by Roderick Conway Morris

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Kantor's 'New Empire'.

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 30 March 2005
Maxim Kantor
Winter Night by Maxim Kantor, 2002



Resolutely swimming against the tide in a sea of postmodern, conceptual art, Maxim Kantor filled the Russian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale with his bold figurative canvases. In these brightly colored expressionist works, Kantor - one of whose key images in the early 1980s lent its name to the 'Red House Painters' group of dissident artists - chronicled the repression and squalor of the late Soviet era, and the chaotic, crime-ridden, gangster-plagued birth of a new Russian state. Interspersed with these publicly played-out dramas were more intimate portraits of parents, family and friends.

The 48-year-old artist has returned to Venice this month with 32 new oils and nearly 120 etchings for a show entitled 'New Empire,' which continues at the Querini Stampalia Foundation until April 17, before traveling on to Belfast, Luxembourg, Berlin and Duisburg, Germany, during this year and next.

Shortly after the Biennale, Kantor became the first living artist to be given an exhibition at Moscow's Pushkin Museum, and in the following year, his works were shown in public galleries in several cities in Europe and the United States.

At that point the painter seemed immovably rooted in Moscow, positively relishing his role as a painter living through and recording, in the words of the Chinese curse, 'interesting times.' Meanwhile, however, he had begun to lead a more peripatetic existence and turned his gaze on foreign fields.

'Time I spent in the West enlarged my vision,' said Kantor at the current Venice exhibition. 'And I found the subject of the Russia I had been dealing with was closed. I described over many years how things were there, made images of people I liked and loved who were suffering oppression. But gradually this Russia changed and then ceased to exist. It became part of something bigger, part of something else. And a very provincial part. In fact, I don't believe that Russia will ever be really important again, not as it once was.'

'I also realized that what had happened in Russia was not unique. What we Russians took to be our own personal tragedy, our special experience, was only special to a certain extent. Russians had become so obsessed with their own fate that they did not notice that of others and did not see that even countries that were more advanced and prosperous had their own troubles,' Kantor said.

The artist has spent much of the last three years working on two sets of etchings: 'Wasteland' and 'Metropolis.' He financed the production of these monumental cycles by raising subscriptions for limited, hand-printed editions with texts by the painter, which have been bought by museums, galleries and private collectors.

'Wasteland' principally revolves around Kantor's characteristic Russian themes. But in 'Metropolis' he has created a vast compendium of images inspired by ancient and modern art, newspapers and photography, on the lines of a medieval 'Universal History' updated for our age, embracing geography, history, mythologies, stories pagan, biblical and Christian, illustrating societies, their hierarchies and power politics. The cycle culminates with scenes of the last of days, a contemporary take on St. John of Patmos's 'Book of Revelations.' These pictures call to mind the dreams and visions of some latter-day Old Testament prophet. They are intriguing, idiosyncratic, disturbing. And they chart the rise, triumph, decline and fall of Kantor's 'New Empire,' an unholy alliance of East and West, driven by ambition, greed, cynicism, heartlessness and the abandonment of spiritual values.

Indeed, as Kantor explained, he sees in the modern, post-cold-war world parallels with the Roman Empire. This, too, he says, was dominating, rich and international and paid lip service to religious and moral beliefs, but was devoid of deep convictions and was sustained by the exploitation of the weak and various forms of slavery.

Is the 'Book of Maxim' excessively pessimistic? Unholy alliance there may be between Bush, Blair, Putin et al, but is it justified to represent the West, and even contemporary Russia, as quite as cruel and corrupt as Brezhnev's, let alone Stalin's, Soviet Union?

Kantor was kicked out of school and deprived of the right to buy artist's materials for creating 'negative' images of his Communist homeland, and his paintings were impounded by the KGB. 'I told them: 'I love Russia more than you do. I am Russian and I love Russia. But I cannot love something without saying what I really think about it.' I would now say the same of the West. I love and admire it, but I approach it with open eyes and an open heart and want not only to celebrate its achievements, but to see its faults.'

Certainly Kantor is unsparing in his depiction of what he sees as the vacuities and follies of the West and the moral bankruptcy and arrogance of the political and business classes. 'My work has always had a satirical element, I did caricatures of the Politburo, and they were seized by the KGB. But if I were to be afraid of the reactions of a Mr. Brezhnev or a Mr. Blair - what would be the point of being an artist?' he said.

Prominent among the canvases related to the 'New Empire' etchings is a striking portrait of the pope. Through a series of patient and delicate negotiations, the artist was able to secure Vatican permission to sketch John Paul II at an audience. The resulting work shows the pontiff covering his face, seemingly appalled. On his knee is a crumpled newspaper with a banner headline 'The Revelations of St. John,' reporting the biggest scoop of all time - the impending end of the world.

'I believe in God, but I don't belong to any church,' he said. 'And I believe that the collapse of Christianity was the most important event of the 20th century. Because during that time, the church not only retreated, but was defeated. This has left a void. For this reason, the West is in deep crisis. And I think the main threat today is not terrorism but lack of ideas and ideals, and this is leading a once wonderful civilization to disaster.'

Paradoxically, some of Kantor's most private oils are the most immediately accessible. One of his strongest canvases to date is 'Winter Night,' the view from his Moscow studio of a silent nocturnal wasteland of bare, snow-dusted trees, outbuildings, a tenement and the back of a disused church, painted on the night his mother died in 2002. Here he achieves an extraordinary atmosphere of stillness, time suspended. Yet symbolism is never far away in Kantor's work. Discernible in the half-light are 13 stray dogs wandering the wasteland: 'They represent Christ and the apostles,' Kantor said. 'Their outcast status then, and their status today.'

Kantor is widely read in philosophy and literature, and in many ways it is easier to relate his pictures to mystical, not to mention satirical, traditions in Russian literature - the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol - than to any previous schools of Russian art. He has no time for the likes of Kandinsky and Malevich, seeing their effect as pernicious. He cites instead as major influences van Gogh, the Picasso of 'Guernica,' Goya and the 15th- to 16th-century German painter Mathias Grünewald.

Greater freedom in Russia has led to a general crisis in the arts. Kantor is now immersed in producing his first novel. It will be interesting to see what this determined individualist brings to that most universally and consistently admired of Russian modes of expression.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024