THE PRESENCE OF THE PAST
THE ENERGY OF CREATIVITY
Your artistic style resembles the great Russian painters of the past—what has inspired you to follow in their footsteps?
The greatest artists ...Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt... never sought easy solutions when creating their masterpieces (which by the way, could not often be said about many artists living in our own time). Because of the depth and dedication involved in their creation, such artworks still have a profound effect on us today.
When encountering such remarkable works, the viewer can feel a powerful energy radiating from them. I'm personally very drawn to this energy, and looking back now, I realize everything I've pursued in my life has been a search to come into contact with its presence.
I feel for any artist to truly develop their own style, the intensity of such creativity needs to be experienced and known. Without encountering and understanding the works of masters who were possessed with this energy, I believe it's ultimately not possible to realize one's full artistic potential, and/or create something truly unique—even with the best of intentions.
This is because these artists have attained such mastery and gone so deep into their own creative process that their works have transcended time; and in order to reach the pinnacle of our craft, we too must step into this timeless dimension ourselves.
Yet today many artists are encouraged to reject the knowledge of the past and sever all ties to tradition, with the intention that this will help them create art that is purely 'new' and 'unique'. Yet I fear this approach often results in artists becoming 'naked emperors', where those who lack even the most basic artistic skill are encouraged to use elaborate concepts in an attempt to 'explain away' the content and meaning of their works to viewers.
But I believe that the paint must 'live on the canvas'—that through a deep commitment to artistry and craft (like the great masters of the past) artworks should possess the self evident power to speak for themselves, conveying all the artist wishes to say.
However, to be clear I do appreciate both traditional and modern styles of art—specifically the avant-garde and underground artists of today who express a high degree of knowledge, skill and imagination in their works. And l don't in fact consider myself to be a purely traditional or realistic painter either, as I work in a more impressionistic style quite a lot as well.
Your work is very texturally rich, giving an almost three dimensional quality to your paintings...
Yes it's true, I'm trying to create the illusion of a three-dimensional atmosphere through a two-dimensional medium. Every painting has its own story and subject matter, and I believe the content I infuse my artworks with might more easily come into contact with the viewer’s soul if it's expressed through a more tactile and textural medium.
So I've been working to create paintings that are more subtle and multilayered, making everything very voluminous and alive so the viewer feels they're able to almost step into the picture and interact with the world it depicts—it's a difficult goal to achieve, but whenever I feel I've succeeded it's a real joy!
Your genre paintings depict Russian folk traditions and their rituals—why have you chosen to focus on these subjects?
Well firstly, I want to say that through these works I am in no way trying to value one nation above others—on the contrary, I'm trying to show the beauty of these folk traditions, and their similarity to other nations’ as well. In other words, I want to demonstrate to the world how much in common we have as people.
Traditional folk culture and the rituals it contains have been transmitted throughout the world across generations from century to century, millennium to millennium... if you look deeply into these rituals and customs, their basic traits appear to be almost identical throughout all cultures and peoples.
So from my perspective, these traditions are not simply about taverns, gypsies or street fairs —although they can of course sometimes be associated with such things— but they express fundamental truths about what it means to be human; and my interest in depicting these traditions is to re-awaken the so called 'genetic memory' of our ancestors within us today.
And why have you chosen to focus specifically on rites and rituals?
In folk traditions, ancient rituals are moments in which the soul of a people and their culture is most clearly revealed—here a profound psychological portrait is presented, through a complex variety of cultural interconnections and personal relationships.
To recreate such a rich and colorful spectacle —with large crowds of people, ritual animals, traditional costumes, household relics, and the surrounding village atmosphere— is for me an incredibly inspiring opportunity.
My mother, who was a well-known ethnologist and art critic, has helped me greatly in this process. It was she who first revealed to me the meaning of ceremonial holidays in Russia as an integrated system of specific rituals. She also connected me with the St. Petersburg Folklore Center, which gives me access to their traditional costumes and relics—therefore everything I paint is absolutely consistent with the historical truth.
Yet today, most people know very little about such cultural rites and traditions. To me this is very sad, because they reflect such incredibly deep symbols and meaning for society ...living in harmony with humanity and nature, wishing others prosperity, well-being and luck... it seems there are no greater values in life than can be found within the rites of our ancestors!
So I wish to capture the feeling and imagination of my viewers through depicting the actions, gestures and expressions of these ancient people. And as paintings are a very effective means of transferring memory, if my work touches someone in some meaningful way, I hope it might then draw them back into their own primal origins—even if by simply being inspired to go online or visit a library to learn more.
animalS, HUMANS & MYSTICS
Can you explain the subject matter of your epic-style painting 'The Maslenitsa Host'?
This painting is based on an ancient and long forgotten Slavic folk rite, the last remnants of which were documented in 1913. It took place during Maslenitsa, the holiday of the Spring Equinox.
Normally in Russia we associate this holiday with fairs, festivities and blini (Russian pancakes), but the ancient Maslenitsa —which lasted an entire month, from February 22 to March 21— consisted of a continuous string of rituals that served as fertility spells for the upcoming agricultural year: a worshiping of Mother Earth and the ancestors that provided fertility for the village’s crops and natural resources.
The particular ritual I chose to depict, ‘The Maslenitsa Host’, is a very old pagan rite, which never in fact received a new Christian interpretation. It consisted of choosing the most prosperous and respected peasant in the village, who was then placed onto a sleigh harnessed by a bull, and named the Maslenitsa Host. He was given a strong drink, and then asked to take off his clothes and ride through the village naked atop the sleigh, with all the people of the village marching along with him.
The idea behind this ritual was that if the host himself remained strong and in good health after such a trip in the frost, then all his fellow villagers would also have good health and good harvests throughout the new year.
Of course the host himself didn’t know if he’d remain in such good spirits, so he was in a sense offering up his own well being for the sake of others… and even in spite of severe frosts (in Siberia, for example), the strength of faith and sense of duty among the villagers was said to be so great —expressed through their ritual songs and dances— that a powerful energy and intention was created around the Host and the entire procession, so that everything generally did in fact turn out all right.
Yet if after such a ritual the Host fell ill, or even worse, died, this was said to bring disaster to all the inhabitants of the village for the entire agricultural year, until the next Carnival…
In this painting I’ve tried to depict each figure as having their own unique personalities, yet at the same time appearing very archetypal. The most striking characters are the Maslenitsa Host himself, and the Bull. Both subjects look at the viewer, and in the eyes of the animal, something almost human can be seen; and in the eyes of the man, the beast.
The almost wild look of the Host appears somewhat strange and unexpected—his muscular body contrasts with the golden straw below him, the radiance of which causes a sensation of something surreal, as if a dazzlingly ray of light was shining from it. This connection between the golden, almost mystical straw and the figure of a mighty person is not accidental. Traditionally straw was a symbol for wealth, but to reap its rewards required a lot of hard work, which is expressed through the strong animalistic body of the Host. This is the true source of his ‘luck’.
The bull on the other hand walks calmly, lifting his majestic head as he licks icicles from his lips with his thick pink tongue. He towers above the little boy beside him, yet the child is not afraid, but is rather holding an expression of admiration for the bull. In this moment the question arises: is the true Maslenitsa Host the man, or the bull?
There is a very primitive quality within these characters that eludes to the depths of our origins, where the division between the human and the animal world is less perceptible. In this way I’ve tried to depict the Maslenitsa not simply as a merry village holiday, but as a complex pagan ritual that lay at the heart of a community’s cultural and spiritual identity.
The mystical and animalistic qualities in this painting remind me of the work of the great Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel, who himself was also inspired by the ancient folk traditions of Russia...
To be honest Michael Vrubel is one of my favorite artists, and I certainly follow his inspiration in my creativity. I can say that in my own personal life, the more I’ve sank into the experience of so called ‘darkness’, the more I've realized that the ideas of evil and darkness are not that same.
To me ancient folk tales are very realistic and authentic in this way: they depict life honestly… in their stories everything doesn’t always end well (unlike most modern fairy tales), yet even the experience of loss and sacrifice is always seen as ultimately life-affirming. For me this makes the lives of these heroes very similar to our own.
The Miracle of Life
When I paint I enter into a kind of trance, and everything else ceases to exist. My mood at the time does not matter, unless it relates to the process of creativity itself. In general, I'm more and more convinced that creativity is a continuous and endless process… when I look at my finished work I almost always want to add some new detail to it, and if a picture hanging in my studio has not yet been sold, I often do continue to work on them in this way.
I believe the natural compliment to inspiration and creativity is organization and discipline. An artist should never wait for any special inspiration to begin a particular piece, but should always be working, even if only internally in their minds.
As I mentioned before, through this constant process of creativity and discipline such wonderful works of art have been created by masters of the past… yet today I feel many have lost this vision and understanding… I think such people have simply forgotten about the true purpose of the artist, who’s work should express great spiritual depth and value.
Yet in order to do this, one needs to experience the thrill of life, the taste for it. One must be able to rejoice that the sun rises, that dew appears, that evening clouds float beautifully in the sky... the sense of the miracle of life cannot not be lost, especially to the artist.
This is why I’m very interested in absolutely all the details of the old life—from cultural traditions to the relations and rites of the people who existed then. I want to return to a life of true values: love, warmth, and spirituality.
I'm interested in the inner moods and experiences of these people—their pain, their joy, their hopes and dreams... I always try to understand what my subjects think about, what moves them, what's in their soul; because for me they are all alive.
I think human emotions have changed very little since then. Yet today these deeper values have depreciated within society, and many feel it. Perhaps that's why some long to connect with ancient legends and myths; it's clearly stated how to live in a way that is truly meaningful for oneself and others. It seems to me that if we all learn to look at the world more in this way, we will only benefit from it.