Tag Archives: Victor Dynnikov

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.


It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?



The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:


And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:


To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):


You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:


Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.


As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:


If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.


She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:


Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.


You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!


50 ways to interpret the picture

Two girls are talking to each other in hushed tones. The one in the blue dress is rather intense. It is probably she who is doing most of the talking. Her intensity is heightened by the angled arms, with her blue elbow cutting into the personal space of the brunette listener.

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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:


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):


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


  • 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


  • 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):

DSC_0466 DSC_0469


Its Royal Highness, Poodle the First


This is The King, by Victor Dynnikov, a genius Russian painter, who died a year before he was recognised. You must remember him from my previous posts.

Two legs and a small dog. What can be great about a painting like that?

The short answer is, “the story it tells, and how it tells it”.

The long answer is also the story is tells, as narrated by me.

Here’s the prequel to the story.

According to a widespread opinion, we don’t own our pets. It’s the other way around. We don’t put collars on them to take them out; they put leashes around our wrists.

In writing, this thought has been expressed a million times. It is easy to verbalise, but hard to show in a still picture. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen the idea painted (Garfield cartoons don’t count) even though pets used to appear in drawings and paintings as often as humans. Alas, not as equals, but as accessories.

Cute dogs were painted as companions of nude women, a symbol of their loyalty to men who ordered their nude portraits. Hounds attended to moustached gentlemen as hunting stunts, and even great artists could get so much carried away painting them, that their gentlemen would come out as somewhat less alive than the animals.



Cats dialed up sexuality and grace, and sometimes so much of it that critics would accuse painters of pornography.

This is a painting by Balthus, about whom I wrote here and here.

Exotic animals would add status to their owners, like modern selfies with celebs, except for an ermine that used to signal the lady holding it was pregnant. I am not sure there’s a celebrity who can imbue a photograph with this symbolism today.

The Lady with the Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1496

The Lady with the Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1496

Artistic representation of human-pet relationship has been largely limited to showcasing love between pets and their masters. A pet lovingly hugged by its owner? An owner with her pet looking up to her? Oh, not another one. Artists dropped this subject in favour of amateur digital photographers, who never tire of snapping away zillions of lookalike photos. The-Owner-Looks-in-the-Eyes-of-Their-Pet-and-Smiles is a topic so common our memory dumps its candied product the moment a new and similarly widespread picture is flickr’ed on the screen, tumblr’ing down from a cosy Facebook nook of its owner.


You won’t remember any of the photos tomorrow. Perhaps, the crocodile won’t fade that fast, but fade it will.

It is not easy to weave a visual story about a human-pet relationship without being overly sentimental, or abjectly pathetic, or both. It is hard to move beyond the cliché of a pet food ad. 

The story in this painting is uniquely different.

We are introduced to a tiny poodle (or terrier?) and its owner, a portly woman with her sandaled feet firmly planted on the ground. The artist doesn’t show the whole of the woman to tell us who she is, but we can guess a lot about her from the clues we are given.

dressHer dress is a no-nonsense outfit: it is built of geometrical shapes of non-conflicting colours. There are no blossoming flowers or lacy frills on it. “Flippant air” is the least applicable descriptor here. She doesn’t want be in the spotlight with garish clothes or fancy shoes. If she wanted your attention, she’d say so, and you’d find it impossible to pretend you didn’t hear.

She knows where she stands. If you jump the queue in front of the lady, you’re as good as dead.

She’s no idler either: look at this big brown bag she’s holding. She’s on a mission that will see this bag filled with something essential (for her and the dog, no doubt) and she’ll need no help to carry it home.

blueShe might be burly, and homicidal to cheats, but she’s got a tender side to her character. Look at the sandals and the matching colour of the leash. Insensitive people don’t buy shoes to match the colour of their pet’s harness.

She is standing still, like a mountain in front of the dog. Her left foot is precariously planted next to the King, but Its Highness doesn’t care. The dog knows its owner would turn into a pillar of salt rather than step on it.

The dog came up and sat there, looking up to his lady, perhaps, to express its exasperation or to complain about heat. The fact that the dog came to that spot itself does not make it a vassal. If the mountain won’t come to Mahomet, then Mahomet shall send the Hobbits must come to the mountain. Coming to the mountain does not make the mountain the owner of Mahomet, right?

The lady owner doesn’t rush to cuddle, fondle, or scratch her pet. There’s respect between them.

She might be a pillar of the community, but she’d capsize without the dog, her own third column: the dog’s shape mirrors that of her own leg.

Now look at the direction of the three pillars. The dog’s pillar leans in the opposite direction to the legs.  If either of them is removed from the painting, the one who’s left won’t remain standing. She’s collapse to the right, and the dog would topple over to the left. Together they stand in balance, and the small dog outweighs its big owner. It is not a forced reciprocity: the leash is far from being taut, there is no physical effort in maintaining this balance.

She is a mighty queen, and the dog is her king.

The lines, the shapes, the rhythm of this painting may seem accidental decisions but they are not.


The composition is built around the lines that form the letter M, very balanced, with intersections and end-points of its lines giving a sense of perspective. Years of academic study at an institution named after an artist who was as much about the rules of composition as any of the famous Renaissance masters (Ilya Repin, and a relevant story about one of his paintings), made Dynnikov follow its rules even if he didn’t plan to follow them: the main action takes place around the golden ratio line. These compositional “tricks” give the painting, showing a standing lady and a sitting dog, a lot of movement, or inner dynamism.

It is not a painting of a pet and its owner. It is not a painting of a pet at all. It is a human-interest pet-relationship story. And, like a good book, it doesn’t have a single element that shouldn’t be there.  

More on Dynnikov: CatsDogsStill-lifes, Almost nude women and flowers, Curious Crows.


Speak softly and own a big, mean Dobermann

“I never liked jogging, running, height jumping or parkour, but the neighbour’s Dobermann pinscher has helped to reveal my potential.”

This is a dog. It is muscled, as if chiseled from black granite, and alert, but not aggressive. It is a part of nature, same colour as the trees in the background, as ancient and strong as the forest. Trunks of trees rhyme with its legs, and it itself is shown as a trunk for the yellow bush behind it.


Victor Dynnikov, gouache/paper. Image courtesy of Ars Longa Gallery

Unlike the cat from the previous post that was just watching life go by, this animal is prepared to take an active part in it.

The trick the artist used to “merge” the dog and the yellow bush, turning the latter into the dog’s tree crown is a simple shadow line.

DogThe artist creates a shadow that can’t be there, given the distance between the dog and the bush – and thus “merges” them together into a single object.

This is a simple drawing of a dog which is one with nature, simple but convincing, and so it is a valid example of the “Brevity is the soul of wit” concept.

PS The heading of this post is a quote from Dave Miliman.


CATatonic, with an attitude

Following the girl with flowers, we have a new guest in the Brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit lounge. It is a cat.

Why is this simple painting great?


Image courtesy of Ars Longa Gallery

The cat is watching life streaming past. Life is represented by the pinkish shape on the left. There’s a conflict, clash of colours, and a turmoil of lines in the left part of the painting and a serene animal affixed to the right one. The cat is shown with its back to the viewer, as if it has just turned its head, reacting to a movement or sound coming from the viewer’s side.

The cat is neither flaccid nor strained. It is watchful and reflecting, both literally (you can spot the pink colour on the ears) and metaphorically. We don’t know what the cat thinks or feels: its eyes are not reflecting anything and are painted with a unique azure colour.

This is not a cute picture of a pussy. It is a psychological portrait of the cat’s character, and it is done without painting the fur, the purr, or the moustache.

This is a cat with an attitude. An attitude that doesn’t make me feel all warm and comfy inside.

Tomorrow, next in this cycle, following the proverbial “rains cats and dogs”: a dog’s portrait.