Between Reality and Illusion

“Icons” of the Third Millenium

“Today we show the reality that is behind what is visible,
and express the conviction that the visible world
is only a fragment of the vaster cosmic totality,
and that many other secret realities exist….”
Paul Klee

“This is authentic popular art, in which we can see the first artistic endeavors. The contemporary artist should use these primitives as his inspiration.” So Matisse declaimed when, having gone to Moscow in 1911 to visit various collections of icons, he was particularly struck by the icons of Novgorod. He became their impassioned and enthusiastic admirer, appreciating their hieratic beauty with its wealth of profound meaning. Nor was he alone in his growing interest, nor alone in deriving lively creative inspiration from Russian icons. Natalya Goncharova, Marc Chagall, Petrov-Vodkin, were only a few of the great painters of the Russian avant-garde who became fascinated by this type of art. The originality of color and composition, the profoundly inspired images, the simple patriarchal concept of life expressed in the Russian icon, were characteristics with which the search for contemporaneity clearly found itself in harmony. If we remember that an entire series of masterpieces of Byzantine painting came from Slavonic territory and, in part, from Russia itself, from important cities like Kiev, Novgorod, Pskov, Vladimir and Moscow, the Byzantine infiltration into contemporary art seems like a logical consequence to us, a legitimate possibility of encounter between past and present. On the other hand, we know that resonances of this type have crossed the boundaries of Russian territory and influenced artists of quite different geographical areas as well.

The culture of the Byzantine tradition is the basis of the diffusion of the icon in the regions of eastern Christianity.

The painting of icons comes from Byzantium; subsequently other artists adopted and evolved icon painting: painters from the Balkan peninsula, from Russia, from Georgia, from Palestine at the time of the Crusades, from Valacchia, from post-Byzantine Moldavia. And long after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire, the icon continued to be considered the concrete expression of an abstract prototype, and painters continued to create images in the manner of the Byzantine tradition based on the medieval principles of the icon, until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This brings us to the artistic activity of Shmagin, the protagonist of our discussion. The great complexity of his work, comprehending a many-faceted cultural heritage, defies any definition of horizons. As in the case of the afore-mentioned painters, here, too, we cannot exclude an important debt to the Byzantine tradition of Russian icons, even though it appears in Shmagin’s work veined with very original and personal criss-crossings of ancient and contemporary orientations of various origins. Shmagin’s incredible itinerary tends to appear rooted in both the ancient and modern cultural and folkloristic traditions of his land. The pagination of many of his works of the 1990’s seems to have been inspired by icons or by precious Byzantine or Byzantinesque religious objects, such as the enamelled medieval diptychs, made in Constantinople, where metallic covers, frames, and the illustrations themselves are all on the same plane. And from the same Byzantine-type sources would seem to come certain geometrical decorative motifs, or the “Saint George” equestrian group, with its corroded background, scarred as though it were an ancient archeological discovery. And here the connections with the intense production of saints on horseback in Byzantium could be numerous: for example, the Constantinople icon from the fourteenth century, in steatite with gilt silver frame, representing St. Demetrious on horseback, in the Kremlin Arms Museum at Moscow; or the St. George in gilt silver, from the tenth century, in the State Museum of History and Ethnography of Svanezia at Mestia. There are, as well, examples of the production, in Georgia, of hammered metal and painted icons which extend from the ninth to the nineteenth century (gilt silver, with St.George on horseback, from the tenth century, in the Georgian State Museum of Art at Tbilisi). These parallelisms would seem to include the area of work in precious metals as well as that of icon painting. I have in mind the embroiderylike filigrees of certain liturgical books: that of Feodor Koska (about 1292) in the Russian National Library at Moscow, or of another, in Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition at the Kremlin (beginning of the fifteenth century), in which figures in basrelief-rather scattered, almost as though fluttering, – stand out against the net-like metalwork background. The seriation of the outlines of half-figures, at times placed as framework for a central illustration, at times separated by more literal references to actual icons, characterizes some of Shmagin’s compositions, such as “Purification”, From the Fair”, “Snowstorm”, “Conversation with the Bull”, “The Musician” (1992), “Saint George” and “Pyramid” (1987). Thus, Shmagin seems to translate ancient national traditions, whose roots go back to the Byzantine cultural heritage, to the vocabulary of contemporaneity.

As to a more specifically popular-folkloristic matrix: infiltrations of different cultures seem to be found in Shmagin’s work: for example, the African “totemic”, as found in “Oriental Princes”, in “Open Cage” (1991) or in “Tiger” (1992), probably relating to reflections analogous to those expressed by Picasso in the very famous “Les Damoiselles of Avignon”. Among various primitive peoples, the “totem” – whether animal, vegetable, stone or mask – was usually the incarnation of some atavistic spirit automatically elected to be custodian of the tribal community, to which particular protective powers were attributed. It was, therefore, an important pilaster for a society on the verge of future developments. But in recuperating ancestral memories, Shmagin certainly does not forget the contemporary artistic tradition, penetrated as it is by an extraordinary, surprising, harmonious fusion of “ancient” and “modern”, local and international.

In a certain sense, albeit in different terms Shmagin is located between expressionism and fairy-tale, between folklore and culture, an area where a famous countryman of his, Marc Chagall, is usually placed: Chagall was closely bound to a type of painting marked by the popular, the ethnic. The orphic quality of Chagall’s painting, between representational and visionary, leads to images that cross the boundaries of a reality, seen through what the “third eye” is able to penetrate, portrayals of archetypal images of the unconscious evoked to reproduce a reality more psychic than objective, where symbolist values are not excluded, for a fairy-tale atmosphere, an atmosphere of dream, of the unconscious, of metaphorical speech in colors and forms. It is in this perspective of affiliation with Chagall that some of Shmagin’s paintings seem to belong: “Night Space”, “Little Red Devil”, “Musician” and “Green Pig” (1992), at times with an emphatically marionette-type component as in “Minstrel” (1992) and “Goblins” (1994). But a propos of the unconscious: Shmagin does not seem to have forgotten Miro, a Miro taken at the moment of surrealist conquest, in which memories become the source of inspiration. So that “Constellation: Awakening at dawn”, “Harlequin’s Carnival” by Miro seem to breathe life into Shmagin’s “Holiday”.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, the painting of a master like Vrubel recapitulated typically Russian tendencies and attitudes, together with an irradiation of international expression, distinguishing himself as the very important forerunner of the Russian and Soviet avant- gardes. He made an extremely important connection with tradition and with the Byzantine manner in his restoration of the “ornamental arrangement of form” and “two-dimensional movement”. He reconsidered and reorganized chromatic splendor in a totally personal and original way with his many-faceted variegated “pieces of form-color”, blended with symbolist and linearist tangencies. But Shmagin also espouses some of the solutions brought to the Russian art scene by the generation following Vrubel’s: in particular, I am thinking of Natalya Goncharova, whose expansive vitality flows into a primitivism based on the rich Russian popular traditions (embroidery, metal- and wood-work, toys, amateur icons, etc), of her curiosity and enthusiasm for the xilographic illustrations of editions of books of popular origin. “Nocturnal Street”, “With Love”, “Three Angels”, “Snowstorm” (1992) are Shamgin’s compositions that are most in harmony with Goncharova’s work. Outlines of figures, more than real figures, whose essential elementary character, enclosed in very fine, almost incised, outlines, remind us once again of the rich production of Byzantine-style icons in Russia, a production which has continued from the Middle Ages up to the present. The hieratic quality – that distance between divine essence and man – has allowed room in Shmagin’s work for compositions steeped in a lyricism which is indeed rich in spirituality, but this is a spirituality expressing an intense, tender, warm embrace of the human dimension. While “White Umbrellas” (1991), “Revelation”, “Night Space”, seem to recall, somewhat, the very famous “matrioske”, other compositions by Shmagin contain architecture with typically Russian belltowers and domes, like those of the cathedrals of Novgorod, Leningrad, Pskov, Zvenigorod. But we also encounter landscapes inhabited by Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, emblematic of the Tuscan artistic tradition: “On the Train
to Florence”, “Pisa in Autumn”, “The Road to Lucca”, where, however, Pisa and Lucca are recalled in a kind of circular composition, almost an homage to analogous representations of cities – although in terms less distanced from reality- in western miniatures of the Middle Ages.

But to return to the level of contemporaneity: an important dialogue, at times like that of twins, seems to take place between Shmagin and that celebrated poet of painting, Paul Klee, who “brought to light that which stirs between the conscious and the unconscious, between the animate and the inanimate, between nature and man”. That enchanted world to which Klee was able to give life opens its doors and unveils itself to our eyes in the subtlest nuances, in a palette of tonalities of extraordinary warmth, evoking sentiments that soar from the playful innocence of fairy-tales to the profound meditation on the significance of existence. If, as Klee maintains, the artist is “a fragment of nature in the world of nature”. Shmagin is the incarnation of this idea, offering himself as a connecting element between “the object and the cosmos, the lo and the world, bringing what is hidden beneath the surface of things to light, revealing mysteries, caprices, rhythms and hidden structures of creation. Shmagin and Klee touch against the mystery of creation at its genesis, at the primary source of all becoming, at that place where the key to everything is found, understanding art itself to be “metaphor for creation”. The point, then, is not so much representing the object, as representing its essence. With this in mind, we seem better able to understand the whole series of circular compositions which seethe with pictorial material – filamentous, dotted, iridescent, giving the illusion of movement – a material in ferment, almost as though it were alive. At the center, simple outlines, human or floral. From “The Domes”, to the triptych “Space of Quiet” with the discs “The Rose of Russia”, “Bluebells (Campanulas)” and “Lenin Lives” to “The Blue Cross”, “The White Image” or “The Blue Image”, all from 1994, are diffused vibrations of expressionistic notes which evoke a great spirituality, a spirituality symbolized by the color as well, especially by the blue, which is perhaps reminiscent of the avant-garde movement of the “Blue Reiter” (Blue Rider), founded by Vasilij Kandinsky in 1911. Another characteristic that Shmagin and Klee have in common is the reduction of elements of the imagination to extremely simple and essential principles, drawing multiple solutions, there from.

Klee knew classical music perfectly and he was able to derive a way of conceiving painting from the rules that govern music, in a kind of osmosis, a graphic “translation” of the music, as, for example, in “Pastorale – Rhythms” (but also “Page of the Book of the Cities”, “Necropolis” and other). “Pastorale – Rhythms” is a musical page of simple geometric rhythmic symbols, in harmony with some of Shmagin’s more recent works, among which, “Heart I”, “Italian Melody”, “Landscape” and the “On White” series (l-IV), probably suggested by vase painting, by ancient ceramic and terracotta vessels. “Striped” and “network” motifs are woven together like warp and woof to create a sort of symbolic net in both Shmagin’s and Klee’s works.

On the other hand, Shmagin adds a very personal vision which has its roots in ancestral memories of myths which might come to him from paleohistory, and his “hermetism” recuperates the mysterious flavor of ancient legends of his land, or traditions of neighboring lands. A new view of the world springs from ancient Russian literature, and with it a brand- new aesthetic perception of reality, in a “sense of rapture before the universe.”

In different terms, yet vaguely mixed with the idea of a Byzantinesque cultural heritage, we could speak of Klimt, who was attracted by exotic things of another nature – Egyptian, for example – especially in the realm of ornamentation (“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”) with extremely detailed geometric figures, volutes, and decorative inserts at times not unlike decorative solutions found by Shmagin.

The geometrical plan of their works, sometimes decorated in the style of Byzantine mosaics, full of curved forms, spirals, pyramidal compositions, mystic vortexes, in a profusion of very vivid colors or pastels, draws the viewer towards the secrets of the unconscious and the labyrinths of the spirit in an extreme tension between reality and illusion, tradition and modernity. A weaving together of tradition and innovation that Klimt and Shmagin share at least in a similarity of intention, as though both were straining towards a hypothetical “point of union between a world that is ending and one that is coming into being” for a “kaleidoscopic rendering of the beauty of ornamentation and the impulse to decipher the hidden secrets” in their artistic expressions.




In the silence-air

Viacheslav Shmagin whose creative identity is hallmarked with subtle intellect and high professionalism, represents receptual school in modern non-conformist art. His artistic style and his worldviews formed in 1970-80-ies. Those were the years of his tense pursuit for a new way of dealing with sign contexts, the time to identify his personal place in art. His idea of cosmic unity and interpenetration of man and nature, nostalgia for coherent world, search for lost harmony and revelation of deep roots in history led the artist to a new reality, a certain abnormal, stressful space interpreted as “silence-air” by him. The space that belongs to the past and to the future at a time (might it be eternity), coherent and united, is what the modern world lacks so dramatically.

There, in the “silence-air”, in the space of our memory, his artistic images are waiting for the time to pop-up from the depth of his consciousness, encouraged either by historic moment or by the artist’s soul. Embodied in visual images and settled on the canvas, they keep living in their own mysterious and excitingly incomprehensible world. In the world where the most essential matters in the artist’s creative life – space, man, soul – get united by the idea of cosmic integrity of man and nature, two-valued essence of humanity.

Good and evil have ever been colliding and making this world go. How to overcome this opposition and let the good win have been the artist’s worldview fundamentals. They have been expressed through the idea of God being preset in all manifestations of life as the highest value related to good and truth. This idea is artistically expressed in a conceptual metaphor – in stamps with “sacred images” whose symbolic meaning goes back to architectonics of iconostasis with its coloristic perception.

One of the subjects that excite the artist and force him to take it up again and again is the “world lying in evil”. This idea is embodied both in sad images of Russian villages that unwillingly vanished into eternity (“Frolovskoye”), and in bright grotesque images personifying fruitless desert of spirit without God (“Accordion player”, “Fool”, “Reading a newspaper”). “Fool” personifying not traditional idea of “laughter through tears” but a strange image of evil, reigns in the world, which lost Him. Even though evil can be strong, with eternity in the background, it is but ephemeral. And in the present, so imperfect world the artist feels aspiration to good, anguish for God that urge man to search for the way to overcome evil.

Through his inner spiritual experience, through mysterious depth of his own soul does come the artist to understanding the highest Reality (“Sacred image”, “Saint George”, “Angel the Golden Hair”).

Every artist, consciously or spontaneously, chooses the congenial traditions from the past to correlate his personal experience. It is in folk culture images and historical memory of his own, deep inside the truly Russian spirituality that the artist finds his painting style and that warm patriotic feeling and truly national humor to color his canvases.

Family and female images are continually present in his creative works glorifying the eternal femininity and aspiring to approach the absolute ideal (“Family”, “Ratmino”, “Slav”, “Revelation”, “Wall”, etc.)

The works “The Princess’ Dream, Antonina” and “The Princess’ Dream, Vasilina” are overwhelmed with lyric and deep warm tenderness towards innocent and chaste world of a child’s imagination.

Light texture of painting with tenderly percepted pinky yellow tints and masterly embedded reflecting specks is the major coloristic distinctive feature of these two canvases.

Stratigraphy of his canvases is two-dimensional – the message is revealed both on the level of abstract ideas, philosophic concepts, and on the metaphoric and figurative level. Seeming descriptiveness sometimes transforms into an abstract sign, idea.

Mythologized images of his canvases turn to be interrelated with one another with invisible threads of eternal existential matters. The artist’s ability to penetrate deep into the essence of the visual environment makes them spiritually sensible and emotionally rich.

Integrated into metaphoric narration, penetrated with deep philosophic implications, they require highly associative aesthesia.

Powerful energy of the canvases has a great emotional effect, much due to bright, saturated color expressing plastic shape, through the colorful surface of which comes the light filling the volume with special spiritual impulse. Viacheslav Shmagin makes the color bearing definite semantic load, one of the most essential constituent aspects
of his paintings.

Amazingly harmonious combination of workup of the canvas base and its pictorial content, so typical of his artistic manner, creates a single aesthetically refined space with certain décor elements as well as picturesque tints play (“Umbrellas”, “Open cage”, “Tiger”) for you to admire.

V. Shmagin’s canvases are unique in how they combine rationalism and conceptuality; they are lyric and emotional, grotesque and aesthetically vivid. Their separate fragments are flat and ornamental and the shapes are ubiquitously deep with the flesh of the image twinkling inside.

Artistic images of the artist’s canvases are amazingly versatile, and through the effective outward perception, they appeal to transcendental fundamentals of the objective reality.

Viacheslav Shmagin’s painting is valuable in itself in the highest sense of the word; it contains properties and qualities able to attribute soul to our life.

Irina Siradze