What’s So Funny About Beauty
Valentin Popov’s Rembrandt/
Not Rembrandt Series
Long, long ago in a place that is now very far away, the Ukraine (Russia), I began my art education at the age of fourteen with drawings, sketches, paintings, and more sketches. Things simple. Techniques of exploration. Mimicking Brueghel, Repin, Bosch. Then Rembrandt. Through this I found a message which translated into Not Rembrandt. Documenting the vibrations of Rembrandt past, with mediums of my present. It is by way of this emotional process that I attempt to find out who is Rembrandt. But Rembrandt I am not…NOT Rembrandt.
Is this an artist’s statement or a kitschy modernized version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?”
Of all of the artists in this exhibition, Valentin Popov confronts the artistic tradition in the clearest and most direct way. The confrontation with tradition is perfectly unavoidable for all artists, for whom the history of art is a quicksand which only becomes more cloying the more they try to struggle free. For Popov, I think, the struggle is a deeply productive one.
Rembrandt the Master
Popov, by quoting Rembrandt’s paintings and placing his name in the collages, is at least being honest and up front about this prickly game. The choice of Rembrandt, perhaps the most revered of 17th-century Dutch painters is an understandable one, given his status as a byword for artistic genius. The title of the monotype, Here is NO Rembrandt!, has two possible readings. One is literal, namely that it is by Popov, not Rembrandt. The other is figurative, almost sarcastic, namely that the print, as amusing and charming as it may be in its own way, is no Rembrandt! Poor Popov seems as intimidated and haunted by Rembrandt as he is inspired by him.
If Popov is, in fact, confessing a certain amount of intimidation in the face of Rembrandt, he would find no shortage of viewers to agree with him. In the modern day, artists are no longer on speaking terms with the person in the street. Contemporary art is so baffling for anyone but the inner circle, (a circle sometimes limited to the artist’s own mind) that the fine arts now live in a no-man’s-land between the genius and the uncultured boor. The contemporary viewer, exhausted by trying to understand why such modern works a collection of office furniture on a piece of Astroturf® should be considered art, seeks refuge in the Masters, content to be labeled a philistine or oaf, as long as the painting makes some sense. Whether the modern viewers are right or wrong, they feel that the contemporary artist is NO Rembrandt. Popov, as much as the modern viewer, is expressing this relationship with the Master in uncomfortable terms.
Rembrandt’s relevance is explicit in Popov’s works. The keen viewer, though, will detect the presence of at least two other masters here. One is, in a sense, the Rembrandt of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. Popov’s works are unthinkable without Picasso’s collage and other works that incorporate words and fragments of words. Around 1912, Picasso began gluing together pieces of paintings, drawings and other materials into visual medleys. By doing so, he was inventing the most revolutionary fine arts technique of the 20th century, collage, (from the French for `gluing’). He was revolutionary as an artist because he was tearing and gluing, sometimes in fairly untidy terms, instead of “really painting”. Yes, he was playing out, and helping form the modern “bad boy” persona of the artist. The collages themselves were revolutionary, at least for the initiated elite, because they disoriented the viewer by combining fragments of any number of pictures, rather than a single picture. In any case, the method became enshrined in modern art, and, indeed, in modern education. You could scarcely find any American who did not, at some point, make an artwork in public school by tearing up magazines and pasting the pieces onto construction paper. Third-graders everywhere, as much as Popov, owe a great debt of gratitude to Picasso.
Yet Another Master?
By using recognizable masterpieces as part of the collage, Popov is also the beneficiary of another worthy of the 20th century, namely Marcel Duchamp. In 1919, Duchamp created L.H.O.O.Q., a photographic reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, enhanced, (defaced?) by the addition of a mustache and beard drawn in pencil. Duchamp’s piece really was a one-liner, intended to offend the viewer, and to express a certain disdain for tradition. It is an important example of the search for originality by dismissing tradition.
Picking a Fight with Tradition?
Popov, on the other hand, is not picking a fight with tradition, at least not as clearly as Duchamp had before him. In XXXX, in a seeming act of violence against Rembrandt, slices straight through the image of XXXX with his brush. On the other hand, the fact that he devotes a whole series of works to Rembrandt, (and he is not finished yet) and his warm words about Rembrandt suggest a much more sociable relationship. I actually suspect that the slash, and other flirtations with irony are smokescreens. Popov says himself that he is reaching back to a time before modernism, and is learning what he can from an artist he values as a Master. This can be seen by considering a simple, but significant technical difference between his Rembrandt quotations and Duchamp’s Leonardo quotation. Popov paints them, rather than purchases them. Look closely. The Happy Couple is not a postcard from the Rijksmuseum. It is a little painting by Popov, copied from Rembrandt. Copying the masters was a practice encouraged the 19th century, but dismissed in the 20th as academic. It is not surprising, then, to learn that Popov’s training was, indeed, academic.
From 1974-1980, Popov received his training in painting and printmaking from the Kiev State Arts Institute in Kiev, Ukraine. In his writings and interviews, the experience of studying in Russia under the Soviet regime is used time and again as a metaphor for the tyranny of academic painting. The Soviets favored Social Realism, a style which suited the promulgation of ideas, while at the same time resisting the stylistic developments of modernism, such as pure abstraction and self-expression. So, art students were embedded in both realism and a schooling based on the tradition of “Masters”. Now that he lives and works in sunny California, Popov is no longer beholden to Soviet artistic dictates. What makes his work particularly appealing is that he also has no chip on his shoulder about Soviet artistic dictates. He seems to have taken the technical skills of painting, paper making, composition and design, stripped them of their intended applications; and is now exploiting them in the production of these superb collages and prints.
Back to Beauty
I am describing these works as superb on the basis of their beauty and technique. Excellence in beauty and technique are too often overlooked as criteria for judging a work of art. The common caricature of the boorish philistine is the person who says, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like”. This phrase is meant to parody an unwillingness to explore new territory. Such limited horizons are, of course, very much to be avoided. I often wonder, though, whether we have not “thrown the beauty out with the bathwater.” We artists, critics, and art historians should be glad, rather than roll our eyes when a viewer responds to an artwork, (knows what he or she likes).
Popov’s brilliant application of hatching and cross-hatching in Eyes, his virtuoso copies after Rembrandt, his deft integration of objects and text into the fabric of the piece, and his luxurious approach to color, all are traditional skills, learnt from the near and distant past which make the work eminently likable. While beauty is, naturally, a mater of taste, I suspect that is it a very rare viewer who is not seduced by these qualities in Popov’s work. One specific pleasure I find in the works is the mixture of clarity and vagueness. Again, looking at Eyes, the crisp drawings of the foot, eyes, and lips seem to emerge and float above the murky morass of painted and painterly images mingling below. This dense fog of color creates an atmosphere which is more than empty air. It is a visible vapor which clings to the images. This reminds me of Rembrandt’s own use of light and color. Rembrandt’s figures seem always to be swathed in some tangible atmosphere that hangs about them like a visual benediction, enhancing the psychological content. In Popov’s work, no less, the layering of clarity and vagueness, along with the literal layering of painting, print, paper, and object, creates a psychological complexity, but in an utterly contemporary idiom. In this way, he avoids the label of pastiche by making works that are ultimately pure Popov.
It is a difficult time to be an artist, given the changing views about the relative roles of the artist and of tradition. The beauty of Popov’s works show how productive that creative tension can be. .