Transcending Trends of Art

Most of the Russian art that came to the West's attention during the Gorby years arrived with a lot of built-in attitude. It was embattled in both senses of the word: either too aggressive or too defensive. Some artists protected their work from the contamination of the marketplace by burying it beneath deep layers of irony, or superimposed layers of arcane theory. Others simply imitated the art they'd glimpsed in Western magazines, then gussied it up with Soviet-style kitsch, and played the publicity machine for all they were worth.

Both groups, the philosopher-artists and the sellers of themselves as the pop depicters of the "new" Russian reality, did well at first. Western curators and gallery-owners couldn't get enough of them. And by the time it occurred to the market that both groups were simply responding in different ways to the commercial imperative -- the Western money they were offering -- they had made their profits and moved on. Russian art quickly became last year's; the art world's wandering focus had shifted somewhere else. Gorby had by then left the political arena -- and with him had gone the heady romance of that first wonderful flirtation.

What got left behind were those artists who were not part of any (apartment) art movement and who had something less than an eye to the main chance: those who were not, in fact, members of schools and groups and fads and follies, but who were working quietly, often in a tradition that was so Russian (and therefore so foreign) that the gallery-owners and curators couldn't recognize it at all. And it's these artists -- few indeed and far between -- who are little by little now coming to the fore, and showing the West that Russia has its own -- if quite different -- Bacons and Freuds and Baselitzes and de Koonings, that it has, in fact, its own echt-Russian tradition.

One of them -- certainly -- is Maxim Kantor, 39, an artist and writer. I first came across Kantor's work some years ago in a monograph given me by a member of his art-philosopher father's circle. But nothing prepared me for the huge physical presence of the work when I stumbled across it the other day in London. It was opening night at the Royal College of Art's gallery; the British "great and the good" were to be there; I was invited at the last moment. And as I wandered around the pictures, a glass of bad white wine in hand, I was shocked and yet immensely braced and thrilled by what I saw.

At first blush, Kantor's main influence seems to the German Expressionism; the work of painters like Beckman and Grosz and Dix. His pictures are mostly large-scale; and certain subjects recur; rubbish dumps, wasteland, a building with tiny entrances and windows, and the grim public spaces of Russian life: canteens, hospital wards, waiting rooms and communal apartments. Some of his canvases are broken, discontinuous; and the color red -- the color of the old Soviet Union -- predominates.

The details in these paintings are uniformly unsettling: Corridors go on to infinity; crows gather over garbage; eyes are turned away from each other, blind, aghast, weaselly. Kantor seems, on the face of it, to be the unblinking Expressionist historian of break-up and catastrophe, of a public dream that led to private hells. I was reminded, looking, of what the Artists' Union had said when it (again) denied him membership, so that he was unable to buy brushes and canvases for his work: "Kantor is a good artist, but he does not like people." Neither, of course, did Goya.

There is no irony at all in Kantor's work (as there isn't in Goya's), and not a whisper of theory. There is a terrible anger, but also an equally ferocious compassion. There are portraits of his father and members of his family that bring to mind icons and Fayum portraits; they are generalized -- they stand for the suffering of humanity -- but they retain a vital, private, irreducibly human core. There are Christian and Biblical echoes in his work too -- a picture called Politburo, for example, contains twelve figures, apostles of banal evil in a hellishly ordinary Last Supper.

And even his figures of drunks and hospital patients and lovers alienated from each other in sleep or love-making seem not only doomed but also creatures in whom the light of the divine still faintly, distantly flickers -- like a lost memory. Degraded actors in a grim carnival not of their own making they may be, but they are still "the crown of creation, that swine, man," Kantor seems to be saying. This is the message, as it happens, of the greatest Russian writers of this century: Platonov and Venedikt Yerofeyev. Maxim Kantor, it seems to me, is somewhere up there with them.