Space of Stillness

Jurgen Schilling

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#1 2009 (22)

The exhibition of Nikolai Makarov’s paintings “Space of Stillness” at the Tretyakov Gallery is the first solo show of the artist, who lives in Germany, in a Russian museum. Over a month the public had the rare opportunity to see the work of the artist, who belongs to the international artistic milieu of contemporary Berlin; it was there that he created his “Museum of Stillness”, where viewers can concentrate their attention on direct contemplative communication with a work of art. A part of this museum was reconstructed at the Tretyakov Gallery hall on Krymsky Val. The exhibition showed about 50 paintings dating from 1986 to 2008 from the series “Easel”, “Russian Icon” and “The Black Sun”.

After self-taught artistic beginnings in Russia, and his studies in history at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Nikolai Makarov began working as a painter and graphic artist before being accepted, with no formal artistic training, as a student at the Academy of Art in the GDR under Werner Klemke, a graphic designer and illustrator. Makarov’s various journeys eventually brought him to West Germany and Austria, where he sought contact with Rudolf Hausner, one of the most prominent representatives of Fantastic Realism. He was greatly interested in Hausner’s work at the time, especially due to its underlying inclination toward a physical approach and the resulting development of an “expanded sense of Realism”.[1] Hausner’s encouragement and constructive criticism strengthened the artist’s resolve in terms of his choice of motif and intentions concerning meaning and substance, and set the groundwork for his transition from working primarily with oil paint — his preferred medium until then — to acrylic. Makarov’s “Die spate Freiheit” (literally, “late freedom”, a term describing the condition of belated retirement in an aging society marked by decreasing birth rates) series made him known to a larger public but also made him a member of the elusive “Verband Bildender Kunstler”, and an officially recognized artist.

Crouching in front of a diffuse background applied in monochrome color, and presented either frontally or in profile and devoid of any additional objects, or at times portrayed with heavy symbolic gesture sitting together in a single boat, these well-aged individuals from the era of “spate Freiheit” impart a metaphorical viewpoint concerning the personal crises of a generation that has been robbed of life and will no longer be able to taste the fruits of its own freedom.

Commenting on one of the artist’s preparatory studies for the double portrait of the oarsman and his wife from 1987, now part of the Berlinische Gallery’s permanent collection, Monika Maron said: “Who were they before the ‘spate Freiheit’ became entangled in the overgrowth of years and the deepening of wrinkles upon their skin? On which crutches of bondage have they just hauled themselves into the boat, within the short time left allotted to them before finally reaching the grave? What have they done to each other that prevents them from looking into one another’s eyes? Or are they simply no longer in need of beholding each other, because each of them is so well versed in the life of the other that a glimpse of the other would amount to nothing more than a glance at the mirror... What has happened to them that has left them so unable to enjoy their own freedom! [...] When I look at the two of them, and blur my gaze a bit, the figures disappear behind the horizon, dissolve into a far off place, and their bloodless chalk-lined bodies escape me, the living one, like ghosts moving into impermanence.”[2]

Makarov emphasizes the idiosyncratic strength and presence commanded by the physiognomies of his models, whose life circumstances — a great number of them are among his friends and family — are often well and deeply understood by the artist. Though he has stressed the fact that the pictures from this series, painted in muted colours or using a grisaille palette in various formats, were “at that time not primarily dealing with daily political themes but arose more from philosophical deliberations,”[3] we can think that the artist was indeed grappling with a kind of allegorical treatment of society toward the end of communist rule in Russia and the GDR. The pictures are still, reserved, quiet and non-rhetorical. The “painterly methods [employed are] as much a form of self-realization for Makarov as they are a kind of artistic self-determination [...]. Painting can in this way be understood as a practical methodology for managing and coming to terms with one’s own ego. Both the relationship to and understanding of the artist’s description of his own position within the social sphere are laid bare.”[4] Alongside the human figures depicted, for example, special attention is given to deserted streets with abandoned shops and glimpses into shadowy interiors that they provide, dusky corridors and steeply ascending staircases. These glimpses are highly impressive through the artist’s enhanced use of light: pointillated rays of light permeate their way through the darkness and slide through hallways, over steps and along the handrails of stairways which have already been partly swallowed by the brooding darkness. A visual form of expression such as this not only finds direct correlations in much of 19th century art and the somewhat later Berliner Realism: to an even greater extent, it is a combination of foreboding and remembrance that is visualized here.

Makarov’s consistent and intensive involvement with the old masters, with the viewpoints, motifs and styles of important painters such as Titian, Goya, Caravaggio and de la Tour, whom he studied, was subsequently accompanied by a search for new formal possibilities. Above all, his engagement with Rembrandt, an artist who tended to ignore the academic rules of his own time, would prove especially fruitful in his later work and bring him closer toward achieving his aims. Taking up the master’s compositional precepts, Makarov began to directly reference much of Rembrandt’s major work toward the end of the 1980s, reworking the impulses by submitting the spatial and figural elements to radical revision. Modeled from earthy dark-brown clouds of colour, Rembrandt’s personages, captured in gingerly falling remains of light and psychologically characterized, are left intact by Makarov. Through dousing the entire portrayal into stark darkness, however, and only adding light to a few distinctive pictorial elements, he reduces the figures to a mere semblance of their existence. Upon the fiercely tempestuous Rembrandtesque Maelstrom, the flecky flimmering and colour-saturated impasto are set into reactive relief with paintings whose smooth membranes of colour consist of subtly applied layers of paint and awaken rather an association with harmony than with painterly fervor, without diminishing the dynamics of the borrowed motifs.

It is the darkness-defying Rembrandesque light that so moves Makarov, its power to blind and its wondrous meekness, its ability to dematerialize, and its, at times, drastic character [...] Makarov slurs the strong emotions and forcefully eloquent gestures that lead to dramatic climaxes in Rembrandt’s paintings into meditatively subdued givens, already so reduced down by Rembrandt into purely essential assertions, and translates them into his own unique language. Although clear references remain, absolutely novel creations of their own temperament and with deviating intentions emerge. The artist once mentioned in a discussion with Gunther Feist that he had tried “to reinterpret each of Rembrandt’s paintings only as far as was absolutely necessary in expressing the very same thing, taken from out of a separate historical perspective, in a new and different language. [...] I am not presuming to enter into any kind of competition with him but more desire [...] to enter into a dialogue that spans across time, which is what art always does. [...] One of the impetuses for their creation was my continuous attempt at reaching a balance between the contradictions. [...] The aspired balance should reveal that the intensity of the light, whether embedded or underlaid, induces the great extent of gloominess, and beholders of my work are forced to decide for themselves, in view of the power-relationships presented, in which direction the scales will tip; whether they are filled with trepidation or whether the light is still strong enough to give them hope.”

Parallel to his work on paraphrasing Rembrandt, a portfolio of six mezzotint erasures arose in 1989, signalizing a turning away from what had been the decisive figurative representational convention for Makarov until then. Though finding inspiration in text fragments of the collection of poems “Hymns to the Night” written by Novalis and published in 1800 in the newspaper Atheneum, the artist refused responding with illustration. Instead, he resolved to accompany the early-romantic lyric with a series of abstract compositions, which were intended to approach the disposition of the emotional-mystical poesie — in which Novalis, much in the manner of Edward Young’s “The Complaint, or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality,” gave voice to the pain he had endured over the early death of his wife — as nearly as possible.

According to Jeannot Simmen in a publication that accompanied the edition, the artist “roughens the plates using a compressor-operated sandblaster. Using this method, [...] a plane of high precision fineness is achieved. The plate is then worked upon using a scraper to achieve light tones and the ‘motif’ is worked out of the material. The print is made using two separate plates, with the superimpositions achieving differentiated black tones and light to dark values.”[5] The pictorial space is filled with the activity of the colour, which is entirely non-representational, along with the modalities of the creative process. Makarov’s original involvement with the mezzotint technique as well as with airbrushing, which allows for a planar and uncontoured but expressive graphic and painterly effect, grew out of, according to the artist himself, his studies of art from the past. He was enthralled by certain 18th century pastels and how the techniques employed in their realization were able to achieve such exceedingly painterly results, partly by the artists using their fingers to smear and rub in the crumbs of pigment that had been created by their wide stroking of the material onto coarsely-grained painting surfaces.

In New York, the place to which he turned his attention in 1992, Makarov decided upon taking up figurative painting with renewed resolve and, in a new series, took up what was for him the new theme of female nudes, modifying all from earlier phases of his work. The artist also altered the feeling and atmosphere of his paintings to the effect of placing the shadowy figures of his models into a light filled space and allowing both figure and gesture to become discernible. Sublime portrayals of his counterparts in the studio arose. Their latent sensuousness springs from a fictional voyeuristic distance; the models seem to move in absolute privacy, and their poses are both restrained and full of tension. The visual enactment of situational procedures that appear to develop from moment to moment plays with the imagination of the beholder, who intuitively senses the expression behind the body-language of the young woman represented and follows the choreography of the artist.

One element essential to the appearance and effectiveness of Nikolai Makarov’s paintings is his specific range of techniques, continually revised during the 1990s. The character and texture of his picture surfaces is determined by a virtuoso command of traditional artistry and handcraftsmanship in combination with contemporary mechanical resources. After first having carefully conceived of a composition intellectually, Makarov begins by using black acrylic paint, applied using either a brush or with a mechanical spray gun, to create an underpainting. Fine lines establish the contours of an exactly calculated composition upon the white painting ground. Over this foundational and clarifying arrangement of contours, glazes are applied layer upon layer using acrylic paint thinned with water, whereby the airbrush technique allows for an over-spraying with the aid of various nozzles and a more or less dense superimposition or gradation of already sprayed layers with various degrees of transparency. An atmospheric nuance- rich refinement of darkness takes shape on the canvas, defining the created space in a peculiar manner. In order to emphasize degrees of brightness and add accentuated lights to certain passages, translucent colour tones are rubbed in and smeared with the hand. At this stage, the entire painting is covered with a layer of Kasseler Brown, with its refractive black-shimmering. The new paint is then wiped off with damp rags or using the hand until the underlying structures are re-exposed. Previously hidden layers of colour emerge, though with a now altered texture due to the dark pigment that has remained as residue upon the canvas. The result is dominated by a tone very similar to a certain gallery tone, a 19th century term for describing the method used by many artists and restorers in affecting the age-induced darkening naturally caused by oxidation through the application of darkened varnish. The chiaroscuro achieved by this technique causes the original contours to lose their sharpness somewhat, absorbed into the melting confluence of overlying layers, through which each previous layer shines and shimmers.

Chronologically, alongside a number of portraits and self-portraits, a sequence of cityscapes immediately followed his nudes. Makarov began to expand his margins and perfected his command of the mediums he employs, and enshrouded his subjects in a foggy transparent veil. Reality merged with the fantastic when he began to call up the architecture of known and typical place-specific buildings for inclusion in his images, allowing them to be identifiable and yet causing them to be strangely disconnected, as though from another world: the Colosseum in Rome, the Tower of Pisa, the interior of the cathedral at Chartres, the canyons created by the skyscrapers, spectacular bridges and museums of New York, and the monuments and street passages of Berlin and Paris. His main focus was on imparting visually ascertainable elements, and, at the same time, brazenly veiling reality. Subjects are alienated in favour of suggestive power. Makarov foments doubt concerning the actual existence of the buildings, whether viewed from afar or from an angle desirable for its ability to facilitate detail. Using photographs to establish compositional orientation, he refines and transfigures churches, residential towers, and bridges with painterly spontaneity into fantastic dreamlike forms and shapes, which, accentuated by the severe contrast between light and shadow, conjure up a past that is inseparable from the traces of history.

Makarov has devoted much attention to Venice and its canals lined with fragile palazzi, cathedrals and residential buildings. Aside from his depiction of a small number of full-bodied figures clad in 18th century attire, recalling in this context more the eventful history of the city rather than any costumed Carnival celebration, Makarov omits, much as did Turner and Whistler before him, any inclusion of narrative detail. He dissolves the motifs, dematerializes tangible substance and outmaneuvers the recognizability of renowned landmarks.

Throughout Makarov’s landscape depictions, one senses a deep relationship to nature, which can certainly be compared to the one condensed within the enchanting and imagination-exalting description of the poet-painter Adalbert Stifter, who excelled in formulating the experienced magic of cosmic vibrations. The radical contrasting and at once muted Rembrandtesque dramaturgy of light informs the approach taken by Makarov as a landscape painter. He brings forth visions of landscapes which strike the viewer as more fantastic than realistic. He is far more focused upon realizing a poetic mode of representing nature and its imminent sensual potential. The sensitively handled abstraction of the ideal of nature, the refined arrangement of light-streams and the subtle choice of colour underpin the impression that Makarov aspires toward a visual realization of the non-material and cosmic — greatly differing from Mark Rothko’s non-representational, celebratory, and emotionally loaded colour-field paintings but still spiritually related. Beyond that, his work imparts, also like that of Rothko, the impression that the picture planes, vibrating with the suggestion of timelessness and spacelessness, expand outward, moving beyond their own boundaries and into the surrounding space.

It is of no great surprise that recently Makarov has turned his attention toward religious themes. Moved by a newly reawakened devoutness within Russia, he has been reminded of the rituals in his believing family, and has found it prudent to handle a theme that correlates in terms of its content to the formal solutions he has discovered. The transcendental attitudes of his paintings correspond with the idea of sacral content. In his choice of motifs, Makarov has now seized upon the tradition of Russian iconography, the epitome of orthodox religiosity. Stylistically, following a set of constant norms over centuries, iconographic imagery has been viewed by believers in the orthodox tradition as being holy in itself; moving beyond the images depicted, it has served to reveal the supernatural nature of events. In these paintings, Makarov has turned his attention toward a detailing of holy imagery with an explicit focus upon angel iconography. In various roles, whether as attendant messengers and guardians of the soul or as powerful and militant executors, as white-clad guardians or stewards draped in red gowns, like the disputatious archangel Michael and his counterpart Gabriel, the bearer of good news, or embodying the concept of the Trinity in groups of three, these winged entities are omnipresent among iconographic imagery. Makarov, who has been grappling with the problem of how to visually represent perceived spirituality since the completion of his Rembrandt series — in which angelic figures also play a prominent role — is clearly spellbound by these enigmatic beings who symbolize an existence across time. He is fascinated by a latent ambivalence, the ambiguous nature of the figure and the propensity to protect and to punish, so well exemplified by the imagery produced in the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. In the poet’s Duino Elegies, it is categorically stated, “All angels are terrifying”, and then reprised in a somewhat more conciliatory tone. The spiritual nature of angels is implied in the form of an encoded and desire-filled dream, confidence and anxiety.

The correlation of Makarov’s work to Symbolism is evident. Theosophic conceptions and Arcadian longing, esoteric leanings and phantasmagoria, premonitions, and dark and dreamy mysteriousness were all topics of discussion in a time of social and societal uncertainty. It was a period of upheaval, which has now been used by Makarov in drawing parallels to the current time. Hans H. Hofstatter has referred to stillness, Makarov’s central theme, as comprising a moment essential to Symbolist painting. It is an eloquent quietude that requires an extraordinary degree of inventive talent when attempting to represent it, especially in terms of internalization, immersion and meditation. Makarov encodes his cryptic nudes, portraits and cityscapes or landscapes, which he withdraws from direct access and yet inflates to encourage admittance, though without any reliance upon extravagant colorousity or allegorical interpretations.

A daring step was taken by the artist in his simulation of virtual situations entailing future hangings of his work in various museums across the world using a computer. In his Museum of Stillness, developed over a period of years and located in the historic centre of Berlin, it has been possible for him to realize installations that approach his conception of the ideal mode of pictorial presentation. The large apartment, remodeled following his initiative, is viewed by him as a “sacred” meditational site, where the contemplative workings of his paintings are able to unfurl. Similar presentations have also been realized in other places, such as Brandenburg’s Krochlendorff Castle and the NY Arnot Art Museum. Projects such as these, that serve to create the appropriate surrounding space for presenting his work, have led to cooperation with architects including Michael Marshall, Max Dudler and Sergei Tchoban, who, in interchange with the artist, have conceived architectural spaces designed solely for the purpose of presenting single pictures. In each case, architecture leads the beholder to the piece displayed. Within the solitude of the chamber, visitors are provided with an opportunity for gathering their thoughts to enter into a constructive dialogue with the quietude, to feel and experience the stillness; the aim is to awaken the subconscious. Whereas Marshall’s conception entailed a snailshaped enclosure, Dudler proposed a cube comprised of turf and encased in an outer shell, which can be entered through an opening in the back, and Tchoban developed a sphere-shaped futuristic “Ideal Space” with rounded light-sources of various sizes embedded into its interior walls. Light infuses the exhibition space from within, and the visitor is guided up toward the large-format painting presented there by means of a stairway.

As a painter, Nikolai Makarov represents a headstrong and unconventional position, which cannot be forced to comply with any stereotypes common to contemporary artistic production. “Contemporaneity is not an existing concept for him, nor is modernity. He maintains distance from all that claims to belong to the present. He is an exception to the rule.”[6] With great intensity, he follows, diverse in his thematic choices and highly accomplished in technique, the goal of approaching his ideals and, with his deliberate and quiet but by no means meek painting, opening the eyes and spirits of his public.

 

Translation: Nathan Moore

  1. Nikolai Makarov, in: “Gunter Feist, Gesprach mit Nikolai Makarov" in: Nikolai Makarov, Die Verschworung — Dialog with Rembrandt, exhibition catalogue, Akademie der Kunste - Akademie-Galerie im Marstall, Berlin 1991, p. 23
  2. Monika Maron, “Die spate Freiheit" see fn. 2, p. 23
  3. Nikolai Makarov, see fn. 1, P. 24
  4. Lutz Arnold, “Auch die Symbolik folgt dem Ritual der Stille" see fn. 2, p. 5
  5. Jeannot Simmen, “Das Schwarz nachtlicher Flachen" in: Nikolai Makarov, Hymnen an die Nacht - 6 Radierungen nach Texten von Novalis, Berlin 1992
  6. Ursula Feist, “Sein" zelebriert, see fn. 2, p. 9

Illustrations

Easel. 2007
Easel. 2007
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 130 cm. Private collection
Nikolai Makarov. 2009
Nikolai Makarov
Photo. 2009
Untitled. 2006
Untitled. 2006
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 600 cm. Private collection
The Black Sun. 2004
The Black Sun. 2004
Acrylic on canvas. 80 × 80 cm. Private collection
St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. 2008
St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. 2008
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 200 cm. Private collection
Archangel Mikhail. 2008
Archangel Mikhail. 2008
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 130 cm. Private collection
Archangel Gabriel. 2008
Archangel Gabriel. 2008
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 130 cm. Private collection
Untitled. 1998
Untitled. 1998
Triptych. Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 340 cm. Private collection
Untitled. 2007
Untitled. 2007
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 300 cm. Private collection
Untitled. 2002
Untitled. 2002
Acrylic on canvas. 100 × 200 cm. Private collection
Easel. 2008
Easel. 2008
Acrylic on canvas. 200 × 200 cm. Private collection

Back

Tags:

 

MOBILE APP OF THE TRETYAKOV GALLERY MAGAZINE

Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play