“A few words on the concept of “neo-historical painting” in the general context of the Renaissance of post-intellectual thought.”
ऀA mannerist work, proclaiming the conception of the aesthetics of post-historicism.
I am a “post-intellectual.”
This means that I counter the collective totalitarianism of the Western liberal intelligentsia with the subjectivism of an individual’s independent thought.
I am historical.
This means that I oppose the ahistoricism of contemporary “progressive” thought, which takes its bearings from banal immediacy and petty bourgeois goals and values.
I consider myself by some quirk of fate to be involved in the historical process and regard the present state of Western civilization, and its relation to world history in general, to represent far from the best stage in this history, but certainly not the final one.
In this sense, I am very much a pessimist and consider the present level of contemporary Western culture to be at one of its lowest points, not only since the time of the Renaissance, but from the times of the barbarians. I base this view not on the history created by Western culture, but on the goals that it has set for itself.
When I came to the West, a flood of contradictory ideas came crashing down on me like a waterfall. The experience of socialism and capitalism, socialist realism and modernism commingled in my head. The old and the new, revolution and tradition, the past and the present exchanged places. My understanding of all this was confused.
Here in Cadaques, far away from all kinds of opinions and authorities, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea—the land that nurtured the Greco-Roman tradition—I contemplate an infinite horizon that stretches out under the boundless sky and it seems as if all of European history were passing before my eyes!
Like the sea’s ebb and flow, history’s development at times appeared to be contradictory, as if it were going backwards, but always continuing its movement, although in new manifestations, forms, and styles.
Contemporary man has at his disposal an enormous amount of visual materials. It is safe to say that no other generation has possessed such tremendous sources of historical documents as the present one: television, film, photography! Never have past events been so directly and objectively accessible. Our distant ancestors could judge about previous eras through literary and pictorial documents, the selective nature of which depended on the given author’s bias.
Today an unprecedented variety of objective documentation is available which can serve as the basis for creating a chronicle of recent history—a philosophical and artistic summing up, an appraisal of the past.
On reflection, visually it might take the shape of a particular sort of “neo-historical,” or to be more exact, “post-historical” painting—the exact opposite of so-called “historical painting” of the past, which was characterized by a romantic and grand quality.
No sooner said than done!
I proclaim “neo-historical” painting of the present day, which is called upon to reflect absolutely objective documentary information, presented in the most subversive and sharp compositional perspective. But at the same time it sets as its mission a provocative, ahistorical juxtaposition of well-known events and personages, thereby engendering a new and unprecedented reading of history, unfettered by conventional opinions and associations, and which at first glance appears to be of an absurd nature. Emphasizing this absurd quality also represents its immediate task. This juxtaposition, undertaken spontaneously and by association, subconsciously engenders the impulse to perceive the customary traditional names and events from an absolutely new point of view, thereby enriching these conventional representations and taking them in absolutely new directions, and extending them through an unprecedented breadth of associations and an infinite variety of interconnections.
This allows us to interpret the entire historical process in an absolutely new way and to comment upon it in much greater detail than is usually the case.
Moreover, “neo-historical” painting in fact is post-historical: it is anti-historical by virtue of its “distorted,” associative portrayal of history. It does not present events in their real light, but rather through opposition and association it communicates a supplementary hidden subtext that dry historical facts have hidden from view. As a result, a certain paradox inherent in “post-historical” painting comes to light: despite the extreme objectivity of the composition’s individual elements, as a whole it appears to be a subjective interpretation of the historical process and by virtue of its maximal concreteness directed at the “mytholigizing” of contemporary history, thus returning it to the framework of the aesthetics of the Greco-Roman tradition: in a word, the aesthetics of “photographically objective contemporary MYTHOLOGY!”
In fact, on the one hand there is nothing more absurd than likening concrete contemporary historical personages to the mythological heroes of Homer.
On the other hand, they themselves have become myths; the legendary Napoleon is just as ahistorical as the reality of Odysseus, while the fall of Icarus is as catastrophic as the rise of Hitler!
The translation of Europe’s unchecked historical development into the framework of Greco-Roman forms is, of course, attended by the desire to regulate this process in a manner similar to the classical balancing of individual elements and figures in the composition of a picture.
At the same time, representing concrete historical personages by individual abstract colored patches reveals the conventional role of these figures in history and represents them as accidental extras in the historical drama of Europe and the world, whose destiny in this instance seems to be subordinate to the inevitable fate of ancient Greek tragedy, where the entire course of development has already been predestined by a game played by higher forces, a course which was established from the very beginning by a fatal predetermination.
How petty these historical figures with their opinions and merits look against the backdrop of these raging elemental forces!
What has happened to their grandeur and fame?
What can they do with their delicate feet, their dainty hands, and their laughable sabers suitable only for a pincushion? History, as heavy as the tread of the Roman legionnaires shackled in irons, history itself marches before our eyes!
Come to a halt before it in wonder; forget about names and dates, battles and military engagements!
They are all mixed together; they comprise merely small flashes on the boundless metaphysical field.
Bare your heads, bow in respect.
Imagine for a moment that you are also in this space, that you too are lost in this infinity.
And then, when you become terrified—try to imagine the entire cosmos in which this tiny grain of sand —our little planet—spins round and round, and then you will sense how the new “post-historical thought” with its aesthetics of the newborn neo-historical painting claims a firm place in your atavistic Greco-Roman mind, which has managed to survive all manner of liberal intellectual ideological “purges.”
Cadaques (Costa Brava), Spain, 1986
Not long ago, as I was looking through my papers, I happened upon an envelope with the inscription “Post-Historicism.” In it I found, among some bits of notes, a number of documents, which included: the poster of my 1989 exhibition in Barcelona, a peculiar, almost indecipherable Russian manuscript, written on scraps of paper, and last but not least the text itself, printed in Spanish. As it happens, I have only the typescript of the Spanish translation of the text of “The Manifesto of Post-Historicism, which was specially printed for my exhibition in Barcelona.
It was one of the first “trial bricks,” which laid the foundation for the fortress of aesthetic independence, which I was about to erect (or, which perhaps might sound more sincere, on which I was attempting to base –or justify—my individual right to aesthetic independence, which I had always viewed in connection with the concept of continuity and tradition).
It might seem peculiar that I, who am constantly criticizing the dependence of the Western artist on the aesthetic dictatorship of modernism, should myself proclaim such a rigid aesthetic framework.
The striking contradiction, however, is relatively illusory.
The fact of the matter is that if modernist “totalitarianism” limited the artist’s search by the framework of sustained“destruction” and in this way proclaimed a rigid policy of “degradation,” then traditional aesthetics, on the contrary, always preserved the skeleton of continuity, which permitted the sustained creation of new styles, not unlike the creation of a fortress over many centuries, styles that arose as the result of the creative modification of former ones in the process of evolutionary development.
My move to the West at precisely this moment, although it would seem to be a coincidence, in actual fact was directly related to the weakening authoritarian tendencies of political and aesthetic dictatorships that were to be found in both the east and the west.
The creation of my text, first, coincided with the period of eclecticism and post-modernism in Western art, which I experienced by chance (or naturally, as I was later to redefine it), but in reverse, as it were, by virtue of my removal from an aesthetic system with a traditional classical education (in one or another of the forms practiced in institutes and academies of art in the USSR since Zhdanov’s report in 1934, that is, after the rout of the aesthetics of the avant-garde. Moreover, Zhdanov’s report itself, I believe, might be considered a pivotal point in the transition to post-revolutionary aesthetics, since the entire period of Stalinist socialist realism can be viewed as a peculiar sort of post-modernism, though it is true that it was more sustained, extensive and “traditional”—please forgive me for my choice of words, but I couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate—than Western post-modernism; with the exception, of course, of the united stylistics of national socialism).
It’s typical that the particular conceptualism of “Stalinist aesthetics” is now becoming more and more established (paradoxically, it was being rehabilitated in the West simultaneously with the rehabilitation of former political prisoners from the GULAG in Russia) as a total style—which is much better conveyed by the German word Gesamtkunstwerk.
Second (and perhaps more importantly), I wrote the “Manifesto of Post-Historicism” after the revolutionary “Degenerate Manifesto,” the idea of which, as it happens, consisted in the complete destruction of all traditions and influences (its slogan was “Degenerates of the world—unite!”), and which was to all intents and purposes my first reaction after moving to the West and was connected to the psychological need to burn the bridges that bound me to my former homeland, which then seemed to be lost to me forever, and with the former aesthetics—both Soviet and anti-Soviet, which to all intents and purposes are two sides of the same coin.
Some time ago, as I was walking up the “organic” snail of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, taking in the exhibit “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde,” I compared the suprematist “revolutionary” works of Kazimir Malevich with the later, “traditional” works—and I was stuck, suddenly, by the parallels of a similar development: of course, with much less sustained and, unfortunately, with more cynicism (which is inseparable from today’s distancing irony) but it seems that the West is developing along a similar path.
And yet there is nevertheless a chance (I very much hope that this is not a total illusion) to continue there, where Kazimir Malevich was forced to stop and where other, more “obedient” traditionalists continued in his place, although with less success.
Well then, my move to the West proved to be a similar revolution: it was like a “flight” to another aesthetic planet.
And finally, third.
As I was sitting there in Cadaques, that Spanish back of the beyond, a tiny fishing village—favorite spot of the European creative elite on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, I nevertheless appreciated the irony that I was sitting in the former “incubator of modernism,” which long ago had turned into an aesthetic hen-coop for the nomenklatura. I decided “to warm” the fatal eggs that had been utterly forgotten in the seaside grottos of historical painting, which had grown moldy as a result of its stained reputation. As I took them out to dry under the Mediterranean sun, I quite independently came up with the designation of my action as “post-historicism” on the basis of two concepts: “historical painting” and “post-impressionism,” having come to the conclusion that contemporary criticism’s hypertrophied attention to the “bohemian” schools allowed one to follow their entire development in the most detailed manner possible, whereas “historical” painting had officially “come to a full stop” in its history. In actual fact, it had merely changed its means of expression. And, always striving for the maximal persuasiveness, faithful to its true avant-garde nature (and not imaginary, like modernism) it immediately, with the new century, made the transition to new means of expression.
Having long ago adopted photography, it traded in its paintbrush for a lens, and canvas for photographic paper, and henceforth, the conceptual works of the avant-garde painters of battle scenes filled the expanses of thousands of film theatres throughout the world with the installations of its victories—truly the “modernist” galleries of the twentieth century—after converting the labor of creative individuals into the collective studios of Bablesburg and Hollywood!
Thus, taking into consideration the growing visual nature of our century, I decided to incorporate its “archetypes” as documented by various media into the fabric of tradition.
I decided to put on record the style that would describe an “endangered bird of paradise.”
What was my surprise when suddenly, a couple of years later, I heard about Fukuyama’s “end of history” and understood that the phenomenon I had noted earlier was not “regressive atavism” but the mark of a mutant of a new formation.
Now, years later, I ask myself: what was it about this text that made it significant for me?
Written spontaneously, at my easel, it helped me to hold my brush more firmly as I prepared for my first exhibition in Barcelona.
It allowed me to focus my attention on clear goals.
And, finally, it paved a path to that aesthetic Greco-Roman bay, which I now call by the word that makes my heart begin to beat more evenly, that which I designate by the concept NEO-MYTHOLOGY.
Although, of course (and no one can convince me otherwise), the main thing that makes an artist is his painting. No matter what theories he dresses his work in, one experienced look at anything he has created, be it a painting or a graphic design, is more than enough to quite accurately determine his place in the history of culture and make an appraisal of his creative achievements.
Unfortunately, this “look” now is still yet sufficiently impartial (but perhaps it was always like that).
Berlin, February 1995