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Reflections now and then

Loving Zinaida - the beautiful narssicist

The phrase 'love at first sight' reads suspiciously like a straight lift from a raging M&B plot. But is it a myth? Well, don't get me wrong, this is not a rant on the amorous destinies of painters. But I must begin by admitting that I did experience something closest to love when I stumbled across Zinaida's self portrait, which she painted in 1909 at the age of twenty-five. I am yet to see (I think) the greater part of her entire body of work, or whatever's left of it in the wake of that fire which also destroyed her house in Russia, and probably never will, since she is ill-represented online (wikipedia has a few of her works) and I am yet to come across her name in the more popular books on master painters. But I quickly realised that even a single painting can make you want to hunt like crazy for every available bit of information on its creator, and for images of every work she had ever set out to paint. This is exactly what happened to me.

For some obscure reason hotly debated across sexist camps, famous women painters, like women chefs, can be counted on history's fingers. I do not know why this is so, there must be a reason behind this. Artemisia Gentileschi, that famous and extraordinarily talented female Carravaggisti is one of those rarer ones to have made a mark. Gentileschi's 'Susannah and the elders,' if perceived from a woman's point of view is probably the strongest indictment of male lasciviousness ever recorded on canvas. Many painters have worked on this theme, but the more famous ones are by male painters, including those by greats like Rembrandt and Tintoretto. There is also a lesser known work by Ted Seth Jacobs (a supremely gifted contemporary 'realist,' an American based in France, who has mischievously portrayed himself in the company of the 'lecherous lot'), but none of these could evoke in the viewer that extraordinary mix of eroticism and self-reproach which Gentileschi's work does.

It is not that men can't paint female nudes. Lefebvre's "Chloe" or "Mary Magdalene in a cave" will make even the most frigid heart beat faster, his sure but oh-so-delicate treatment of human skin will make you want to stay with the work forever. But do look me straight in the eye and tell me that you enjoy looking at Michelangelo's female nudes. That great man, that genius, did everything to justify an everlasting name in the annals of artistic endeavour but paint a proper female form. His nudes are simply awkward, over-muscled, under-breasted and in patches of fresco, even unaesthetic. I am prepared to be burned at the stakes for spilling this out, but do take a gander at Sistine chapel's ceiling before you light the pyre (May be he did it on purpose, so as not to cause too much excitement. Who knows!). But again there are the earthy women of Zorn (Anders, Swedish genius, early 20th Century), the ethereal women of Bouguereau (Adolph William, a French giant of Academic Classicism, late 19th Century, deliberately expunged from public memory by sustained Modernist campaign, being resurrected to former glory only recently) whom you can almost smell, and Gauguin (Paul, needs no introduction because he was lucky with the scribes) who could bring out the innocence in his female models with such amazing simplicity of drawing. Any sexist debate on the relative merits of female and male artists is absurd, including debates on who paints women better, nude or clothed. But even then, to a careful and sensitive viewer certain differences are apparent.

Don't laugh, but I think it is the 'lust factor!' Nudes interest us, and disregarding same-sex attractions for the moment (which will only complicate things and remove this discourse further away from its supposed focus than it already is), painters painting the opposite sex do experience a certain thrill (Renoir used to compare painting nudes to making love, and that too in his old, osteoarthritic days, when the brush had to be tied to his forearm because his fingers wouldn't bend). This makes us overlook certain things in the model, or emphasize certain others, which we wouldn't have done if not for that sustained elevated level of hormones affecting our thought processes. Gentileschi's "Susannah" illustrates this difference in male and female approach to painting nudes like probably no other work, except perhaps a comparison between Ingres' Turkish harem and Zinaida's Russian bathhouse. Both works are starkly erotic, and superb accomplishments, and yet there is a difference. Female nudes painted by male painters tend to be romanticized to a certain extent, while those by female artists are clinically frank and down-to-earth in their erogenous beauty.

Coming back to the rarity of historically celebrated women painters. I can't explain why it has been like this. But any appraisal of a female painter's work appears to be inextricably linked to her life. As if women who paint, by virtue of their gender are somewhat special and their lives need be investigated beyond the necessities of art. Most articles (and films) on Gentileschi tend to linger less on her art than on the controversy surrounding her alleged 'rape.' Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morissot, such accomplished painters, rarely find mention other than in the context of Manet or the Impressionists. Frida Kahlo's life appears to attract more scrutiny than her canvasses. To be fair to the analysts, her paintings draw heavily from her personal experiences (and her life had more than its average share of ups and downs) and this makes it difficult to extricate an independent critique of her art. But even then, Frida's achievements always appear to be touched by the colossal shadow of that other Mexican, Diego Rivera. Go see that film. Historically, it is uncommon to find a female painter exclusively celebrated on the merit of her own work. It is beginning to change, however, with the hugely talented Jenny Saville of Britain attracting screaming headlines with her outrageous work.

Zinaida Yavgenyevna Serebryakova was disadvantaged on several counts. She was born a woman, in Russia in the year 1884, and was painting in a period when Modernist critics were busy laying down universal guidelines on what ought to be considered good or bad in visual art. At the time of her death in Paris in the year 1967, Zinaida was already famous in Russia. But on the western side of the 'Iron Curtain,' very few people knew about her. At that time abstraction ruled, definitely in India even if it was beginning to decline elsewhere. It was considered a decadent practice to paint human figures or even recognizable forms. It was considered intellectually superior to be able to distort, to make a frog out of a prince, and to apply the kiss of death to the concept of superior skill. That the only great painter to have come out of the cold was Kandinsky, because he had refused to paint what all other Russian artists were being allegedly forced to paint - huge cutout-like figures of beefy workmen with faces like Arnold Schwarzenegger and fists like the Green Hulk. And that squiggles and patches and splotches constitute 'pure' art since the viewer can then create his or her own universe out of them, taking the reins of creation from the painter's hand (this always reminded me of that tiger in Bengali folklore which loved to endlessly gaze at the ticking hands of a clock going round and round. Also, the question - if the viewer so badly needs to 'create' his own universe, why wait for the painter, why not disregard him altogether and go paint your own?).

The concept of a painter, a person with special talents became a redundant thing. The pyramidal construct of different human abilities was seen as something repugnant to the concept of universal humanhood. Everyone was supposed to have power to create great art - the critic (foremost), the viewer, and (sometimes, when he or she is not displaying uncommon talent) even the artist! This paradoxical clash of somewhat similar ideologies, with Russian and Chinese painters steadfastly refusing to 'paint' as horribly as Pollock, lead to their art being dubbed 'political propaganda' in the west.

Now let's pause for a moment and reconsider the last sentence - I am not endorsing one political view against another. This is not the proper forum for such discourse, and even if it was, divisive politics that raises artificial walls between peoples, treating them as one block or another, disinterests most artists. I love to believe that most of them think of themselves in cosmic perspectives, in which the lush green of the forest is always more interesting than the termite holes, the roughness of the bark, the dead leaves and twigs of individual trees. This gives that typical faraway, dreamy look to the true artist and makes him (or her) appear like some clumsy vulnerable idiot thoroughly inequipped to face the challenges of day to day living. You may put this down as grand megalomania but considering the infinitesimally small percentage of artists who can actually make a living entirely out of their art, you would think that the saner and more capable heads would want to choose some alternate vocation (e.g. brick laying) rather than suffer life long penury. I am no exception to this trend and can hardly think otherwise. Creative people belong to all of humanity, and we mustn't let go of any opportunity to celebrate the best of their creations. My pet grouse is against any attempt to reduce (in the historical scheme of things) certain artists by certain others just because the latter have a different take on life, which also happens to be the dominant one of the day. If the art is great, it shouldn't matter who painted it - Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

Zinaida spent 40 lonely years of her life in Paris but still couldn't let go of her natural abilities (or paint below those) and her nostalgic vision of life in the bosom of 'Mother Russia.' And we are fortunate because of that. Imagine her suddenly beginning to throw pots of paint at the canvas if only to please the Greenbergs! Dali was clever with words which he used as a shield, a canopy under which he could continue to paint to the best of his talent.

Sitting in India, it is sometimes difficult for some people (and the people they shepherd) to understand that Modernism is over and done with, or that Modernism, as an art movement, has been subsumed within that great Indian kaleidoscope of ideas and belief systems which had never really allowed (and most certainly never will) any single universal model to take root. In the century long clash of the 'Grand Theories' the loudest voices in the art scene were those from the western side of ideological divide. We in Nehruvian India were growing up as a largely confused lot, on the one hand feeling proud that Raj kapoor's Hindustani "dil" could make such inroads into Russian hearts, on the other hand feeling a compulsive disdain towards works by Soviet and Chinese painters, who continued to produce stunning, but so called 'representative' visuals on canvas and were sneered at for being 'irrelevant, retrogressive, or propagandist.' Paintings with obviously recognizable physical objects, living or 'still,' and testament to the artist's uncommon skill were indiscriminately discarded in favour of the so called 'abstract' constructs, just because a clutch of loud-mouthed western art critics said so. On the other extreme, paintings with the traditional 'Indian' or 'Ajanta' look, or even 'primitive' art of tribal origin was encouraged (which is good, of course, if done solely on its merit) because post-independence nationalism apparently demanded it. But if you were painting an orange like an orange, with highlights and transparent shadows and all, because you simply loved to do it, or because it challenged your abilities, you were viciously accused of aping 'traditional' western art! Can you get more muddle-headed than that?

Such confusing, self-contradictory and artbitrary perconditions lead to the premature asphyxiation of many a talent, some of whom simply gave up painting rather than conform to the 'new rules,' or quietly slipped into the advertisement industry. Artificial standards such as Paintings versus Illustration were created. Norman Rockwell contuinued to rock peoples' hearts in the US while the self appointed artistic elite couldn't get enough of the patches and splotches produced by the likes of Pollock and Rothko. Less talented, but market and media savvy artists, paper tigers propped up by critics like Clement Greenberg, and who did not need to treat every painting like it was the last work created on earth quickly struck gold in this new era of hypocrisy. Political beliefs and intellectual obscurantisms came in the way of loving creations eminently worthy of love, and the babies were thrown out with the bath water.

One such 'baby' lying neglected in the putrid 'bathwater' of international politics is Zinaida. I consider myself fortunate to have discovered her art on the internet. I am angry that none of my fat 'art books' ever mentioned her name. I am a painter who loves paintings, and do not need to lean hard either to the Left or to the Right in order to appreciate art. And when I saw Zinaida's painting of her reflection on the mirror, I stopped dead on my web tracks.

This is about all I can dare to write on Zinaida, for whom I have developed a rather soft spot! I am not good at poetry, and if you were expecting me to devote the rest of this write to a description of her paintings, I am sorry to disappoint you, but poetry is how it must be done. I am not a Wordsworth to this Russian Nightingale, and for the beauty, sensitivity and total mastery inherent in her creations to light a million tingle in your art-loving heart, you must burn the search tools yourself. Best of luck on your treasure hunt across the world wide web!


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