|Detail from Pink Interior I by Mikhail Roginsky|
Mikhail Roginsky, Ca' Foscari Esposizoni, Mostra Internazionale di Architettura.
This month saw the opening at Ca' Foscari of an important exhibition of works by the Russian painter Mikhail Roginsky (1931-2004). It is a collateral event in this year's Architecture Biennale and in a way it is a pity that the project could not have been held over until the Art Biennale next year. Nevertheless, the show has already attracted a great deal of attention and will run until 28 September.
Roginsky is variously described as a leading Soviet Nonconformist and/or the founder of Soviet Pop-Art. However it soon becomes clear, when one see the great masterpieces on show here in Venice, that he was far more than that. His work defies easy categorization but it is fair to say that he is one of the great painters of the twentieth century, on a par with Bacon, De Kooning, Rothko and Hopper. There are powerful echoes of the past too. The brushwork, particularly in the medium and large-scale paintings, unmistakeably recalls that of Goya and Velasquez. In short, he is a painter for all time and it is a mistake to regard him merely as an influential 'Russian' painter and leave it at that.
The work exhibited at Ca' Foscari falls into four categories. First there is a selection of small-scale still lifes of bottles, kettles, stoves, beakers and clothing. An obvious but interesting comparison might be made with the work of Giorgio Morandi, but whereas Morandi's vessels and objects project an air of serenity, Roginsky's are bursting with energy and, at times, humour. The common ground is that both Morandi and Roginsky breathe a kind of supernatural life into these unconsidered domestic objects, thereby transforming them into household gods - or at the very least, agreeable companions. Second there are scenes of life in Moscow: courtyards, subways, art exhibitions, street scenes and so on. Despite what we know to have been the chilly depression of life in Soviet Russia, the pictures are painted with compelling love and compassion. One feels feels the urge to visit the dusty old tenement, wait in line at the subway or endure the chatter of a vernissage. The third group of paintings is inspired by Soviet public information posters that exhorted people to eat well, keep clean and (a favourite of Roginsky's) brush their teeth thoroughly every day. The paintings are decorated with text, though not in the slick, typographical, comic-strip sense you find in the work of Liechtenstein and other Pop-Artists. Roginsky's lettering is painterly - very much woven into, rather then detachable from, the composition as a whole. In these sophisticated parodies and meditations, the nightmare world of Soviet prescription and proscription comes across in all its deadening banality. Leaving aside the political implications of these works and looking for artistic comparisons, the darker paintings of the series call to mind Goya's great cycle of masterpieces, the Black Paintings. They too dwelt, in part, on the progressive brutalization of the human spirit by forces beyond its control - war, tyranny, inescapable poverty, disease. Finally there is the large-scale work, in particular three great masterpieces: Pink Interior I and II (a diptych, 1981), Room with Lampshade (1981) and Bathroom (1981). These represent the fullest and finest flowering of Roginsky's art - and they alone would serve to establish his reputation as a great master. The diptych is at first sight nothing more than a decidedly static and shabby interior containing a ladder, ceiling lights, a small table and a chair. But it is alive with energy, so much so that it provokes (at least for me) a physical reaction, a kind of instant recoil and galvanization. The life-giving alchemy witnessed in the early paintings of bottles and stoves is practised here on a grand scale. Who else has shown such mastery? Very few. Bacon, Velasquez, Piero della Francesca, Tintoretto perhaps. Comparisons are helpful only in that they may serve to place Roginsky in the first rank.
Turning to the dark side, the curators of this exhibition have not served Roginsky and his widow well. The many glaring faults reinforce my view that we should found a new school of art criticism, devoted principally to the praise or damnation of curators who do their best and worst to enhance or contaminate the work entrusted to their care. First, in this show, there is the deplorable design. The exhibition space at Ca'Foscari is far from ideal, but the rambling palace nevertheless presents promising opportunities. There are high ceilings on the piano nobile and an expanse of white-washable walls. There is natural light filtering in from the Grand Canal - and where natural light is scarce there is ample opportunity for setting up appropriate light rigs. The curators, however, chose the fashionable fad of constructing rooms within rooms, and oddly-shaped rooms at that: sharp angles, dark corners, dim lighting, partitions painted in drab, duck-egg non-colours - and dead, wasted space between the partitions. The result is vertiginous, claustrophobic, depressing and deeply provincial. It is as though the chi-chi paint manufacturers Farrow & Ball had sponsored the set design for an amateur dramatics production of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The layout is an affront to the oeuvre, particularly the large-scale works which are very nearly suffocated in the cramped environment. Then there is the text, both in the catalogue and stencilled on the walls. With the exception of unimpeachable essays by Yevgeny Barabanov and Richard Leydier, much of the writing is indescribably banal, coming across as the work of clueless and ill-prepared art history students, scraping the meagre barrel for whatever scraps of supposed erudition they can salvage in an attempt to disguise their lack of insight: "the structure of Mikhail Roginsky's still lifes, when interpreted as a semiotic system, is exemplary." and "...his regular trips to the newly-accessible Moscow served as a tuning fork for the accuracy of his artistic vision." Then, "...the mastery of his painting compels the spectator to perceive two-dimensional canvases as an equivalent of veracity." And, "The artist subconsciously literalises the concept of 'fabric', beginning the path from the object of representation - jackets, shorts and trousers." Further, "Roginsky subconsciously endeavours to liberate consciousness and purify to the point of emphasis, thereby introducing an element of the unconscious to the writing." The best howler is this: "As we know, painting is best understood by those directly involved, but the majority of artists, including Roginsky, do not possess the useful skill of self-commentary." What nonsense: few modern artists, with the possible of exception of Francis Bacon, have spoken as eloquently and succinctly as Roginsky about intention and method of work. It is hard to say what is worst in this collage of pseudo-intellectual nonsense: the woolly writing itself; the insolent presumption that one can second-guess the inner workings of an artist's subconscious; the arrogant proposition that we are entitled to more from an artist than the - let's call it "useful skill" - of painting a cluster of masterpieces; the sense in which texts like these run the fatal risk of distancing the viewer from the image rather than drawing him in. Still, I suppose the team as a whole have done us a service by liberating the work of this great master from the confines of Moscow and bringing it to the international stage. That is where he belongs - and one hopes that soon there will be major exhibitions of his work in London and New York. Perhaps it is best to see this exhibition armed with little more than Roginsky's most memorable comment: "My work is nothing more than a response to what I see and know." One might also recall Francis Bacon's definition of great art: "Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence — a reconcentration — tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time."
PS: No letter from Venice would be complete without a light-hearted look at behind-the-scenes politics. There is an interesting back story to the Roginsky exhibition, well worth relating. On the opening night the Russian artist Katia Margolis was denied entry to the vernissage, despite having been invited as the personal guest of the artist's widow, Liana Roginsky. Margolis was one of several hundred people - Venetians and expatriates - who had spoken out against Ca' Foscari's decision to award an honorary doctorate to Putin's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. Margolis's comments were more closely-reasoned and persuasive than most - and they clearly ruffled the feathers of Silvia Burini, babushka-in-chief at Ca' Foscari's Centre for the Study of Russian Art. Burini, who resigned after the Medinsky award, was furious to hear that Margolis had turned up at the opening - so much so that despite the personal intervention of Liana Roginsky herself, she resolutely refused to let Margolis in. This is ironic, given that Burini is as a great an admirer of Margolis as she is of Roginsky. Here is Burini writing on Margolis in 2007 (eSamizdat, 2007 (V) 3, p.266): "From this concept flows Katia Margolis's special vision of the world of objects, an animated and wonderful world, a real universe in which objects interact and communicate in the language of objects." Here she is again, commenting on Roginsky (p.31, Ca' Foscari's Mikhail Roginsky catalogue, 2014): "Roginsky's world of objects is an actual universe, a separate world with its own inner life, in which objects interact and communicate in the language of objects."