The Hermitage Group, an informal association of eight Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) painters, has existed for a good quarter century, but is only now exhibiting outside Russia. Their distance from the state sanctioned art of the Soviet Union, a distance bred into their very reason for working in the way they do, isolated the Hermitage Group artists from international artistic discourse; even during Gorbachev's glasnost they remained underground. Only now is this octet of artists making its way into the limelight.
As its name implies, the Hermitage Group centers on the famous museum of Western art in St. Petersburg. The group developed under the tutelage of Grigory Yakovlevich Dlugach (1908-1988). Dlugach had studied under the influential artist theoreticians Kusma Petrov-Vodkin and Pavel Filonov, key figures in Leningrad's pre- and post-revolution avant garde. When Stalin closed vanguard schools throughout the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and suppressed the creation of experimental art, Dlugach retreated not into the new, vacuous academicism of Socialist Realism but into the Hermitage Museum itself. There, he studied the Old Masters' techniques and styles on his own. Inculcated with Petrov-Vodkin's theories of spatial perspective and the analytical methodology of Filonov, Dlugach became convinced that the enduring vitality of the masterworks he had taken refuge among was sustained and conveyed through previously unseen inner lines, dynamic substructures which revealed themselves in the tension between each part of each picture and its entirety.
Dlugach developed a method of bringing these substructures to the surface, making them as apparent as the subject matter itself. In this way the formalist thinking of the Russian Avant Garde reshaped the pictorialism of Renaissance and Baroque European art into a synthesis of old and new, elucidating and capitalizing on the strengths of eachûand thereby bringing forth new spiritual as well as perceptual resonance. It is this approach Dlugach imparted to the students who began to gather around him in the 1960s, teaching them to see the kamen in the painting of Da Vinci, Veronese, Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt, and through to Repin, Vrubel and Picasso. Kamen (literally, "stone") may be understood as the unity of form and spirit that gives life to great art. Hermitage Group painter Albert Bakun describes his teacher's approach: "[Dlugach] began to introduce us to the work of the Old Masters, saying that in these canvases there is something about which neither we nor the pedagogues before us know or knew. With our first studies we began a search for lines, elusive and invisible to the eye, that form some plastic figure, miraculously making it come alive, setting into motion what were until now grounded and static forms on a plane."
In adhering to an approach that gives equal weight to Modernist and Old Master concepts and methods ("iconoclastic academicism," they call it) the Hermitage Group distances itself equally from the two styles currently associated in Western eyes with "Russian art. " They eschew both the slick, faux-folk manner of their more commercially oriented countrymen and the Western-style Pop-conceptualism of the radical artists who emerged just before and during glasnost. In a way, however, the Hermitage Group painters are as post-Modernist as their Pop-conceptual compeers: by conflating both the techniques and the subjective concerns of Venetian Mannerism, Dutch Baroque, Barbizon Realism and proto Bolshevik Cubo-Futurism, the eight St. Petersburg artists have effected precisely the kind of deliberate anachronism championed by post-Modernist theorists.
What keeps the Hermitage Group somewhat outside of the post-Modernist loop, however, is the emphasis Dlugach's students maintain on the coherence of the pictures they produce. They are not interested in mere appropriation or jumbled pastiche. They want to paint the world, as grim and as glorious as it may appear to them, in a particular way, a way that balances the formal repose and psycho-logical insight of the great Western painterly tradition with the early 20-th century fascination with pure form, pure energy and pure expression.
Further distancing the Hermitage Group from prevailing notions of post-Modernism in the West is dukhovnost. The emotional strength of their art is rooted in a spiritual tradition which had been suppressed in Russia and hidden from the West, but nonetheless infused Russian life. This tradition has nothing to do with religious dogma; it concerns that basic element which underlies and forms the basis of all religions. Roughly translatable as "the spiritual life of the people," dukhovnost permeates the work of the Hermitage painters. As Mark Tumin states, "The most attractive sphere of God's world and my own is the spiritual, mystical, and religious. Every canvas, even the smallest one, is a model of the whole world for me. The plane of the canvas is not flat. There are not just three or four dimensions; there are God and nature, beauty and wisdom, heaviness and lightness of the flight to the skies, and all that is the goal of my search."
The eight painters comprising the Hermitage Group favor the traditional subjects of representational painting: still lives, figures, portraits, and especially landscapes, along with versions of their Old Master models from the museum, re-rendered in the dynamized approach imparted by Dlugach. Although there is a basic consistency of style throughout the group, their individual characters distinguish themselves through differing emphases on subject matter, different palettes, different handling of paint, and secondary emphases on different media.
Alexander Daniel, for example, creates especially lucid and dramatic woodcuts, while his light, sky-filled oils, mostly of groves and fields, shiver into networks of particularly nervous lines. Daniel's brother, Sergei, by contrast, paints with a much firmer brush, rendering his country and city views in dark, earthy tones. Boris Golovochav, who favors urban views (notably in his "Walls and Bridges" series), relies on a wider color range, bon on an even denser, more opaque brush technique, giving his pictures either a rich somberness or a mosaic-like vivacity. Albert Bakun's renditions, mostly of outdoor images (although his Old Master variations are the most ambitious in the group), combine an almost virtuosic naturalism with heightened local color and especially pronounced networks of force-lines.
Such force lines also begin to shiver the faces and figures that Vladimir Obatnin captures on canvas and paper, less distorting them than giving them extra palpability and psychological resonance. Mark Tumin's figures, on the other hand, retreat into mystery behind a skein of loose brush strokes (or pen strokes) and a penchant for monochromatic color schemes. Yuri Gusev's figures are similarly elemental, butûlike his plein air landscape watercolorsûthey are as likely to coalesce into the detailed specifics of a character-filled visage as dissipate into the merest remnants of a face. Vladimir Kagarlitsky comes closest to being "all of the above, " but his landscape renditions are animated by a relatively high-keyed palette and contrapuntal arrangements of firm brush strokes.
Such capsule characterizations of course omit more than they include, and could even prove misleading as the Hermitage Group painters continue their collective work and their personal evolutions. The recent expedition to California, for instance, gave the painters not simply the chance to visit the United States for the first time but to paint outdoors as a groupû- on occasion with local artistsû- and to visit country and city environments until now entirely foreign to them. And more overseas visitsó including the current tour of the U. S . are to come. How can this help but affect the Hermitage Group? Their horizons are, literally, expanding. Still, whether they are painting the hills of the Pacific Coast or the meadows of northern Russia, simple objects in their own studios or dramatic woodcuts, while his light, sky-filled oils, mostly of groves the flashy souvenirs they collect on their wanderings, the Hermitage Group artists will remain faithful to the principles of Grigory Dlugach, seeking through structural insight the kamen in all things and the dukhovnost in all humans.
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