of the State Hermitage Museum
Neo-constructivism by Georgy Kurasov
Nothing could be stranger than the fate that awaited the art of painting in the 20th century. This most ancient form of artistic creativity, as old as civilisation itself, found itself most unexpectedly marginalised, pushed aside to the outer reaches of contemporary culture, even declared to be a dying art that had exhausted its potential, while its place in exhibition halls and on the art market had been usurped by works far from our usual concepts of the fine arts. If we look at any chronologically arranged display in museums of contemporary art we see a clear demonstration of how painted canvases were gradually replaced from the middle of the century by all kinds of three-dimensional ‘objects’, by dynamic constructions, conceptual installations, video-art, photomontage, computer graphics and so on, all of which still have the honour today of being considered the most ‘bang-up-to-date’ creative forms. Whatever the theoretical arguments used to explain and justify such a situation, it is clearly simply the result of a misunderstanding, however long-lived and drawn-out. These experiments are of course all very interesting and they have every right to their existence, but there can be no logic in setting them up in opposition to traditional painting and particularly in attempting to prove that they have in any way replaced it. They are simply very different kinds of art, with a different content and different means of expression. Painting has not gone away. It has existed in the past and it does exist today – and it will continue to exist always, for behind it lies an indestructible need, rooted deep within man’s very nature, to draw, to depict and find reason in the world that surrounds him through the aid of lines and colours.
Over the last decade or two there has been a notable resurgence of interest in painting among collectors and curators. Nonetheless, that long period in which continuity was denied and training despised could not but leave its mark. Professionalism and skill, criteria that were once so clear and defined in the fine arts – just as they remain today undisputed in the worlds of ballet, opera or musicianship – are today concepts that have become extremely blurred. Contemporary painting has been infected with the virus of amateurism and even talented artists rarely reveal any mastery of those most fundamental skills that formed the foundation of the art of each and every major painter over the centuries. Exceptions to this rule are extremely few. Each of them is thus worthy of close attention. The painter Georgy Kurasov is undoubtedly one such exception. That skill which is so clearly visible in his works, the depth of his knowledge and understanding of the painting of all ages, the irreproachable perfection of his hand and the keenness of his eyes give his artistic experiments particular weight and conviction.
Kurasov is an artist of striking individuality in both his thought patterns and his painting style. Having once made the acquaintance of his art one has no need to be a specialist or a connoisseur in order to recognize further works. Such ready recognisability has always been a sign of inordinate skill and it is even more so today, for over the last hundred years of endless experimentation and all conceivable innovations in the sphere of painted form it sometimes seems as though everything has already been tried and exhausted. The task of finding a fresh and independent approach seems almost impossible. Kurasov, however, has done the impossible, the best evidence of which is perhaps the difficulty anyone faces in classifying his style, in identifying it with any one of the known painting trends. The range of reminiscences to which his works give rise is truly wide, encompassing everything from Byzantine mosaics and Early Renaissance paintings to Klimt and Lempicka, but such parallels are valid only with regard to individual devices and elements in his pictorial language, beyond which there are no further similarities. As we survey the complex geometrical structure of his compositions we recall now Constructivism, now Cubism, but a closer look reveals immediately that there are far more contrasting features than points of contact.
In Kurasov’s paintings the link with artistic tradition is not simply manifested in the slavish following of particular models or in stylisation according to certain historical forms. That link is more profound. It is a matter of principle. The very subjects of his painting seem to form a demonstrative gesture. For the greater part the artist takes his subjects from the arsenal of the Old Masters, turning to the Bible and Classical mythology, painting nudes, figures in an interior, scenes of dancing and flirting and so on. These are the textbook genres, each of them recalling a veritable string of celebrated images from European painting, and they are attractive to the artist both for their wealth of associations and for the potential they offer for a dialogue with his predecessors, even as he offers a new reading of painting’s eternal subjects. Despite their traditional iconography, subjects are given in Kurasov’s work unexpected, sharply contemporary flesh.
Behind Kurasov’s painting method lies the principle of maximum revelation of a composition’s inner structure. Any one of his canvases recalls a complex geometrical construction in which the collision of fragmented coloured surfaces, the sharp facets of plastic forms, the crossing of rays of light, the smooth trajectories of parabolic lines together form a rhythmically arranged space. Yet the network of straight and crooked lines that intersect the surface is indissolubly linked with the subject and seems to be an organic element of the whole composition. Without any need for force the figures, their various accessories and the details of the interior are all subordinated to its rhythm, crystallising, as it were, within the cells and segments of the tectonic structure created by the artist.
This original pictorial device allows Kurasov to achieve an effect of particular harmony, integrity and keenness of compositional resolution that gives his treatment of any subject an additional charge, an inner energy and dynamism. At the same time the artist has a keen sense of exactly where to stop. He never permits total geometrical simplification to take over his forms; he never allows it to reduce everything to a bare schemata. The picture of the world that he creates retains the variety and wealth of objects and forms, while his characters are filled with vivid conviction and individuality.
No matter what subject he takes up, whichever formal experiments draw him on, the central motif of Kurasov’s art, the focus of his interest and his artistic investigations, remains the human figure. This preference – one that is extremely rare today – is another manifestation of his close link with the classical tradition of European painting. One would be hard pressed to find another artist today who is as concerned with the task of depicting the shapes and movement of the human figure as is Kurasov, let alone one able to do it with such knowledge and skill. Kurasov’s compositions and characters, whimsically stylised and broken, interwoven into a geometrical fabric, nonetheless always retain their incredible anatomical truth to life. Each figure that he draws seems to become a highly finished plastic formula, slotting unerringly into the space with great ease and elegance; however far the artist goes in his expressive deformation of poses and movements the viewer never ceases to feel that they absolutely natural, to sense their vivid grace, their animation, their sensual attraction.
Another important quality in Kurasov’s works also has its foundation in the traditions of the Old Masters – his attention to painterly technique and his predilection for the careful working up of details. His colourful, unusual canvases capture the viewer’s attention at first glance but they are fully revealed only in the process of unhurried study, through repeated return to them. Each detail in his paintings – whether flowers in a vase, a glass of wine standing on a table, a precious bracelet on the wrist of his heroine or a ribbon in her hair – is worked up with the fine attention of a jeweller and taken to the highest level of visual illusion. The artist seeks to give each and every fragment its own independent aesthetic value, concerning himself with the finest gradations of colour and illumination, enriching the painted surface with complex nuances of texture, setting in train the whole arsenal of pictorial means assembled by painting over the many centuries of its existence.
Behind all this stands the attitude of a true professional, of one whose demands to himself are of the highest – qualities that have been highly prized throughout the ages. They do not, of course, prevent Kurasov from being a truly and profoundly contemporary artist in his very essence. Kurasov’s discovery of his painting style was intuitive and he has refined and perfected it over the years. Like any artist, however, he seeks to discover above all those forms that most resonate with the age in which we live and he has succeeded, his works reflecting an important note in the modern view of the world. Kurasov’s paintings contain a profound link – hard to express in words but no less distinct for all that – with the most up-to-date architecture and trends in modern design, with the very latest experiments in fashion. There is something almost imperceptibly hi-tech in the irreproachable logic of his compositions, in the purity and harshness of their lines, in the play and contrasts of his unclouded brilliant colours, in the even gleam of the light that pours over them. Something that speaks – beyond the specific subject – of the rhythm and aesthetics of life in the modern megapolis with its whirlpool of unstoppable movement, with its fragmented reflections in the planes and curves of glass façades, with its elegantly minimalist interiors and its podia brilliantly lit by hundreds of lights. This hand-made, artificial world has given birth to its own concepts of beauty and its own ideals of elegance and style. And the painting of Georgy Kurasov is one of its most brilliant manifestations.
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