Metaphysical Art

Metaphysical Art. A Rejection of Contemporaneity

Active art that arises in performance and calls for performance prevails in the twentieth century. It pushes its way into public space, disturbs it, climbs into the conscious and unconscious mind of the audience, manipulates their thoughts, plays with their emotions, and forces them to act. This art—utopian or critical—is intended to get a result, to change life as quickly as possible. As for artists, who are traditionally attuned to the vita contemplativa in the spirit of seventeenth and eighteenth century art, they tend to play bit parts in modernism. It is only in moments of acute public crises that contemplative art moves to the proscenium and is representative of modern culture, when the artists of the avant-garde crash and the artistic community faces a difficult choice: serve the regime or go underground. As an example, we might consider Italy, where Marinetti and his friends stained themselves as collaborators with fascists. This fact undermined the Futurists’ positions. The postwar art world rejected them in disgust and put the spotlight on the antipode of the avant-gardists in the opposite corner of the stage, the modest still life painter Giorgio Morandi. He probably would not have gained world fame if not for that ethical alternative: a defender of traditional artistic culture, and not an activist avant-gardist, became the symbol of the independence and dignity of the human spirit in the face of tyranny. Morandi’s “metaphysical realism” set the position of alienation. When the whole world was in the grip of fever, the artist rose above the fray of human passions and as they say, went into himself, meditating unfazed over a simple collection of objects. The world for him remained untouched by catastrophe. Radiant, evenly lit, untroubled.

There was a complicated situation in Moscow by the late 1960s. Ethical conflicts entered the aesthetic arguments among friends within the corps of renewed art. Many leaders of the new culture were accused by their colleagues of being excessively agreeable, soft-bellied, and obedient to external ideological pressures. At the same time, the innovative directions they represented were also disavowed. That’s what happened with the neo-futurist poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, who drew stadiums full of crowds for their readings, but could not resist the instructions from the culture department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The leader of the Movement (Dvizhenie) kinetic group Lev Nusberg chose to cooperate with the authorities in order to promote kinetic art in the urban landscape, tried to get permission in 1967 to do ideological illumination for the 50th Anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution, and completely set himself against the independent art community, those “whining leftists,” as he called them. Instead of the discredited “activist of the squares,” the main figures of the times were the introverted artists, the “hermits,” immersed in the contemplation of their inner worlds. It would be wrong to say that “they moved to the front of the stage.” The proscenium of artistic life was totally in the hands of people who created and demonstrated “permitted art” that was called “the severe style,” in which such ideological subjects as construction sites and socialist victories were tempered by a strongly watered down Cezannism. Since this art elicited no emotions besides boredom, an outside observer could think that the art life in late 1960s Moscow had deteriorated and was in its death throes.

The “hermits” did not deal with the public. They were visited by a narrow circle of initiates within the musical and scholarly and scientific Moscow elite. This circle created and sustained the fashion for “ underground” geniuses, which allowed the artists to be completely autonomous of their surroundings, even materially. The first thing one noticed upon entering a hermit’s studio was the total absence of everyday ordinary Soviet things. Rabin and Roginsky had objects of Soviet life, including railroad and fire safety posters, on their walls and in their paintings, and you could easily see the connection between the life outside their studio walls, inside their studios, and in their works; for the hermits the door to the studio served as a transition into a completely different world.

The person entering Vladimir Veisberg’s studio found himself in a monochromatic spatial environment in which everything was milky white—the walls, ceiling, floor, all the objects inside it, including the owner’s clothing. The window was also covered in white fabric. A small table, resembling Giacometti’s sculpture table, displayed white geometric figures of plaster and cardboard. Let me note parenthetically that there were no white interiors in Moscow in those days. Apartment walls were covered with wallpaper or painted dark colors, and rooms in public spaces had stone surfaces. Veisberg’s “white cube” was unique, a dream-like vision. The laconic and precise placement evinced the cult character of the room. It was a church of Platonic bodies, which the author, an orthodox Cezannist, had elevated into the rank of divine attributes. The offices of the cult of ideal bodies called for endless and continual painting of the selection of figures displayed on the white altar. It is a profound mistake to interpret Veisberg’s small still lifes as “interior art,” the aesthetic exercises of a purist. These paintings are prayers. They are all almost the same. In essence, the author painted only one painting. In executing it, the author was performing ritual contemplation. The contemplation was Veisberg’s goal, and the painting was the technical condition for being in the state of meditation.

Veisberg’s geometric figures are not painted in the style of Cezanne, de Chirico, or any historical style at all. They are presented in the original state of idea or ideal. In order to remove the mundane concrete and temporal character of the objects and their surroundings, Veisberg places his figures in a translucent light without any references to time or place. It is an abstract milieu with a bright and even light source that creates soft shadows and is filled with a white glowing haze in which the contours of ideal bodies melt and try to merge with the environment. The paintings are illuminated with a total radiance that bathes the objects and the background simultaneously. “White on white,” as Veisberg liked to say. In art history this kind of lighting with smoky effects was traditionally used to designate the sacred, heaven with choirs of angels, paradise. We can imagine that in ratcheting up the light-bearing atmosphere of his still lifes, Veisberg was seeking the visual equivalent of another plane, where he traveled while meditating.

While Veisberg invited the viewer to contemplate the empyrean world of ideas, Dmitri Krasnopevtsev offers the closed space of death. His small still lifes, which also resemble one another a lot, depict cramped and narrow spatial boxes—cellars, vaults, niches—in which a composition of simple objects is displayed—stones, bones, pottery shards, and dried branches. Like Morandi’s still lifes, they emanate peace. However, Krasnopevtsev forces the issue and tries to make the “metaphysical” absoluteness of this tranquility visible. He intentionally deprives his paintings of air. He replaces the smooth canvas surface with thick pressed cardboard, which dulls the shine and transparent airiness of paint. He reduces painting to the black and white contrast of drawing and eliminates painting’s characteristic spaciousness. The image, despite perspective foreshortening, is squashed. The wall of the background falls onto the objects and literally squeezes them out at the viewer. And the viewer realizes that he is trapped in the kingdom of the dead. He is surrounded by dark objects, and everything that had been living matter in them is withered and dried. Death breathes calmly right into the viewer’s face. The author doesn’t try to frighten us nor is he himself screaming in fear. On the contrary, his paintings calm us and bring acceptance of nonexistence. Like Veisberg’s, Krasnopevtsev’s paintings are a by-product of a daily ritual, in his case, the ritual of memento mori, performed by the artist in solitary contemplation of a home collection of dead things behind opaque windows that shut out the outside world forever.

The third artist of the “metaphysical” group, Dmitri Plavinsky, also makes expeditions to an otherworldly place. In his case, this means a forgotten and rejected compilation of texts that were considered holy for many centuries and the mainstay of human spirituality. These are primarily works of Christianity, Islam, and Ancient Greece. All these things are directly underfoot, you just have to bend down and dig a bit, yet at the same time they have been artificially taken out of circulation, made taboo by modern civilization. Plavinsky’s object-paintings often appear to be replicas of found, unearthed treasures—manuscript books, wooden crucifixes, bronze crosses. But even more often, Plavinsky depicts a thick and rich “cultural layer” of soil, that historical garbage dump of culture, oversaturated with fragments of signs, ruined monuments, and fossil remains. He does not accept the modernist practice of drawing a thick line under history. His cellar studio near Mayakovsky Square was stuffed with old things, furniture, forged iron bars and doors, ancient folios, which people tossed aside in those days, gleefully moving out of communal flats into the panel-block five-story housing in bedroom suburbs. It would not be until much later that restorers and art historians would call for the preservation of such remains of olden times. From his flea market, Plavinsky regarded Culture, which was vanishing before his very eyes and which he could not rescue. The result of these bitter meditations were works like “The Gospel of St. John,” depicting an open manuscript with the footprints left by someone’s boots.

All three artists rejected contemporary civilization. They teleported themselves such an enormous distance, incomprehensible for the public of those years, from contemporary life that they could not see much difference between free art and Socialist Realism or even between the Soviet and Western worlds. They were globally against everything new. This maximal rejection is what makes “metaphysical art” a phenomenon based on principle and not a curiosity of the late-Soviet era of authoritarianism. For along with other innovations, postmodernism reinstituted dialog with the entire spectrum of cultural baggage and also reactualized contemplative artistic practices in the genre of installations and video paintings.

Andrei Erofeev