Dmitry Plavinsky

28 April 1937, Moscow—1 September 2012, Moscow

This Too Shall Pass.

“I juxtaposed the eternal, everlasting world of nature to the self-destructive activity of man. I was not interested in the flowering of any particular civilization, but in its collapse and death, that is, the return to the eternal sphere of the nature of life, to the biosphere. … Generations come and go, but the earth persists unto the ages.”

Dmitri Plavinsky

The legendary nonconformist and participant of the first underground exhibitions in the late 1950s called his style “structural symbolism,” basing his search for the lost protoimage on the poetry of Velemir Khlebnikov, the painting of Pavel Filonov, and the novels of Fedor Dostoevsky. Engrossed in the past and studying the present, Plavinsky sought and found incredible treasures: fish scales, ossified remains of prehistoric reptiles, fantastic plants and insects gone from the face of the earth, crosses inscribed in ancient letters, abandoned churches, seascapes, skyscrapers, city blueprints. But, like Nietzsche, he cared more about interpretations than facts. Leaves and butterfly wings, turtle shells and fish skeletons, ancient writings and imprints of fabrics appear in his works—layer by layer, fragments of an enormous, mysterious fresco that is lost forever but had once known all the secrets of the world.

In reconstructing the syncretic fabric of existence, which had fallen apart into text fragments, shards of meanings, skeletons and imprints, the artist did not collect images with the quick eye of a traveler, but acquired them through hard work: he discovered Central Asia in the late 1950s and lived and work there for a long time, painting murals for local residents. “Gospel of St. John” and other works in that series were made after a study of Slavic paleography in monasteries, libraries and museums in Novgorod, Pskov, and Yaroslavl. Every blade of grass was worthy of research and a painstakingly drawn copy. Meticulously and objectively drawn details are the most stable elements of Plavinsky’s work, which decisively mixes micro and macro worlds, styles, and meanings. The artist’s life also consisted of such memorable and incompatible fragments, beginning with the arrest of his mother, who vanished from his life, rotting in the Stalin camps before he could even comprehend the loss, and then appearing in his life out of nowhere after the tyrant’s death.

Giving trendy abstract art its due, in the mid-1960s Plavinsky completely unexpectedly took up diligent copying of nature, equally far from official and unofficial fashions. The resulting details, drawn with fantastic accuracy, unemotionally and objectively, seemed to fill the emptiness of the artist’s complex textured abstracts, saturated and oversaturated them with images and symbols, disappearing and returning depictions of natural phenomena and cultural artifacts, the list of which—intentionally incomplete and infinite by definition—continually expanded, with additions of computer schemata or music notation. Holding masses of meanings, combining the incompatible, Plavinsky mixed paint with sand and marble dust, covered the grainy surface of the canvas with sheets of paper, layered images only to then submerge them in layers of lacquer, turning painting in relief, made collages, assemblages, installations, and videos.

A true time traveler, a passé-ist and futurist in equal measure, Plavinsky lived with the sense of the returning past, on the edge of either an enormous archeological dig or an endless burial incorporating all the past and future, a cemetery. His personal version of history, as opposed to the Marxist-Leninist system clearly oriented on a happy future, doesn’t even have a hint on recognition for progress. On the contrary, signs and symbols unite past with future in an eccentric, treasure-filled labyrinth, which has no exit, but does have a headache-producing echo. Archives and libraries, desert sands and ocean depths, herbariums and bestiaries helped gather up pieces of a puzzle, yielding bits of meaning that are astonishing in their reflections and unexpected coincidences, covering the ages: a fish silhouette revealed the contours of Manhattan, a turtle shell can be discerned in a Moscow Metro map, skyscrapers turn into Dead Sea scrolls. In creating a system in which distortion is no less interesting than identity, Plavinsky was “concerned with communication or, rather, with the fallacy of everyday language, for his concentration is on the Word in the biblical sense of primal utterance, when sound, meaning, and image were the same and the Word (logos) was a perceptual mechanism that incorporated all the senses.”[1]

Faina Balakhovskaya


[1] John E. Bowlt in Dmitri Plavinsky