Their faces say it all.

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Note the way the neck of the husband is drawn in the hunch of outraged innocence. But it won’t fool his wife. All the sorrow of a faithful keeper of the family hearth denied her rightful piece of lace is right there, in the silent twisted line of her mouth.

Behind the broke husband we can see a customer who asked the salesman to pick up something from the farthest shelf only to distract him enough to steal a scarf.

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Further inside the store, in the backroom, we can see a visitor, who must be someone important as a bottle of champagne is not provided to any customer who gets lost looking for a toilet.

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The visitor wears the uniform of a civil servant. A tax inspector, perhaps. He shows the store manager a document and frowns. He doesn’t have to ask for a bribe: the manager will give him money and will be eternally grateful the money’s taken, at that.

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Let’s get on the right side now, to the young officer holding white stockings as a battle trophy.

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Today, he is interpreted differently than a hundred years ago. A modern observer says it is a young man chosing stockings for his paramour.  Fedotov’s contemporaries would say – looking at his insignia – that he was a general’s aide sent either by the general himself or by the general’s wife to buy stockings either for the general’s lover or for the said wife. Look at the left hand of the young man. If he is ashamed of his role as a messenger boy, he doesn’t want it to be seen and adopts the pose that tells everyone around him he’s on top of this particular situation and the whole world, in general. He assumes all eyes are on him, but we know no one cares a bit about him, his looks, or his “situation”.

Behind his back, there’s a lady, somewhat past her prime, desperate to “steal some beauty” but unwilling to openly admit it. She’s using the sign language to tell the salesman she wants some rouge, while clutching a bottle of expensive perfume, a symbol of her female charm that is about to leave her.

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There is one guy I can’t explain though. The man behind the rouge lady who appears to be opening a bottle of perfume. Who is he? He’s got artistic hair and tie, there are papers under his arm (drawings?). Fedotov loved infiltrating himself into his drawings, but never had hair this long… A small mystery.   

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And the last detail is meant for those idealists who believe a salesman is your best friend whose utmost desire is to help you make the right choice.

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I am sorry but while he looks into your eye with the dedication of a German shepherd dog, he can’t wait for you to get lost, so that he can continue reading his book while chewing on his sandwich.

Don’t forget to tell me if you want more of Fedotov’s satire. Or, alternatively, cry out, “show us something inspiringly optimistic!” I need to know, even if I don’t comply with the latter.

Prompt to yesterday’s art quiz – and now answer!

My yesterday’s question was about the detail that Pavel Fedotov used to make the interior a living space, and not a theatre set in one of his last paintings, the Widow.

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Pavel Fedotov, Widow. 1851-52

Here’s a prompt. Fedotov made several copies of the Widow. He changed objects in the room, he changed the pose of the widow, but that detail remained unchanged. Look at the other two versions. The detail I am talking about winks at you from each version. 996d45d9bc9c3a2ae0b8affb8086026c 55378954_fedotov19

And now the answer: it was an amazing woodcuts artists, Abel Dewitz, who saw it first. I urge you to go over and see his work, if you haven’t seen it yet, and if you have, enjoy it once again!

Yes, it is the drawer that is not closed properly.

She’s a lady who cares about proper order and arrangement of things. Look at the pillows on the bed. Look at the draperies. Look at the top of the chest of drawers: in each painting all the items are arranged in the most organized way. But she is too emotionally distracted to properly close the drawer. This small details tells us she actually opened and closed the drawer, and so it is not a prop. Or a very, very clever artist who organised the prop this way to make it real.

Fedotov could spend 6 to 9 months on a painting, going out, searching for the authentic premises, authentic irons, kettles, even cakes! He paid attention to even a slightest detail to make it all…real.