Remaking Russian Culture: Nikolai Mukhin's Self-Portraits

In August 1996, Nikolai Mukhin and his Yaroslavl Icon school prevailed over thirty-eight other competitors in a national contest to select the artists who could recreate the i a ooo square meters of Moscow's rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This memorial church, built in the nineteenth century with funds collected throughout Russia, was pulled down in 1931, its paintings destroyed, and its marble used to decorate the interiors of Moscow's metro stations3. With the awarding of such an honor, Mukhin has become one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Russian art. His frescoes he and his workshop will recreate, however, will be copies of the cathedral's original decorations, all rendered in an Academic style that prevailed throughout the nineteenth century, and will give little clue as to the nature of the majority of the artist's work. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Mukhin had carefully studied traditional techniques of Russian icon and fresco painting, particularly those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Born in Kostroma, he received his artistic education and now works in nearby Yaroslavl. It was to the artistic traditions of these cities that he turned when he began his studies. Both Yaroslavl and Kostroma had been important centers of icon production. Yaroslavl in particular had experienced something of an artistic golden age in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when numerous builders and itinerant painters flocked in the city to create new churches and decorate them with icons and frescoes3. Through his investigation and remaking of local tradition, Mukhin has sought to knit together the threads of pro- and post-Soviet era Russian culture, re-establishing connections to pictorial traditions abandoned in the twenties and thirties. The locus of his own work has been the art and antiquities connected to the Orthodox Church, its liturgies, or popular forms of piety, objects that Soviet cultural policy had declared to be "alien" or dangerous because of their ties with previous regime's state religion.

A series of self-portraits made between 1990 and 1992 are perhaps the best "road" into the artist's oeuvre for what they say about the state of Russian culture during those momentous years and Mukhin's own conception of his artistic practice. In the large "Self-Portrait" ("Avtoportret", 1990, private collection) Mukhin presents himself to the viewer naked and vulnerable in a rocky and somewhat forbidding wilderness. In this image, the artist's handling of the figure and the landscape recall the warm tones and faceted surfaces of much Russian icon painting from the twelfth to eighteenth centuries. Through the elongation of the figure, the heavy shadowing of the torso's skeletal and muscular structure, the reduction of the body and the mountain into flattened planes, and delicate strokes of pure, white paint indicating highlights, he evokes a native Russian pictorial system. Nevertheless, he does not follow this system slavishly. While the reduction of the mountain surfaces into flattened planes certainly is reminiscent of the representation of landscape in pre-Petrine' Russian painting, Mukhin fills in the planes with bright white, a rich coral-red and a deep, pure black. In opposition to the traditional, system in which geological formations were typically represented in a warm, sandy light brown color highlighted with even squares of pure white.

The isolation of the painter's dejected figure and its elision with the only other discernible object in the painting, the rocky outcropping, seem to me to be the key to understanding the significance of this painting. With all of the momentous events that have taken place in Russia and Eastern Europe in the last decade, it may be difficult to remember that in 1990, the year this image was made, it was not yet clear how much freedom of expression would be tolerated by the Soviet cultural-bureaucratic apparatus, despite the significant gains made under Gorbachev. Since the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union had undergone a number of cultural "thaws", often followed by crackdowns carried out by the succeeding regime. Mukhin had spent the previous two decades devoting himself to secretly mastering the techniques of Russian icon and fresco painting, all the while publicly producing the sort of official art work expected of a member of the Union of Soviet Artists. In the image, Mukhin has stripped himself of both clothing and any of the tools of his profession while nevertheless reminding the viewer of the formidable presence of the tradition of Russian icon painting in his work, a presence that literally engulfs the figure of the artist. As a symbolic level, he evinces his deep connection to a native cultural tradition, yet presents himself as a melancholic figure, isolated and unable to act within that tradition.

The presence of the tradition of Russian icon painting is felt even more keenly in a second "Self-portrait" ("Avtoportret", 1990, Yaroslavl Art Museum) produced in the same year. In this image, Mukhin presents himself isolated in the darkened opening of a cave, a composition that recalls icons depicting the story of the Prophet Elijah in the wilderness as it was recorded in i Kings 16:29-19: i82. The prophet had called down a famine to punish the Israelites for their idolatry, specifically their worship of the pagan god Baal. Elijah then retired to a cave in the wilderness, where he was able to survive the famine through the Lord's compassion. As the Old Testament relates, the Lord caused a raven to change its capacious character so that it would bring food to Elijah each day. As is immediately evident, however, Mukhin has departed from the iconographic formula in several significant ways. Although he retained the traditional composition in which the figure of the bird flies in to feed the Prophet, the image is not that of a black raven, but of a white bird, perhaps a dove. As such, it recalls the story of the dove Yoah released and which returned with an olive branch, showing that the waters had receded and God had made peace with man3. While the Prophet is typically depicted holding a finished scroll, his creative work completed, Mukhin stands poised and ready to paint, his palette fully loaded with fresh colors. But he allows his brush to hang uncomfortably in the air, refraining from applying it to any surface. Indeed, there is nothing on which to paint no canvas or wood. The painter's forlorn gaze pulls the viewer into the tension of this thwarted moment of creativity in which the artist has to choose between two equally unattractive propositions: to make his mark on the arid surface of the cave wall, a mark that will certainly soon be washed away, or to do nothing at all, leaving his brush frozen in the air and effectively rendering unfulfilled the artistic promise it symbolizes.

By inserting himself within the well-known story of the Biblical prophet, Mukhin's narrative begs the question of whether he wished disaster on his countrymen for their idolatry. The surfaces of Mukhin's images - which so consistently evoke the Russian icon - add further urgency to the question. The surfaces of both images are marked with criss-crossing patterns incised into the layers of drying paint. While these lines recall the fine cracks and fissures which declare, the age of most icons, they are far different. Mukhin has done violence to the image itself, cutting into it with even lines that are clearly not the traces of time. I would argue that surfaces act metaphorically, connoting the brutality to which many hundreds of thousands of Russian icons were subjected in the Soviet period. As objects of prayer and veneration, icons were potent cultural symbols around which forces opposed to the Soviet government rallied. In recognition of this fact, the state pursued a program of church closures churches, converting the structures to warehouses, stores, clubs or factories. If it was decided that a particular icon did not possess art historical value, it was pulled out of the iconostasis" and used to board up windows, make crates, or simply burned. Other single icons, whether they were housed in churches or used in homes for personal devotions, were seized and had their metal covers pried off, since they were often constructed of precious metals that could be melted down and sold abroad2. In place of the absent icons, citizens were offered new images filled with the symbols and slogans of the Soviet regime. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Mukhin, who had spent so many years relearning techniques and symbolic systems that were threatened with obscurity, represents himself in the guise of the Old Testament Prophet who demands vengeance on his countrymen for their icono-clasm.Just as often, of course, Mukhin cuts through his own image, slashing at his neck, arms, and torso so that they resemble the body of a saint or martyr subjected to some sort of torture as an act of faith. By presenting his own figure in this manner, he again suggests the isolation of his struggle to preserve and revive this native artistic tradition.

By 1992, however, when he finished "The Victor" ("Pobeditel'") (1992, artist's collection), a major shift occurred in his self-portraiture. In this image, many viewers will detect the well-known story of St. George. The life of the second century martyr St. George the Victorious was a popular theme in Russian Orthodox icon-painting, particularly in works of the School of Novgorod3. The story is told that a fierce dragon lived in a lake near Selena, in Lydia. The local people of this region worshipped the dragon as a deity and sacrificed their children to it in order to appease the horrible creature. Children were selected by drawing lots and it eventually fell to Cleodolinda (sometimes called Elisaba or Elizabeth), daughter of the King. The princess was led to the lake's edge and was awaiting her fate when St. George, a tribune in the Roman Army, appeared on a horse and slew the dragon "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit". The King and his subjects, watching from a safe distance, were converted to Christianity by this sign of the Lord's power and were baptized in the faith.

In "The Victor", however, it is Mukhin himself in the guise of the warrior-saint, victorious in slaying the dragon whose bloody remains are still visible. But what force, we might ask, has been vanquished? Despite the painting's iconographic debt to the ancient story, one major element is missing: the princess. While she is not always present in icons of St. George, her absence seems all the more significant because ofMukhin's other departures from formula. In this case, he has replaced the clean-shaven face of the soldier-saint with his own bearded visage. The artist gazes directly as the viewer, his figure once again framed by a mountain rendered in the distinctive style of Russian icon painting. To understand the importance of the artist's gaze, one need only compare "The Victor" to the large 1990 self-portrait in which the figure of the artist remains utterly isolated and melancholic, his gaze averted so that he does not even form a symbolic relationship with the viewer. Now Mukhin fixes the viewer with his triumphant stare as he brandishes his sword over the dragon's remains. Here, too, the violence of scratches and cuttings made to the surfaces of his earlier self-portraits and their primary figure, the artist himself, has been resolved. Even the figure of his red horse with the lines of the creature's bridle suggesting a smile, contributes to the painting's jubilant air.

The date of this image once again suggests the key to understanding this shift in Mukhin's self-presentation. In this year, the artist rounded an institute. The Yaroslavl Icon School (Yaroslavskaia Icona), training sixty students and apprentices in the techniques of icon and fresco painting. Under Mukhin's direction, the students have restored frescoes at the 700 year old Tolga Convent just outside Yaroslavl that suffered serious damage when its buildings were converted to a prison for juvenile offenders in 1950'. Mukhin, then, had every reason to present himself in the guise of the victorious warrior who has triumphed in his battle with iconoclasm.

What I have attempted to suggest in these few pages are some of the complex questions Mukhin's painting raises about Russian national identity and cultural policy, both past and present. It seems particularly important to me in this regard that Mukhin is a "provincial" artist. By this I do not mean to suggest that his work is somehow naive or inferior to artistic production in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Rather, as Russians seek to redefine their culture in the post-Soviet period, one of the most important features will be the "decentralization" of the arts. Throughout much of the Soviet era, artistic production had been centralized and directed by an array of cultural policy organizations in Moscow. With the dissolution of these organizations, we can expect to see a new flowering of regional artists and artistic practices. This will be a boon for foreign viewers as well. Unfortunately, Russian contemporary painting is little known and less understood outside of the country's borders and interest in it is often marked by an attempt to locate Russian artists whose work resembles that made in New York or Paris. By virtue of his work uniting Russian traditions with difficult moments in Soviet history, Nikolai Mukhin will be an important voice among those newly emerging.

KAREN L. KETTERING, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Dayton

Russian to paint icon for church

By Sylvia Brooks

Dispatch Religion Reporter

In 1989, Russian artist and iconographer Nikolai Mukhin listened to the sounds of a revolution which had not yet occurred.

The sounds, either presentiment or intuition, became a painting called City on Sand, which represented his feelings about his relationship to his own government.
A brooding piece with brooding figures, its lines suggest an hourglass with time running out.
Today, after the revolution which toppled the Soviet Union, Mukhin, 41, considers something once unthinkable. He will paint icons and frescoes for a church in the United States.
This week he accepted a commission to paint icons for St Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church,
2219 Summit St, an Eastern Orthodox church in communion with Russian Orthodoxy.
He met -the church's rector, the Rev. Dan Rentel, when the local priest traveled to Russia last summer. Rentel invited Mukhin and he arrived this week, camera and measuring tape in hand.
Since his country became more democratic, the artist has found life more interesting. He also has become famous.
"To live and work in freedom is what every artist dreams of," he said in an interview before he left Columbus.
Before the fall of communism, the artist did secular works and taught himself the skills of iconography, which is the painting of icons or pictures of the Holy Family or saints. He did religious paintings secretly.
Since 1991, he has had art exhibits in Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico and Bulgaria. Currently he has an exhibit at Princeton, N.J.
He founded an art school, began restoring a 700-year-old monastery, painted frescoes and icons for a chapel in Japan, built a memorial museum on the site of his hometown's oldest cathedral, and was chosen by the Patriarch Aleksei II, spiritual leader of Russian Orthodox Christians, to paint major sectic large cathedral in Moscow.
A documentary on his life and work was presented on Russian national television last year.
Mukhin has formed a spiritual understanding and connection with Rentel and his family.
"The most important element in this work is Father Dan," Mukhin said. The priest, he said, can envision the work ahead. The artist sees the work through the prism of the priest's artistic understanding.
The completed work for the church will include 20 icons of various sizes and a 40-squareyard fresco depicting scenes of the life of Christ and church holidays. It may take several years to complete.
Some of the work on the icons will be done in Russia, he said, although art students from Ohio State University eventually will help as the work is assembled here.
Mukhin's mother remained religious even in the face of communism. She was a believer who never stopped going to church and took her son with her.
His hometown is Yaroslavl, 200 miles north of Moscow. More churches survive there then in many other cities, so he was exposed to religious architecture and art at an early age.

That corner of the Russian ethos at San Anton

WHEN General Valentina V. Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut 33 years ago and now in charge of the Russian Cultural Centres worldwide, last January presented an icon of St George and the dragon, painted in the Patriarchal workshop in Moscow, to President Ugo Mifsud Bonnici it proved to be an auspicious start to further artistic initiatives. The icon found its place in the Russian chapel, a little-known architectural gem in the neo-classical doric style that was erected in the 19th century within rambling San Anton Palace.

The idea to install the icon in the chapel was initially brought up during an informal conversation between Mrs Mifsud Bonnici and the hard-working director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Valletta, Dr Elizaveta Zolina. Since then, things moved ahead to further embellish the chapel.

Last week I had the privilege to see for myself the work being done on the shallow central cupola of the chapel by a celebrated Russian artist, Nikolai Mukhin, who was brought over to Malta to execute this decorative scheme that shows the Virgin and Child, in the icono-graphic type. known as Our Lady of Znamenie, known in the English-speaking world as the Virgin of the Sign. The two figures are encircled by a prayer to Our Lady in the old Slavonic language while four seraph ims and the four symbols of the Evangelists are disposed alternately within the outer circle.

For this particular project, Mukhin is working in collaboration' with Alexander Serikov. The two arrived in Malta on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, another auspicious factor for the nature of their work which they began in earnest and which was due to be completed last week. Covering an area of 30m2, the Byzantine decoration initially presented some difficulties by way of reconciling the idea as conceived in the bozzetto with the curvature of the cupola, but once the problem was overcome, work proceeded smoothly and rapidly.

Though Serikov is an artist in his own right, and his role at the Russian chapel is more than simply that of an assistant, the concept of the decorative scheme belongs to Mukhin, an artist who has made a name for himself in various parts of Russia and in other countries. Born in Kostroma in 1955, he studied at the Yaroslavl Arts College between 1970 and 1974. Apart

from his artistic practice, he is greatly involved in the Vocational Training School in Yaroslavl where he now lives and works to revive the old Yaroslavl school of icon painting, it being one of the principal centres of traditional Russian painting which also include Moscow, Novgorod, Rostov and Suzdal, Pskov and Tver.

Writing about Mukhin's determination to see the Yaroslavl tradition carried on, Savely Yamshchikov, chairman of the Association of Russian Restorers, stated a few years ago that Mukhin "knows all there is to know about it down to the minutest nuances". Which means that we can hardly think of anybody else more appropriate to bring to San Anton Palace a taste of the Yaroslavl School, characterised by its ensembles of 17th century monumental frescos which constitute one of the pinnacles of Russian art of the late Middle Ages.

It would be opportune to add here that Mukhin has been recently commissioned to do work in the gigantic cathedral being built in Moscow to replace the one demolished during the Stalinist era. And in his home town of Yaroslavl a bronze monument by him, inspired by Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, marks the site of that town's cathedral which equally fell victim to Stalin's anti-religious fury.

The creative expanse in Mukhin's art, linking contemporary and traditional idioms, goes beyond merely following those iconographic canons which had to be employed in the San Anton chapel due to the nature of the building. Having perused a photo album of his other work, I earnestly wish that an exhibition of his wide-ranging expressive paintings be brought to Malta in the future. [t would be a treat to all art lovers.

Whether such an exhibition materialises or not, art in Malta would still rejoice in years to come in having a permanent specimen of Mukhin's art, executed with all the spiritual commitment traditionally necessary for such work. Just to mention one detail to illustrate this point, the artist had to orientate the composition in a way that the figure of the Virgin seems to rise, like the sun, from the east, thus conforming to her role as the one who gave birth to the Light.

Through this symbolic language which, unless understood, would otherwise raise questions, we have a logical manifestation of this byzantine iconography that conceptually at least, even if not fully at the visual level, gains compatibility with the logic inherent in the neoclassical architecture to which it has been fused. For it is the totality of effect between architecture and painting that will henceforth help to a better appreciation of this beautiful interior, now happily regaining its former glory.

Probably built at a time when Grand Duchess Marie Alexan-drovna, wife of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was residing at San Anton Palace, the Russian chapel languished for many years in a state of abandonment or at best served as a store room. Its fate only changed when President Mifsud Bonnici took a personal interest to have it restored. The facelift was completed last year, revealing in the whiteness of the stonework its linear purity gently exposed through the natural lighting which struck Mukhin as being akin to "a divine light".

Recent additions to the chapel also include a set of paintings of the Apostles which were originally commissioned from Giuseppe Call for the Garrison Protestant church next to the Upper Barracca. Come to think of it, it is quite fitting that the celebrated Maltese artist, hailed as the father of Maltese painting of the modern era, should be the representative of local art in the company of this unique piece of Russian culture on Maltese soil.

E. Florentine

The Mysteries of Tradition

No tradition would survive in the history of culture if it did not absorb the spirit of its time. It is of no surprise therefore that an artist who works in the trend of a tradition becomes involved (sometimes even against his own free will) in a labyrinth of historical-cultural interrelationship. Indeed it might be said that there are only two ways for him to worm out of this labyrinth: one is to imitate mechanically masterpieces of old art, the other - to introduce into them the ideas and motifs of his epoch.

Nikolai Mukhin, a contemporary painter from Yaroslavl, has chosen the second way, that is why his art arouses special interest. He has turned out to be the only one who has undertaken a serious conceptual study of the tradition of Yaroslavl 17th-century painters and who is working to pass on the lamp of this tradition. He has reproduced some Yaroslavl icons, done murals in the altar and arches of the Church of Presentation of the Virgin in the Tolgsky Nunnery in Yaroslavl, murals in the Russian Church in Japan, painted the dome in the chapel of the president's palace Saint Antoine in Malta, and prepared sketches for the murals in the Russian Orthodox church in the United States. In all these works Nikolai Mukhin follows the special traits of Yaroslavl i^th century frescoes with their extensive iconography, rich colour gamut and peculiar combination of Old Russian painting traditional techniques and the New time tendencies. The i7th century in the culture of old Yaroslavl was the time of encounters and interactions. It was then that Yaroslavl became one of Russia's largest cultural and economic centres. Its extensive trade links did not just work tor the benefit of local merchants who donated their money for the construction of new churches, but also promoted the cultural contacts between the cities and towns of the Volga region and Moscow as well as the West.

The famous Yaroslavl tradition in decorative and monumental art which was born in that century was mainly characterised by Baroque works, which had always been a combination of scholarly and folk culture. And the two cultures entered into an interesting and challenging game. The Yaroslavl icon and fresco painting began to co-opt easily all kinds of forms - those of Western European art and local folk traditions. This closeness and interaction housed the enormous creative potential which in the end determined the peculiarity in the development of Yaroslavl's artistic culture in the i7th century and the emergence there of such great masterpieces as murals in the churches of the Prophet Elijah, of St. Nicholas the Wet, and St. John the Baptist in Tolchkov. These famous paintings reflected the changes in the view of life in the minds of that time: people became more perceptive of the divine disposal on the earth - from the Creation of the World to the Last Judgment. Alongside the canons which had always been a compulsory part of paintings in the Russian Orthodox churches, Yaroslavl icon painters began to create new compositions, based also on the Old Testament themes - "The Creation of the World", "The Fall" etc., which were placed on the porches of Yaroslavl churches.

It is well known that, on the one hand, these compositions appeared in the result of Yaroslavl artists' usage of western examples - engravings by German and Dutch masters, and mainly The Bible by N. Piscator and P. van der Borcht with illustrations from the Old and New Testaments. On the other hand, however, all these innovations were the result of the main devices of the Baroque artistic thinking being brought into Russia, with their new attitude towards words, symbols, and metaphors, play and mystery, correlation of sacral and secular. And we should bear in mind that it was in the 17th century, in the time of Baroque, that the Bible began to be looked at not only as a canon source, but became an object of free interpretation.

In other words, in the famous Yaroslavl icons we come across a new perception of culture which entailed a greater freedom of expression with all kinds of themes and forms than was acceptable before.

This was the perception of culture that had been inherited by Nikolai Mukhin when he turned to the work of old masters. He is an artist who works at the conjuncture of cultures and epochs. His frescoes bear a clear imprint of modern painting, but at the same time they represent contraposition of the old and the new, the existence of which is natural only in mutual attraction.

In his church paintings Mukhin is limited by the church canon. Therefore he is trying to concentrate on the subtleties of shape and colour, on peculiarities of compositions, just like the well-known Yaroslavl masters Dmitry Grigoryev or the Karpov brothers could be working three centuries ago. The latest research shows that western examples were never strictly copied by the i7th century Russian painters. Russian masters would always step aside from the original in their imitations. They changed backgrounds, scenery, outlooks of their characters, their movements and gestures. All this was done to embellish or simplify the composition and also under the influence of the traditional canon, whilst complying with the artist's concrete objective. Nikolai Mukhin's monumental compositions are based on well-known subjects as they were interpreted by the i7th century Yaroslavl and Kostroma icon-painters. To illustrate this, look at his murals in the altar of the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Tolgsky nunnery which include the scenes of the Eucharist and "Of Thee Rejoyceth"; in the Russian church of the Russian Village Park near Niigata in Japan with "The Old Testament Trinity", "The Intercession", "The Nativity of the Virgin", "The Dormition" and others. The dome of the president's palace chapel in Malta is decorated with the composition The Virgin Blacherniotissa with cherubs and the symbols of the four Evangelists. However, in almost all these compositions (particularly in the one of the Tolgsky nunnery) the artist introduces his own ideas. This is demonstrated by the way he organises the space of the piece - in the new correlation of scale and of the figure proportions, interaction of the ornamentation and architectural forms, and in the general arrangement of compositions on the wall. The author's innovations involve also all the main elements of the religious image - faces, human figures, landscape, and details of everyday life. The author's interpretation of the faces is of special interest. In his frescoes the borderline between a portrait and an icon is extremely subtle, which was characteristic of the first Baroque icon-painters - masters from the Moscow Armoury, where artists commissioned from Yaroslavl often used to work.

It was in the i7th century that faces on Baroque icons acquired human individuality, which was the result of the new attitude towards human personality. The Baroque icon-painters believed that the homiletic role of a prayer image was greater if while depicting the "personality" of Christ the icon reminded the supplicant that he did not only carry in himself the image of God, but also possessed his own. They required that the "individualities of the saints be distinguished" - a new for that period conceptualisation of the earthly life: "Look, sir, and understand, how can the images of the saints that followed in Christ's footsteps be dark," - this is how the famous Russian icon-painter losif Vladimirov was trying to convince the adherents of the old mediaeval canon.

Nikolai Mukhin has inherited this orientation of the Baroque culture on symbolism and metaphor, therefore he often tries to represent a saint's face as a symbol of the face. His interpretations effaces might bear the subtle features of real characters, which can easily be found in Baroque icon-painting. Because the mirror and the mystery of its reflection are among the main categories of a Baroque artist's outlook. They helped to make the borderline between art and life transparent. The imagination of the people of that period visualised the world as full of fairy-tale mystery, and the artist who resolved the puzzles "scattered" around him, was trying himself and made the viewer try to penetrate into neither more nor less than the Creator's concept.

The same Baroque influence can be traced in the contemporary author's interpretation of figures - their elongated proportions, gestures and halted movement. Here, too, however, the artist is striving to achieve a "mannerist" completion of the form; to symbolise old art in his own way.

The architectural backgrounds on Mukhin's frescoes are half-icons and half-fairy-tales. They combine the iconographic canon with old engraving and the author's imagination. The floral landscapes sometimes contain elements of art-nouveau (fresco in the altar of the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin in Tolgsky Nunnery) and the interpretation of stepped hills bears a completely new perception of their form.

To be precise, everything in these frescoes has been brought to a movable balance which makes the artistic concept live in the past and in the present at the same lime. It all is another proof of the fact that the time of tradition is really the "mysterious" time of the myth.

* * *

The Baroque tendencies in Yaroslavl culture have been given a new concept by Mukhin not only in church paintings. They have been reflected in his sculpture "Three Angels" (1994, Russian Village, Niigata, Japan) and "Trinity" (1995, Yaroslavl), as well as in secular paintings. And here as well, the Baroque tradition encounters in his work with the tradition of discovery and new approach to icon by Russian art-nouveau and avantgarde born in the Silver Age of Russian culture.

It was in the late igth and early aoth century that a great interest towards Old Russian culture developed in this country. A number of Russian artists who worked in the style of Art Nouveau and Symbolism were inspired by Old Russian icons and frescoes, miniatures and applied arts. The thorough study of Russian icons and frescoes can be noticed in nationalistic pictures by the members of the Wanderers group Vasily Surikov and Alexander Ryabushkin, it can be traced in the works by Ivan Bilibin and Dmitry Stelletsky who were close to the "World of Art" group. The heritage of Old Russia was of special significance to the work of Victor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov, Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich and Sergei Ivanov. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin had a special vision of the Old Russian icon ("Bathing of the Red Horse", 1912). It is noteworthy that many of these artists painted icons and churches. Victor Vasnetsov worked in Kiev's St. Vladimir Cathedral (1885-86), Mikhail Nesterov - in SS. Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow (1908-1911, 1913-1914), Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin -in St. Basil's Church in Ovruch (1910) and in the cathedrals in Sumy and Kronstadt (1912).

Russian avantgarde, on its part, managed to implement a kind of theoretical and artistic synthesis. The romantic ideas about the "national" character of art and the role of national traditions in world history produced an interesting combination in its experiments with ultra-modern search of meaning in the work of art itself rather than beyond it. To speak the truth, Russian avantgarde artists believed that the Wanderers' and the World of Art's fascination with Old Russian art was mainly a stylisation of the "National spirit" and "forgery" of national antiques. That is why they proclaimed the relationship between their art and the icon on the form level, 'where the form was perceived by them inseparable from the national contents. "An old Russian artist never thought of the national spirit, explained A. Grischenko. - He first and foremost thought of the composition, colours, painting and the vividness of his image - this was how he created a really national work ofart". This statement by a well-known cubo-futurist of the i9ios mainly testified to the fact that the 20th century an (like the art of Baroque) considered the analysis of its own form one of its main problems. Artists began to be inspired by old traditions, finding in them answers to the most profound questions of the time. And the best example of it is the resort to the icon as artistic form. Later, in the 1920s, the form of an icon could be made to serve the Soviet art of propaganda, it could also be used for sacralisation of new Soviet man; we can mention here the picture by 0. Pavlenko "The Komsomol Girl" (1925, Tretyakov Gallery) which in its composition and colour gamut reminds one of a peasant "krasnushka" icon (a traditional folk icon trimmed with red borders). And in this diversity of approaches to the Russian icon in the zoth century Nikolai Mukhin is trying to find his own. In fact, his paintings demonstrate a new apposition of cultural borders which helps him to strive for a real creation of new values, rather than reproduce the old ones.

Some characters in Nikolai Muknin's pictures seem to have come down from the icons and walls of Yaroslavl churches and present themselves in a completely new context: from their conventional mythological surroundings they are introduced into the real world.

Still, the artist depicts man and the world by choosing coterminous situations both in form and in contents. As far as the form is concerned his pictures combine elements of icon, fresco and plastic experiments; this form is in full harmony with the contents expressed in the transition from the eternal to the temporary, and vice versa.

Another leitmotif of the artist's work is the Fall. This theme gives an impetus to his imagination and gives birth to various kinds of typological cycles - "Man", "Motherhood", "Family Happiness", "Angel".

The artist's theme of the Fall is concentrated on the point when Man is about to violate God's prohibition and eats the Forbidden Fruit. The Fall is violating the border between two tiers of Creation; the moment that symbolises the transition into another state, when Man turns from the master of Paradise into a mortal creature. Therefore it is not by chance that Adam and Eve are shown together under the Tree of Life ("Adam and Eve", 1991) or at the moment following the Fall ("Big Eve", 1991; "Expulsion from Paradise", 1991); quite often Eve is shown alone ("Lonely One", 1991). This biblical theme all at once structurises the picture of the artist's world where we can find Paradise, the "World" and Hell.

God Lives in Paradise. Paradise is inhabited by angels who are invisible when they are there, but can be seen when intermediating between Paradise and Earth, that is when they show themselves to people. This is how the artist depicts them in his canvases ("Angel", 1990, 1993). That is why they keep "appearing" in his imagination from the picture of the world which he constantly supports by a certain set of ideas and images.

It is the angels that testify to the presence of the world and the Hell in this picture. But they are fallen angels led by Satan, i.e. demon ("Fallen Angel", 1991). One of them is awaiting Adam and Eve with his punishing sword at the moment of their Fall ("Adam and Eve", 1990). However, the Hell is of less interest to the artist than Paradise, as well as the loss of this paradise through the Last Judgement ("Name Day", 1991). Paradise may be represented by an icon landscape, for example, which reveals the connection between his scheme and lofty symbolical meanings (compare "Landscape with a Tree", 1993 with "Temptation of Adam", 1996). In Paradise there are flowers, icon chambers which can be inhabited by certain characters; then, there are heaven grapes growing there, and the Tree of Life - an icon fern tree with apples on it. Depicting Paradise the artist always shows an apple (most often it is cut into halves), which is the symbol of temptation and expulsion from heaven, for paradise interests him mainly as the place where the forefathers' fall took place.

The Apple is the main symbol in the artist's work. It can be seen in many of his pictures and bears a special meaning.

In mediaeval texts and especially in the Baroque period the Forbidden Fruit as a symbol of the Fall was placed in different contexts, which extended the complex of its meanings by turning them into the New Testament themes. Thus, the apple could be directly connected with Jesus' passion, at the same time signifying the heavy burden of mankind. The apple was also a central episode in the apocryphal text describing Christ taking Adam out of hell when Christ reproached Adam: "Adam, Adam! How far has the apple got you!" In Baroque drama of the i8th century the Fall was often described as "sweet-eating". As a rule, it developed the idea of the pride of Man which remained latent until after he ate the Forbidden Fruit. The apple as a symbol is directly connected in Mukhin's work with human passions, as it is brought into depicting real life. And it is to a great extent due to this symbol that the biblical theme can be developed by him in portraits, landscapes and still lifes.

The idea of sin, on the one hand, is matched by the artist with the idea of love, motherhood, family happiness, and on the other hand - with the New Testament idea of Atonement of this sin by Christ's sacrifice. Here, the ideas of the Fall and of the Atonement are inseparable. In the picture "Marina and Sasha" (1990) a married couple is shown not only with the symbol of the Fall - the apple, but also with the Hand blessing them. Despite the same symbol, the family happiness is protected by a Guarding angel ("Guarding Angel", 1991), while in the pictures with the Virgin this idea of Atonement straight away brings Motherhood up to the level of sublime truth ("Motherhood", 1991, "Thunderstorm", 1991, The "Undercover Motherhood", 1993. The title of the latter is derived from the icons where only faces, hands and feet were shown, the rest was covered with a metal, most often silver, cover).

The same essentially Christian idea about the inner link between man's deeds and Jesus' passions is present in the artist's works on religious subjects ("The Trinity", 1991, "The Kiss", 1993). The three Old Testament angels are missing in The Trinity. It shows a table with cups and apples on it. The artist himself and his family are serving: he is serving grapes - the traditional symbol of the Eucharist. This theme is continued in the Trinity and in the wall-paintings in the Russian Church in Japan. And in both cases the composition of the Old Testament Trinity includes a table with three angels sitting at it, and the same half of an apple on the table. Introduction of one and the same symbol of the Fall into the still life turns it into a kind of "heavenly repast": very often the cut apple is accompanied by wine or grapes ("Grapes", 1991). It can also be painted on a church plate with an ideal landscape in the background, which reminds one of a landscape in icons ("Still Life", 1991). On this account, the still life "Grape Wine" (1995) is quite symbolic, too.

In the context of all these ideas Man in Mukhin's pictures is shown on the border of two worlds. He is no longer an inhabitant of Paradise, but he has not yet entered the real world, he is at its border watching over it or letting the "world" watch him. Man is all the time on the border between myth and reality. In accordance with this relationship between the man and the world the artist builds a peculiar type of time and space. He does not work with historical time. The Time has been set for him. This is the time of myth inherent in any tradition when the past can exist in the present, while the unbeknown future is connected with that present. And the time that has been "stopped" turns out to be palpable due to space dimensions, more exactly - to the special theatricalized artistic space.

It is not by chance that from time to time curtain appears in the artist's pictures, it draws the borderline between the theatrical world with its constant juxtaposition of contrasting notions - real and unreal, the sublime and the lowly, the sacral and the mundane. The curtain draws the viewer's attention, because the artist while half-concealing what is behind the curtain, allows the viewer to observe. The curtain denudes the "model" ("Eve", 1990), the landscape ("Still life", 1991) or some construction ("Theatre of Things", 1995) and at the same time makes the artist's pictures multidimensional: the author obscures and discloses sacred objects and sacral events, forces together myth and reality, thus taking the viewer into the world where art and life can penetrate into each other.

A similar idea forms the context of his icon and church paintings. The icon-painting techniques which create a special dynamic balance between theatrical conventionality and reality help us to understand the symbolic meaning of the picture, for as we know, everything is symbolic in an icon.

These techniques might include, for example, the ways of depicting a human figure: at times Adam and Eve can be perceived just as or almost as they were interpreted by i7th century painters on Yaroslavl frescoes. Iconographic stepped hills, architectural chambers, fern trees, the blessing Hand, stylised inscriptions and abbreviations of Christ's or the Virgin's names - all these symbols create in the artist's works the glimmering of meanings. Sometimes they merge with elements of traditional culture, which immediately adds an element of play to them making them less serious. In the picture "The Victor" (1992) the artist showed himself with an allusion to St. George, but the forms that have been borrowed from traditional distaffs and icons all at once "bring the image down to earth" and let us understand it only as a metaphor. Word plays here a no less important role than in theatre, which is similar to religious art. Here, the artist is most often interested in the formal link between a word and an image, rather than the ontological one (as in icons); this formal link was contemplated by Russian Futurists, e.g. Velimir Khiebnikov: "We want the word to boldly follow the painting". Therefore in the artist's pictures we can often see inscriptions with a whole complex of meanings. It may be a title of the picture, as well as titles of its parts. For example, in the picture "Sinai. Mirage" (iqq6) the sea is undersigned "The Red Sea". The titles placed inside a picture arc supposed to help reveal their allegoric meaning. It can be observed in the "Return. The Archangel Michael" (1993), "Success" (1996), "Great Motherhood" (1995), "Romantic Landscape" and others. But sometimes this link between the word and the image is not expressed, it may only be guessed. For example, the title "The Undercover Motherhood" seems to collide with the image itself, because the latter is a more or less clearly expressed quotation from a great number of peasant icons - the "undercoveresses". The meaning of the picture is revealed here rather in the general idea of Atonement which is so important for the artist, as has been said above. The word, however, can be both theoric and all-sufficient. In some inscriptions it pays an independent role and invites the viewer to join the play. The curtain in the picture "Theatre of Things" (1995) does not uncover the stage where the action is taking place. It discloses the space of emptiness with a set of objects, the artist's self-portrait of his head and the words: "The spirits are low, but the picture has turned out good... P.S. That's how it happens. 21.01.95". This evaluation by the author of his own work - "good work", "a very good piece of work" (see also "Adam and Eve", 1995), on the one hand, invites the viewer to take part in a dialogue, on the other hand, its function is purely rhetoric, i.e., the function of the outer form, along which the artist's perception moves. This evaluation is an explanatory monologue of its kind, like in a theatre or in a silent film. This is shown in the inscriptions which prompt the next shot in a silent film, i.e. "Night" ("Temptation of Adam", 1996).

Another device used by the author also pertains to theatrical culture: it is dramatic identification and the translation of meaning. The author often shows himself in the character of Adam, or, say, Abraham, or St. George, while in Eve he depicts the characters who are kin to him and whom he knows well. In "The Trinity" he shows his own family as the family of Abraham. The self-portrait of 1993 made in the form of an icon imparts to the "model" the traits of a new Christian hero. In other words, the principle of transformation becomes a steady iconographic rule which allows the artist to connect the eternal theme of the Fall with the theme of evanescence and inconstancy of this world, which can also refer to the artist's own life. By using the icon's plastic techniques the artist maintains this connection with lofty Christian ideas, in particular with the idea of atonement of original sin by an earthly deed. Therefore it is not by chance that the paradise depicted by the author sometimes reminds us of a dream inspired by an icon image; a dream in which the forms of the real world transform into those of the ideal and mythological one.

Here, the surface of the canvas acquires special significance, it reminds one of the surface of a wall and imparts to Mukhin's works a feeling of monumentality. The frame reminds us of the rectangular space of an icon ("Lonely Angel", 1991; "Still-Life", 1991; "Motherhood", 1991; etc.). Nevertheless, the artist needs the frame not just as a sign pointing to the icon, but also as proof of the integrity of the work which he always fills with an abundance of various meanings.

The main role in this pictorial theatre belongs to the symbol of the apple. The whole dynamic work is often concentrated on this symbol, while it might be occupying a most insignificant space in the picture. In the picture "The Big Table" (1991) this symbol questions the values of the world and imparts an ambivalent meaning to the family idyll. Being part of the story, the apple as an object-symbol has an auxiliary meaning (it is being "played with"). However, in the still life this symbol turns into an object and begins to play a key role: all other "objects" enter into a dialogue with it and obey only it. A typical example is the "Still Life" (1991).

The apple symbol performs another important function. It is mainly due to it that both characters and stories from Nikolai Mukhin's pictures are presented in cycles (pictures form typological rows, along which constantly pass the same characters). This is another manifestation of Medieval and Baroque tendencies. This is why having seen the cycle with the Fall one can't help remembering the scenes from the life of Adam and Eve shown on the northern porch of the Church of Prophet Elijah or in any other Yaroslavl church.

The presence of the apple as a symbol is also a sign of the artist's religious picture of the world. It is a sign of the hidden antithesis of joy and sorrow which was long ago expressed in the old mediaeval formula: "light was the apple - heavy is the burden". Where this symbol is absent the artist's concern is the problem of the stability of our picture of the world, bringing about, in turn, the problem of the emptiness and loneliness of man, so vivid and so characteristic of aoth century art. The picture "Loneliness" (1991) is one of the most moving among the artist's work.

All these peculiarities of Nikolai Mukhin's work are not just a tribute to traditions old and new. This is a special kind of perception of the world, the artist's sincere understanding of the inner world of man. It is this understanding that makes it possible for traditions to live and change.


All images & text (c)