At nine o'clock Nevsky is empty. Alone bus stopped, as if expiring, letting out the driver wrapped in a warm kerchief and suffering from a severe cold. The driver walked around the vehicle in desperation and, giving it all up as a lost job, shuffled away. Because of colds the trains were stopped, there was no air traffic. The sparrows were gone, the whole blocks were periodically plunged into total darkness. The empty city under its thin film of hoarfrost was amazingly beautiful and unreal. The temperature dropped to minus forty. Only the bonfires, over which the revolutionary Baltic sailors would warm their hands, were missing. Otherwise the picture was complete. In those January day of 1987, in an unheated barn with glass walls in Gavan, on the outskirts of the city, the exhibition of "the independent" was opened. People, not yet accustomed to the new freedom of exhibitions, their memory still filled with the scandalous destruction of the previous one in May, were forming long lines, bringing some life to the deserted labyrinths of the pavilions. Then every new side-show was perceived as a lungful of freedom; any rumors were spread instantly. Have you heard? The Mitki and "the news have displayed the "zero-object" again. The Mitki, the whole lot of them, had squeezed into a single huge sailors' duffel and began fraternizing with "the new". Have you heard? Grebenschikov himself appeared to be a Mitki-man too; he displayed his works among theirs. And to say then that Grebenschikov who "emits shining" is a Mitki-man meant to provide the Mitki with the lifelong absolution and to throw the numerous rock community of Leningrad at their feet. Was Vladimir Shinkaryov aware of what jinn had he released from the bottle, when he made the real people, well-known in the "underground" circles, into characters of his poetic games? He turned these people into the inhabitants of the Borges-like "forking" world, where everyone is simultaneously a man burdened with everyday cares, an artist and the character of the text, subject to the author's will. Could Boris Grebenschikov and Victor Tsoy guess that their mere appearance at the Mitki exhibition would be enough to create a completely new class of audience, boys and girls in striped sailors' duffels who rushed to the exhibition to gape at the Mitki "come-together", and who didn't give a damn about paintings and drawings? Much time has passed before I could glimpse behind the Mitki "theater of lice", behind a grand piano dressed in Russian felt boots and a striped duffel, behind the enormous figure of gentle Dmitri Shagin with his roar that confused the lady-reporters; before I could enjoy the virtues of their works and listen to the soft melody of their message. Only then I was able to face their "global happening" again and to realize that if the Mitki hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to invent them.
Eleven artists (now there are more of them) enriched their art with the Mitki image at just the correct moment - in autumn of 1985, when the alternative of the "underground" instead of the primitive denial faced the disarming cordiality on the part of their former persecutors. There appeared a "social demand" for nonconformism and the words of a hippie song "Your freedom is inside yourself" began to sound as a wise reminder. The Mitki expressed their attitude to the new situation of the global action, having exhibited the group portrait of the "heroes of 1986". N.Gumilyov, B.Grebenschikov, D.Maradona, M. Placido, and, naturally, D.Shagin.
Now, as Boris Yukhananov states, "the alternative is exhausted, and along with it all the hatred, aggressiveness, dashing energies of discord, poetics of basements, corpses, merciless social duels, are used up. Finally, the time has come for the rock to become music. The soul of the generation, like the beautiful princess, throws up a tantrum at last and dumps the pea from under her feather-bed". To the amazement of the interviewer Boris Grebenschikov explains that rock music doesn't fight anybody or anything so as not to waste precious energy on squaring accounts. The film directors, from whom passionate social exposures are expected, prefer shooting sentimental thrillers, cruel gangsters stories and horror films in the exquisite decorations in the style of the beginning of the century. It's not a psychedelic rebel who becomes the hero of the day. It's a meek and gentle Mitki- man who "doesn't want to defeat any one".
The Mitki mythology didn't appear out of the blue. It has deep roots in the European Romantic tradition. V.Shinkaryov's description of the meeting of three hypothetical Mitki-men.
A (opening the bottle): Now, for the beginning. I'll read you some Pushkin (gulps from the bottle).
B: Stop it! Are you nuts?
That Leo Tolstoy is a Mitki-man does sound unusual. But didn't the Romantics declare Shakespeare one of their own? Didn't the Surrealists do the same with Bosch, Swift de Sade? Max Ernst's picture "A Friendly Gathering" (1922) unites in one friendly company G.Arp, A.Breton, R.Desnos, L.Aragon, P.Eluard, and the author himself, along with Raphael and Dostoevsky. This picture is the grandmother of V.Shinkaryov's drawing depicting a Mitki-man sharing a bottle with Pushkin and Lermontov; or of " the Mitki Offering their Ears to Van-Gogh" by V. Golubev. Victor Tikhomirov portrays himself "in the shape of the hero" with no less pleasure than G.Courbet painting his Romantic self-portraits.
It is evident that the name of the group stems from the first part of Shinkaryov's text (which now is seven times thicker) that appeared in 1984. By that time both V.Shinkaryov and D.Shagin were well-known figures of Leningrad "underground". They have been exhibiting their work since the middle of the 1970's within the Association of Experimental Exhibitions (the first group of "the independent"), including the home-shows. They met each other in 1978 in the Kalinin House of Culture on the first (and the last) day of the destroyed exhibition. Shinkaryov's book "Maxim and Feodor", finished in 1981, was widely and avidly read, though, naturally, in manuscript. The only thing known about the author to most readers was the fact that he worked in a boiler room. But to say of a Leningrad poet that he works in a boiler room is trivial to the extreme. A student of the Mukhina Art College Victor Tikhomirov has already read this book aloud in the company of his friends and colleagues Alexander Florensky, Alexei Semichov, Igor Churilov and Andrey Medvedev. Everybody knows each other in Leningrad; sooner or later their ways had to cross with the path of Shinkaryov. Anyway the group was formed and the name, as it often happens in the twentieth century, appeared quite irrationally, out of a funny incident. Andrey Filippov remembers that those of the artists who were already familiar with the text of "The Mitki" began applying this name to all Dmitri Shagin's friends; so the latter had to accept this "christening" proudly. Victor Tikhomirov asserts that the decision to be called "the Mitki" was reached during a bus ride; the artists were returning from Ust-Izhora either after hanging their pictures for the exhibition, or after examining the premises where this exhibition was supposed to take place. According to the version of D.Shagin himself his friends simply extended to themselves the tender nickname "Mityok" (Dmitri Shagin's father used to call him so) and adopted the plural form of this nickname, "Mitki". The reason for this was that all Dmitri's friends considered his father, Vladimir Shagin, a outstanding painter, their father in spirit. Already in the late 1940"s Vladimir Shagin, together with A.Arefyev, R.Vasmi, S.Schwartz, V.Gromov, had laid the first stone in the foundation of Leningrad "underground". "The Elders" - V.Shagin and N.Zhilina-are exhibiting their works together with the Mitki. Besides, the situation of the curiously rhymes with today's situation. Then the Arefyev circle was united by their love to the poet Roald Mandelstam, now the community of artists is structured with the poetic prose of Shinkaryov. But the artists, directly originating from the Arefyev group, do not form the whole body of the Mitki movement. It organically included A.Florensky and his friends, who were interested in a different tradition, e.g., the Makovetz group. It incorporated genuine Primitivists, like Vladimir Tikhomirov (Victor's twin brother); it opened its doors to "the new artist", whose image is the direct opposite of the Mitki.
Actually, the antagonism between the "Slavophile" Mitki and the Westernized "new" is imaginary. They both belong to the generation that sang classical rock'n'rolls without knowing any English, that combined the interest for post-Modernism and the spiritual communication with the shadows of K.Malevich and M.Larionov. The words "TXE bEAT/\E3". crudely scrawled by D.Shagin, is the homage to that epoch. But the unity lies not only in the similarity of experiences. Both the Mitki and "the new" did one and the same thing: reviving free manner of painting, reviving interest to color and texture, reviving purely urbanite mentality spontaneity and and frankness as opposed to the pretentious commercialism of the Salone, to the literariness of the surrealists, to the speculativeness of the Conceptualism that failed to gain strong footing in Leningrad, to the political engagement of the older generation. "The new" and the Mitki were allegedly planning the long-standing alliance already in 1983 (there were no Mitki at that time, incidentally). One of the most attractive gossips of the recent times is a rumor that the Mitki: proposed to "the new" to exchange the artist Ivan Sotnikov for the artist Alexander Goryaev (Because Ivan wears a beard and is a true Mitki-man in his paintings). An important difference between the Mitki and the "new" has been the former' tendency to small formats and conservative technique of painting; but now this difference undergoes a serious trial. Yekaterina Ilyina, in quite a "new manner, creates enormous collages "Blues for Charlie Parker", "About Icarushka", "The Lost Expeditions".
But while the application of non traditional textures by "the net" agitates and disturbs, all of the Mitki painting is, by the definition of D.Shagin, "organic and humanistic art" (but, we shall add with a well-developed set of estrangement devices). Whether the Mitki are taking a bird's-eye view of the outline of the lurking beast of St.Basil Island, like V.Shinkaryov; or design the city-scape out of the harmony of curved lines and wide vertical strokes, like D.Shagin; or out of the contrasts of lifeless color spots, like A.Filippov, - their city is always covered with Romantic veil!, combined with the deliberate prosaic shabbiness of slums and everyday life of communal apartments. Thus the squabbles of Mike Naumenko epitomized into songs ("You're a bitch! You're a little bitch! ") and the sublime vocabulary of Boris Grebenschikov's songs are unthinkable without each other in the universe of Leningrad.
Evidently the outlook of the Northern Renaissance is particularly close to the Mitki. This allows D.Shagin to substitute the undisturbed ploughman of Breugel with the gang boss in a quilted jacket ("The Flight of Ikaruska, or The Gang Boss' Entrance at The Beer-Stall"). His religious paintings, as opposed to over-sweet Slavophile stylizations, occasionally produced by other groups of painters, betray the sharp eye of a genuine Primitivist, who perceives the New Testament theme as a beautiful and somewhat puppet-like Christmas mystery. With equal candor and literalism V.Golubev depicts the dialogue between Bukharin, who is decorously preparing himself for a tea-party, and Stalin, hiding a knife behind his back.
Generally sneaking, the Mitki are experimenting widely with renewing the traditional genres and creating new ones. Some day academic art critics will have to speak seriously about the Mitki genres. But so far it is considered appropriate to finish a story about the Mitki in a somewhat farcical manner. Have you seen V.Golubev's etching "The Mitki Are Sending Brezhnev to Afghanistan"? Well, if you have, don't you think that the e Mitki are much wiser than some mass media reporters believe?
Master of Arts,
Russian Institute of Arts History