On the Cross-roads of Mastership

Alexander Morozov

Magazine issue: 
#2 2005 (07)

Preparing for the exhibition of Andrei Vasnetsov's work, held in honour of the artist's 80th birthday, it was hard not to feel a curiosity on the issue of how his work would be perceived today, at the dawn of the 21st century. The grandson of the eminent painter Victor Vasnetsov, Andrei Vasnetsov has been known as an artist since the late 1950s. One of the main young painters to bring the tendencies of the "thaw" into Soviet art, Vasnetsov was also among the first to introduce revolutionary modernist ideas and techniques. Despite repeated dressings-down from the Communist Party, he did much to develop contemporary mural painting and composition, combining vigorous modern rhythms and forms of expression with a humanist philosophy and free intellectual spirit. He also became one of the greatest teachers in late 20th-century Russian art. An academician and professor at Moscow's Polygraphic Institute, for many years he guided pupils through their studies; a People's Artist of the Soviet Union, he was to become the last chairman of the Soviet Union of Artists.

One's first impression on entering the Vasnetsov exhibition was one of awe: these are powerful, majestic works. Even alongside other paintings by the "shestidesiatniki" (the "1960s generation") artists, they never failed to impress. Viewed on their own, they are particularly striking - imposing, yet vivid and emotive. These are clearly modernist works, products of the time and place which Vasnetsov knew as his own.

Inheriting his grandfather's directness, Andrei Vasnetsov never denied his affiliation to Cubism: Cubism 'a-la "Vkhutemas" group, Favorsky, Istomin and Falk. His own style is remarkably noble; free from tricks and gimmicks of any sort, his art is never flippant or coquettish. Besides drawing on classical 20th-century modernism, Vasnetsov, like his contemporaries, gained much from modern Italian culture. The direct influence of artists such as Morandi, Guttuso and Zigaina is, at times, clearly evident. However, it is the ideas and "moods" present in Italian neo-realist cinema that most often pervaded the works of young Russian artists of the 1960s.

Vasnetsov's early work is a good example. The exhibition included some of the painter's earlier masterpieces which won him considerable acclaim. Selling such paintings to private collectors, Vasnetsov would occasionally reproduce them at a later date.

In Vasnetsov's time this approach, with its distinct existentialist overtones, was a bold one. We need only remind ourselves that the artist was then dealing not with Russian, but with Soviet people. Vasnetsov's somewhat dark, ascetic world was as far removed from the optimistic Soviet model as could be possible. And yet, such was - and, indeed, is - the artist's worldview.

In the middle of the last century, the existential approach was a common one in philosophy; one cannot help but link it to the sombre mood of Vasnetsov's painting. It is interesting also to note that Vasnetsov, like the existentialists, does not acknowledge "heroes": the self and its surroundings are seen as part of the universal flow of life. Furthermore, meaning is sought through engagement with the harder aspects of life, symbolised by the strained, uneasy contrasts of light and darkness, black and white. Any "storyline" develops against this difficult background. This two-tone, black-and-white means of representation is also reminiscent of neo-realist cinema. Vasnetsov's art is sometimes referred to as "black", given the prevalence of dark shades in the artist's palette. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the artist revelled in gloom and obscurity. In a number of his paintings, particularly from later years, darkness is replaced by fine, rich colours.

Certain early works included in the exhibition also possess a remarkable warm glow. "Aunt Masha", or "Woman Wearing a Headscarf" (1 957, from the Semionov collection) and the "Portrait of a Woman" (1 957, State Tretyakov Gallery) with its hearty brick red could not be further from shadow or a sense of moroseness.

Vasnetsov's mature work dates from the late 1960s. At that time, the artist began to develop what could be called a set of personal canons. His works of that period appear to follow one another, forming an impressive series.

By the 1970s, the artist's imagery and style came to possess a classic, solid quality. Grounded and convincing, his works from that period seem like an oasis of calm amidst the highly charged black- and-white spaces of earlier years. The later paintings represent a world both real and ideal. And yet, the issues which troubled the artist, forcing their way into his personal "circle of harmony", continued to demand some sort of resolution. Risking his very principles, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vasnetsov turned to a series of experiments. Introducing a textual element into his paintings, he appeared almost ready to sacrifice the unique dynamic wholeness that they had previously possessed, and which had been so important to him.

The exhibition included two such composite paintings. "In Memory of a Soldier" (1978) shows a funeral scene, a soldier's grave surrounded by the dead man's fellow combatants. Guns lifted, a final salute rings out. Above the men's heads, the words "he shall be remembered always" are traced in the sky. The painting leaves a strange impression: one cannot but feel that it combines different shades of meaning, often encountered together in reality yet seldom mixed in art. The event is portrayed in all its shocking mundaneness, brought home by signs, bare and unmistakeable yet also coarse and grotesque: another funeral for another soldier killed in one of Russia's many bloodbaths of the last century.

The second "painting with words" in the exhibition was "The Hunting Spree" (1977). This includes a classic line from Pushkin: "A reckless spree the winter fields ravaged". As in the previous painting, there is a tension between words and image, yet here the result is humorous: in an unexpected ironic twist, the everyday scene takes on an abstract, almost philosophical quality. The artist is seeking
ways of enriching his images through the use of fixed, specific signs. One should also perhaps note that these paintings were created during the complex period between the 60th anniversary of the October revolution and the beginning of the Afghan war.

The 1980s and 1990s were a difficult time for Vasnetsov, when he became unable to devote as much time to his art. Nevertheless, his later works reveal an astounding diversity of colour and mood. Take, for instance, "Rain" or "Rainbow" from 1990, "Peeling Potatoes" (1994) or "Staircase in Abramtsevo" (1997). The shimmering gold, delicate raspberry pink and fine emerald green possess a cool, metallic quality, like the gleam of steely- black coal: it is as if they have somehow evolved from the grey and black shades so favoured previously by the artist. Again and again, Vasnetsov presents us with tones which are exclusively his own. No other artist uses such colours, and yet, inexplicably, they seem completely in keeping with a Russian national tradition.

The most recent work in the Vasnetsov exhibition - a fitting final crescendo - was his "Winter Sun" from 2003. It is interesting to view this painting in a historical context, alongside other works such as Levitan's classic "Above Eternal Peace" (also in the Tretyakov Gallery). Both landscapes are filled with a sense of expectation, both meaningful and symbolic. Vasnetsov's canvas is steeped in the atmosphere of tremendous change occurring in Russian society at the turn of the new century. One cannot help but feel that, today, Russia needs more paintings like this.

Although the choice in this article, dictated by convenience, is to examine Vasnetsov's work chronologically, the exhibition itself was laid out differently. The Krymsky Val space, like an artist's studio, allows viewers to admire selected works together, all at once. Today, the Tretyakov holds approximately 40 exhibitions each year. Naturally, considerable thought is given to their scale, layout and format. One possible alternative is precisely a compact, non-chronological event, when the selected works of an artist are viewed all together.


The Vasnetsov exhibition followed two such impressive "selections" from the paintings of Dmitry Shakhovskoi and Irina Starzhenetskaya. At the same time, the Krymsky Val gallery also held a large chronological retrospective exhibition of works by Tatiana Nazarenko. Organising that event was not easy. A leading artist of the generation which followed that of Vasnetsov, Nazarenko proved amazingly prolific. Her works are many and varied, appearing at times almost to contradict each other, as was not uncommon with the generation of artists of the 1970s.

Accommodating such sharply contrasting paintings in one exhibition space was no simple task. The exhibition opened with the artist's photographs of her studio. Computer-enhanced, these gave an interesting insight into Nazarenko's creative environment. The viewer moved on to a series of classic paintings which could well be considered among her finest. "Flowers", from the late 1970s, is a beautiful self-portrait, showing the artist, arms raised, with lilies and Van Eyck's famous couple in the background. Another self-portrait with her youngest son Nikolka and a portrait of her grandmother also date from the late 1970s. The two-metre-wide "Tea in Bykovo", a homage to Russia's old and new, late Soviet intelligentsia, is surely one of Nazarenko's key works of the 1980s. Normally in a Tver museum, the work came to Moscow specially for the exhibition.

In contrast to the thorough, meticulous style of this masterpiece, "Easter Night" and "Young Women in a Museum", displayed nearby, are executed in a more temperamental vein. Next, a series of abstract, symbolic tempera paintings from Nazarenko's 1978 visit to Norway brings more surprises. Instinctively stepping back from these striking images, the viewer comes to the "primitive" works so typical of the artist: "In the Village" (1989) and 'The Rendezvous" (1972). Immediately afterwards, one comes upon the real gems of the exhibition: the famous "Execution of the People's Will Activists" (1969-1972), "Chernigov Regiment Uprising" (1978) and "Pugachev" (1980).

The 1970s, for Nazarenko, were a time of questioning and boldly challenging the system of values that prevailed in Soviet art. At that time, the creation of a monumental thematic canvas, particularly one devoted to some historical event, guaranteed the artist immediate acclaim. Such was the case with all painters from Boris Ioganson to Geli Korzhev. Nazarenko proved a worthy rival, creating her own series of large, impressive, convincing works. Democratic and accessible to all, these were, however, in total opposition to the vapid, idyllic products of Soviet ideology. The People's Will activists in the first canvas are portrayed as heroes without a people: only a sorry bunch of waifs stand silently around the scaffold. Yemelian Pugachev, in the later work, bears a striking resemblance to the poet Vladimir Vysotsky, that outspoken prophet of the Soviet regime's inevitable fall. In this controversial painting, Pugachev is led to be executed by the Russian military idol Suvorov. In sensing the sober mood of spiritual awakening beginning to pervade the decline of "real socialism", the 30-year-old artist proved remarkably astute.

These were the paintings for which Tatiana Nazarenko and indeed, perhaps, her whole generation were to become known. Success was not, however, entirely sweet for Nazarenko. The "Execution of the People's Will Activists" received the Lenin Komsomol prize, became part of a travelling exhibition and was gradually ruined.

"Pugachev", paradoxically, suffered from lack of attention. Virtually outlawed by critics, it could not be reproduced. The Tretyakov Gallery was unable to secure the painting, and it was not until 20 years later that it became part of the "Arbat Prestizh" corporate collection and was loaned for the exhibition.

Notwithstanding, Nazarenko's "dissident’ fame is somewhat ill-deserved. Her critical outlook does not align her with those involved with the "sots-art" movement. Intuitively, she always sensed the point at which disagreement with the regime degenerated into a deconstruction of human values, which she would not tolerate. Neither was she capable of immersing herself fully in the esoteric: her work remains primarily figurative. It is neither elitist, nor does it erect barriers between the artist and the viewer. Thus, it is not of "another world". Nazarenko makes no stylistic attempt to cut communication with her social environment - a technique which can help an artist gain a certain political status.

Indeed, Nazarenko's later compositions can be seen as attempts to break free from the expectations of both official and nonconformist circles. In recent years, she has produced mainly somewhat disjointed, composite works. "25 Years On: An Evening in Moscow" (2004) is one of the few paintings among these pieces. Tinged with nostalgia, it echoes a poetic motif present in her works from the 1970s.

As with her paintings, Nazarenko's later pieces obviously reflect her interest in the "social individual". Shaping her works, she strives to bring us the characters with palpable clarity, and various artistic devices allow her to achieve the emotional atmosphere she seeks. These new elements in her art caused Nazarenko's work of the 1990s and 2000s to be termed "sculpture-painting". This falls into two types: plywood silhouettes with painted faces and clothing, and painted foam "sculptures" of various well-known contemporary types. Nazarenko's social observations are remarkably astute, and her portrayals of the diverse characters present in today's world are always exact to a detail. Sharp and often shocking, figures such as the "Security Guard", "Victim" and "Denim Fashion" group (all works from 2004) invade our consciousness with the same brutality as their prototypes in real life. Furthermore, Nazarenko's plywood people ("Crossing", for instance) first began to feature in exhibitions in the mid- 1990s - a period of transition, when Russia was indeed "crossing" over to the next stage in her history...


Contemporary Russian artists, it seems, are experiencing an increasingly persistent urge to appeal to society, to address the public. Take, for instance, the dynamic, expressive work of another leading artist of the same 1970s generation, Natalya Nesterova.

Her recent exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val showed a selection of early work from the Tretyakov's own collection as well as 30 or so new paintings from the turn of the century. Created in the 1990s and 2000s, for the most part these now belong to Alexander Hertzman's New York IntArt foundation, although some works were loaned by the Moscow "Arbat Prestizh" museum. The artist's recent work is little known in Russia, so this event gave viewers an interesting opportunity to compare the "early” and "late” Nesterova.

Many will, most likely, note three principal differences. The first concerns the scenes depicted by the artist. Her early paintings tend to focus on ordinary, everyday events, whilst the later works are devoted to life's timeless rituals. Symbolic and contemplative, these are mainly views of nature, thoughtful images of the park or seashore, or scenes of play. Unsurprisingly, Old Testament motifs begin to figure among Nesterova's vital, meaningful pictures of human existence.

We are shown magnificent feasts in restaurants; the gifts of land and ocean. We also see birds; these begin to feature prominently in Nesterova's later compositions.

The artist's treatment of nature also undergoes certain changes. Earlier paintings appeared to distinguish between landscape and human elements. Nature was seen as ideal - perfect and beautiful. Man, on the other hand, the mankind of today, was imperfect, flawed and far from the ideal state. In recent paintings, nature with its vital force is often represented by birds such as the gull, which is quite capable of aggressive behaviour when defending its interests in the struggle for survival. This new, aggressive streak is a sign of evolution in Nesterova's attitude towards nature.

Her view of painting as such has clearly become more philosophical. The finished canvas is seen as a kind of parable. Some works are deliberately dedicated to the study of psychological types, moods and other human conditions: such are "Independent, Bold, Obedient”, "Restless, Aggressive, Self-satisfied", "Lightheartedness, Hope, Despair" and "Youth, Maturity, Old Age" (all from 2003). In portraying these timeless states, the artist takes us back to archetypes and biblical wisdom. We are shown naked figures filled with the archaic patterns of Yiddish words. Vaguely reminiscent of cave drawings, their silhouettes remind the viewer of the primitive compositions of the first Russian avant-garde artists. These walking riddles, the "people of words", are occasionally joined by "people of eyes" - figures made up of primitive open-eye symbols. Leaning on the parapet of the well-known Vorobyevy Gory panoramic platform in Moscow, these characters gaze over the city. Esoteric and intellectual, they are also the perfect embodiment of keen, almost animal curiosity. They are, after all, "all eyes".

In later paintings, Nesterova's canvas is organised differently to her earlier compositions. Striving for the laconic precision and clarity of a parable, she limits her portrayal of detail, making the painting more compact and specific. Background landscapes no longer merit the artist's attention; each element of the composition is allocated strictly the amount of space it requires. Such a stringent approach risks a somewhat dry resulting impression, yet Nesterova man ages to compensate through her use of paint - and this is the third significant change we can observe in her work.

Nesterova has always loved oils: the weight and texture of the paint, the way it coats the canvas. In earlier works she would often use thickly-layered paint to create raised noses and wavy hair for her characters, rocky mountains and swelling buds for her landscapes. These were frequently juxtaposed with thinly, evenly- coated skies, waters or even buildings. Today Nesterova favours a more uniform quality of paint, to be applied in rhythmical, measured brushstrokes. Her style may now be compared to that of Pyotr Miturich in his later paintings: the vigorous, pulsating strokes appear to reflect the inner rhythms of the artist. The viewer is also reminded of the "Knave of Diamonds’’ group - the Russian followers of Cezanne, who, in their mature works, used a similar method of painting. With her forthright, energetic brushwork, Nesterova achieves a remarkable intensity of expression.

Certain critics have referred to the "frenzied" colour of Nesterova's recent compositions. These are indeed extremely vivid and polychromatic, yet the burst of colour is held in place by the powerful, measured brushstrokes. Moulding the space of the canvas, these create a virtually three-dimensional effect more complex and pleasing than mere relief. Dynamic and harmonious, it moves the viewer no less than Nazarenko's physical intrusion into life.

The wisdom and reserve of Vasnetsov, together with the striking originality and expressiveness of the two "1970s generation" painters, present a fascinating picture of recent Russian art: it is difficult to imagine why certain critics consider new Russian art dead. The Tretyakov Gallery continues to provide the most comprehensive and systematic showing of classic contemporary Russian painting: close attention to the masters of today is vital to our development. Besides the above events, Tretyakov viewers have recently enjoyed works by Oleg Vasiliev; Erik Bulatov, the magnificent conceptual artist; Eduard Steinberg; Yuri Zlotnikov, with his sharply contrasting traditional painting and "signals", and others. Later this year, there are plans to hold a number of large group exhibitions featuring a number of outstanding contemporary Russian artists whose earlier works have long formed part of the Tretyakov's collection. These will be the "Inhabited Islands" and "Raute 12/1" projects, curated by Ivan Lubennikov and Boris Mikhailov respectively.

Andrei VASNETSOV. The Hunting Spree. 1977
Andrei VASNETSOV. The Hunting Spree. 1977
Oil on canvas. 136 by 150 cm
Andrei VASNETSOV. Autumn Landscape with Hunters. 1976
Andrei VASNETSOV. Autumn Landscape with Hunters. 1976
Oil on canvas. 125 by 145 cm
Andrei VASNETSOV. Akatovo. 1965
Andrei VASNETSOV. Akatovo. 1965
Oil on canvas. 149 by 149 cm
Andrei VASNETSOV. The Hunters. White Night (Eclipse). 2003–2004
Andrei VASNETSOV. The Hunters. White Night (Eclipse). 2003–2004
Oil on canvas. 134 by 150 cm
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Girls. 2004
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Girls. 2004
Painted foam, oil and enamel on plywood. 233 by 95 cm
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Execution of the People's Will Activists. 1969–1972
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Execution of the People's Will Activists. 1969–1972
Oil on canvas. 320 by 325 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Punks. 1997–2004
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Punks. 1997–2004
Oil on plywood. 90 by 120 cm (3)
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Pugachev. 1980
Tatiana NAZARENKO. Pugachev. 1980
Oil on canvas. 180 by 300 cm
Arbat-Prestizh Museum, Moscow
Natalya NESTEROVA. Dinner. 1990
Natalya NESTEROVA. Dinner. 1990
Oil on canvas. 120 by 120 cm
Solomon Guggenheim Museum Collection, New York
Natalya NESTEROVA. Last Supper I. 2004
Natalya NESTEROVA. Last Supper I. 2004
Oil on canvas. 145 by 160 cm
Natalya NESTEROVA. Moscow. Tryptych. 1989
Natalya NESTEROVA. Moscow. Tryptych. 1989
Oil on canvas. 170 by 420 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery





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