Thursday, December 31, 2009

Andrew's Fault.

Ever since his series on the Italian Renaissance, I have been following Andrew Graham Dixon with unflinching devotion on the telly. Be it a short appearance on the Culture Show, or some other programme, I lock on to each and every word of his. The Art of Russia was no exception, but it left me disappointed on the second and third part, especially on one issue: the abstract.

After a glorious first part, AGD wading through a snowstorm in a grand landscape of mother Russia – not nearly dressed warm enough - to make sense of Russian Religious Art and succeeding to the extent that I became an overnight enthusiast of imagery that had previously left me pretty cold, the sacred Icons, he seemed to lose power progressively as he approached the Revolution, eventually to fail in his interpretation of Abstract Constructivist paintings. This is of course only my most humble opinion, but to approach a constructivist painting expecting it to be a stylized version of a symbolist figurative one, is tantamount to missing the point completely.

Dots are dots, colours are colours, and shapes are shapes: abstract ones. It means that they do not seek to represent something, but owe their shape, position and colour to the role they need to play in relation to the other elements of the composition or piece that they are part of in order to achieve a feeling. Nothing more, nothing less. It is utterly liberating, pure painting that sets out to create an emotion and not a representation, however unconventional, of identifiable items. So to hear him compare an exquisite composition on yellow by Rodchenko, as similar to the lines drafted on a wall by a convict counting down the days of his detention was a bad moment, only to be made worse by his describing another perfectly balanced work of tiny colour dots on black as if every dot was meant to represent a soviet citizen. Not really. On Malevic he didn’t fare better, identifying the suprematist black square as symbol of doom and a comment on society. Far too obvious, and not true. Look at the square well enough and you’ll find that it is, well, not square. So in the complex of the work, a subtle tension is created between its ever so slightly imperfect shape and the beautiful whitish (not white, but a finely painted surface of many shades) space in which it seems to float suspended. The suprematist cross is not religious at all, but the perfect way to animate the format on which it stands with compositional tension. It has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with vectors. This is what Suprematism stood for and was about, the geometric forms as an end to themselves, the total rejection of representations and symbols. This capacity and indeed freedom of abstraction was rightly seen as revolutionary, and eventually anti totalitarian – though elitist - to the extent that it had to be forbidden by the stern logic of Proletariat Dictatorship. The short lived beautiful spring of Majakovskij, Rodchenko and the others ended in bitter repression, suicide, compulsory public self criticism, and for millions in the deadly winter of the GULAG.

AGD did extremely well in condensing as best he could so complex a history in three visually compelling well-researched episodes. It just feels puzzling that abstract painting seems to defeat his otherwise great insight and clarity of description.

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