Священные темы

Sacred themes... academic painting... The way of the artist

by Alexander Korolev

The exhibition of paintings and graphics by Dmitry Margolin "Night Swimming" presents nineteen oil paintings and thirty etchings. Most of these works have been executed recently, and, at first glance, this is the only thing that unites them. The central group of three large paintings is a monumental pictorial allusion to the ancient Egyptian "Book of the Dead". Here you can see how the artist translates into the language of his art the iconographic and plot schemes of ancient mythology and the style associated with it. Another group of works can be easily described using the traditional concept of household genre. It contains images of people immersed in everyday life with all its inherent naturalistic attributes and characteristics. These picturesque things, such as, for example, the image of a woman with a sore leg, look quite topical in social terms. The exhibition presents a number of other paintings that have a conditional and abstract character. This is the canvas with the author's title "Appeal". Here, what is happening is shown outside of time and space, in an environment that is not tied to anything real. I would like to draw the viewer's attention to the picture, which is partly illustrative. This is a large canvas "New Names", created based on Solzhenitsyn's story "One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich". It shows a group of prisoners gathered to update their prison numbers.

In our cursory description, the emphasis is deliberately placed on the diversity and discord of motives and genres in Margolin's work, but this is only necessary in order to emphasize the presence of a community in these paintings that unites them into a single cycle. Upon closer perception, this commonality is found in the ambiguity of the relationship between the title and the image, which is typical for many of the paintings presented. For example, one of them shows a fight between two men on the outskirts of the city, somewhere in a wasteland lost among new buildings. The picture has all the signs that we are looking at a scene from modern life, but its name – "Cain and Abel" – directly points to the biblical plot. In the hands of the "winner" is a huge stone that is about to become a murder weapon.

Cain and Abel 2013 230×180 cm, oil on canvas

Another thing depicts a school carpenter peacefully working in his office. With the meticulousness worthy of a peredvizhnik, the author paints the smallest details of his hero's habitat, but the title of the painting – "Joseph the Carpenter" – introduces the same reference to the Bible as the image of the fight. As in the first picture, the real and the biblical here coincide up to complete identity. One of the paintings shows a scene with the figure of a sleeping man. He is sitting on a chair, his head thrown back, a book in his hands. This is an ordinary person in typical household clothes for our everyday life: he is wearing sweatpants with stripes and a loose shirt – apparently, a dream caught him right while reading. Next to the sleeper is a slender figure of a boy, carefully watching the sleeper. The painting is called "Jacob's Dream", which allows us to perceive this scene in a completely different and broader way. St. James fell asleep, and the child next to him is one of those angels who, according to Scripture, "ascend and descend" on a ladder that descended from heaven. Just as the artist gives the figures of fighting men in monumental forms corresponding to the tragic character of the biblical parable, so here he strives – primarily through color – to give the whole scene a spiritual, if not metaphysical sound. Thus, in his works, the artist brings the real and the superreal together, to the maximum extent erasing the difference between one and the other. If you think about it, then the picture "New Names" can be interpreted in a generalized metaphorical way. Stalin's camp is a kind of hell in which inhuman conditions reign, where everything is subject to the monstrous force of destruction and chaos. The story described in Solzhenitsyn's story with the updating of numbers on the uniforms of prisoners looks like an act of chrismation in Margolin's painting. This creates an ambivalent image of salvation and damnation in the torment and death of individuals turning into numbers.

Jacob’s Dream 150х110см 2013

The conclusion that follows from the observations made is simple. Through the appeal to the biblical meaning, as well as by special means of composition and painting, the artist seeks to approach the theme of the sacred.  Starting from reality, its signs and phenomena, he is looking for a way out into the realm of deep existential, religious meaning and trying to find a special author's form for this. As you can see,  almost all paintings, without exception, show this tendency towards the sacred. And in this regard, in Margolin's work there is no difference between everyday motifs in the spirit of "cursed Russian reality" and eschatological themes deployed in the Egyptian triptych. Both these and other things are attempts to connect the real and the supernatural. But if in the paintings, where the motives of everyday life are taken as a basis, this is emphasized in the names, then in the things of the Egyptian cycle the same thing is read in the characteristic naturalism with which the motives of the corporeal are given. The conventional figures of gods and people, frozen in hieratic poses, familiar to us  from the history of art of Ancient Egypt, have become flesh in Margolin's paintings, and now they experience real physical suffering, exude cruel aggressiveness. Before us are real people trapped in the inferno of the Egyptian hell with all its mythological servants and fantastic retribution rituals.

I would like to see the sacred theme highlighted as central to the exhibition "Night Swimming" in unity with the place where it is held. The Italian Hall of the Academy of Arts is one of the traditional exhibition spaces of St. Petersburg, but it has a specialized character. This is a platform for professional viewing of those artists who do not leave the orbit of the academic art school. Professors and teachers of the Academy, as well as some graduates and students are exhibited here. This point is of significant importance, since it is connected with the question of the criteria that are presented here to art by the academic public. For those who usually attend exhibitions in the Italian Hall or even exhibit in it themselves, the most important thing in art is the quality of its execution understood in a special way. The so-called formal merits of things are evaluated here in accordance with a kind of universal and deeply traditional system of ideas about a properly executed work. This is the system whose aesthetic precepts are kept and passed down from generation to generation by Academy professors. It is impossible not to say that these standards are high and legitimate in their own way within the Academy. They are associated with ancient, tradition-sanctified ideas about harmony, proportions, monumentality, picturesque spot, writing, etc. Their preservation is the key to the continued existence of the academic art school.

In my opinion, the artist Dmitry Margolin is an exemplary representative of this tradition. He studied its principles for many years at school and at the institute. His works fully comply with the strictest academic requirements. Margolin's compositions are thoughtful and convincing, the harmonies of colors are fresh and unreal, in the transfer of movements and facial expressions of the characters, a remarkable expression is found in its power. However, as already mentioned, this is not the main thing in the paintings presented at the exhibition. Margolin strives to rise to the theme of the sacred, to make this sacred the artistic center of his paintings, but this is completely beyond the limits of those aesthetic norms that are familiar to academic art.

It seems to me that the history of the old, pre-revolutionary Academy leaves no doubt that from the very beginning to the end, for its main purposes, it was far from the spheres of the Christian sacred. Being a characteristic phenomenon of the Russian Enlightenment, the Academy carried the ideas of a secular attitude to art. It was part of a general state project for the Europeanization of Russia and Russian society, with non-interference in the field of faith characteristic of this project. As a result, everything significant that was created in art within the framework of an academic project has never had a direct relationship to the spheres of the sacred. Russian Russian icon, even if it is late, XVII-XVIII century, and a painting by a Russian artist from Catherine's time to the end of the XIX century on a religious theme, is enough to make sure of this. There is no doubt which of the two things will be more directly related to the sacred Christian worldview.

In the XX century, the Academy unexpectedly encountered the theme of the sacred, which was completely liberated from Christianity. It was an extremely negative experience, since it was about the sacralization of the secular anti-Christian state and government. When life itself was turned into a cult-ritual action of a pseudo-religious nature, the tasks of art included the artistic design of the cult. As a result, the area of the sacred was, firstly, formalized and, secondly, completely compromised, so that later, in the perestroika liberal times, there was a tendency among artists to avoid everything that could come into contact with such things: along with the pseudo-sacred, the memory of the sacred as such also disappeared. The routine and decorative approach has triumphed, implying that the main thing in art is how the work is made, how masterfully the author owns well–known expressive techniques and skills, etc. Summing up the line here, we can say that for both the old Academy and the new Academy, the area of the sacred is something external, falling out of the circle of its interests.

At the exhibition "Night Swimming" we see how a representative of the academic school and the tradition associated with it, relying on it and proceeding from its foundations, strives to reach the sphere of the sacred, to touch it, at least to indicate the direction in which it is worth looking for it. The question arises: how to evaluate this attempt, and what suitable criteria can be chosen for this? The answer, obviously, is twofold.

First of all, the perfect unsuitability of the art of the sacred-monumental trend to our cultural modernity is striking. He literally has nowhere to go here. The commercial market is unlikely to be interested in such art, because for him it is too brutal, serious, too naturalistic. A huge format, colossal human figures, dramatic situations. Such art is capable of causing painful sensations, it acts powerfully with its expression and unbalances. It is almost impossible to imagine it in the interior, in the normal household environment of a modern educated person. It is also difficult to imagine that these paintings would be in the field of view of contemporary art museums and non-profit galleries. For them, this art is also informal. Thanks to an overly thought-out picturesque structure, it looks almost antique. Everything is done masterfully here, and therefore too learned. Here all forms are interpreted deeply anthropomorphic, and therefore too classically correct. There is an excessive amount of technique and formalism, and traditionalism and conservatism are manifested in everything, from details to the whole. Although it is difficult to deny the content of the paintings, the taste of the modern viewer here lacks the most important, the most acute: there is no politics, there is no topical that everyone is so concerned about now. It turns out that there is simply nowhere to exhibit the fruits of Margolin's individual attempt to achieve the sacred on the modern art scene, and even more so there is nowhere to introduce it into modern life, with its economic, social and political processes. In a normal modern environment, something else is interesting, something else is fashionable and something else is expensive.

It seems that in the light of these arguments, there is reason to talk about a kind of failure of this creative project. However, there is something to object to in response to such a conclusion. If Dmitry Margolin's art is perceived as inappropriate (not only outside the Academy, but also inside it), it is because it is new. It is unformatted, because it is new!

If we look into the history of art, it will not take long to look for examples of the lack of demand for art because of its novelty. Art very often turned out to be out of business only because it fell outside the usual concepts. And there are serious reasons to believe that we are facing a similar case. The art of our artist turns out to be outside the interests of the market, the art scene and public opinion, not because it is below these interests or does not stand comparison, but because it is different in relation to these interests, that is, new. To make sure that this is the case, it is enough to assess the artistic scope that the artist has achieved in these paintings.

Firstly, I would like to emphasize with what power the artist performs at the exhibition. All these huge paintings were painted in the shortest possible time, and it seems there is no need to pay special attention to how different they are from each other. Each such thing is not just a conceptually painted canvas familiar to us from modern painting patterns, when a surface of three square meters is covered with paint in several techniques. Each such thing is a complex pictorial organism, and it took considerable effort to adjust it, to make it live. Secondly, it seems to me that what the artist does is bold. This grandiose attempt to reach the sacred level of meaning, relying on tradition, which historically has always been so far from such goals, can be called bold. The academic school provides a minimal number of such examples, which posed the artist the most difficult task to look for opportunities to reveal the chosen topic himself. Thirdly, it is impossible not to pay attention to how temperamentally, vividly, with what passion the paintings are painted. This broad and free painting speaks eloquently that the artist is fully convinced of his ability to achieve the goals he is striving for. But the most important thing is the understanding of the sacred, which the artist demonstrates with his works. It is obvious that although for the author this topic itself is directly related to the sentiments of Christianity, in his art the sacred is not synonymous with the church. Margolin's paintings have nothing of the iconography, symbolism and stylistics of Russian and Western European church art. He does not try to resort to proven means, preferring to look for his own language.

We wish him further success on this path.

From "Navigation at Night" catalog. Saint-Petersburg, 2014