20.02.2015. Themes and Variations

Troels Andersen

 1.

The art of Igor Vulokh is akin to chamber music. Although it stays within certain confines, it is rife with countless variations courtesy of a neat combination of several instruments. The artist was continuously experimenting with tint shadings, color, visual rhythms and line sequences as he sought out harmony of the above. We are talking about the harmony that reflected changes in the artist’s mood and character.

Igor Vulokh had spent a greater part of his life working in a virtually total isolation. There was no market value in his oeuvre. His artistic explorations did not receive any support from the authorities. The artist knew well that there was no chance at all of displaying his art in the state controlled exhibition halls or galleries. Likewise, his chances of winning prizes or academic degrees were practically zero. A circle of the few but loyal friends of Vulokh’s comprised those who took appreciation of his works. His fate could remind one of that of some “damned artist” e.g. Wols (a.k.a. Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze). However, Wols was able to free himself to some extent from the pressures of the totalitarian system after he had left Germany whereas Vulokh continued living in this country only to work in an environment that was downright hostile to his artistic endeavors and spiritual pursuits. Living a life of seclusion definitely had a certain effect. It made the depth of Vulokh’s art grow even deeper. The artist had no studio or any other suitable space for his work, and therefore he started expressing himself to the full in his small-sized paintings. The latter peculiarity allows us to draw parallels between Vulokh and Wols. The approach also helped build a closer connection between the painting and the spectator. The connection would then acquire the characteristics of a dialogue that differed substantially from a formal and anonymous way the spectator would follow when looking at paintings at a regular exhibition. The presentation and viewing of Vulokh’s works were a demonstration of trust.

There was little information concerning the contemporary Western art in the late 1950s, when Vulokh moved from Kazan to Moscow. The authorities finally pulled the plug on “a breath of fresh air” produced by the early years of the Khrushchev “thaw.” There was no way a painting like Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard could have displayed to the public though a few select individuals were able to see the picture in the museum’s restoration department workshop. The paintings of Van Gogh and Gogin were thought to be contrary to the tradition of Socialist Realism. There had been a huge gap in the volumes of the official history of Russian art published by the Academy of Arts over many decades. No art historian at the time could write on the art of the Russian avant-garde artists of the 20th century, not to mention having a look at the oeuvre of the above. In fact, no official museum collections contained any avant-garde works which could have become the foundation for the revival of art in Russia. Isaac Brodsky, a prominent Socialist Realism painter, had a private museum in Leningrad. It was the only venue where one could see a Chagall painting, the one dating back to his early period. The painting was hanging above the door of the museum. Some members of the Soviet Union of Artists suggested selling the Russian modernist paintings to Western museums and collectors; thus, a painful problem could have been solved for good.

Other members of the Soviet bloc offered alternatives to the official opinions on art prevailing among the Soviet authorities at the time. Poland was of them. A Polish magazine on culture and arts was also published in Russian for circulation in the Soviet Union. The magazine dealt with modern art traditions and trends which differed dramatically from the trends which were officially acceptable in the Soviet Union. The Czech art later helped to disseminate information on Surrealism. Foreign visitors were gradually becoming the main source of information. Consequently, at least in Moscow, some people started buying works of art described as alternative.

To gauge the tightness of the confines imposed on artistic expression, we might as well go back to the year 1960 when an exhibition at the Manezh took place. A small painting depicting a miner’s lamp that stood on a pile of charcoal amid the bright reflections in the dark created a participation effect. The painting was placed into the corner of the exhibition. Then the painting was removed, put back in place, and removed once again. Probably, the painting did not imply any “double meaning” – a verdict of choice used by the censorship boards in those years. However, the painting’s unadulterated realism might have put into question the content of those large officially blessed paintings which were put on view nearby.

Several years later, at the recommendation of the chairman of the Union of Soviet Artists, Khrushchev lashed out at formalism in fine arts. It then became obvious that new art trends opposing the official dogmas had strengthened, and therefore the authorities could no longer put a blind eye to the novelty. Some reasons or developments of exclusively domestic nature may seem to have caused the appearance of new experimental art works in Russia. However, the new Russian art was being born as a new generation of European artists began searching for new foundations at a time when the significance of the postwar trauma was on the wane. The three main trends: imagery, disintegration or even destruction of an image and the quest for new abstraction were taking roots in contemporary art of different countries. A few artists of the older generation, such as Giorgio Morandi or Nicolas de Stael, remained loyal to the theme of nature. Tachisme influenced the art of many European artists. German and Dutch artists who were members of the Zero movement had stripped the image of all the content. The only thing spared on the white background of picture was its composition. In Russia, the paintings by Yakovlev and Zverev had marked the search for a new image-bearing Expressionist approach even before similar trends became evident in the oeuvre of such young German artists as Bazelitz and Heckelman. However, the Gruppe Spur artists in Munich were moving in the same direction at the time. Those early examples of the new art could only gain some postmortem recognition due to constrained working environment and the lack of popularity in Russia. Nevertheless, those works should be regarded as a genuine contribution to the Russian and European art of the 20th century.

2.

Igor Vulokh’s early paintings belong to the initial stage of the above new art trend in the Russian art. The works turned out to be surprisingly accomplished. They bore evidence of an independent outlook on art. Being well aware of the oeuvre of Zverev and Yakovlev, Vulokh did not share Expressionism of the above artists. Unlike members of the Lianozovo group, he was not looking for the adaptation of new forms either.

By no means were the first-wave artists enticed by the avant-garde art of the 1910s and 1920s. Icon painting was of more importance to some of them. When I met with a prominent exponent of the alternative art, he was surprised at my showing interest in Malevich’s works. In this respect, Vulokh was yet again an exception to the rule. Vulokh and his friend, the poet Gennady Aigi, helped Nikolay Khardzhiev organize exhibitions of some works by Larionov, Goncharova, Malevich and other artists in the Mayakovski Museum. Aided by the collector George Costakis, who had started switching his interest from icons and the 18th century Russian art to the 20th century paintings, Vulokh discovered new aspects of the forgotten avant-garde art. Besides, his efforts helped to rediscover the art of L. Popova for the benefit of the public. However, Vulokh did not succumb to the temptation of building his art upon the works of the above artists. His works were not solely abstract in nature though. From the very start of his career Vulokh accepted the notion of genre – something that was rejected by the majority of artists in those years. His stand corresponded with his understanding of the tradition spanning back across the 20th century and beyond. As far as Vulokh was concerned, a still life, the inside of a room, a landscape and a human body (occasionally) had not yet been exhausted for artistic purposes. On the contrary, the extent to which the above were rendered meaningless could enable the artist to use them once again.

Some of Vulokh’s early oil paintings call up the memories of such works as Hostages and Objects by Jean Fautrier. The Landscapes of Vulokh (1961-62) are based on a limited set of colors; the paintings’ compositions are embedded in paints to merely serve as shadings for pointing out such objects as buildings. The appearance of horizontal lines leads to the transformation of a nearly abstract image into a landscape. Apart from the use of an unassuming format, the laying of emphasis on an art technique and the paint itself, there is one more point of similarity between the styles of Vulokh and Fautrier – the way of conveying a state of uncertainty pertinent to objects and figures. It is doubtful that Vulokh was familiar with any reproduced copies of Fautrier’s works while painting his Landscapes. The artist most likely drew inspiration from the bold works of Alexander Drevin dating back to 1932-33. The use of a lean palette and a palette knife for creating simplified landscape elements and those of buildings unites the paintings of Vulokh and Drevin. We might as well say that images start turning into a landscape, and vice versa as the picture nears completion.

No matter what expressionistic elements may have populated the early works of Vulokh, they never take shape of some twisted yet recognizable objects. The elements are rather a composition executed in dark lines, which are spread over the entire canvas to form a “manuscript.” Once put upon the surface, the structure of the lines reveals spatial characteristics. The backdrop makes the structure appear as it were a layer of colors in motion. Some associations with nature are prompt to follow.

3.

The majority of Vulokh’s works belongs to the genre of a landscape. Interiors and occasional still lifes featuring a single object stand next in line. Pictures depicting images of a human body and portraits are very few in numbers. Disappearance and Figure are the two rare exceptions to the rule. By and large, Vulokh paints from memory; there is no model. The artist works en plein air; he is left to his own devices. There is no need in doing preliminary sketches for in most cases a basic composition of a painting is already in place. The basic composition becomes a carrier of the impressions that took form. It is precisely the way Vulokh’s “genre” should be comprehended. As the picture is being painted, the color perception takes initiative and brings the whole process to a finish.
Vulokh put it like this: “I did not invent anything; I just laid stress in the right way.” The statement is a plain yet apt description of the artist’s attitude toward the classical interpretation of the genre.

There are nuclei of perception, observation and an emotional response to nature in almost all of Vulokh’s paintings regardless of the degree of abstract qualities contained therein. His works appear to create a sensation that not only seasons but months and time of the day have been captured in their true essence. A cityscape is adjacent to an indoor scene; the palettes do not differ much in both cases. The outside world seems to be invading the inside of a building, and the walls start to disappear consequently. The window as a natural area of entry is both a recurrent theme and metaphor of a picture itself. The window is meant to echo the picture’s frame.

At once occasion Vulokh recommended that I pay attention to Aleksei Savrasov, a 19th century Russian painter who stands out as an artist because of his ability to feel the spirit of nature, according to some opinions. Vulokh did no mention The Rooks Have Returned, Savrasov’s most famous spring day painting. Instead, he pointed out some sketches for the autumn landscapes in dark shades. The underbrush depicted on the foreground of the sketches helps to give away commotion of the spirits the artist had at the time. It is rather easy to find parallels between the above sketches and a large number of the images of autumn painted by Vulokh. Any direct parallels are out of the question since Vulokh prefers to stick to his spatial and abstract characteristics. Nevertheless, there is, without doubt, a certain degree of similarity between the works of the two painters in terms of sensations running deep down inside. Savrasov’s painting Field Path (1873), usually on display in the Tretyakov State Gallery, is one of the examples. Its dark field is faintly lit with the bluish white puddles of water. Through many a way – even the decoration of the painting – the Field Path can bring out a combination of emotions similar to those occurring in Vulokh’s works many a time and often.

At times Vulokh puts vertical lines over the initial color compositions for creating an atmosphere of either an autumn or winter landscape that is eventually carried away to abstraction with the help of those lines. The austere rhythmic sequences of the lines would probably evoke the lines in The Rain (1907-08) by Mikhail Larionov or call up the style of Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The lines may as well look like a net covering the whole canvas. The net sets out to replicate and mix with the profundal paint layers for the purpose of creating increasingly complex spatial compositions. These formal techniques in their own right are not yet the last trick up the artist’s sleeve. The techniques are inseparable with the saturated hues of brown and somber shadings working to create the sensation of being all alone somewhere amid the fallen leaves where the trees and bushes are soaked in moisture as the sun scarcely sheds his light right before the darkness falls. Impressions of movement or sensations of confinement ensue.

Autumn and winter are Vulokh’s favorite seasons. His series of abstract paintings painted white on white first came into existence around the year 1970. Vulokh would occasionally come back to some of them throughout the 1970s. In these paintings we can see reflections of vast snow-clad fields without a single track or footprint on them. The white strokes of gouache in some of the works create the sensation of watching snowflakes fall down. The snowflakes can cover the whole surface of a “window” while dimming the light as they disperse it; they can also go spinning around in a blizzard:

 

As midgets in the summer fly
Towards a flame,
The snowflakes from the yard swarmed to
The window pane.

And, on the glass, bright snowy rings
And arrows formed
A candle burned upon the table,
A candle burned

Vulokh’s still lifes may center on a single object e.g. a cigarette butt, some sheets of paper either folded up or torn into pieces. Alternatively, the still lifes may be devoid of any characteristics of an object yet the presence of the latter is still there. Just like in Boris Pasternak’s poem in his novel Doctor Zhivago, where one’s look may focus on some particular object in the corner where the walls and the ceiling cross to simultaneously form in this way an abstract division of the surface and a spatial illusion.

Boris Pasternak’s collection of poems was titled Themes and Variations (1923). Many lines from the Pasternak poetry including those in his five poems about autumn can be used for entitling Vulokh’s works. For example, as regards the description of the fading light: “the day was burning down”, “the light was failing in the distance as tranquil as it seemed”. The verses are equally suitable for describing the shades of color: “the meadows were in a blur of lilac-tinged heat”, “a purple edema has not been washed off the birches”, “the silver-haired raspberry garden against the purple primer of its preludes.”

In these poems a window becomes a frequent subject e.g. “the night in the window obeying the cold of ice as decency”, “the window feels so sleepy and chilly in the twilight”, “to open up the window as if to open up the veins.” The following poetic lines portray the essence of some images of winter in Vulokh’s works: “everything is covered with snow, and everything in times gone by … the snapping of the branches… they will fall down banging, looks like they will fall down to the frosty ground.”

4.

Perhaps this random contiguity indicates the close ties between Vulokh’s oeuvre and poetry. The artist illustrated two books of the collected poems written by two authors. One book was penned by his old friend Gennady Aigy; the other one by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtremer. Vulokh’s black and white drawings alongside the verses help to discover his passion for the book and his understanding of the former as a form of expression. The drawings are an independent accompaniment echoing the essence of the poems.

Vulokh provided a several drawings full of soft shades to Aigi’s collection of poems. A small volume of poetry was the first book the poet had succeeded in printing in the Soviet Union since the days of his youth. The collection was printed in 1987, in a supplement to some newspaper circulated in Chuvash autonomous republic, a Russian province in the middle of the Volga basin. One of the drawings features objects on view through the closed window; the small dots represent a wedge-shaped flock of birds. Another drawing depicts a window; both halves of its window frame are wide open. A similar painting of an open window was made several years earlier. There is also a view from the inside though it is completely blocked with wooden panels and thus resembles a box. The only way to identify the picture leads to its composition. However, there were other things to behold: a number of hastily sketched symbols were covering the canvas completely. The symbols looked as though they had been made by the artist in 1985 to illustrate Aigi’s poem dedicated to the poet’s newborn daughter Veronika. The English translation of the poem was printed in 1987.

In 1991, Vulokh rendered drawings to illustrate Aigi’s poem dedicated to Raul Wallenberg. Aigi wrote the poem after making his first trip to Hungary in 1988.
There is a muted yet easily recognizable symbolism and inner consistency in them.
One of the drawings shows horizontal and vertical lines forming a cross surrounded by a large number of smaller horizontal and vertical lines, which also cut one another at some points only to form more crosses. The lines can be compared with those in The Composition with Lines (Composition in Black and White) (1917) by Piet Mondrian. The pictorial constituents in the painting of the Dutch painter are arranged specifically for the purpose of forming an imaginary circular combination. Likewise, the lines are meant to gravitate toward the cross figures in Vulokh’s drawing. His graphic illustrations for the poetry of Tomas Trenstremer (1994) depict movements caused by a sharp contrast between the black spots of India ink and the fine trembling lines. The movements offer associations with love thoughts that are either growing bigger or perhaps they are just a reflection as one of the poems suggests. The thoughts of love form watercolor drops on the wet paper while oozing through.

Aigi’s collection of poems The Candles in the Gloom and Several Small Songs (1992) became the most ambitious project of all the poet’s publications containing illustrations made by Vulokh. Unfortunately, the book came out short of satisfactory as to the quality of printing. Anyway, the illustrations are a combination of line drawings in black and white and the watercolor groundwork that looks like sheets of paper torn apart. Other illustrations contain the motifs already found in Vulokh’s paintings: the use of fine parallel lines which sometimes meet and form vertical forms. Yet again, the artist’s view of the book as an independent work of fine art is reflected in the compositions of his pictures. From time to time the compositions combine Aigi’s handwritten verses and Vulokh’s designs showing the same degree of lightness.

5.

In 1993, Igor Vulokh made his first trip abroad. He spent a couple of months at Wiepersdorf Castle in Germany, the former estate of Bettina and Arnim von Brentano. The castle has had a long and interesting history in terms of culture and tradition. At present it is a sort of international hangout for artists and writers. For the first time, Vulokh could work in the environment of a decent atelier. During his stay at Wiepersdorf, Vulokh created about twenty pictures on paper in gouache and acrylic paints – the media that had been long used by the artist. However, that time he opted for producing larger-sized paintings. In 1995, those works were put on display at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. Vulokh spent a few weeks at the museum’s guest house.

Vulokh became acquainted with the oeuvre of Vilhelm Hammershoi while in Copenhagen. Hammershoi’s seemingly monochromatic paintings caught Diaghilev’s eye as far back as 1887. (A number of exhibitions held recently in Europe and the U.S.A. helped to revive interest in the art of Hammershoi). Vulokh summed up his impressions in an interview: “The color is burned down to the ground in Hammershoi’s works. The tones are transmitted in such a spectacular and diverse way that they can effectively supersede the colors…. The technique employed by Hammershoi is what Malevich described as ‘an object-free combination of colors’ whereas his style is solidly based on lines and drawing. Hammershoi uses the color in a direct way; there’re the following colors in his self-portrait: violet, yellow, ultramarine and red. In his painting that depicts a nude I can discern the following colors: violet, ochre, and possibly, yellow and brown. The colors remind me of Chardin’s paintings en grisaille, yet not necessarily so. A legacy isn’t always safe. First and foremost, Hammershoi projects independence. Needless to say, he’d made himself aware of the impressionists and Edward Munch’s works by 1910. He could have drawn from their experience had he wished to do so. However, he’s following his own path. Hammershoi’s conception of a landscape is akin to that found in Philip de Koninck broad landscapes. He considers a landscape as being an integral solid piece. The sky isn’t something neutral that is separated from the foreground. The artist perceives and conveys the subject of his work in all its diversity of shades onto a drawing while exposing in space all the sharp and soft facets of it. I’d like to get back to the large painting depicting a nude: it’s a great work of art.”

During his stay in Denmark Vulokh also became acquainted with numerous lithographs of Jean Dubuffet from a series Phenomena. The works of the series stand out for its abundance of textures. The lithographs might have prompted Vulokh to carry on with his compositional paintings dating from 1976. A series of monotypes released in 1998 was a continuation of the above works.

The latter years of Vulokh’s career saw him exploring new themes. Those new themes have to do with the artist’s spiritual quest that led him to the Russian Orthodoxy in his early years. The quest made Vulokh part his ways with the dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Churches eventually. From 1999 to 2000 he produced a number of paintings in light and dark tones with some oval shapes in them. It seems at least tempting to interpret the above works not only as specimens of object-free combination of colors but also as those bearing transcendent images. The former category comprises oblong vertical paintings transfixed by either a single line as it were a ray of light or by two compositions in rose and yellow whose bright overtones light up the area around, a ray within a ray. An oval had become a predominant subject in the six paintings since 1999. Those images evoke some associations with icons and the Vesica piscis. In addition, it is quite obvious that the oval is not a mere abstract figure. The oval becomes a countenance even without the use of any direct quotations. A single individual form assumes a double aspect in Vulokh’s latter works e.g. Abyss and The Dark Triangle should we analyze them as a whole. Still lifes created by Vulokh every now and then are probably the reason behind the development.

New motifs and a new attitude toward the color can be seen in a group of paintings featuring slightly curvy lines that form horizontal and vertical bars. There is a decrease in the intensity of color contrasts in the barely traceable bars; the transition areas for the passing from dark to light or one color to another are arranged in a way to ensure a balanced level of saturation. The same applies to the arrangement of the bars. The images can often call up memories relating to nature, the trunks of the trees, the play of light and shadow that vary from delicate hues to thundercloud colors. There is a certain spatial quality in them, a new balance between the surface and the depth.

Taking a glance at a great diversity of Vulukh’s works arranged chronologically, one may form an opinion that they look somewhat higgledy-piggledy. However, those seemingly conflicting formal aspects will become consistent if the focus is shifted to thematic and spiritual content of the works. Gennady Aigi once said that after many years of creative work he was at last trying to bring about a spatial quality into his poetry. He quotes from teachings of Pavel Florensky as to the definition of words. According to Florensky, the words are a triad of logos, structure and cohesion. Aigi adds that the spatial quality can be attained by means of separating words of a poem from logos provided that the words are not represented as a structure and set apart from one another so that the words may become independent. The spatial quality may as well be transferred even to the realm of religion. Vulokh’s works created in the latter part of his life can be interpreted in this light if we replace the “words” with the “image” in the above definition.