Grisha Bruskin

21 October 1945, Moscow

A portrait of the artist as a people

Portrait painting has probably the oldest tradition in the history of art (not counting depictions of deities and animals). However, in this case we are dealing with individual portraiture. Quite another matter is the portrait of a people. Artistic projects of this nature are rare. I am not talking about the multi-figure compositions depicting various historical events. Such paintings are many, but they treat a people as theatrical extras.  Insofar as the attempts to depict a people as such, Breughel’s paintings, or, in the twentieth century, Zander’s photographs come to mind.

In that sense, Grisha Bruskin’s artistic projects occupy a special place, since they are aimed first and foremost at depicting a people, great and small. Sometimes, just groups of people -- that, which in the Anglo-Saxon world is called, “community”.  As it is within every people, the heroes of Bruskin’s projects are specialized; in obvious ways they perform various roles in a social whole, and their positions in the social hierarchy are also various. Among them are workers, dreamers, military men, and lifeguards, men and women. At the same time however, it appears that all of these representatives of the people do not match their social roles. Breughel’s peasants are exactly that – peasants, and it is hard to imagine them in the roles of workers or engineers.  In Zander’s photographs, his protagonists are also fully congruous with their social status and professional roles.

On the contrary, in Bruskin’s case the distribution of the social roles appears to be the dissemination of masks. It is as though the bearers of these masks were ready to exchange them at any moment. Bruskin’s “community” is reminiscent of carnival figures, frozen immobile. Each of the protagonists could mimic the pose and the gestures of the other protagonists. Such has already been Bruskin’s “Fundamental Lexicon”; such are also his later sculptural compositions. As a result, one gets the impression that all of these multiple social formations essentially represent the multiplied persona of the author himself, who is trying on various social roles, masks, and variations of behavior. It is about the new form of authorial identity – the virtual plurality of characters that the author can embody, and with whom he can identify. It is about a certain kind of multiple identity syndrome, which has long ceased to be a psychological deviation and has become a psychosocial norm. Today, looking in the mirror, each one of us sees a Proteus capable of embodying, albeit for a time, almost any social type, play any social role, act as a professional in any field, recreate the gestures and characteristics of any human, or even animal body. Bruskin’s social groups represent, ultimately, his self-portraits. In our culture, any one of us represents a collection of others that he can embody. It is quite possible that Bruskin found here the last possible form, in which the art of self-portrait may find its own continuation.

Boris Groys