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MITKI: PAINTINGS, DESTINY, MYTHOLOGY

...human culture appears and unravels
itself in a game and as a game.

Johann Heuzinga.

This exhibition seems important to me for many seasons. Firstly, we are becoming increasingly aware of totally contemporary events as facts of history. In other words, we substitute critical battles for serene analysis.

Secondly, we consider the dynamics of contemporary Petersburg culture as the whole, so to speak, from the museum point of view, putting some distance between ourselves and the traditional division of artists into "the clean" and "the unclean", which is rapid!y becoming the thing of the past. Moreover, these two notions has been recently changing places too often and too hurriedly.

Thirdly, the peacefulness of a museum will allow us to see the Mitki in the dispassionate cultural and historical space, to appreciate their art with a certain degree of aloofness. To gain new vision and new appreciation of many works. After all, what better place to learn?l the culture of our city than the Russian Museum

In out semi-demented, post-totalitarian, post-Perestroika post-Modernists reality, where the real is melting away and apparitions of the mind seem to be the only real things, the Mitki appear a phenomenon quite adequate to the enchanting phantoms, jolly sorrows, and sad smiles, surrounding us. When discussing these painters, I would not like to fail like to the widespread extremes of either analyzing their art in the spirit of somewhat rollicking art criticism of the "come-together" variety, or, on the contrary, becoming too Olympian passing judgment on the basis of some "eternal" criteria.

In art criticism it is equally dangerous to find oneself too much inside the situation and too much outside it. The puppet-booth intonations, so characteristic of the Mitki and much more characteristic of their imitators (having imitators, in fact, is a substantial evidence of recognition); sly games and amicable antisocial behavior; serious ideas disguised as naive jokes; and jokes discussed with all seriousness --- all these are, eventually secondary things There is painting, graphics, literature, and now films (animated). I here is a root system, there is a definite culture. All this is really important and interesting if to use a high-flown phrase, we ask Guignol so keep silent and give the floor to the wise Clio.

I do not intend to analyze the works of separate artists. It seems to be more important to consider the Mitki's activities as the whole. to look from the angle of the year 1993, when, relatively speaking, their "heroic" period has passed and the trial has begun the trial of time, of recognition, of the everyday realities of our spiritless freedom.

It has been mentioned more than once, and quite justly, that the Mitki are essentially the Leningrad (Petersburg) phenomenon. This statement appears to contain a certain paradox. none of the proverbial Petersburg primness, none of the superfluous finesse, none of the Westernising so typical for our Northern Capital, can be noticed in the Mitki's art or in their behavioral code.

And yet.

It is here, in Petersburg, that benevolence, simplicity and sincerity have assumed the proportions of a cult, acting as a particularly warm discord to icy mental battles and fiery verbal fights. This warmth was lacking; therefore it immediately became in demand. But if we speak about the main thing, i.e. art, it is also very Petersburgian in its essence.

It is the city itself, with its canonical beauty and its far from canonical seamy side, introduced into the very tissue of the Mitki paintings. It is the tangible heritage of the leading figures of our local, Petersburg, "underground". It is the doubtless influence of "Leningrad Cezanne-ism" (most likely, of "The Circle of Artists").

It is the elder generation of Leningrad non-conformists, low-voiced and proud, which includes such personalities as Vladimir Shagin and Natalia Zhilina (the parents of Dmitri Shagin the archetypal Mitki-man), Alexander Arefyev, Richard Vasmi. Their works form a natural part of the "root system" in the shaping of the Mitki, and of the exhibition itself.

It is a peculiar Leningrad situation in the period, when the Khrushchev "thaw" was over, drastically different from the situation in Moscow The life of the Moscow "underground" followed very different lines.

From time to time the "post-thaw" authorities in Moscow were more or less obliged to flirt with the public opinion of the West. They played insidious games with " the other art", provided temporary indulgences, permitted exhibitions that were dubious from the point of view of "State Interests", whatever these were taken to mean.

In Leningrad the provincial "purity of morals" was strictly observed. None of the liberal intermissions were afforded. Our "underground" suffered much heavier pressure, than in Moscow. And the provincialism of the authorities that exerted this pressure made an artist's life... well, not more dangerous than in Moscow, but far more glum and less romantic, if this word could be used here.

Besides, in Moscow "the other art" had their patrons, foreigners among them, defended by their diplomatic immunity of their journalistic fame. It even had its buyers-from approximately the same circles. Leningrad had none of these things, or, at least, very few. Our "underground" was much more secluded and, possibly, less dependent.

The Mitki who, on their first stages, were the typical specimens of the "catacombs" art, have suffered the natural period of persecution.

The name "Mitki" was not yet born when in August 1984 fifteen Leningrad painters of different generations exhibited their works in a small and quiet gallery of a resort town Ust-Narva. Many educated and inquisitive people from various parts of the Soviet Union, and especially from Leningrad, used to spend their summer holidays there. So the audience was relatively enlightened and receptive.

It took enormous efforts to print the tiny catalog with mere enumeration of names: Alexander Arefyev (who had died six years before that exhibition), Richard Vasmi, Yuri Gobanov, Natalia Zhilina, Michael Ivanov, Iya Kirillova, Boris Kozlov, Alexander Manusov, Tatyana Pogorelskaya, Alexei Semichev, Olga Florenskaya, Alexander Florensky, Vladimir Shagin, Dmitri Shagin, Vladimir Shinkaryov.

That exhibition ended peacefully. The next one, the "apartment" exhibition, was, on the contrary, dispersed by the police in the best tradition of the "stagnation period"

As should he expected, there followed exhibitions in the Houses of Scientists who often welcomed non-conformist artists. There were fastidious and grumbling remarks in the official press. There were habitual demands to ban the exhibition. There were well-intentioned opinions overflowing with "scientific justifications" and technical terms. These opinions ascribed cosmic and existential functions to the Mitki movement. Too often the external and prescribed tomfoolery and sly carnivals, along with the frivolous vocabulary was taken for the main thing In fact, this happens today too.

The unsuppressed and wide popularity has come with the time of liberalization. There was the famous trip to Europe, which both Mitki and the press played up from the inside as well as from the outside. There were joint actions with a Russian Parisian artists and actor Tolsty (Vladimir Kotlyarov). In a word, superficially everything was exactly as it was with many "underground" groups. But the differences were substantial Besides existing in the dense atmosphere of visual and musical arts (this combination is, in fact partly characteristic for other group), the Mitki has created their own "commedia dell' arte", in which there are no fixed roles prescribed for each participant life itself (at least on the surface) proceeds, if not according to the lines in the play, by the script and within certain stylistic boundaries

Strictly speaking. the Mitki lifestyle (if we forget about their art for a moment) has many analogies. one may recall "the angry young men", hippies, or, if one SO wishes. the followers of Leo Tolstoy. The emphatically different, non traditional way of living and thinking, their own system of values, necessarily expressed in external attributes, the private slang, the set of ceremonies (anti-ceremonies, to be more exact). A Robinsonade of a kind, but a Robinsonade addressed to the audience.

There is a certain contradiction here. Though the contradiction is, most likely, illusory.

On the one hand, there is an escape into a private world, secluded from the Bolshevist absurdities. The indispensable conditions of this world are the non-normative vocabulary (most often, this is a good-natured version of the underworld language spiced with the "hip" slang), the elaborate cult of quite touching plain living. To a certain degree this aspiration to plain living is relative since we cannot neglect the fact that " the main Mitki" are refined intellectuals. And this, by the way, has helped them to maintain the unity of their behavior style so accurately.

On the other hand, there is the necessity of having an audience, a response, a support. an interpretation; a natural desire of every artist to have a personal audience, a personal critical acclaim.

Finally, we should not forget that, with all the jolly unity and common stage where the Mitki have played scenes from their private mythology, the group consists of gifted and very different artists.

Besides, the Mitki mythology, history and chronography was not merely put down by the talented writer and painter Vladimir Shinkaryov. It was also to some extent, prophesied. The Mitki lived in accordance to the script But, moreover, they lived according to the legend created by themselves. They lived in a Narnia of sorts. Although their Narnia was not a toy-like thing, but an adult and sometimes extremely serious habitat.

There is so much pain in this seriousness.

The emphasized rudeness of the exterior mainly results from (at least, I think so) the desire to transport the quotidian vulgarity on the level of what the theory calls "the laugh culture". It is hard to avoid the occasional loss of good taste along the way, yet there are great redeeming qualities here. I do not want to idealize the Mitki - it is very easy to overplay such games into triteness - yet the tendency is basically noble.

It is a curious fact that the puppet-booth version of the theater of absurd actualized by the Mitki, as well as their paintings to a great degree, paradoxically fit into the canon of post-Modernists culture.

Here we have the frank predominance of the interpretation over the work of art as such: who could doubt the fact that the literary plasma, created by the Mitki around their art, is more often than not denser and hotter than the paintings themselves.

Here we have the free inclusion in the sphere of their art and games of the characters and motives of the past and present culture.

Here we have the reluctance (at least, declared) to pass judgment on the works of art. Yet, the Mitki substitute the post-Modernists anti-axiological premise for the good-natured acceptance of everything.

Still I shall risk to state that in essence the Mitki are opposed to post-Modernism. The opposition is mainly manifest in the traditional good quality of their paintings and, above all, in the evident "root system" and their reluctance to set up more scandalous and elaborate games now, on the wave of success.

Their art is also connected with the most important branch of the oppositionist culture of the Brezhnev period, which partly correlates with "soc-art", but has a more established historical value and undoubtedly greater significance in the social life of the past and the present.

I mean the motives that had sounded in the songs of Galich and Vysotsky, those versified uncompromising parodies on the whole stylistic of the repressed mentality and its ways of verbal expression. But the Mitki paradox lies in the absence of pain as the dominant vector. This does not mean the absence of the latent tragic vision, yet in their artistic texture the drama is either absent, or thoroughly hidden. One could go deeper in following the "root system" of the Mitki and find the doubtless closeness of their sources to the "oberiuts" and Zoschenko, in whose works there was more than enough pain.

In opposition to the majority of devout post-Modernists who completely identified themselves with their activities and lifestyle, the Mitki are actually more or less estranged from their everyday myth.

The ideal of "an attractive loafer" as "the most engaging human type in our reality" could have been invented by anybody except loafers. One should doubtlessly possess intellect and culture to be able to maintain the unity of style. The "homo ludens" of the twentieth century is, as a rule, an educated person inclined not so much to amusement, but rather to the Castalian "glass-bead games". It makes no difference whether the glass beads of Hesse's characters are substituted by skittles.

At any rate, now in the Mitki I feel a kind of sturdy academicism, an apposition to all the para-artistic fuss and bustle - the thing they were so much given to in the past. Again, the Mitki had none (or nearly none) of the urge to "break on thorough", to prove their exceptionality, which was so characteristic of our "underground" both before the liberalization and after it. The phrase "the Mitki don't want to defeat anyone,> is not a mere declaration. Their aim has been entity rather than superiority.

Here the historical and social context is especially important, as well as the very change in perception of "the other art" in general and the Mitki in particular.

I remember that in the middle of the 1980"s, when something was beginning to be allowed, the Mitki's pictures both pleased and irritated me. The coy and simpleminded captions over good, sometimes austere, paintings seemed naive and importunate to me. "The less Mitki-ism the Mitki have, the better", is thought seemed indisputable then. l cannot say that I have given it up completely now; it just does not seem so important any longer. But then I found their intentional secondariness, their frank imitation of Larionov, their direct address to the audience, and the desire to entertain people with deliberately simplistic jokes, a bit too straightforward.

My l Lord, how much time has passed since that day' Now, in the swirling mists of post-Modernistic mystification, games with artifacts and the artifacts proper, the Mitki appear almost traditionalists. Because (and this is the most important thing, I believe), irrespective of their eternal mystification, they were very seriously engaged in art Of course we shall remember for a long time and with obvious pleasure Dmitri Shagin speaking into a shower-head as if it were a telephone receiver, the striped sailors' duffels, the bus painted by the Mitki. I cannot say that all this has seemed invariably attractive to me. It was easy to see coquetry, a put on simplistic .- Narcissism, insistent preoccupation with their image in all this.

Now I have different thoughts about this period. Of course, there were coquettish games, the desire to please plain inertia, the mask that has ingrown into the soul. But there was something much more important the striving to preserve themselves in the habitual and dear community where the old conditionally playful way of coexistence, private speech and private lifestyle, were the prerequisites for survival in the fussily changing environment, in the increasing bitterness and alienation: it's not freedom that unite people, it's the struggle for freedom.

The statement that the Mitki don't want to defeat anyone signifies the Mitki's non-aggressiveness rather than their modesty. One cannot believe in the indifference towards professional success. Yet the reluctance to achieve this success by means of the cruel fuss that is so fashionable today is very natural for the Mitki. Especially since they have already achieved a fairly high rating on the international battleground of art.

The courageous and amicable bravado of the officially unrecognized Mitki could not presuppose their today's popularity even fame, their international tours de-luxe exhibitions, etc. There is a certain dramatic tension in this: what was a challenge to our regimented mentality in the early 1980"s has now turned into a nice piece of Russian-style comic show for all the world outside Russia

As far as an outside observer could judge, the Mitki has adapted to their new situation relatively well. The individuality of each of them have almost stopped being "an orthodox Mitki", while others retain this image. Naturally, in the course of professional growth the unity of the movement is violated. But the relationship, born a long time ago (and far from idyllic, like any relationship even in the happiest families), helps to survive in the environment of increasing alienation.

Even the toughest commercial pressure has not visibly affected their personalities, nor their art.

The Mitki periodical is being published. The cooperation with the already mentioned artist Tolsty is developed; his very original works, "mail-art" i.e.. painted mail envelopes, fit the Mitki stylistic perfectly. Together they publish "The Mulette" magazine advocating, among other things, the movement of "Vivrisme" - the cult of the carnival-like like assertion, created by Tolsty. The externals are gradually fading into the past. The essential goes on existing.

The Mitki have their own fanatical followers, imitators, they have opponents and plain enemies. And yet, very gradually, the tight bitter rivalry of our artistic life is beginning to slacken. Oh, how one wants to believe that this is so!

May be, part of the merit for this belongs to the Mitki.

Still, unfortunately we often forget that the acceptance of something does not imply the denial of something else; that loving sublime and austere art it is absolutely unneces- sary to denounce the Mitki. The value of a work of art is not determined on the battlefield. Rather, it rests in the ability to add something personal to the universal flow of art.

One of the contemporary figures of art who is inclined to serious opinions said, "You can make art without creating it. All you have to do is to change the consciousness." Having hilariously disturbed (whether this amounts to "change" is open to discussion) the consciousness of their audience and of themselves, the Mitki remained true to art, to its essential values. When there is art and spiritual affinity at the bottom of an artistic group, there is also hope for future. The Mitki say that only death could prevent a Mitki-man from being Mitki. Let us not speak about death here. It is important that the Mitki remain true to themselves.

MIKHAIL GUERMAN,

professor, doctor of Art History;
Member of International Association of Art Criticism;
Curator of Modern Arts, Russian Museum


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