Popkov

There was an exhibition of Viktor Popkov’s works at Somerset House recently. I managed to catch it the day before it ended. And lovely it was, too, well worth the sweaty train ride to get to it. The details below are taken from the exhibition display notes. Apologies for the poor quality images – I had forgotten to take my camera and made do with my toy smartphone.

After Stalin’s death began the Krushchev thaw, and Soviet artists began to experiment freely again. A reaction to the sterile Stalinist realism, called the Severe style, began in the 1950s, combining elements of socialist realism with self-awareness and humanity. Viktor Popkov was one of the finest exponents of this new style. The year of the Krushchev ascendancy, Popkov travelled to Bratsk where he painted his monumental canvas The Builders of Bratsk, a tribute to human effort. This was no generic piece of realism – he knew every one of his subjects and he delineated each one with care and character. This piece established his reputation.

Builders of Bratsk

Post-Stalin, Russians were able to engage with Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Popkov was influenced by the colourism of Matisse, evident in his Spring at the Depot, in which the steam beneath the wheels evoked Monet’s railway works at the Gare St Lazare.

Spring at the Depot

Spring at the Depot

Popkov was drawn to the bleakness of the Arkhangelsk region. In particular, the river Mezen drew his attention, and he dedicated an entire cycle of works to it and the tough lives of its inhabitants. Popkov saw both the poignant and quietly joyous, as for example in this canvas titled September on the Mezen, in which a family returns home after a satisfying day out collecting berries and mushrooms.

September on the Mezen

September on the Mezen

Popkov was a keen observer of human nature. He composed his portraits with little contrivance or formality; indeed, it appears his subjects were almost unaware that he was painting them; he imbued the works with unsettling perspectives. In Three Artists, he appears in the mirror, while the other characters are his friends Alexander Sorochkin and Karl Fridman. The portrait suggests the creative process: from his own contemplation through the performance (Fridman) to its completion and the subsequent relaxation (Sorochkin).

Three Artists

Three Artists

In Igor, Pavel and I, Popkov paints his fellow Severe stylists Pavel Nikonov (1930 – ) and Igor Obrosov (1930 – 2010) in foetal poses of restful sleep. Only half of his own body appears: was it an afterthought, a reticent addition as though he considered himself not quite on par with his friends?

Igor, Pavel and I

Igor, Pavel and I

This positional triumvirate is also the theme of one of his most affecting and affectionate works, Summer. July. in which a woman, a man and their child depict the strength and fragility of the family unit.

Summer. July.

Summer. July.

Popkov was a fragile, suffering individual. In 1966, he attempted suicide. Throughout his career, he explored his own emotions through his self-portraits. In Sunday, he projects optimism, sunbathing on a Moscow rooftop.

Sunday.

Sunday.

In Work Completed, Popkov is exhausted but content. Through his window you can see the Kudrinskaya Square building, designed between 1947-53 by Ashot Mndoyants and Mikhail Posokhin as a residence for Moscow’s cultural elite. Popkov’s satisfaction is mirrored by the triumphalism of the building beyond.

Work Completed.

Work Completed. (1972).

And, to round things off, here is Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Alexander Kharitonov

The gallery ‘Our Artists’ performed an important task, having organised a large exhibition of fine and graphic art of Alexander Kharitonov gathered from various private collections. Kharitonov is an interesting, albeit not so well-known artist of the second half of the 20th century.

How would one classify such an artist? Clearly with the Nonconformists – after all, he exhibited with them in the Malaya Gruzinskaya. His relations with the ‘official’ artists weren’t particularly cordial on either side.

On the other hand, he neither participated in artists’ unions nor did he write manifestoes. He had little interest in politics, nor did he concern himself with emigration.

The bulk of the works probably have not been seen previously. Nearly a hundred works come from family and private collections, and these cover virtually all periods of his career, starting from the earliest works of the 1950s.

Most importantly, this exhibition traces the evolution of his creativity, not just in technique but also in theme. From a slight influence by the Impressionists in his early works, Kharitonov moves to a completely independent technique of pointillism, including references to the World of Art movement and the Blue Rose, as well as a distinctive naiveté in art.

Here you see his technique – delicate and with the application of tens of layers of paint, creating an unusual surface relief.

Probably very few people in the 1970s showed as much of a consistency in their adherence to religious themes (although, to be honest, few even in clerical circles would have considered his works strictly canonical). You can see the theme in early landscapes where churches often appear in the composition.

Trinity, in honour of Andrei Sakharov. (1990).

Kharitonov’s graphical works are equally interesting – detailed and driven to the miniature.

And here’s ‘Landscape with Gogol’, although you need to look to locate Gogol.

Evangelists

Self-portrait.

And this is his final work, completed two days before his death.

And here is a curious series of seemingly simple abstractions: it started with Kharitonov working on figurative painting, going by the original colour composition. He then applied multiple layers of paint, and the works survived as such at the request of his family.

[Loosely translated from Tatyana Pelipeiko, АЛЕКСАНДР ХАРИТОНОВ – НИ НА КОГО НЕ ПОХОЖИЙ ХУДОЖНИК (March 17, 2012)]

Aigana Gali

As I mentioned in my monthly roundup, a Georgian/Kazakh artist, Aigana Gali, was exhibiting at the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill. There were only a few, untitled paintings on display, but the boy and I took some pictures and here they are.

Gali trained at Almaty’s Kazakh Academy of Science, and currently resides in London. She is a trained ballerina, and is also an art councillor at the Kazakh-British Art Council. Some more of her works are at her website.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Appears to be part of a triptych.

Soviet Sport, Soviet Art

As I mentioned in my monthly roundup, Sotheby’s are holding a brief exhibition on soviet realist portrayals of the sports. The boy and I went over there yesterday and took a look. We also wielded our cameras to great effect as you can see below.

One good thing about Sotheby’s is that their exhibition catalogues are generally free, so when we left, we grabbed one. All of the information in the captions is from the exhibit notes.

Oarswoman, by Mikhail Sokolov.

Mikhail Sokolov was a member of the Miriskusstvo (“World of Art”) movement in the 1910s, and followed that with cubist styles. During his exile in the 1930s, he became interested in dramatic works of realism; the Oarswoman is one of his best. Unusually, he doesn’t portray her at her moment of triumph; rather, this is the post-race, exhausted face of the winner. The painting reveals her humanity and reality, rather than abstractions of victory and achievement.

At the start, by Kirill Kustodiyev. (1933).

A parachute jump, by Georgy Nissky. (1930s).

A parachute jump, by Georgy Nissky. (1930s).

Judoists, by Oleg Ponomarenko. (1979).

Judoists, by Oleg Ponomarenko. (1979).

Gymnastics Lessons, by Nikolay Kotov. (1930s-1950s).

Gymnastics Lessons, by Nikolai Kotov. (1930s-1950s).

A skating rink, by Viktor Popkov. (1966-69).

A skating rink, by Viktor Popkov. (1966-69).

Playing billiards in Ulanovo, by Viktor Popkov. (1974).

Playing billiards in Ulanovo, by Viktor Popkov. (1974).

Volleyball, by Viktor Popkov. (1968).

Volleyball, by Viktor Popkov. (1968).

Waverunner, by Vladimir Kutilin. (1959).

Waverunner, by Vladimir Kutilin. (1959).

Vladimir Kutilin’s Waverunner is one of his earlier works, painted soon after his studies completed at Surikov Art Institute. It was inspired by increasing popularity of the sport (invented in the US in 1922) in the USSR. This work highlights the ambition and energy of the Soviet youth, and also points out the increasing appreciation among common citizens of the healthful benefits of sport.

Marathon, by Mikhail Pereyaslavets. (1980).

Marathon, by Mikhail Pereyaslavets. (1980).

The skiers, by Anatoly Nikich. (1950s).

The skiers, by Anatoly Nikich. (1950s).

The skiers, Anatoly Talalayev. (1961).

The skiers, Anatoly Talalayev. (1961).

In a sports hall, by Olga Vaulina. (1930s).

In a sports hall, by Olga Vaulina. (1930s).

Aeromodeller, by Olga Vaulina. (1930s).

Aeromodeller, by Olga Vaulina. (1930s).

Aeromodelling was a popular sport in the 1920s and 1930s, especially driven by the Soviet preoccupation with the conquest of the skies. Schoolchildren in particular formed aeromodelling clubs in which to pursue their interests in aircraft development. Olga Vaulina depicts the sky bound ambitions of the boy with the contrasting placement of his hand on the globe of the earth.

The Spiritual Goncharova

[Loose paraphrase from Woman power русского авангарда, by Elena Fedotova, on Colta.ru.]

Between October 16, 2013 and February 16, 2014, the State Tretyakov Museum holds an exhibition titled ‘Between the East and the West’, dedicated to the works of Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).

Natalia Goncharova has been variously called an Amazon of the avant-garde, a great Russian artist, a left-wing painter of the Russian avant-garde. And yet a 100-odd years ago, conservative critics were deprecating her as an blasphemer and an untalented dauber. When you look at the amazing power of her spiritual cycles, her refined theatrical sketches, her decorative still lifes, it is difficult to understand why so much criticism clung to her, and why her works were snatched right off their displays.

Goncharova’s solo exhibition in 1914 (in Nadezhda Dobychina’s ‘Art Bureau’, at the time, the fashionable gallery for modern art in St Petersburg) created a scandal. An anonymous screed by W titled ‘Futurism and blasphemy’ in the journal Peterburgsky Listok savaged the exhibition. Shortly thereafter the police descended upon the gallery and impounded twenty-two paintings. The chief procurator of the Holy Synod (of the Orthodox Church) had sanctioned the raid. After hearings, the paintings were returned to the gallery.

What had happened? The church’s fury was directed at Goncharova’s religion-themed works. W’s review – blasphemous works in the exhibition must be immediately removed: the deliberate disfigurement of holy persons for ridicule among green dogs, ‘rayonist’ landscapes and similar ‘cubist’ drivel must be prevented – read more like a denunciation. Fortunately, despite the serious allegations, there was no auto-da-fe. Goncharova was supported by influential people, such as the count Ivan Tolstoy, the curator of the Hermitage Nikolay Vrangel, and the artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. In the end, even the Archimandrite of the Alexander Nevsky monastery gave his approval to the works for their revival of the style of ancient iconography.

Cubist woman. (1920).

Cubist woman. (1920).

Angels and Aeroplanes. (1914).

Angels and Aeroplanes. (1914).

Dancing women. (1910).

Dancing women. (1910).

Gathering the grapes. (1911).

Gathering the grapes. (1911).

Unknown title.

Unknown title.

Harvest. (1911).

Harvest. (1911).

Decoration for the 'Liturgy of St Andrew'. (1914).

Decoration for the ‘Liturgy of St Andrew’. (1914).

The Maiden on the Beast. (1911).

The Maiden on the Beast. (1911).

Dancing peasants. (1911).

Dancing peasants. (1911).

Nativity. (1910).

Nativity. (1910).

Crucifix. (1906).

Crucifix. (1906).

Meanwhile, the noncanonical manner of depiction of the saints came not only from the Primitivist avant-garde. Although by the time Goncharova painted her cycle, Moscow had already witnessed Gauguin’s works – both in the collection of Shchukin as well as the art journal Golden Fleece. Goncharova had already begun to base her works on the religious compositions of the luboks, especially as (her partner) Mikhail Larionov collected luboks while she collected the pre-Christian sculptures called ‘stone women’. The free treatment of biblical stories also grew directly out of Goncharova’s own life.

Goncharova was born in 1881 in the village of Ladyzhino in the Tula governorate. This was to be her Tahiti. She spent her school years in the village; evidently she had encountered her evangelising peasants and more – the stone women here that irritated adherents of traditional values no less than her religious paintings. Of course, Goncharova travelled extensively around Russia, not restricting herself to Tula. In her paintings of biblical scenes, she brought not only her own readings of the sacred text, but also the religious attitudes of the peasantry which retained traces of paganism. She surrounded the peasantry with an aura of sanctity, a gesture, naive though it was, radical for its time.

Yet other scandals that brought in the police were caused by her paintings of female figures, which were deemed worse than pornographic cards. Today such a characterisation rather sounds like a compliment. Corpulent, megalithic Venuses from which emanated primitive sexuality appeared absolutely indecent in those days. These lumpen women could not elicit the delicate voyeuristic pleasure that was the perception of nudity in the beginning of the 20th century. One could say that Goncharova had made a personal translation of European modernism to Russia, equating Scythian or Polovtsian stone sculptures with the African and Oceanic idols that had so excited the post-impressionists.

Not only in her art but also in life, Goncharova broke with traditional ‘feminine’ behaviour. She wore men’s attire – shirts reminiscent of work-clothes, trousers and cap. She appeared bare-breasted in the film Drama in the Futurists’ Cabaret No. 13. She co-habited with Mikhail Larionov. She managed from the beginning of their relationship to not become a mere wife/muse to the original ‘master’ of the union. (He had said to her “You have an eye for colour and you are busy with form. Open your eyes on your own eyes!” advising her to start painting when she was still engaged in sculpture.)

In 1915, Sergei Diaghilev invited Goncharova to Paris to design the scenes for ‘The Golden Cockerel’ in his ‘Russian Seasons’. As it turned out, Goncharova and Larionov had left Russia for good. Goncharova spent her post-Russian years working in theatre design; she lived a long, creative life, without being persecuted – unlike the majority of the avant-garde. She died quietly in Paris, in 1962.

Prams in Art!

Goodness gracious me. Parashutov’s yen for classification reaches surreal limits with a bunch of art works incorporating pushchairs and prams. I scavenge shamelessly.

Summer, by Lev Aronov.

Summer, by Lev Aronov.

Indian Summer, by Viktor Varlamov. (1970).

Indian Summer, by Viktor Varlamov. (1970).

Nikitsky gates, by Sergey Volkov. (1986).

Nikitsky gates, by Sergey Volkov. (1986).

Rusanovka, by Sergey Shishko. (1966).

Rusanovka, by Sergey Shishko. (1966).

Untitled, by Vasily Grigoryev.

Untitled, by Vasily Grigoryev.

Frida with pram: at the dacha, by Lev Zevin. (1935).

Frida with pram: at the dacha, by Lev Zevin. (1935).

On a walk, by Vladimir Boldyrev.

On a walk, by Vladimir Boldyrev.

Pokrov boulevard, by Aminodav Kanevsky. (1925).

Pokrov boulevard, by Aminodav Kanevsky. (1925).

Janis Rozentāls

Janis Rozentāls (1866-1916) was born in a blacksmith’s family, and progressed from a local school to art school in Riga and thence to the St Petersburg Academy of Art, from where he went on to establishe herself as one of Latvia’s most famous painters.

He was a versatile artist in the Style Moderne and Impressionistic styles: landscapes, monumental works, works exploring the inner worlds of men and women, symbolist works, as well as portraiture. Below is a sample.

Mother and child. (1890).

The studio of the artist. (1896).

Death. (1897).

Self portrait. (c. 1900).

Black snake. (1903).

Daughters of the sun. (1912).

Family in the Sigulda. (1913).

Italian landscape. (1915).

Marcos Grigorian

Marcos Grigorian (born Kropotkin, Russia, 1925; died Yerevan, Armenia, 2007) was an Iranian-Armenian sculptor, painter, carpet weaver and installation artist. He was educated in Rome, worked in New York, acted as a villain and anti-hero in several Iranian films, and was a teacher of art in Teheran, one of the founders of Iranian modernism. 1

One of his earliest ground-breaking works was a cycle of murals on the theme of the Holocaust. These were a dozen panels 6 x 10 feet.

Holocaust series (1957-59).

Holocaust series (1957-59).

At the same time, he began adding earth to his artworks, a process that resulted in the Earthworks series, to focus on using earthen materials to symbolise man’s transient nature on earth. 2

New Birth. (1970).

New Birth. (1970).

Dry Farm. (1977).

Dry Farm. (1977).

He also began to experiment with the age-old tradition of carpet weaving, introducing an avant-garde design to its elements.

Ara and Shamiramis Uraptu. (Designed 1957, woven 1987).

Ara and Shamiramis Uraptu. (Designed 1957, woven 1987).

In 1970, Grigorian joined the faculty of art at the Teheran University, where he began to instruct young Iranians in the principles and philosophies of modern art. He himself had experimented in multiple styles (figurative and abstract) and media (as we’ve seen above, graphic, fabric, and installation), but he inculcated in his students a love and appreciation for traditional and folk art and their possibilities in the modern. On the other hand, his abstractions remained novel, especially for Iranian audiences, as he incorporated bread, baskets, straw and earth into his paintings. 3

References

  1. Hengameh Fouladvand, “Marcos Grigorian“, Encyclopedia Iranica, 2012.
  2. Marcos Grigorian, Earthworks (Exhibition catalogue), p. 128, Gorky Gallery, 1989.
  3. Staci G. Scheiwiller (ed.), Performing the Iranian State: Visual Culture and Representations of Iranian Identity, Anthem Press, 2013., p. 104.

Origins (A)

Pantocrator and Archangels in St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

Christ Pantocrator.

In 988, the prince of Kievan Rus, Vladimir, ordered the destruction of all idols in his lands, and converted his kingdom to Christianity. He had sent emissaries to the known world to decide under what religion to unite his people. Western Christianity was underwhelming. Islam prohibited alcohol. If the Jews were chosen people of God, why did they rule nothing? But Byzantium blinded with its splendour and Vladimir chose Orthodox Christianity as the faith for the Russians. Almost his first act thereafter was to reproduce Constantinople in Kiev with the construction of the Cathedral of St Sophia.

The Cathedral was built and decorated by an army of master craftsmen sent from Constantinople to realise Vladimir’s great plan. How did the new and unfamiliar deity, Jesus Christ, arrive in front of newly converted? Well, he did so in a glorious blaze of golden mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, at the very summit of the central dome of the Cathedral. He is surrounded in a circle by all the colours of the rainbow, and he gazes upon the faithful with his solemn, awe-inspiring expression on his face, holding the Book, and making the gesture of blessing.

Madonna Orans.

He has his angels with him, four extraordinarily severe and brightly patterned Byzantine archangels. When Vladimir’s emissaries had first beheld the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they exclaimed ‘We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth!’ and that is exactly the feeling that the Byzantine master-craftsmen had set out to create in Kiev.

The focal image of the church is not the Pantocrator in the dome, which is only fully visible to the priests at the altar. Instead, it is the great Madonna Orans, who, by containing God himself within her, became the manifest representation of the Church, itself the abode of God. The Madonna has been placed in the apse that itself feels like an enclosure and looks like a womb. Mary is not only the Mother of God, but also a healer of pain, and a telling detail is a handkerchief on her person that, tradition has it, she uses to wipe away the tears of the wounded and the suffering who have come in supplication. This image has also become the representation of Kiev as the mother of the old Christian church in Russia.

Vladimir had not just imported a religion, he had also brought Russia into the orbit of the Christian culture that had been forged over centuries in Byzantium. The impact on the people was immense.

Our Lady of Vladimir.

Our Lady of Vladimir.

They leapt from stone and wood pagan idols to these glittering visions of gold and colour. It must have been like travelling a thousand years in a day. But there was one Byzantine art-form that the Russians would take to their heart, perhaps because it had a simplicity that spoke directly to them. For Russian Christians, it would become the most powerful symbol of their faith and their nation: the icon, a painting on wood of a saint or a prophet or Jesus himself.

Our Lady of Vladimir is one of the most famous of icons, the founding icon of the Russian tradition, the holy of holies. Stylistic analysis suggests that it was painted around the year 1130, by a Byzantine master in Constantinople, and it was brought to Russia as a great treasure. But to the Russians, it has never been presented as a foreign import; rather, they believe it was created by St Luke himself, almost like a photograph taken in the Virgin’s home of her with her son. Christ is an innocent babe in arms, tenderly clasping his mother’s neck. Mary’s lovely almond-shaped eyes are sad, filled with foreknowledge of his death. The artist puts great stress on the vulnerability of Jesus’ body, his foot presented as if to prepare us for the torment of a nail piercing it at his crucifixion. The icon is full of pathos and humanity, and perhaps that is why it struck such a deep chord in the Russian imagination.

In the Western sense, icons are not realistic; they are spaceless, shadowless; yet they were held in esteem in the Eastern tradition because they were supposed to capture the likeness of saints in heaven. The Russians loved their icons with a fervour not seen elsewhere. The icons strengthened their souls and lifted their spirits, and touched and blessed their sufferings away.

(From Alexander Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Russia, BBC Four, 2011)

Saints Peter and Paul at the St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.

Lives of the Artists XVIII

Jirayr Zorthian (1911-2004), Armenian artist and emigre extraordinaire, was a friend of the physicist Richard Feynman. During one of their discussions on art, they realised that they were arguing from different premises – the one didn’t know any science while the other didn’t know any art. So they agreed to teach the other their subject on alternative weekends.

But the arguments continued. Zorthian claimed that science took away from beauty by looking at a flower and taking it apart. Feynman countered: the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes … [1]

Zorthian regretted using a flower as an example. He said he wished his example had been a bare-breasted woman. “Are you going to look at these breasts and and start analyzing how beautifully they’re formed scientifically? … Or are you going to want to just spontaneously go over there and bury your face between them?” [2]

[1] Richard Feynman and Jirayr Zorthian on science, art and beauty.

[2] Feynman wants his orange juice, Sep 13, 2012.