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The Choice Of Anikonov

Some time ago I arrived at Eduard Anikonov’s studio when he was preparing a bunch of his paintings for delivery to a picture gallery. The gallery representative was due to arrive at any minute and the only thing to complete was to sign the canvases. It was not a big deal to put down the names for the landscapes – he marked them quickly and simply as “The Shore” or “The Lake” and suchlike. But he hopelessly stuck when it came to a small figurative piece, so he asked me to think of a name to it. That little picture had caught my attention long before by its strange and unfinished narrative: a nude woman slightly covered by a military style coat thrown over her shoulders was sitting by the piano. In the dark interior of the room the light reveals a few bright spots: a cooling body, frozen piano keys, a burned down cigarette. The color rendered the vanished melodies - the games and passion that had been gone by then. “When all is said and done” – I suggested. The artist agreed with me, though the gallery representative, who had arrived by that time already, did not. That was not surprising because it is always easier to give your own name to a picture than read a previously given name.

My introduction is about the difficulties of interpretation from the language of art. But I like this language that exists among all the other vernaculars and slangs because it has a special visual quality, the evading beauty that requires the utmost interpretation skills and at the same time resists any translation since it combines fine art traditions with topical needs of contemporary art. The verbal “deficiency” of the artist proves the fact, with some justification, that he commands a different tongue that is the language of Art.

Eduard Anikonov is one of the few who has a passion for figurative painting. It seems to be useless to ask about this choice because the artist has been always moving in this direction. Nonetheless I can see many junctions on his difficult way to Anikonov of today where, due to his preferences, he had to take his own decisions. Who in the Modern Russian art belongs to figurative art and how large is its territory? On the one hand here belong the followers of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts with their archaic narrative and plastic canons that symbolize unswerving fidelity to the Academy tradition. On the other hand there are also visual artists who work in different trends of the photo-based art who dependent on technological innovations in our media-wise age. Anikonov tries to keep both extremes of this range in his sight and makes his own choice still having walked a multitude of winding path through his life history and artistic career.

The main events that greatly influenced Anikonov’s artistic biography took place in the 1990s. At the time of the downfall of the Soviet Union any event would involve local and geopolitical factors, economic and cultural, artistic and social components. The academic years of the artist included a similarly wide range of details: having graduated from the Sverdlovsk Fine Arts College with its solid painting training, Anikonov goes to the Graphics School of the most trustworthy Soviet educational institution - the Leningrad Academy of Fine Arts. He takes part in Moscow and Leningrad art shows and using popular at that time cultural exchange routes between Russia and the USA slowly but steadily is making his way to the West. With the fall of the Iron Curtain many things were becoming feasible and accessible, one only had to make the first step, so Anikonov managed to take many a step like that, from a small show at Glassborough State College (NJ) and through a number of similar shows in private art galleries in Philadelphia to participation in New York and Los Angeles Art-Expo Exhibitions. The experience acquired in the artists quarter of Philadelphia during his multiple sessions there was definitely indispensable for Anikonov. These and other biographical events are united by a very important, to my mind, behavioral feature of the artist – a very high social and temporal receptiveness, openness to modern trends and total rejection of artistic sterility that lives in the notorious Ivory Tower. This altogether helped him obtain the necessary knowledge – I would call it the experience of artistic metabolism – when the reality is not only taken through certain media channels but it itself sends certain reciprocal impulses to the artist.

If the truth be told, Anikonov’s early works don’t tell us much about the artist himself. We can only guess about the time and the influences to that style of painting. A whole array of predecessors reveal themselves on his canvasses – the Russian realism school, the European symbolism, Klimt, Korovin, Somov, and even Moiseenko’s romanticism. One can see a lot of masks and harlequins that came from the Soviet 1970s (echoes of the then popular carnival theme), the decorative and spicy Art Nouveau floral motifs, the ethnical and exotic East-West cocktails, also the post-Soviet desire for the never-seen-before beauty: gigantic hats, exquisite bottles, Venice gondolas, French cathedrals and unknown pretty nudes leading lives of Bulgakov’s little witches. One can explain it by the inevitable developmental disease of the breakup generation, though when browsing through his works of that period I cannot but pause on his landscapes that were becoming Anikonov’s hallmark already at that time. I would think that in the works based on the artist’s impressions of nature that were not restricted by the frames of a made-up plot or a big-time theme his personal style was picking up. In any event I take it as a rejection of symbolism (a general term for Anikonov’s style of that period of time) in favor of release and development of the artist’s personal manner. I doubt that the artist himself was planning it as a strategy - he seemed to be just making his way to establish himself in the art world.

In 2000 Anikonov acquires a new studio on Cape Fiolent in the Crimea which has become a very important factor in strengthening the natural influences in his art. Cape Fiolent – the legendary Cimmeria - has always been known as a haven for the artistic community in Russia. Now the natural forces of the Southern Crimea were counterbalancing the urbanism of the steel town of Magnitogorsk as well as the deliberateness of St Petresburg. As I mentioned before the southern lifestyle and a different angle of the sun rays provides a precious experience for the artist like did French Polynesia for Paul Gauguin or Coctebel for Maximilian Voloshin. Anikonov felt that invigorating effect and since then has been dividing his life into summer time in the South and winter time in the North.

North is not barren at all, it is able to nurture imagination and fantasy in its own special way. Working at Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works in 2006-2007 has yielded a series of industrial landscapes releasing Anikonov’s personal style and beating the influences of the soviet industrial romanticism of the 1930s (from Alexander Kuprin to Izrail Lizak). One can easily see the growth of trust to his own motility and as the result Anikonov relies more and more on his own artistic experience. Diagonal lines very effectively organizing the space, local light spots, and motif summarizing – these formal techniques are well justified by the imagery when the continuous production and hazardous processes are interpreted as the places where man and smart machines interact and are in touch, as a territory of constructive magnificence.

The work “Thirst” is definitely standing out in this row. It is interesting to compare Anikonov’s “Steel Founder” and Gaponov-Koteshov’s “Miner”, both painted approximately at the same time. The labor theme is relevant for the artists tired of the post-modern corroding irony. Both are portrait, done on a larger scale than the actual model (“heroic” as the social realism would tag it), however unlike the grand, monumental miners from Kemerovo, the Magnitogorsk steel founder is a lyrical character. His brutality emerges from contrast with the fragile glass from which he quenches his thirst so eagerly and carefully. The artist’s industrial genre looks and sounds to me very poetic like urban folklore or a music romance which on the whole puts Anikonov’s “Gears” on the cutting edge.

In 2008 Anikonov takes part in the Carnivora project called “The Dark Age of Automobiles” organized by Les Barany, HR Giger’s agent and friend. Giger’s name in modern culture represents a whole trend called “gothic” (see: Dina Hapayeva “Gothic Society: the morphology of Nightmare”- Moscow, NLO, 2008). The gothic subject in modern cultural and political context is highly revealing, it has broken through the limits of language and visual arts and tinted patterns of social activities, ethics and fashion. In other words, the gothic behavior is based on criticism of the aesthetic system of the Modern Times with its anthropocentrism and rationalism on the one hand, and on criticism of Scientism, on the other hand. The categories describing the gothic phenomenon in modern culture include fantasy, mysticism, timelessness, adoration of the Alien (from Tolkien’s dragons to HRGiger’s monsters), an extra humanistic system of values and hierarchies, aesthetics of Horror and Eschatology. In Carnivora the Gothic theme reveals itself basically in predatory and malicious machines and particularly in the automobile. Among the other participating modern artists, Anikonov’s “Gears” undeniably occupy a separate place. What they lack first of all is aggression, they are devoid of treacherous traps, their energy is only enough to remind of their existence, if only of their previous life. In this sense they remind me of archaeological treasures that are able to survive only in museum conditions. Anikonov’s “gears” are monochromatic, they are safely covered by the taint of time and the numbers as well as the legends and active color spots that bring them back to life only speak of their former glory and power. They are cooling before our eyes radiating what is left of their mechanical heat together with the warmth of the hands that once touched them. Images from the Museum of Marvelous Mechanics are emerging – the mechanics whose family tree began in the XVII century with those wonderful handmade machines that still keep their handicraft charm. Such engineering has faded into obscurity: the drawings are made in electronic form today, the screens became flexible, the gears are virtual while the main technological work turned invisible performed somewhere on the nanolevel. In Anikonov’s “Industrial” series I can feel nostalgia for the evident and even attraction of the mechanical function, longing for the human and first of all manual control over the iron creation of man. Today I can hear a romantic note ringing among those massive bulks of wasted metal and to prove it I will quote a line from a verse written by a Tula factory worker:”My machine is still thudding/ Letting out smoke/ Joining in our mutual song/We are always together singing our song/It’s not boring at all” (Ivan Doronin, In: Poetry of Working Class Professions. Moscow, 1924). The simple language of this self-description speaks of the former unity of man and machine, the unity that puts the old rational and romantic trend against the recent irrational Gothic one and reveals itself in the images of the “Gears”. So, there is no global conspiracy of the malevolent machines. I believe that it is this vision of the complete antagonism in the “predator of the century” theme that interested HRGiger and made their later communication possible. They are cooling before our eyes radiating what is left of their mechanical heat together with the warmth of the hands that once touched them.

Among Russian as well as international artists I can see only a few consistent figurativists; from the western ones I would name (letting alone such great masters as Lucian Freud, etc) Eric Fischl, and from the “inner circle” Dmitry Shorin. Both artists work on very relevant topics, very often on “hot” up-to-date ones: social deadlocks, sensual piquing, generation and personal tragedies of their contemporaries. Though Anikonov is hardly susceptible to post modern temptations he still remembers about them. Many of his fellow-artists readily report in their works: here you go – the multi-layered narrative, and this is a sobering up self-irony; a demonstrative fragmentation and blatant incompleteness of the visual images – we know at what age we are living and what ‘s on in the air. Very often art projects are accompanied by the artist’s annotations mentioning such names as Watteau, Eisenstein and Hirosige (as with Arsen Savadov). Contemporary figurative art is striving to reach the maximal extention of its statement securing the artist’s message in the multicultural environment. Anikonov preserves his efficient artistic metabolism without avoiding mass media information flows, he is in the know but his art is far from accentuated topicality.

Anikonov’s numerous and diverse nudes within a few years managed to transfer from the art salon and demonstratively erotic levels to the inner narrative. For the majority of artists the desire to impress the audience and to show off is quite natural but to give up a successful technique is a daring thing to do. There are only a few who are prepared to repudiate the vivid sensuality and apparent painting for the attention to the minor psychological and color particulars. Anikonov was departing from the carnal tidbits and the elegant picturesqueness strengthening now the medium, now the sketch, alleviating his own fixed look and changing the comfortable and familiar key. In the diptych “Man. Spring.” (2009) the storyline is emerging from the man himself, from his dramatic nudity, unwinding itself and generating a new quality of the surrounding space..The pulse of painting was changing, the brush was losing its previous confidence and on such canvasses as “Loneliness”(2010), “Awakening”(2010) there issued a balance of linear and colorful – a gap in meaning arose. To no surprise the new themes derived from the eternal classical source – Salome, Judith, Danae (2011) – the stability of the traditional plots counterbalances volatility and nervousness of the characters. The diptych “Adam and Eve”of 2006 blazed a trail to new stylistics emphasizing expression. The graphic dynamism and semantics of the brush movement got stronger when the artist needed to catch the definite and actual: ”People died because of such women/ Genghis sent an envoy to bring her to him/ on a bloody tray that woman “... Though the plot in those works has an advantage over the representation, the direction of the exploration is worth it.

Anikonov’s “Nudes” are a kind of introduction to the group of works that I would mark as “escapist”. This is exactly how I view the cycle he called “Skating Rink” (2008-2009) – a progression from actual visual scenes with certain details and staging (“On Red Square”, “First Ride”) to the character’s involvement in a game as a fire escape from everyday routine. The painting techniques have changed there as well: they are losing the density of texture and color heaviness giving way to the growing narrative. One can see that in the most recent works of this cycle the color of the ice is changing from the greens and purples to the color of bare priming which makes the artist’s message an aphorism on the symbolic level. People are playing similar games In Maria Pogozhelskaya’s series called “Jumps”(2005) when characters are up in the air in any real situation ( thence a new Russian slang expression “to hang up” meaning “to indulge to the hilt”, “run away from reality”. The escapist line intensifies itself in Anikonov’s series “Beach Volleyball”(2010) where the site of the game is taken away farther from the familiar scenes, to the surroundings of temporary getaway from civilization where the game is free of restraints of reality and the restricting clothes as well. These “beach” compositions unfold their narrative more straightforwardly in such works as “Heated Conversation”, “Suntan”, “Lotion”(all 2010) quite confidently combining strong painting and the relevant subject matter. I doubt that advocates of such version of escapism as nudism remember the quotes about ”a naked man on naked earth” – O tempora! O mores!… It would be interesting to remember Leonid Andreyev’s words: ” The naked Earth with a naked man on it as naked as when his mother gave him his birth. No pants, no medals, no pockets – no nothing. Just think: a man without pockets – what kind of nonsense is this!” One of the popular topics of today is denial of external emblems in favor of one’s inner style or selfness, as specialists on Indian spiritual practices would say, as well as those who have visited Goa once at least. Such is a naïve but irresistible desire to believe in the possibility of harmony between Man and Nature, a need to play the Golden Age, to live “without pockets” for a while – at least on vacation.

A denial of civilization and it’s major feature, the mobile telephone, have become a recent trend. Says a character from the last Sergei Soloviev’s film: “The first thing I did – I threw my cell phone into the ocean”. Another symptom of modern simplification is walking off barefoot down a sandy path. But why? Because there seems to be a joy of getting free of social and hierarchical restraints, a possibility of walking out the room to be liberated of the previous life, of everything obligatory, inevitable and routine. Such state and the way of reaching it can be called downshifting, maybe somewhat differently, but the main impulse is still to get back to one’s dreams and desires. It seems to me that a century old sunny echo that reaches Anikonov’s players and nudes comes from practically unknown Damian Shibnev’s pictures with his boys fooling around in the breakers and jumping from the boat into the sparkling sea.

The wide and meaningful topic that I randomly called “escapism” includes agricultural tourists, careful rebuilders and other numerous fugitives to other worlds from Tolkien to Gaidar... Anikonov’s art throws a different light upon the recent well-liked table game boom. The tangible technologies and observable mechanics play the leading role (like in Anikonov’s nostalgic “Gears”) for the children of the Progress, who have returned from the tedious virtual space to real games and real partners. Feeling a real danger is a great temptation and a genuine attraction for a virtual reality resident which explains the magnetic energy of the gesture in “Performance with Fire”(2009).

The theme is wide and it can find its further development in different genres like in Anikonov’s series of “cityscapes at night” (2008-2011). That cycle produces an ambiguous sensation. On the one hand, there exists a global invasion of cityscape – it is often difficult and easy to locate one’s place on the world map: “Where am I? – In a metropolis. Where am I going? – To the hotel. Where from? – From a restaurant”. Colorful lights are slowly passing by. On the other hand, nobody will ever forget Paris’ boulevards by Konstantin Korovin, and again and again I can hear a romantic melody “When the nightly lights are swinging”… sung by a comfortably restless and drifting city dweller who has escaped from all his ranks and obligations and got lost in his city with his greatest pleasure.

The ambiguity of Anikonov’s works that connects the traditional painting with the current themes is a token of his individuality and his personal artistic hallmark.

On the margin of the worlds, on bare ground, untouched by civilization lie the stones - as symbols of boundaries; there are moored boats as metaphors of opportunities; and mirrors in the rooms signifying the roads to the Wonderland… Are these just symbolic mementos? How should one take those painted worlds, galleries of images, lines of associations – how can we give them their exact definitions? To my mind the most capacious description could be a post-symbolical, anthropological period. It is a new phase of artist Anikonov who continues thinking with a brush in his hand and making his daily choices. It’s the choice of the Artist, the choice of Man.

I began my piece of writing with the statement that the artist tries to avoid giving verbal tags to his pictures thus defending their potential of self-naming, first of all by allowing them to speak for themselves. He Is the artist going the most complicated and at the same time safest way - following his own art.

Anton Uspensky

Rendered into English by Alexander Yegorov