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The King, The Queen and the Jesters, 1998
Oil on Canvas
78 3/4" x 47 1/4"
© Vasily Shulzhenko

Vasily Shulzhenko
New Paintings

April 30 - June 1, 1999

Maya Polsky Gallery
215 West Superior
Chicago, Illinois 60610
312/ 440-0055
Hours: Tues. - Fri. 10-5, Sat. 10:30-5 PM

In time I came to understand that out of the misery and murk of their lives the Russian people had learned to make sorrow a diversion, to play with it like a child's toy.

Autobiography [1913]. Childhood -- Maxim Gorky

But is it really so? Gorky expressed a widely enough held opinion and, at first glance, the new paintings of Moscow artist, Vasily Shulzhenko, on exhibition at Maya Polsky Gallery until June first would seem to further confirm the popular stereotype of the 'brooding Slavonic soul.' Shulzhenko's vision is as dark as the cast of his palette.

As with Shulzhenko's earlier one-man exhibition at Maya Polsky Gallery (1995), this showing also offers a catalogue of the show for ten dollars and these sixteen pages of color reproductions are well worth it. The cover of this current catalogue displays "Philosopher," an oil painting measuring 78 1/2" x 58 1/2". In the catalogue's preface Michael Bulka comments: "Perhaps he sees what we see, but more. It is the function of the philosopher/artist (and this is another difference, at least to a degree, between Shulzhenko and the celebrated artists of the contemporary West) to think deeply and publicly. He presents us with neither mere observation nor pat analysis, but rather images that give us access to questions and thoughts in progress." Shulzhenko's work recalls Francisco Goya in spirit, but rather than the 'sleep of reason,' his work seems to be informed by an underlying regret for the 'sleep of authority.' The catalogue preface is most to the point when it notes of Shulzhenko's oil, "The King, The Queen and the Jesters" (1998): "It is also emblematic of a Russia fallen from world-power status, its social structures in confused disarray, its population in an awkward transition from the coarse security of communism to the often brutal capitalism of the novii ruskii, the 'New Russian' entrepreneurs."

The court jester in "The King, the Queen and the Jesters" (1998) brings to mind the harlequins which frequently appear in the works of Charles Bragg (Vide: The Absurd World of Charles Bragg by Geoffrey Taylor), but the divergencies are informative. Bragg is the product of an affluent and sybaritic milieu. Benefitting from social momentum from the past, Bragg is a zealous advocate of fierce individualism and the pursuit of pleasure which often leads him to satirize authority and the conventional virtues such as discipline and personality sense of responsibility. But the objects of Bragg's irony are a counterweight which makes his postulates attractive, at least in the abstract.

Vasily Shulzhenko's is a far darker and more serious vision, behind which external authority is vanished and personal, 'bourgeois' virtues are unactualized and cannot enter as surrogate. If Western artists such as Bragg have license to mock authority and convention, Shulzhenko seems to mourn the consequences of their absence. In Shulzhenko's paintings one views, not earned authority, but assumed power, animated by a petty soul. The perception is very acute in a work such as "Kutuzov and Napoleon. Tea Party at Maloyaroslavetz That Never Took Place." (1998). In this oil on canvas, measuring 78 3/4" x 59", each character seems far more absorbed in their own immediate self and self-interest than in any purpose inherent in the event, fictional though it may be. In the catalogue for the show, Michael Bulka states: "We know more about the pop-psychology notion of the 'Napoleon Complex' than about the Napoleonic wars. To an educated Muscovite, Napoleon and Kutuzov are iconic figures, the battles of Borodino and Maloyaroslavetz significant events in a still relevant history."


Venus of Moscow, 1998
Oil on Canvas
59" x 70 7/8"
© Vasily Shulzhenko

In both the first half of the exhibition, the allegorical genre paintings, and the second half, the historical surrealisms, there is a clear, dynamic tension between the personalized and the allegorical, or even the iconic. Much of the malaise which forms the themes of Shulzhenko's works may be the result of a lack of an intervening civil authority, and its substitution by hierarchical power. The former is objective, and difficult for art; the latter is very much a psychological disposition. It is a malaise of modernity, antithetical to civics and political philosophy, but only seemingly fertile for artistic expression. Poet W.H.Auden understood the phenomenon when, in his preface to The Portable Greek Reader (Viking Press: 1948), he observed: "Homer might well have described Achilles taking a bath but it would have been simply a description of a hero taking a bath, not, as in Tolstoy's description of Napoleon being bathed, a revelation that the military hero is an ordinary mortal just as weak as any of the thousands for whose death he is responsible." Auden's comment on modernity is particularly interesting as one views Shulzhenko's "Napoleon at the Isle of St. Helena" (1998, Oil on canvas; 43"x27."

In "Napoleon at the Isle of St. Helena" (1998) it is curious that the French captive seems to stare off into space; it is the toy soldier who faces directly into his gaze. The grand exploits of the Napoleonic upheaval are reduced and have come home to roost, as a childish pawn on the knee of a still willful and less than ideal, mortal individual in squalor. In Shulzhenko's 'Napoleonic' series one does seem to sense that the Western Imperial idea is as divorced from mundane realities as any other. "Napoleon at the Isle of Elba" (1999) presents the viewer with the diminutive dictator facing, and seemingly staring through a French fusilier. But, while the background, or rather backdrop, simulates a shoreline and sky, at the top, between the two figures, what appears to be a scythe blade tears into the scene from some unknown back dimension. It may well be a reference to the Russian realities which brought them to that place.

Shulzhenko's paintings frequently offer a counterpoint between his central image and a counterpointed detail. In the above work, it is a blade cutting in from behind his canvas. In "Venus of Moscow" (1998) it is the disinterested rat; in "Cupid" (1999) the full-canvas figure poses over a Cola bottle and grasps a deadly-looking arrow; and in "Atlas" (1999) two carved grotesqueries seem to mock an average citizen who bears the weight of their structure. In so many of the artist's works the individual, the citizen is passive and the active focus, the dominant, is petty, or a corruption of the ideal. In "Venus of Moscow" (1998), Venus approaches the classical ideal a la Russe, but floats, distantly above the city and unreal, and the still life with rat of the viewer's window frame offers an immediate reality which intensifies the incongruity. Shulzhenko, somewhat in the spirit of Goya, excels in playing the lofty idealization against the disturbing realities of the here and now. The great impact of his work, and perhaps its impetus, is the lack of any middle or societal accommodation and renewal. The actors and he acted upon seem to have no mutual or reciprocative bonds, neither of consideration nor commitment.

Interestingly, the same, aforementioned poet, W.H.Auden, in reviewing The Complete letters of Vincent van Gogh (Encounter: April 1959), quoted that artist's observation on art in this modern age:

"Giotto and Cimabue, as well as Holbein and Van Dyck, lived in an obeliscal solidly-framed society, architecturally constructed, in which each individual was a stone and all the stones clung together, forming a monumental society... But, you know, we are in the midst of downright laisser-aller and anarchy. We artists who love order and symmetry isolate ourselves and are working to define only one thing... We can paint an atom of the chaos..."

Shulzhenko proceeds from a kindred perception. The artists which van Gogh names sustained and were sustained by their societies. The extreme pursuit of the personal since the end of the 18th century occurred in tandem with the fall of 'public man.' It is easy to forget that history, 'custom and culture,' not only inhibits 'reinventing the wheel,' and repeating past errors, but also offer heroes and models of conduct when men must rise to meet the challenges of difficult times, just as it nourishes caution in good times. Currently, much of contemporary art seeks to 'reflect one's time,' rather than participate in an instinctive dialogue that alters the course of a period's prevalent sensibility. Artists, as "bohemians," have often withdrawn from participation. A comparison of the earlier Maya Polsky exhibition of Shulzhenko's works (1995) with the current works would point towards the artist's increased awareness of the dynamic to which van Gogh referred -- There is an ever increasing involvement with history and "Culture."

The question which comes to mind upon viewing the current work of Vasily Shulzhenko is just what to make of the disparity between the visual actuality and the implications of his titles. Is the work really so unrelieved, so "cynical, realist, classical" as it seems on first appearance? It has been often said that a cynic is an idealist who has been disillusioned. Underlying Shulzhenko's surrealistic visions is a sense that great archetypes have lingered in name, but cannot inspire aspirations and emulation. Michael Bulka, author of this show's catalogue asserts: "If, like most of Europe, it [Russia] had been forced to accept the Western ideas of the [Napoleonic] Empire in the 19th century, it may not have produced this cast of pathetic characters, these diminished, inadequate gods, as we enter the 21st." And here I dissent with Shulzhenko's commentator.


Napoleon at the Isle of St. Helena, 1998
Oil on Canvas
43" x 27"
© Vasily Shulzhenko

Shulzhenko's treatment of the Napoleonic seems no gentler than his treatment of other types in his view of contemporary society. Napoleon, like Karl Marx later, merely replaced one autocracy with what was essentially a new skin for further autocracy. Shulzhenko's paintings constitute a double-edged blade -- they not only display a dark perception of the mundane realities, but imply a subtle dissatisfaction with the applicability of traditional Classic typologies... The ideals are as unreal, as the real is un-ideal. It was, after all, that post-Napoleonic Europe which gave birth to Marx and Hitler, while the English, at the periphery, developed civility and philanthropy on a societal scale.

That Shulzhenko's paintings display a trend toward broader, societal concerns is certainly an expression of the artist's personality -- Not as a philosopher, but as a sensitive, creative artist. Neither Goya or Kathe Kollwitz declared any coherent agendas -- But they were kindred spirits with Shulzhenko's esprit, and artists of imposing talent. And, in Shulzhenko's case, Gorky's observation may prove wrong. The artist, over time, seems to be turning from the current scene and exploring. Vasily Shulzhenko's work very much merits attention, now and in coming years.

Shulzhenko's works merit the careful consideration of the American public in particular. Despite illusions to the contrary, the two societies, at root, are not so dissimilar as might seem; and Vasily Shulzhenko's visions offer and provoke much for contemplation.

Maya Polsky Gallery offers catalogues to both the 1995 one-man exhibition and the current showing. They are well worth the ten dollar price. And not just as portfolios for those who cannot afford the original paintings, but as a provocative voice. Vasily Shulzhenko's work constitutes one of the many voices we should carry with us in the back of our minds, if we hope to continue on in a reasonable, civilized manner.

Maya Polsky Gallery also presents works by Vasily Shulzhenko on a continuing basis.

Editor's Note: Above references by W.H. Auden may be found in the collection Forewords and Afterwords (Vintage International:1989).

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.



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