Edward Lucie Smith "Ekaterina Vorona"


EKATERINA VORONA What strikes one immediately, at first encounter, about the work of Ekaterina Vorona, is its swirling energy. Another, somewhat in contrast to this, is the fact that it is neither firmly figurative, nor committedly abstract, but seems to exist in a realm somewhere between the two. For the Western reader, to whom this book, with a text in English, is necessarily addressed, Vorona’s work offers difficulties that are not the fault of the artist. Western spectators are sometimes confident that they know a great deal about contemporary Russian art, thanks most of all to the now universal reach of the Internet, but also to the very substantial amount of publicity that the art then being produced in Russia received in the West during the decade immediately before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This art, of the so-called perestroika epoch, still resonates in the West today. It resonates in several ways. The first is that the art of the late Soviet epoch – of the 1970s as well as the 1980s - retains considerable prestige, and is still being explored by collectors and scholars, with a whole series of new publications. For instance, it has been realised that the social engagement shown by the Soviet realist artists of the so-called Severe School in many ways foreshadowed the pre-occupations of supposedly avant-garde Western artists in the first two decades of the current century. Secondly, the so-called ‘dissident’ or ‘non-conformist’ strain in late Soviet art also finds an echo in the work artists now at work in the West, striving to demonstrate their disengagement from official structures, yet at the same time to be populist. Thirdly, there is the fact that man of the non-conformist stars of the perestroika epoch moved to the West after Soviet Communism fell, in order to make the most of the opportunities now being offered to them. They sometimes exhibit in Riussia, but no longer reside there. In choosing expatriation, they are in fact following an example set for them by many of the leading Russian writers and artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Repin and Turgenev are cases in point. The result of this is that there is little meaningful context for Vorona’s work, in as far as criticism and evaluation by Western critics is concerned. Yet it is evident from the force of the paintings themselves that she is an artist of considerable stature. Her work displays very few, if any of the characteristics one has been led to expect from recent Russian art, before or after the divide marked by the fall of the Soviet remine – an event that is now more than a quarter-of-a-century distant. The scattered information available about the art of this post-Soviet period in Russia indicates that quite a number of initiatives exist, all of which seem to be irrelevant to what she does. There is Pop and Graffiti art. There is art that is an expression of Russian nationalism, often with references to World War II. There is an attempted return to classicism. There was also an attempt, apparently short-lived, to produce a Russian equivalent for the Conceptual Art of the 1970s and 1980s, but in this case inspired by French Structuralist philosophy. This tendency also manifested itself during the same epoch in some of the former Communist satellite states in Eastern Europe.. for instance in the Czech Republic. Vorona’s themes, on the other hand seem to involve an exuberant celebration of natural things and natural forces, simultaneously both Baroque and Romantic. It differs from all the possible archetypes cited above. One of the more striking characteristics of her work is that it seems wonderfully, energetically fluid. Fluid in more senses than one. First, because what the painted image makes one think of is the heaving surface of the ocean, or the flow of a great river – sometimes these surfaces appear to offer images of fish and other sea creatures underneath this surface, and in this sense they can be compared to a group of large paintings made by the respected British painter Michael Andrews (1928-1995), some of which were recently exhibited in a retrospective show devoted to the artist at the Gagosian Gallery in London. I suspect, however, that these works were not in fact known to Vorona. Andrews’ works of this type can easily be situated historically. They are the logical extension of a long established British tradition. Their ancestry can be traced back to the late work of the great British Romantic painter J MW Turner. With Vorona, it is difficult to be sure where the impulse comes from, though some suggestive comparisons can be made with the turbulent seascapes of Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900i). In Vorona’s work, however, there is a wild poetry that one associates more easily with Russian 19th century music, and also with aspects of Russian 19th century literature, than one does with the relatively sober productions of even the greatest Russian 19th century landscape painters. Another interesting aspect of Vorona’s art is quite simply gender – the fact that she is a woman painter, working on an ambitious scale. The Russian avant-garde art of the early 20th century was much richer in major woman artists than the equivalent situation in the West. One thinks of artists such as Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). Zenaida Serebriakova (1884-1967) and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). To some extent, this situation continues to exist today. Russian contemporary art can offer a large number of gifted women artists – at least as many as on finds in the West. There seems, nevertheless, to be much less focus on gthe search for recognisably feminist expression than one would find in the West. Cerainly, I can find no trace of this in Vorona’s work. She has perfect confidence in the validity of her own ideas and feelings, but at the same time feels no need to offer a commentary. For her, her ideas and her images are what they are. Spectators make of them what they will. In fact it is probably safer to say that what she needs to over is feelings, not ideas. And these feelings, as the paintings tell us, are never frozen in a single state, congealed s to speak, but are always in a state of flux. The images alter as we look at them – they are never quite the same when we look again, and re-encounter them. Once again, after more than a century of remarkable fluctuations in art – fluctuations of purpose as well as simply fluctuations of style – Russian art has produced a remarkable female talent, a woman painter who speaks to us with a remarkable disregard for surrounding critical structures, and for received ideas. She speaks for herself – and that’s enough to justify what she does. Edward Lucie Smith London, 2017