(E-E) Ev.g.e.n.i.j ..K.o.z.l.o.v Berlin
(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov: Exhibitions >>
|(E-E) Evgenij Kozlov's Participation in the Second TEII Exhibition (1983)
in His Diary and Photographs
Text: Hannelore Fobo, 2021
Chapter 10: Searching for the language of the future
previous page: Chapter 9: Excerpts from Kozlov's Diary IV
next page: Chapter 11: Work in process 1982-1987. House / Minor Target Shooting and Double Painting / Oile
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Chapter 10: Searching for the language of the future
The painting ‘House’ is based on a drawing from 1981 entitled ‘Прихожане в церкви / Parishioners in Church’, the subject of which are neither parishioners nor a church, but prisoners seated in steeply ascending rows of seats, like in a theatre or circus, that is, in a closed space.
It is possible that the artist chose the neutral title ‘House’ for the painting to avoid censorship, but ‘House’ is also the catchword and title of Folio III from The Peterhof Book of Hours. In other words, ‘House’ may have a hidden religious connotation to a congregation, only that it is not one gathering by free choice. Because of numerous partition walls – a large one separating two blocks of visitors and smaller ones separating the seats – the parishioners / prisoners sit as in cells. Three figures are walking along the corridor of a top floor situated above the rows of seats, where some almost opaque windows keep the world shut outside. In the painting, the warm tones of brown, green and orange from the drawing give way to a an almost monochrome dull brown, which renders the atmosphere depressing and claustrophic.
In the fragment from the diary presented in the previous chapter, on pp. 4-39-40, there is an unmistakable statement regarding ‘House’:
This is not the language of the future and not even of the presence.
Thus, Kozlov didn't consider ‘House’ to lack professionalism. Rather, as the crossed out sentence informs us, it‘s the language from ‘the 60s and 75s’ he rejects. What does this mean? The composition is an allegory of life in the Soviet Union, of the narrow confines established by a doctrine of compulsory optimism, where mass entertainment in closed spaces was offered as a surrogate for the independence of the individual mind. The ‘non-official’ paintings of Soviet artists of the sixites and seventies, those born in the first half of the twentieth century, often express some lack of vitality or even bleakness – whether due to war experiences or other life experiences, or because this was how independency of mind was demonstrated at that time. ‘The Seventies’, an exhibition at Saint Petersburg's central exhibition hall ‘Manege’, 2017, dedicated to this period in Leningrad ‘subculture’ art, presented many examples of such paintings with their characteristic subdued, mostly brownish colouring, with people depicted as objects, not subjects of their existence.
Evgenij Kozlov refused such an attitude. The next sentence in his diary is: ‘Being an accuser is not my way’.
What Kozlov expresses with this sentence is, in essence, that he doesn't consider art to be a comment on the constraints of Soviet life. Rather, an artist must ignore any such limitations, as stated in an entry on 12 May 1980 (p. 1-48): ‘Стремлюсь видеть жизнь не такой, какая она есть на самом деле, а такой, какой я хочу, чтобы она была. / I try to see life not the way it actually is, but the way I want it to be’ more >>. Regarding ‘House’, he must have come to the conclusion that he let reality dictate the conditions for his art instead of art establishing its own criteria for reality.
Kozlov's position was by no means a retreat from what is commonly called ‘reality’, and the prisoners in ‘House’ weren't just a symbol chosen on impulse. At the beginning of 1982 (p 3-03), he noted in his diary: ‘Серия рисунков к фотографиям 1930-х годов. / Восковой мел, цв. кар., лак, процарапывание по восковому слою/. A series of drawings after photographs from the 1930s / wax crayon, coloured crayon, varnish, scratchings on the wax surface’. This series most certainly refers to scenes from prisoner's lifes, and the drawing inspiring ‘House’ might be from this series. Whether the photographs actually showed Soviet inmates or inmates from a different country isn't clear, but what is clear is that he reflected on the subject. The Gulag system of forced labour, as much as it formed a parallel world, had an impact on Soviet society, because when prisonsers were released from the camps (notably after Stalin's death), they brought with them their habits and sometimes their criminal slang.
Оfficial portrayals of prison camps were greatly sugarcoated and stressed the positive role of the Gulag as a correction camp, of re-education of saboteurs and kulaks through work. Around that time, Kozlov got hold of a book published in Moscow in 1934 and dedicated to the 7th Congress of the Bolshevik Party (1918): Беломорско-Балтийский Канал им. Сталина. История строительства, 1931-1934. / The Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal. The History of its Construction, 1931-1934, edited by the Organising Committee of Union of Soviet Writers. The foreword to the facsimile edition from 1998 tells the reader that the book was commissioned by the Communist Party jointly with the ОГПУ or OGPU, the Soviet secret police. The OGPU set up the Gulag system and used it to build the White Sea Canal under the supervision of Genrikh Yagoda (see Wikipedia). In 1934, Yagoda, the book's ‘hero’, became head of the NKVD, the follow-up organisation of the OGPU. Almost the complete edition was destroyed in 1937, when Yagoda was arrested by Stalin; he was shot after a show trial in 1938.
The authors of the book – including Maxim Gorki – romanticise the comradeship of the camp prisoners and create an almost idyllic picture of life in the prison camp, where prisoners sing along as they march to work and entertain themselves and with music in the evenings. On pp. 3-60 to 3-66 of of Kozlov's diary are extracts from this book – poems and songs the prisoners made up. They are chaste versions of what is better known as "Блатнoй фольклор" (blatnoi fol'klor), songs of the criminal subculture – which the authors of the book obviously included as a proof of prisoners' creativity (…Но ударная бригада Бережет ударный дух./ …But the strike brigade keeps the strike spirit, p. 3-62). Kozlov completed these entries with a terminology of criminal slang on pp. 3-67-68.The book illustrations inspired at least two of his works from 1982, ‘Скажи свое слово / Speak Out Your Mind’ and ‘Высокий уровень техники / A High Level of Technique’ ‘(see p. 3-61), while ’The Strike Brigades had Their Own Musicians’ is connected to the topic of the book in a more general way. Kozlov reflects on the composition on pp. 3-80-81, dated 27 January 1983:
There is little work left. Clarification of the details of some faces, their identification, colour harmonies in opposition, contrasts. The face of the woman – the shock function in the centre of the canvas has yet been resolved; I need to find a new way of expression. All the figures around the two white ones are obviously supervisors, strong-willed natures. The depth of the landscape should give greater realism to the scene. An undisputed goal, to which it makes sense to go in a new way.
Several days later, on 2 February 1983 (p.4-03), the is another entry referring to the painting:
Last night I finished “The Strike Brigades Had Their Own Musicians”. I searched and found new ways of expression. In general, and in detail, the whole picture satisfies me.
Whether the last version of this painting is actually from 2 February 1983 cannot be said for sure, because the photographic colour reproduction iwas only taken 1984. Whatever the case, the stylistic and compositional changes in the last version are quite important. Hands, slightly moving, and two faces, one in profile and one in front view – all applied with stencils – contrast the static poses of the semi-realistic figures. When exactly the artist changed the title to ‘Commissars’ he doesn't remember, but the strong-willed figures justify the painting's new title. At the same time, the stencilled elements bring in lightness and transparency, and their extravagance chime with Kozlov's postulation from p.4-42: Don’t make a painting boring or monotonous.
Returning to ‘WASP’ from Chapter 7: although ‘Commissars’ and ‘WASP’ are quite different with respect to subject matter, there are similarities regarding colours and compositional features, especially the dissolution of compact forms in the upper right area. Put differently: the subject as such doesn't determine the composition; it only stands at the beginning of a process of transformation I described in detail in my article ‘E-E Kozlov. The Atlas of Ontology’ from early 2021 more >>.
It was – and is – not unusual for E-E Kozlov to introduce substantial changes to a composition just before finishing it, or to return to a work some time after he finished it, repainting some areas or simply adding a specific detail. It happened with ‘Commissars’, and it even happened with ‘Tuaregs’, although Kozlov spoke of it ‘as an appeal to future breakthroughs in art’ (see Chapter 7).
Changes are of different kinds. In Commissars’ and ‘Tuaregs’ Kozlov added what he called ‘at least one element of the mystery of the soul’ in 1982 (p. 3-54) – what he calls ‘some strangeness’ today.
The changes that affected ‘House’ and ‘Double Painting’ will be discussed in the next chapter.
Research / text / layout: Hannelore Fobo, June / July 2021
Uploaded 18 July 2021