THE LIVE PHENOMENON OF REALISM
Writing about realism in connection with contemporary Russian art is not an easy task - nor an encouraging one. On the one hand, we still remember our experience of a continuous struggle for realism, on the other, we know that today’s creative thinking is not obviously oriented towards realism. Those who have made a choice in favour of global integration into the "world artistic community", or to be exact, into the Western art-market, feel no need to speculate on the subject. Even those who make the heritage of social realism their business will – sooner or later - acknowledge that money is paid not for realism as such, but for the peculiar aesthetic phantoms involved. Any discussions on realism are based on rather an unstable theoretical background. Thus one question arises: what to discuss – something belonging to the past, museum artifacts, or the so-called "actual"? And what to analyze – traditional or living creative principles?
However, it is not clear why the category of "actuality" is monopolized by the group of such "integrators", and used by them exclusively to mark practices certified as actual by Western artistic circles. Isn't it only fair to admit that something "different from others" might be actual for the Russian art medium; in other words, that "you and I" might quite definitely have our own barest concern. Thus the question arises: is realism as a certain problem actual for our art today, if separated from associated party likes or dislikes?
One approach is to regard a certain historical-artistic facet of realism (that of the Renaissance, or Rembrandt, or critical realism, for instance); another, to consider the "art vs. reality" principle. Can we apply today's experience to the paintings of Perov, Repin, Serov or Korovin (not to mention Shishkin or Levitan); or are we in search of our own potential in the process of construction of an artistic picture of the world, based upon our perception of the visual forms of the environment? Our comprehension of life "in the forms of life itself will inevitably provide quite a different visual result than half a century, a century or a century and a half ago. The idea might appear logical as well as trivial, but in the area of art criticism it is very often disregarded. As a result we have the existing situation - a kind of paradox: the viewer-buyer-consumer likes Aivazovski or "A Moscow Courtyard" by Polenov, or some trivial sunny landscape by Nalbandian, and affected by such feelings, is ready to formulate his or her demand to the contemporary artist: "Give me realism!" But - here comes the "but" - the viewer-consumer does not want some authentic realistic image of today, an image born by the direct creative perception of life by the contemporary artist; on the contrary, he or she wants to see a picture of the world created and fixed in the art of the past by painters belonging to the realistic tradition in art, an image which is implanted into our consciousness and which - for many of us - has become something ideal.
Here is a real trap for art critics. When speculating about realism, some of us are still under the influence of the nostalgic dream about "the reality", one perceived like a fairy-tale from vanished childhood. Who did not like Savrasov's "Rooks" in his or her youth? But what do we now say about the same picture of melting snow and shining spring sun? To find some genuine reality under the layers of the near and distant past is really a very uncomfortable psychological process. But still I do not want to digress far from the point of this discussion of realism, because I consider it very topical for today's situation in - and with - visual arts. In order to provoke discussion I am ready to state that there is a real deficiency of a really realistic comprehension of reality.
We all, of course, can see many so-called pictures, resembling some of the old "realisms". In general, too, there is an obvious surplus of easel forms of art which is consumed in our society. True, architecture and design are rapidly developing, but there is a lack of interest in those forms of art that are able to change the quality of life for contemporary Russian citizens, even though the art-market is over-flooded with "pictures". The "overproduction" of easel painters might be another explanation of this fact. In addition, many artists, specializing in monumental and playbill and poster kinds of art, left their professional fields in order to earn money by the "production" of "pictures" demanded by consumers.
But do we have the right to judge negatively today's mass demand for a "picture"? In the end, emotional escapism is one of the "healing" means of art and is all the more necessary in periods of crises. Many examples prove that: even idlers now eagerly play the role of showman, launching numerous show-projects; on a wider scale, the Hermitage exhibits its classical masterpieces in Las Vegas.
Art gives some peculiar psychological comfort too. First, for some consumers of art, a painting in a golden frame symbolizes a certain level of well-being, marking the elite status of its owner. On the other hand, it should be noted that connoisseurs of art tend to prefer the landscape genre: for them, pictures of nature stimulate some kind of positive emotions. Besides, it is very typical of the Russian character to feel some lyrical-poetic connection with Russian landscapes. In addition, for decades during the Soviet era such an "escape to nature" was an alternative to the whole system of taboo practiced in the Bolshevik state. Our pleasant reminiscences of Savrasov, Shishkin and Levitan, and this double- motivated striving towards nature are the best explanation of the predominance of the realistic landscape on the market. No doubt, it is only connected rather relatively with the problems of contemporary realistic art; in other words, it is not the landscape genre itself that matters, but how it is realized in our art market.
It is no use rejecting the role of a work of art as consolation for the soul. We should only stress that the choice of artistic language and style means setting and defining the "super task” of the creative act. And if the artist uses a certain "museum" language, this means that the object depicted is, practically speaking, idealized, as it is included in a particular system of cultural-historical values. There is an alternative - to seek new means of expression, a new original language in order to express a personal, subjective and fresh reaction to "nature". To gain this is the condition for the realization of the cognitive set of the creative process, a motivation of its realistic potential. In other words, realism in art due to its origin is a live and perpetually transforming and changing phenomenon taken either as an individual creative effort of the artist, or as the process of changing the "style of the epoch", or as certain collective stylistic preferences.
I think there is a lack of such discoveries of artistic language in contemporary visual art - instead, it is like turning the pages of an encyclopedia of historical styles, with ever-existing artistic sign systems. In this situation the auteur's Ego reveals itself only very marginally. The artist is very often satisfied with the "tune", like the echo of a piece of music composed by somebody else. Thus we have numerous examples of "beautiful" exhibitions with no "equal" public response. Unfortunately a number of highly ambitious art exhibitions, organized in St. Petersburg and Moscow, have proved that very fully.
It is worth mentioning that in Russia today "classically" understood professional visual art has really become something special - some kind of elite occupation. On a related note, I think that the growing expansion of the electronic media into the sphere of visual culture will soon make the figure of a human being with a brush absolutely exotic. Nevertheless even the most original projects - like the grand exhibition of abstract art in the Russian Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery - failed to enthuse the public, or create a serious critical response which might have happened, say, at the beginning of the 1990s. These exhibitions were not slight - a great amount of historical material was collected, material that sooner or later should have been analyzed and generalized. Probably such a task is of a very special interest, both for connoisseurs of art and researchers: those who come to the museums were obviously expecting something more concrete, recognizable and actual. Such a situation, in its turn, reveals the above-stated "deficiency of realism”.
Quite naturally, those artists who called themselves "actual" were ready to act. While their elder professional masters are up in the clouds dreaming of pure aesthetic principles, the "actuals" are trying to produce the impression of being able to call a spade a spade, in other words to speak openly about our life with all its ugly attributes. In connection with that I would point to the continuous process of interest in the genre of comics provoked by such personalities. It is not surprising - as the subjects that prevail here are taken from the marginal, even near-criminal spheres of life which easily reject all moral principles. In the end, the renowned Russian realistic artists of the 19th century also "tore away all the masks" from their society, exposing its sores and evils. And what can be done if today we are undergoing a criminal-sexual revolution? That is the answer to the realistic creative process. Remember the words of the ideologist of the "PG" group I. Falkovski: "In general we are interested in the taboo zones of human consciousness: obscene language, drugs, pornography, the confrontation between rappers and skinheads, dead-ends... By the way, our themes are very popular in the West: comics about Chechnya, about Berezovsky, and even about the Gulag... our ethics cannot cope with the new reality. And there emerges a situation of absurd - we try to express our feelings using the old means, we try to observe the old ethical rules, which are antagonistic to realities”. (”Ogonyok” magazine, 2003, №46, pp. 48-49).
This tough logic does not consider the problem of the masters of a traditionally- imitative orientation, namely the problem of artistic language as a fact of individual creative action. The "actuals” like to repeat that they are working with the languages of mass culture. It was proved not once by theoreticians and by the very history of art that during the 20th century creative innovations were realized through the appeal of the "educated” artist to the ”non-educated”, to the lower layers of folk culture. Therefore the so-called ”actuals” can say that they follow the example of Larionov, Goncharova or the "Jack of Diamonds” group. And really they are working with the languages of today's "primitive”, using them like a collage, without any fundamental consideration of the adopted system of symbols and notions. The above-mentioned trend of Russian art from the beginning of the 20th century was defined as ”neo-primitivism”, ”cubofuturism”, or "Russian Cezanne- ism”. Thus it was stressed that the lower original principles were processed and digested, melting with the vanguard tasks of the most up-to-date world culture and with the discoveries of the leading artists-thinkers of the time.
Such actual art either buffoonishly parodies symbols of the social environment, or throws in the viewer's face images of dirty yards, coarse words and public lavatories. Thus it might be considered possible for the artist (and for the viewer too) to "dissolve” in our everyday life. The model can be regarded as vulgar and naturalistic, at least that is how it is presented by the "actuals”. Genuine realistic art of previous eras was not based on such grounds.
It should be admitted that these critical speculations did not take into consideration the whole spectrum of the self-assessments of the representatives of the actual art; recently they have become less nihilistic and mobbish, as if being forced out by newly-emerging tendencies. The shows of such artists are gaining more and more the vivid character of a play, or an entertainment with an hedonist accent of glamour. But such a turn to a more respectful form of self-presentation does not change anything in the formative technology, as practiced in our actual art. Whether they use obscene lexicology, electronic optics or the symbols of pop-culture, here it is the "ready-made" logic that above all prevails. Thus, manipulations with ready-made elements, alien to artistic individuality, turn the created target form into a set of secondary meanings. As for the energetic element stimulated by a personal perception of life and the usage of gained experience, it is incompatible with the creative artistic effect produced by the artist whether it is an oil painting or a drawing or a sculpture. It is worth mentioning that it was that very genuine, rich and evident personal experience that became a motive force in the development of realistic traditions in both Russian and world art. The psychological adoption of the ready-made form (whether dadaism or pop-art, or the new Russian actual art which is based on them) and the creation of a plastic form are really opposed to one another. And the question is not what to discuss, or whether this is better, and that is worse; the issue is that the first tendency creates a certain commentary, or conclusion, on reality. It parodies reality, while the second tendency contains some evidence of the pioneering with impressions, feelings and thoughts which we have never known before. Such properties of plastic art are quite obviously revealed in the history of the Russian realistic landscape, which is interesting because its general heritage is not only known but is loved by Russians. Nevertheless each of the leading figures of Russian art is a unique artistic individuality, speaking a distinct artistic language. Take, for example, such artists as Savrasov, Vasiliev, Shishkin, Levitan and Serov: we shall never confuse one with another. Everything is recognizable: the early spring with the melting snow, birch trees and the road in the fields; pine trees and the monastery under the gloomy skies... And everything is unique, because these artists are so different from each other in the fundamental elements of their plastic-visual language. Each of them feels the line and colour in his own way, each of them has his own "handwriting", his own brush strokes.
Quite naturally such differences are the result of the peculiarities of individual temperament of each of the artists, of their psychophysiology. At the same time this is the result of a certain "collective" evolution of artistic thinking, their belonging to a certain definite vector of the "style of the epoch" movement. Thus Serov's brush strokes, under the influence of the French impressionists, are free and sweeping, forming not only the shape but also some space zones of the landscape composition, mingling together the colour and tone qualities of the reconstructed motif. Levitan, particularly the Levitan of the late period of his artistic activity, uses some ideas of the Russian Moderne style in his compositions, accenting the decorative surface elements. The combination of the "impressionistic" texture of the painting with the typical for the Moderne style plane division of the composition is characteristic for the landscapes of P. Petrovichev and L. Turzhanski, distinguished members of the "Union of Russian Artists". In all the cases such innovations did not mean an escape from realism; on the contrary, the works of these figures were without doubt included into the ranks of classics of the Russian realistic landscape.
The process of realistic aesthetic self-renewal did take place in later periods, though this type of art was not included in the list of social-cultural priorities in 20th century Russia. As is well known, the first quarter of the 20th century was marked by a really keen interest in revolutionary innovation, seeking a really new language far beyond realistic traditions. The "real socialism" of the 1930-1980s exploited the art of the life-like form for propaganda of political imperatives and Utopian ideals. But against such a state of affairs, the realistic perception of life, as a certain natural phenomenon, did find realization in the practice of artistic creative activity, even if more often it was not free and live, but rather contradictory. The "dead-end" situation appeared in cases when the author in his drive towards realism simply tried to imitate his favourite masters of the realistic art of the past. As a result we have a great number of nostalgic sentimental pictures, a-la "real nature", in Soviet art, pictures animated with a fleur of lyricism, but evidently without any realistic inspiration. Nevertheless there are some achievements, some things really new in the development of realism. The fate of those creating something new in the Soviet era was not a happy one.
The most vivid example of that kind is Sergei Gerasimov and his landscapes which were not appraised at their true worth. And it was not because genre scenes were most demanded by officials - those who painted the so-called Soviet genre scenes gained the official status of the Soviet artist. All is much more complicated with Gerasimov. The situation was aggravated both by the content and by the form in his landscapes - they did not correlate with the then existing norms of landscape painting, a rather peripheral part of Soviet visual art.
The art-critics and officials from the Unions of Soviet Artists criticized the style of Gerasimov's landscapes as "formalistic" (the term very widely used in the USSR to express discontent with writers, composers, painters and film-makers), while their emotional pathos and ideological impact were obviously far from the forced joyful mood of "ordered" social realism. His work "The Ice Drifted Away" (1945) depicts the hardships of the spring of the last year of the war, and it seems that nature itself - wounded and shivering with cold - is returning to life. No war horrors, no war victims. The same mood is characteristic of Plastov's "Harvest" (or "Hay-mowing").
Both the artists - Gerasimov and Plastov - managed to depict a bitter truth about wartime in the victorious though the most tragic moments in the history of the country. Their philosophic and ethical perception of the history of the people through images of Man and Nature is rather close to that of Surikov or Repin, but was very far from the triumphant and didactic masterpieces of social realism. Gerasimov's and Plastov's realism was not needed, as opposing Stalinist ideology, and the reaction of the official ideologists was ruthless. The artists were "labeled" "formalists- impressionists" which at that time was equal to "anti-Soviet". Their "truth" was different, alien to the existing norms, and it required different means of artistic expression, different from those practiced by "the Wanderers" and the realistic artists at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The style of Gerasimov's landscapes is highly original and it is not surprising to learn that Ivanov and Korovin were among his teachers and tutors. At the same time much was taken from the fundamental principles of Serov's painting - that "measure of poetry and the truth" that was seen in the paintings of war time mentioned above, and that is so different from - for example - Levitan's with its vivid subjective- personal emotionality. But when we speak about Gerasimov, about the whole process of visual form-building in his works, their physical and dynamic characteristics, then we should note that the latter are radically different from the "genotype" of the Moscow school of Serov's time. Gerasimov did not reject the authentic tradition of the Moscow school of painting, but he used his own specific personal and creative experience (the wars and the revolution, meetings and manifestations, discussions, discoveries and disillusions, and other stimuli) in order to find his own path in art. Gerasimov was not an avant-garde artist, but neither he was a retrograde who did not want to accept the artistic innovations of the radical epoch. It was not by chance that he joined the group "Makovets", whose romantic leader was the genius Vasily Chekrygin, and whose creative antithesis was Vladimir Favorski, a no less brilliant figure. And beside these powerful figures of the new romanticism and new classics there were such renowned first-rate artists as Zhegin, Sinezubov, Romanovich and Fonvizin. For a certain period Alexader Shevchenko's ties with the "Makovets" group were close, and the co-operation was very fruitful. This group "digested" the neo-primitivism of Larionov and Goncharova, along with such phenomena of Russian and European art of the first quarter of the 20th century as Cubo-futurism and Expressionism. Having been involved with those trends, movements and developments, Gerasimov was under the infective influence of all their experiments. He became more and more inclined to graphic art, which gained all the characteristics of freedom of expression. Some of Gerasimov's drawings of that time are comparable to those of the most renowned Russian expressionist in graphic art, Piotr Miturich.
Thus the artist reached a fully expressionistic understanding that the process of lineation is an impetuous, nervous, tense jester, summing up all the troubles of his times. Gerasimov's creative activity is mainly concentrated on the landscape genre; it is worth mentioning that later this expressiveness entered his oil paintings of the 1930-1940s and is transferred to his brush stroke - wide, prolonged, building up the compositional whole of the painting ("Fishermen on the Volkhov"). But inside each of the wide strokes there appeared a spectrum of shades and tones of one colour, or myriads of colour splashes - silver-white, tortoise, violet, pink - like in his spring landscape "Samarkand" (1944). That is a real psychological truth of depicting Nature - the live, contemporary basis of the artist's realistic stylistics.
Such kinds of historical analysis present the two-faceted problem of realism. The solution of this problem is possible if the choice of a certain vector is made in order to find one's own point of view, and if a certain auto-training by the artist allows him to fix this choice. We have had a chance to see that Gerasimov managed to find such a vector and obtain his own point of view and the means to reveal it. I'd like to give another example of a distinguished artist who not only set himself such a task but also found new possibilities for its implementation. I am sure the artist Nikolai Andronov, whose solo-exhibition was shown in the Tretyakov Gallery not long ago, is a happy choice.
The main theme of Andronov's creative activity is well- known. It is the ethos and poetics of the Russian North-West. Andronov was really wise and intellectual - it took him years to find his own "severe style", which was later very highly appraised (its significance for the art of the post-Stalinist USSR should not be under-estimated).
Andronov moulded in his mind the achievements of the expressive monumental-decorative compositions of the OST-society (Society of the Easel Artists) and of the "Jack of Diamonds" group. He also had a really keen interest in Larionov and Goncharova, who represented the Moscow school of art of the beginning of the 20th century. And if we keep in mind such trends of Western art as cubism and the traditions of the "dark" nonmonumental art of the VKHUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Shops), and their interpretation in the circle of the shestidesyatniks (belonging to the 1960s), including Andrei Vasnetsov, Pavel Nikonov, the Smolin brothers and Victor Popkov, as well as his studies of the monumental- ism of ancient Rus', then the Andronov phenomenon can be appreciated properly. The artist paid attention to the works of young artists whom he actively supported at the exhibitions of the Moscow Organization of the Artists' Union, and whom he defended from Communist Party censorship. All these taken together influenced Nikolai Andronov in maturity. As a result, at the end of the 20th century, the theme of contemporary Russia was comprehensively and truly developed by the artist. And if we raise the problem of the viability of realism in today's Russia, then we can say: the art of such truth, such emotional depth of feeling and such form answers one of the most vital and urgent spiritual demands of Russian reality.
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