Igor Metelitsin Gallery

LARISSA NAUMOVA, Catalogue 2015
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LARISSA NAUMOVA, Catalogue 2015
Click to enlarge

    LARISSA NAUMOVA, Catalogue 2015

Essay:LARISSA NAUMOVA. Pictures of her World
By Aleksandr Yakimovich
Published: Summer, 2015
Language: Russian and English

LARISSA NAUMOVA. Pictures of her World

By Aleksandr Yakimovich


It is unusual for contemporaries to ponder the fact that next to them lives a true talent, an artist of real stature, well-deserving of a place in the history of art, up there with the Great Masters. We are even more taken aback, when we come up against a phenomenon like Larissa Naumova. Her character is not an easy one, she paints strange pictures and it is difficult for her to find a common language with those who would engage her in conversation. Hers is a rather strange personality shaped by the end of the Soviet era: she was unable to find a niche for herself in the officially permitted exhibitions of that time or within the milieu of unofficial art. Yet the New Russia is not a place where our artist feels at home. She is not someone who could be associated with celebrity life or screen culture. As one of our poets put it, she keeps to the sidelines as she floats over our land, like slanting rain. What is worth emphasizing is the idea of “over our land”… somewhere very high up, yet at the same time here among us sinful mortals. Larissa Naumova should more appropriately be compared with an albatross, who feels ill-at-ease and uncomfortable on land.

When one admirer of her painting found himself in her studio, Naumova told him in an irritated and hurt tone, that she was not known or needed by anyone and that she did not have enogh money to buy the medication she required. The visitor offered her a sizeable sum straightaway for the canvases which were there in her studio, but to his surprise the answer came back that she was not prepared to sell her children to anyone. Larissa Naumova could never follow a task through from start to finish. How might such a person be unwound, put at their ease and helped forward? Any moment she might say something totally inappropriate during a television interview or to some sleek, high-ranking official. It would not be out of spite though. When it comes down to it, Larissa Naumova is actually a mild, good-natured person. She just seems to be living on a different planet and our conventions and ‘common sense’ are superfluous for her.

Let us turn now to her pictures. It is impossible not to compare them with the work of that astonishing one-off artist, Max Beckmann, or not to be reminded of Venetian painting in its heyday. Who else among contemporary artists from Europe,America,Asiaor any other continent could simultaneously be termed definitely modern and yet, at the same time, an artist of museum quality on a par with Veronese and Tintoretto? The question is a rhetorical one because there are no other artists like her anywhere. As we travel through the world and glimpse paintings here and there, we take this situation on board. We inRussiahave our Larissa Naumova, who cannot be compared with any other artist of today. A few connoisseurs and artists in Moscow are reverential in their response to her work, people who are still able to understand and value good painting, people who can set her apart from wild, outlandish painting based on ridiculous concepts and to be found anywhere under the sun. Only a handful of individuals really know and set store by her work. Larissa Naumova sometimes complains that she is hurt by the lack of recognition, but she herself makes no effort to change the situation.           

The difficult nature of her position lies in the fact that Naumova’s pictures are incredibly hard to market and promote, to sell in the normal way, using the methods to which we are accustomed. There are no associations used for effect, so called hooks that people might clutch at. This term from marketing theory and the world of advertising means the devices and techniques which “grab” the individual of today. In order to “grab” the beholder, celebrities, icons and stars are required to make the artist’s contemporaries stop in their hectic tracks and inquire who painted a picture or what a poet was trying to say: something out of the ordinary has to attract their attention. In Naumova’s pictures all we find are unknown, ordinary people. There are no illustrious cities, historic moments or wonders of our world to be found in her pictures. What stirs the standard beholder of today is missing from Larissa Naumova’s work. Nor is her style something that meshes easily with modern tastes.

Let us dwell for a moment on her style. The tastes and interests of her contemporaries loomed important for the artist Naumova some twenty (or even more) years ago. In the last years of the doomed empire of theUSSRit was the painting, drawings and sculpture of artists seeking for the spiritual, which were in the forefront. At exhibitions we would be confronted by sophisticated poses and subtle use of colour. Faces with concentrated expressions and gestures of suffering. Paintings like that were produced by artists, for whom academic traditions were alien and also the provocative outbursts of the “actualists”. They wanted to find a language which would revive in our memory the wonders and depths of the art of the past, which would bring to mind spiritual inspiration, while avoiding, Heaven forbid!, the cheap stereotypes of self-appointed intellectuals. Bitter disappointment glowed in their pale faces and fragile hands. Their pensive eyes peered inwards, into their inner selves, while the outer world brought them little joy. Fantasies and visions dogged their every step. And so on and so forth. Larissa Naumova grew out of that same soil, out of that milieu, where neither the official aesthetics was acknowledged, nor the underground “science of the subversive”.

Then something momentous happened. This is not the place to discuss which actual events opened up this artist’s eyes, heart and hands. She began to paint differently. At first glance her work appeared coarser, simpler and more naïve. In Naumova’s pictures there were no longer any slender hands, large inspired eyes or literary reminders of all that is lofty and profound. Hands are now thicker and work-worn, bodies heavier and clumsier, while eyes are simpler and direct – “peepers”.

Previously we had divined that there were fragile, pale bodies beneath their attire, but this was no longer the case. The artist was constantly depicting nude women and half-dressed young ladies on a balcony. Neither fashion magazines nor those who enjoyed refined symbolism approved of the path Naumova was now following. The female bodies were heavy and clumsy. When it came to their faces, the noses were thick and the lips not finely drawn. Their hips were far from elegantly proportioned and their backs, although silky, tended towards the shapeless. Their hips and legs had never encountered fitness sessions or the plastic surgeon’s knife. The whole setting in which these figures were depicted was now simple and poor, we might even say empty. Naumova showed herself to be a resolutely unfashionable painter. Her pinafore dresses and head-scarves would have appeared dubious even to Dostoevsky’s Sonya Marmeladova, let alone the ‘Sonyas’ of today.

In a certain sense we might maintain that a phenomenon had occurred in the development of this artist known to modern observers as “down-shifting”. “Downshifting”, a major cultural initiative, started out from mistrust of the exaggerated preoccupation with culture on the part of the urban philistine. Those who have partaken too often of all that is spicy, flavoursome and exotic, are drawn to plain bread and cucumbers. Those who are tired of elegant manners, start using coarse language, believing that the simple life helps a man live longer. Just as all the other aspirations of the intellectuals of today – so too this hankering after simplicity is not always original and often degenerates into foolish games of ‘peasants’ and ‘wenches’. For this reason it is important to get our facts right. Modern painters in Russian have indeed been caught up in this “chase after simplicity” and turned their back on all the mannerism or symbolism of the past. They have come to value emotion pure and simple, basic objects drawn from domestic life and everyday situations….home, chair, mother and child, day and night, up and down… All the more so since the preference shown for art that is primitive and naïve goes back a long way in our country: such art is the object of both a blatant and a secret love on the part of the most sophisticated of intellectuals in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Yet this playing at simplicity, as a rule, has implications of a more profound kind. There are no eccentrics around who would say that Larissa Naumova’s pictures today extol strong sturdy bodies, simple human relationships and life’s basic gifts: sunlight, the warmth of the home and a serene heart. In this art we find both light and homes but when it comes to serenity nothing is as simple as it first appears.

In Naumova’s pictures we can find many allusions, paradoxes and hidden meanings. Simplicity is only of an illusory kind. Sometimes a sense of gravity disappears and heavy objects begin to sway in the air, like clouds or thoughts. Or to our astonishment we come across features of Venetian, French or Spanish ladies, who show us their backs, their stomachs, shoulders or hips in the light from the daytime sky, in the appearance of a clumsy provincial woman as she undresses to her waist or takes off all her clothes on her balcony. The expert will not be hoodwinked: he will realize at once that this painting draws on the splendid brush technique or artistic tradition of a Corot or Goya, Titian, Rubens or Renoir. This should not be perceived as primitive art, but rather as exclusive artistic delicacies, of which there have never been large numbers in recent centuries.

Yet it would be difficult to praise this painter for her masterly skills, for her efforts to uphold traditions or lofty aesthetics. Naumova is not one of those demure and straightforward artists, who abide by the behests of their ancestors. She enjoys all that is physical with a genuine and robust enthusiasm, the naked appearance of imperfect thighs, the candour of shoulders far from classical and she lays no claims to the Ideal. Academic ideals, ideals from the magazine Playboy, feminist ideals, ideals of those who campaign on behalf of social majorities or sexual minorities are all on a par for Naumova. Academic rules for form, erotic fantasies, classic ideals on the one hand and mass culture on the other – they could never be reconciled with each other and Naumova banishes them all at a single stroke. She did not make a deliberate choice between high professional standards and exuberant curiosity of the weekend amateur. Her apples grow uninhibitedly to enormous sizes, reminiscent of pictures by painters of the naïve school. Horizontal surfaces slope and vertical lines shake. Rough-hewn chairs, shabby stools, hips of quivering fat, un-shapely legs, pretty though indistinct faces: what are they all for, what is Naumova trying to tell us?

It would be quite wrong to say that the art of Larissa Naumova is devoted to the coarse unchanging pattern of domestic life or to human obstinacy. Art, which rejects mere prettiness and challenges the mythology of all that is lofty, ideal and spiritual, is familiar to us: it developed over several centuries, accumulated wide experience and reliable techniques. We can find in it masterpieces and supreme achievements: we can find Brueghel and Brouwer and other painters of uncouth figures, coarse faces and shocking subjects. Art of the twentieth century proclaimed even more loudly that beauty was bankrupt, ideals shattered and that it was time to break the china and indulge in bad language, because it was no longer possible to tolerate the obedient majority and its pompous triviality. Mayakovsky used coarse language on stage, rejected culture out of hand, pouring scorn on morality and religion. Georges Bataille, with the elegant audacity of a truly French writer referred to those searching for eternal ideals as “emmerdeurs idéalistes”. We shall not mention other names, devices or strategies of this destructive kind. Naumova’s art is about something quite different.

Her piling up of boxes and chairs, fruit and teacups, girls and women and all imaginable kinds of everyday nonsense is alluring, thanks to her use of light and astonishing, bewitching rhythms. Larissa Naumova talks to us about what is beautiful, true and radiant, about what is Divine with a capital D… This is the most important thing. She does not show us how a fallen creature tosses about in its dirty cage and calls upon the Saviour. She refrains from shouting out, rampaging, swearing or weeping like Mayakovsky: nor does she challenge her Creator, as Bataille does. Naumova’s painting reminds us of light and love, of dreams and hopes. Her human beings are imperfect, their hands are rough, their legs far from shapely and their faces asymmetrical. Their lives are chaotic, objects are thrown together and meaningless, human destinies are amusing or even ridiculous and yet the light at the end of the tunnel is already close at hand.

The terrestrial world is looking for its Creator and hoping to find Him. Naumova’s pictures are focused on this hope. Salvation, she tells us, is possible despite everything. The path to it is hard and we are still in fetters, but our eyes are already opening: we are beginning to see and are beginning to recognize something. There is something even more important as well. The more clearly we perceive the ridiculous imperfections of this world, the more brightly our hopes shall start to shine. Hope is absurd, ridiculous, irrational. As Luther, the fiery rebel used to say, the more clearly we perceive human frailty, the surer our hope of salvation. He who is confident of salvation will not attain it. He who confronts his own downfall, will be given a chance to save himself.

This chance is the final frontier. This is what Larissa Naumova’s painting is trying to say to us, to shout out to us, to sing or even groan to us.

When we encounter her pictures, we cannot help but recall the prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church – also the boldest of revolutionaries and rebellious spirits. In Naumova’s pictures we are, of course, not only being shown how beautiful southern gardens are as the fruit begins to ripen. Nor are we just being shown how people drink tea on their balcony. Children and women, stools and boxes, skies and clouds – all of these, as we were told by the philosophers of old, are nothing but accidentals. We have no wish to probe as far as substance, fundamental truths or meaning.

Yet, in as far as Naumova’s art touches upon things that are mysterious but substantial - what an art critic might term non-miraculous, out of bounds for our minds – we cannot avoid some pain as we contemplate it. We should not become immersed in riddles too early: I, for one, am not yet ready to have my tongue, my eyes or my heart torn out, in order to attain supreme Truth, as Pushkin’s prophet was. I do not feel that normal language for our interaction has been exhausted yet. It would of course be impossible to avoid completely some aura of delusion and the visionary, when discussing such unusual and inspired painting, but where possible we need to linger on this shore, where reason still operates and the laws of grammar are still acknowledged. So let us keep to a regular order as logic dictates: the settings used in Naumova’s pictures are always a doorway or an edge between a human dwelling and the space of the world outside. In every day life places like a balcony, a window-still, a veranda and any kind of boundary on which pots of flowers can stand or unnecessary things accumulate, girls will be sunning themselves or children playing. They will be dreaming or taking a nap.

Outside there is a spacious, enigmatic world. It appears that all we need to do is take a single step so as to find ourselves in outer space. Sometimes, however, we discover out there in the distance not clouds or the blue expanses of the heavens but concrete slabs of some kind or pages of dry plaster, carelessly nailed to the void. Yet we, the beholders who understand what they see in front of them, will not fall for any such ruses. Concrete, bricks and plaster, plywood and planks and even expensive laminate are all little tricks and transparent inventions of the Supreme Architect who does not wish to reveal to us straightaway the infinite universe permeated with light. He, the Creator of the world, is carefully training our eyes to probe the distance, so that we should not go blind and our reason should not be damaged by what we behold. We are standing at the edge of our dwelling and, through cups and saucers, boxes and lockers, through ridiculous piles of household trivia, we look out on to roadways, the wall of a neighbouring house, on some decorative backcloths, temporary boards and the ‘forest’ of a large building site. We already know that out there or behind us there is infinity, light, pure time and pure space for eternal flight. Out there there is freedom, life, but a different life which is no longer ours. It is both light-hearted and alarming. Beneath us everything already seems to be floating, rocking: motors are revving and soon there will be take-off. We clutch on to our uncouth life at the boundary between two spaces: domesticity and eternity. For some reason we are fond of these stupid boxes of which endless numbers have been piled up only to fall down again in Larissa Naumova’s pictures – also the clumsy children half asleep, the useless lockers and all the other ‘stuffing’ of a Russian house, which somehow, of its own accord, is pushing its way out through windows, doors, verandas, balconies and other outlets. Out of pity for the reader, I shall not describe here what is standing on the window-sills in my Moscowflat, and the kind of barricades that have been set up on the wide porch of my dacha outside Moscow. Nor shall I describe how I walk out on to that porch in the morning and look at the glistening crowns of the apple trees, the calm surface of the lake and the clouds beyond the wood. There will come the day when I shall fly up over the barricades of the old chairs, spades, boxes and garments that have long since lost any semblance of shape and from that last tiny spot I shall soar up into endless space. The artist Naumova has not visited my dacha and I have never told her anything about the cherished porch, but the artist has grasped the key point, without having seen it all with her own eyes, without having heard it all with her own ears. She has grasped that these stools and rags, the human beings involved, with their balloons, their apples, their tea-cups and other domestic belongings will sooner or later be ready for transformation.

Larissa Naumova’s pictures are eschatological, for they tell us about our last chance to soar into the distance, and the last glance backwards. Her women and young girls are often looking  over their shoulder, as if they were deliberately locking into their memory traces of our life down here, which will be remembered in the new life. Their gazes are gentle, but already appear detached. Both objects and people are nearing their end and approaching the transition to a new state. We are told in the Book of Revelation that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth”. Messengers from Heaven, who sometimes visit Earth-dwellers on their balconies and look into their windows, check how prepared we are for resettling, for wandering into the distance. There is still much work to be done. Heaviness, resilience, density, our attachment to people and bodies all weigh us down, overloading us with coarse matter. To make the stools shine, the boxes start singing and to ensure that domestic trivia will soon turn into musical mystery, rubbish of material things into treasure troves and that a chorale will ring out – for all that more effort is still required. Yet the path is charted, work is in progress…

Sometimes in Larissa’s pictures we do catch sight of real and infinite blue space, secret staircases which shall lead us away, most likely not into attics of our house but into the upper storeys of existence. Miracles begin: balloons grow into heavenly bodies, apples picked from the garden swell to the size of planets. Real branches of fruit-trees miraculously grow into almost impenetrable thickets, into extensions of the Garden of Eden, where no-one digs or hoes or waters plants, but a miraculous creative force still throbs with life.

Human anatomy is transformed into an unimaginable, magical corporeality which knows no obstacles. It is now easy for our legs and arms, our necks and heads to extricate themselves, no longer subject to any restrictions. The force of gravity has disappeared, measures of distance no longer apply. Einstein. Minkowski, Poincaré and Perelman can resign. We shall manage without them. Space and time and physical material are now subject to the laws of spiritual transformation, for which no emaciated figures are necessary, no slender hands, no inspired eyes. A clumsy plump woman is flying away into the outer spaces of the Universe, embracing a real or imaginary “balloon-seller” in a picture dating from 2009. He is not bothered about lumpy heels, coarse fingers, chubby cheeks or snuffling noses. Nor by ridiculous trousers complete with braces. At any other time perhaps… but the hour has come to fly and there is no point in thinking about harmony of gestures or beautiful fingernails...

This is approximately how we should appreciate the pictures of Larissa Naumova, created in the last few years, when her artistic gifts came into their own, her conception of art matured and her gaze grew keener than ever. To reach this point involved a lengthy search and the process lasted many years. Naumova had to prove to herself over a long and tortuous period that she had the right to fly both in dreams and when awake, to fly beyond conventions and norms, beyond reason and ‘common sense’. The first stage in her search was during a period of general uncertainty and in a strange atmosphere of hopes and disappointments permeating life inRussiathroughout the 1990s.

For a number of years Larissa Naumova painted pictures, which reflected this stage of her quest. They were pictures about dreams which could not possibly come true. Her remarkable Nude on Boxes (1999) had not yet come to deserve her “balloon seller”. She is painted in shimmering tints of pearl and ochre and lying helpless on an unstable pile of old boxes and some kind of useless furniture, as if this young and already mature woman could not find any other, more comfortable place to lie. Would she still have to lie in that uncomfortable position for a long time, turning away from the distant expanses of the heavens? Would any “heavenly onlooker” up above help her, after seeing the bitter helplessness she was reduced to in the life she was living? Or would he, as is expected of guardian angels, only protect her from fatal danger in extreme cases, powerless to open up for her the path leading to light?

An expectation of light and an entreaty for a glimmer of it are also to be seen in a painting of 2002, Nude on a Balcony. Here a young girl is peering into the distant sea and from there a shining light would appear to be emerging: the air and the smooth water promise freedom and space. Indeed, at that time all Naumova’s pictures were already deeply religious – not as regards their themes, but in their implications. Themes linked with liturgically significant subjects taken from the Gospel as such, were fairly rare. Yet in those years of doubting and searching it was only to be expected that a picture like Peter’s Morning (2002) should appear. It tells a story filled with bitter sadness at human weakness, weakness which stands between the man and the attainment of his great goal. At the same time it does not rob those of us who know Peter’s story of unquenchable hope.

On the threshold of the new millennium Larissa Naumova was painting first and foremost pictures full of questions and doubts – paintings which were a supplication: O Lord, teach us, save us and come to our aid! Show us the way! Woman in a Garden (2000) brings us the same figure, who appears in other pictures containing a nude. Here the clumsy figure with round hips and a bewildered gaze would seem to be searching for a way out of intertwined pillars and branches. The subject of a “solitary Eve” from that era is found side by side with the theme of a “search for love”. Naumova has created several variants of her double portrait of lovers. Is it mere coincidence that we notice theatrical elements in this work and even perhaps hints of a carnival and holiday revelry? The two figures appear to be acting in some kind of play requiring theatrical costumes, caps and ribbons, amazing collars and half-masks. In a particularly enigmatic picture entitled The Loader (2005) we find a distinctly male figure in Naumova’s work, a male figure engaged in what is strictly man’s work. He is diligently engaged in carrying a fresh and rough hewn plank somewhere. Given that the male figure is dressed in something resembling an overall tied at the waist with a colourful scarf of floral design, it is tempting to see him as a “man of the East” involved in some kind of building work – God alone knows what kind… In the background there are boxes or stone slabs which may indicate building materials designated for theTower ofBabel and in that case what we have before us is a hint of the delusions and crooked paths which men often follow. On the other hand the motif of timber beams being carried along coincides precisely with the iconography of Christ bearing the Cross: a further pointer to such an interpretation is provided by the barely distinguishable wreath of perhaps pearls or flowers? Pictures from this period of Naumova’s career as an artist are often enigmatic and far from clear.

Naumova’s development as an artist is a gradual process without any abrupt changes. It is, however, worth drawing attention to the year 2008 and in general the end of the first decade of the 21st century. At that time Larissa Naumova painted a number of pictures, which might be referred to as “cosmic” – works, such as the second version of Apple-Harvest Saviour, in which apple trees have been depicted in the foreground which are enormous, like heavenly bodies and behind which space recedes into the distant Universe. Among the currents of light and other emanations of energy, a mysterious “heavenly messenger” flies freely over the mountains. It is probably the Angel of the Lord bringing special tidings.

These tidings are dazzling and deafening: most likely they are tidings of Easter. That message brings news that doors have been opened and barriers swept aside. The colours in Naumova’s pictures now blaze forth with gold and vermillion, as never before. Balloons and apples sparkle like jewels. The picture Golden Music glistens with the gold of trumpets and trombones. Children are shown gathered round a large open Book in a picture dating from 2008. It is probably the great Book entrusted to human kind and already opened in the middle. We have been heard, we are not abandoned at a time of disaster. Anxious and fearful expectation end in a splendid chorale which, despite its deceptive simplicity, is radiant and filled with joy.       

Price: $100.00

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