Russian Culture Torture
A Conversation with Dmitry Gutov
WAM, №26, "Thinking realism"
- What do you think of 19th
century realism: is it still classical art to you or is it modern?
- First, we have to clearly define the usage of the word “realism.” The Soviet school of art history really did think that realism began with Courbet, but I stick to a different position, according to which the highpoints of realism were, for example, old Russian icon painting or frescoes. In fact, even the painting of Australian aborigines was not without its realism. The main thing is that how realism is defined, namely as truth in art. After that, very complex, subtle mechanisms were developed on how to recognize this truth.
- Truth is a very big word, and it isn’t
really clear what it actually means. Some people will probably think you’re
talking about similarities in outer appearance…
- Yes, while debating with my artist friends, I found out that they think realism is a buxom half-naked girl in armor on the cover of a dimestore novel…This really surprised me. Realism, to them, is the cover of a fantasy novel…
- Many people also think that realism is a
certain psychological truth, that it lies in the accurate conveying of emotion.
Is this what you mean?
- Not at all. I mean an “ontognoseological” truth, as Mikhail Lifshitz liked to say. Why did he think that the Itinerant Painters of the 19th century were guilty of excessive realism? The arbitrary, tentative images of prehistoric cave painting - though unfinished, hazy, and hinting – contain far more realism. In them, no object is self-contained. Everything is connected to everything else in the world. The object has no boundaries. The truth is the unity of the whole. In this sense, 19th century realism actually comes much closer to modern art. Everything in19th century realism is fraught with an impending turn: just paint it all over and smear it all out… Look what they did to color! Even that was already almost the murder of painting. The picture becomes unbearable to the point that it itself seems to be begging for a housepainter’s brush to come and smear it over. When you look at Zen sketches in ink or at Rembrandt, you don’t get that feeling…
- But I can’t say that 19th
century art did not know this kind of incompleteness and that it was somehow
especially finished out or polished to perfection. I like art from the 19th
century, and I have to admit that I like it more and more because in it, the
end of art is already palpable, expressed far more tragically and experienced
more responsibly than in 20th century art, which
boasted about this end of art and tried to make it into its trademark. A
heroic battle for art, lost in advance: this is what we can see in the best
pieces of the 19th century, and by the way,
especially in Russia.
- Exactly. As far as I remember, Fedotov – one of my favorite 19th century Russian painters aside from Perov – used to complain: I can’t really draw; I’m always making these little pictures; I basically never stopped being an art student…So unlike Bryulov, who’s already reached the pinnacle of art…But with me, it’s all just pathetic convulsions…
- This is something they all suffered from,
including Bryulov himself, actually.
- What about that other guy, the one who painted “Frina at the Feast of Poseidon”?
- Semiradsky? No, not him. Although, on the
other hand, I don’t know.
- It would interesting if it turned out that even those guys suffered.
- Repin, as far as I remember, didn’t suffer
at all. Repin was a kind of Kulik of his time. He was a person with
extraordinary talents in very different fields, and he could make something
great or something really stupid…
- It goes without saying that I identify with quite a different line – Fedotov, Perov, Vasiliev…People whose lives consisted of an unequal struggle against historical circumstances… In the 1990s, I could stand in the Metro for hours, watching militiamen harassing the old ladies who had come to sell their onions. In Moscow, you can hardly see this sort of thing anymore, but in Petersburg, even if you’re strolling down Nevsky Prospect, you can still see plenty of people wearing shabby, cheap clothes. I always wondered and still wonder about how all of this could fit into art. And I have to say, I have hardly been able to think of any good solutions. Whatever I do, it always winds up being a speculation on a theme. In this case, the language of the 19th century would probably be more adequate. And the point is not that I don’t speak this language (though this goes without saying): I can’t feel with the same intensity as they did. It’s physically impossible. But something happens when I look at “Found Drowned” [by Vassily Perov]. I usually have very strong defense mechanisms, all kinds of historical justifications, or maybe it’s just a sense of necessity. But when I look at this painting, it sweeps everything aside. It’s clear that there is only one answer: pick up your pitchforks and go!
- What interests me most in the best 19th
century realists is an intensity that entails an element of the grotesque. The
grimace, or the moment of freezing up in an archetype, into crystallized
suffering. Like Lot’s daughters…
- Exactly, I think that the level of generalization is a characteristic of true art in its most basic sense…But it’s very difficult to attain. I once got close when I worked with blind singers. There was a contrast in there that turned everything into art in and of itself. Some bright Soviet lyricism about trains and fog on the one hand and these people on the other…
- So you wanted to make art that would make
- Absolutely. When my wife was teaching at school, I once asked her if there is any piece of music that makes the seventh-graders cry. She said that there is one tape that makes the whole class cry, so I said bring it, it’s exactly what I need. The tape turned out to be an early piece by the “bard” singer-songwriter Tatiana Bulanova. I was in the middle of turning from installation to painting, and Bulanova totally accompanied this shift. “No good, no good, I expect no good from you, you know…” And these tears turned out to be very important in pushing me to take the step from installations to painting. By the way, I later found confirmation for this in Hegel’s “Lectures on Aesthetics.” He writes that this, in fact, is where the focus of painting lies, in expressing the moving sincerity of feeling and the pain of the soul. The goal of painting is to make everything inside the picture cry, as if it had been listening to Bulanova…
- If we’re talking about Russian art in
general, I’m interested in the category of “resignation” that you like to talk
about so much. Can we say what resignation looks like in art? Can we recognize
it? It seems to me that all the best works of Russian realism build upon this
- The best examples of this kind of art are marked by deep sorrow. It seems to me that by looking at it, we can guess at the presence of a “humane resignation” as well as some strange trust in the course of events. Even when everything that’s happening basically looks exceptionally monstrous. A great example for this can be found in Perov’s “Village Easter Procession.” This kind of painting contains something grandiose, an element that sounds like an organ mass by Bach. It’s the same in Solomatkin, who you like so much. If you tried to change the scale of these pieces, projecting them onto an entire wall, for example, you would see how powerful they really are. Humane resignation is harmony understood in tragic terms. Other pieces, on the contrary, gain a great deal when you make them smaller. Fifteen years ago, Avdei Ter-Oganian pointed out how great Vasnetsov’s “Three Bogatyrs” look on the bright yellow background of a pack of cigarettes.
- You have a project called “Russian Culture
Torture” for which you photographed people who are “blown away” by this or
that work of Russian art. You used your parents as models for this piece.
Where does this title come from?
- There are two sources. One of them is a great text written in the 1930s by the long-forgotten art historian Igor Ilyin. In it, he develops the conception of “torture through beauty,” departing from the myth of Odysseus and the sirens, whose divine song sets sailors off-course to their doom. This myth’s most famous moment is when Odysseus refuses to fill his ears with wax like his crew and orders them to tie him to the mast because he wants to hear the siren’s song. For Ilyin, this is a figure for “torture through beauty,” a moment that is absolutely unbearable. Odysseus wants to throw himself into the sea, to die… Art, if you really experience it, is a torture of this kind. Because if you’ve experienced, heard or seen it, you can’t go on living the way you did before. Our existence, as great as it might seem sometimes, is very far from being ideal in any sense. And art simply blows you away... It demands that either reality undergo a total transformation or that you yourself change totally… For me, Russian culture epitomizes this torture through beauty…because it held so many promises it could not keep.
But at the same time, I read another book, a secret service training manual that was declassified at some point in the Perestroika. It contained detailed descriptions on how to hunt spies properly and so on. I was especially moved by a chapter called “The Art of Torture,” which was all about how to burn what, and I think that all Russian bandits must have been reading this book in the 1990s. Among other things, this chapter also contained a section called “How to Withstand Torture,” which enumerated a number of real techniques, and this was the really the most interesting thing. One of them was “awakening powerful emotions.” You can bring your hatred of your enemy to such a level (“to the point of burning out your nerves”) that you stop feeling any pain. Another method was to leave reality through your imagination, by imagining yourself to be a cloud… But again, you have to be rigorously convinced that no one can inflict pain upon you, no more than they can inflict pain upon a cloud. So this kind of resistance to torture is my artistic ideal. And really, what is revolution? It is, in fact, the awakening of the most powerful possible emotion.