The Temple of the Tail

Kirill Kobrin

Conversation with the artist Viktor Pivovarov


The Moscow Museum of Oriental Art has opened Viktor Pivovarov’s exhibition “Foxes and holidays”, and its basis is the art-album with the same title from 2005. The Museum of Oriental Art is a very suitable place for such an exposition if we take into account that in “Foxes and Holidays” Pivovarov works primarily with a few Eastern symbols and images (actually, the foxes came from old Chinese fairy tales to the Prague-based painter). And in September, in Berlin, he is going to have another show, also named after one of his art-albums, “The Gardens of the Monk Rabinovich”. It was interesting for me to discuss with Viktor not only the events themselves, but his position as an artist who is situated at the crossroads of several geographical, cultural and historical aspects. Where is the sound of his voice coming from, or, to be exact, where is his eye looking from? Thus the idea for this conversation was born. I insist on this particular genre, it is a “conversation” rather than an “interview”, it is not a formal journalistic genre, but a friendly (my acquaintance with Viktor started seventeen years ago) discussion of the most interesting things in the world: literature, music, philosophy. And, of course, art, including Viktor Pivovarov’s.

Kirill Kobrin

From the “Cutouts” series. 2002

Kirill Kobrin: Viktor, in the upcoming two months you are going to have at least two exhibitions. One is in June in the Moscow Museum of Oriental Art, and the other will be in September in Berlin. I will open our conversation with a completely foolish question. You’ve been living in Prague for at least thirty years, and Prague is geographically and culturally closer to Berlin than to Moscow. However, you are considered a “Russian” artist, of course I am not talking about your nationality, or even about your cultural preferences, I am talking about which context you connect yourself to nowadays. In other words, can we state that you are an “unofficial Soviet artist”? Or are you really a “contemporary artist living in the Czech Republic”? Or are you a Central-Eastern European artist? This question, regardless of its seeming abstraction or even actual foolishness, has an undeniable platform in both of these new exhibitions. For example, in Moscow, are you exhibited as an important player, in a wider context, in the local art scene? If not, then can we pose a similar question about Berlin (I am not talking exclusively about Germany, but about the whole region)?

Viktor Pivovarov: I need to make an effort to think in the framework that you set up for me. I do not think of myself as a Russian artist, a European, or a Russian-Eastern-European one. As for the more narrow aspect of which artistic context I see myself in, then I can answer that I am not in any, and haven’t been for a long time. Once upon a time I felt I was a part of the Moscow artistic field, in the broadest sense, not only the so-called Moscow conceptualist school, but the range of artistic bohemia, which included a variety of artists and poets. My closest friends were Kholin, Sapgir, Eduard (Edik) Steinberg, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and none of them were conceptualists in any way. But this circle had long seized to exist and therefore there is no need to identify myself with anything.

In general, the question of the artist’s identity who was born in the Soviet Union or Russia is rather curious. Culturally we are all Russian. I have the audacity to speak for all of us. In other words, we all speak Russian, we have all been formed by the Russian (or Soviet) cultural and social sphere from birth, by the chairs on which we sat, the teacups from which we drank, how we greet people, how we psych ourselves out and so on.

Eduard Steinberg, Viktor Pivovarov, Vladimir Yankilevsky. Moscow. 1978. Photo: Igor Palmin

We get this cultural baggage (or cargo) unconsciously. All the other baggage we get consciously by learning and developing. We learn not only our own culture during the educational process, but also others, especially the European culture. For example, we learn the history of European art and literature. And then this fork appears, as we develop a general awareness that we are not a part of Europe. There wasn’t such a consciousness during the Soviet Union, and it doesn’t exist now either. Dante and Vermeer for us are transcendental, though it is as if the Iron Curtain was left in the past.

Thus, if we are talking about an artist who was born in Russia, then we are dealing with a forked phenomenon. On the one hand, this artist was raised on European art culture, as no other exists in the perceivable space, on the other hand, he does not feel that he is himself a part of this culture.

Viktor Pivovarov. Photo: Andrei Levkin

K.K: Well, as you masterfully strayed from this discussion, let us slightly narrow down the theoretical sweep. The question of “influences” is actually a lot more concrete, isn’t it? We can talk about influences without the risk of falling into a discussion of identity and belonging to something above the identity. It seems to me that in this particular question you really stand alone, because you accept any influence that “fits” you well. This can be Vermeer, or Repin, of course Malevich, and so on. For example, even the drawings of Leonardo. But as you experience this influence, as you try it on yourself, as you wonder how these elements would be stacked in your own art system, you end up removing these artists, their vision and their ways of working from their historical and cultural contexts that had borne them, is that not so? You are not interested in history as such, I am not talking about a set of facts and events, but about the history of a particular artistic phenomenon that affects you. Or am I wrong? For example, “absorbing” Malevich’s influence, you are probably indifferent to the artist's revolutionary ideas that bore him, to his practices and even to his actual revolutionary system of thought?

If all this is true, then there are a few questions being raised. The first is ironically a historical one. Was it always this way? How long ago did you free yourself from the historical context, from this “nightmare of history”?

From the “Cutouts” series. 2002

V.P.: Yes, you are absolutely right, history doesn’t interest me at all. Well, it does interest a different part of my “self”. On the contrary, I try to dig up the most minor facts in artists’ biographies to better understand what they are saying. But this interest is connected to the interpretation of their work. The question of influence has almost no connection to the question of interpretation. Influence is like love. If I'm experiencing the influence (love) of Morandi, or Magritte or Malevich (for some reason all three begin with the letter M), then this influence is not associated with interest in any particular historical context, or even in the fact that you can define the artist’s personal contribution to culture, like an artist’s letter. We fall in love with the form. The color of the eyes, the flow of the hair, the curve of the hand...

“Eva’s precious hip and line
Early morning makes divine...” (Genrikh Sapgir)

So, if we are talking specifically about, for example, Malevich, then you're right, the discussion is not about the influence of his destructive anarchist ideas, or even his

much more relevant and exciting space utopias, but something that is beyond all of that, the influence of something much more subtle and elusive, and certainly outside of the rational that pays attention to the person as he is. To the person of all times.

So to answer your question, I say yes, it has always been this way. And I didn’t have to get rid of “the nightmare of history”, because for me the “nightmare” never existed. There was and there is no history. Cranach is my contemporary, I see that he experiences the same trepidation as he touches the “line of the hip” as I do, that he breaks the space the same way as I do, the same way as Dali or Malevich. He draws a cloudless sky with a smooth transition from the deep dark blue-green to the very light, almost white color on the horizon.

Viktor Pivovarov. I didn’t touch anything. 2007. Ceramic plate, overglaze painting

K.K.: I would like to point out that by escaping the “history”, by denying its effect on you at all, by denying the presence of such a phenomenon as “history” in your thinking, you still fall into history, only from the other side. If Cranach is your contemporary, and the world (the world’s past, the sequence of its events and their meaning) does not matter to you, then you also find yourself in the historically rather narrowly-defined group of writers, artists and even theorists who practiced the so-called “art for art’s sake”. This is the era of the late romanticism and decadence. But, and here I take the risk to carry the responsibility for this direct statement, there is nothing further away from you as an artist than decadence. On the other hand, you're a romantic, aren’t you? It’s not just a matter of Groys’ famous definition of “romantic conceptualism”, I am talking about your literary, musical, and even artistic preferences. You love music from the Romantic era. I remember how you got me literally “hooked” on Schubert, despite all my protests and even screams that this only got played as the musical accompaniment to Soviet documentary films about the last years of Lenin's life. Your most famous illustrations were for children's books written by Romantic writers, from Anderson to Pogorelsky. Among your favorite writers there are also plenty of Romantics, mainly: Hoffmann, Gogol, Tyutchev, and so on. Finally, it is impossible to overestimate the impact Caspar David Friedrich had on you. But there's a catch here: in reality, the current concept of history and historicism were invented by the Romantics (starting with the early Romantics). Is it possible to say that you are bringing Romanticism to an end, having completely abandoned history, its main component? I swear I won’t ask any more stupid theoretical questions. But you understand that I really need to comprehend where Europe stands and the European way of thinking (including art) that is reflected in your art, because later we will focus on exhibitions, in particular which feature or will feature the works which use completely different culture codes, both Far-Eastern and Jewish. Even their titles are speaking about this concept: “Foxes and Holidays” and “The Gardens of the Monk Rabinovich”. That's why I'm asking this question: “Can you say that you are bringing Romanticism to an end, having completely abandoned history, its main component?”

V.P.: Kirill, in your questions you have more questions than I have answers. For example, you are asking me, am I bringing Romanticism to an end. How would I know, maybe tomorrow a new Romantic will come, the likes of which we have never seen. And in general, don’t you think you need to think about whether the person who once had read Andersen and Hoffmann is a Romantic at all. We see ourselves badly in the mirror of self-knowledge, but all your aforementioned writers, plus Caspar David Friedrich, are the hobbies from a distant youth. If I tried to put myself on some kind of a shelf, a task already fraught with profound error, I would put myself on the shelf of existentialism. Almost from my first unillustrated opuses from the thankfully unpreserved series of “Temptation of St. Anthony”, and the already mentioned by you the newest series “The Gardens of the Monk Rabinovich”, I exist in the field of existentialism. I think so anyway. That includes “Projects for a Lonely Person”, and “Diary of a Teenager”, and “Apartment 22” and the album “Yellow”, about which you wrote, etc. etc.

If you agree with these statement, then you will have to answer this question: what is existentialism’s relationship to history? Perhaps I'm not alone in my rejection of its influence on an individual human being. I think my favorite existentialists Giacometti and Lucian Freud would support me. And what would your favorite Beckett reply?

Party. 2008

K.K.: I hate interview-discussions in which the participants agree with each other. Why speak if everything is already clear? And therefore our discussion is becoming amusing. I adopt the word “discussion” in the sense that Piatigorsky put into it. It is not an exchange of opinions or information, but an attempt to create a determined/undetermined field of meaning, perhaps even questionably so, and, I must confess, sometimes insignificant at all. So, the discussion is “curious” because we do not agree with each other, but at the same time, we are standing in the same space, we are sharing the terminology for the most part, we are partaking in the historical and cultural experience, and so on. Only after this introduction I can say that I completely disagree with you on all of the above points. Firstly, there will be no such “Romantic” ever appearing again. Perhaps (and this is not a joke) you are the last Romantic in the European world. Let me explain. A Romantic is someone whose way of thinking is Romantic due to the respective historical and cultural era of Romanticism. Romanticism had not finished in the 19th century, we had “late Romanticism” that gave rise to Decadence, partly even Modernism. And that’s where you pick up the banner of Romanticism, during the “second edition of Modernism”, which, in many respects, was Soviet unofficial art. And finally (why shouldn’t I state the obvious?) in order to overcome Stalin’s Empire, to overcome the plastered “high Social Realism” with attacks on Classicism could only be implemented from the Romantic platform.

Look at the real postwar Russian art and literature, not the rotten Soviet kind but the real, underground and semi-underground. They were all solid Romantics, is that not so? Even Brodsky with his supposedly classical posture was a Byronic lad from Leningrad and so on. So you can’t get away from Romanticism.

Viktor Pivovarov. A packet of cherries. 2005

The second point with which I disagree with you is that I put you on a “shelf”. No way! No shelves. It’s very simple: there are people who are blonde, and people who are left-handed, but it doesn’t mean that somebody “puts” them somewhere. They became that way in the course of natural and social circumstances mixing together. In your case, as I see it, “Romanticism” is your so-called socio-psychological nature, a quality that was formed back in childhood. That’s why there is all this children’s reading materials and that’s why you are such an incredible children’s illustrator. Because in order to illustrate children’s books, you need to not necessarily love children (God no! How can someone love them?) but to have a living relationship with your own childhood, and therefore try to populate it with the images and things that were lacking before.

Existentialism. I do not want to fall into tediousness, but there are a few existentialisms; Moreover, existentialism is often understood somewhat perversely. That means, existentialism is when (as we all know) “existence precedes essence”, that is, in other words, we live and then we die, and we can’t do anything about it, it doesn’t depend on us. Such is existence. Some see this circumstance as a great blessing and try to pompously talk about it a little; others shake from fear and dwell on some kind of “absurdity” (for example the dubious moralist Camus). In that sense, yes, of course, history on that level of “existence” doesn’t mean anything. But on the level of the “essence” it means a lot, almost everything. So, yes and no. Lucien Freud, which we both love so much, did not deny history, in fact, if it wasn’t for history, he would not have become “the artist Lucien Freud”. To build the “artist” Lucien Freud we needed Hitler to happen, we needed the Germans to collectively become crazy, kind of like the way nowadays the people of the Russian Federation are going insane, we needed the Jews to be persecuted, his father's family needed to move to Britain, but not to the US, and so on and so forth. The way Lucien Freud became the artist that he was depended on a combination of reasons on different levels, on the level of family history, and on the level of history of several countries in Europe and around the world. And only as a result of this combination Freud praised the very flesh that for him was the artistic realization of the principle of “existence preceding essence”, the existence is the flesh that precedes the essence of identity, the essence of personality, the essence of the person. As for Beckett, he was certainly a purely historical writer who (nervously and with paranoia) tried to portray himself as post-historic.

I will ask one more almost indecent question. Your albums, including “Foxes and Holidays” and “The Gardens of the Monk Rabinovich”, can we not call them “artistic and anthropological studies of the consciousness of the Soviet man”? How universal is the type of everyday consciousness with which you work in albums and some series of paintings?

From the “Foxes and Holidays” album. 2005

V.P.: You know, Kirill, Schubert has intervened into our dispute with you as we talked about Romanticism and existentialism. The same one which, as you stated, I have made you “obsessed” with. It happened the very next day, after I sent you my last reply. In the morning I turned on the music program, which Milena[1] and I often listen to during breakfast. They were playing Schubert’s famous quartet “Death and the Maiden”. And it all became clear. I can dodge all I please, I can consider myself a transcendentalist, existentialist, nominalist and anything else, but I can’t escape the Romantic essence anywhere. And the essence presumes and suggests that the reality in which we exist is at least twofold, there is a visible reality and the invisible one, there is a visible tangible existence, and the invisible, the intangible, which opens only during the experience of inspiration, during the ecstasy of creativity and love.

And now onto your question.

I think that my aforementioned latest albums definitely can be called artistic and anthropological studies of the consciousness of a modern man, the broken pieces of the human consciousness that experienced Soviet life. In other words, do you feel my slight correction? There is no Soviet consciousness any more, it is broken, but shards of it are here and they are floating around in the mind, and, along with other fragments, such as these fragments of a kind of European consciousness, which is also broken, and altogether they add up to different, sometimes very whimsical, patterns.

And in this sense, you can rightly catch me on my word: isn’t the described kind of consciousness a historical one? Of course it’s historical. When I deny history and declare that Cranach is my contemporary, it means that in some way it only means that in that moment I'm on another level of consciousness. History doesn’t exist on this level.

You wonder how universal is the consciousness with which I work?

For this, quite in the spirit of Piatigorsky, it is possible to ask whether there is a universal consciousness. As for art, any art, you know it as well as I do that for every work of art there is a purely personal part, it is individual or local, and there is also a universal part. The contact with the “universals” gives us the possibility of a partial “reading” of the work. But even the contact with the “incomprehensible” of the work is also a part of the “reading”, only dictating more subtle “mental” tools. It is only with the help of these tools can such “texts” be read, such as, for example, the Schubert quartet.

Monk and Fox. 1989. Paper, ink, color pencils

K.K.: Dear Viktor, if everything is just pieces and shards, in other words, a mixture of them,  then it turns out that your things never have a finished form! They change, develop in different patterns depending on the context and on who looks at them and how they are perceived. So we have returned to my first question. Tell me, will the patterns of your exhibitions in Moscow and Berlin be different, for you and for the viewer? That second point is obvious, but if we look at the details, how do you imagine the reaction of the Moscow audience and the Berlin audience looking at the same “Foxes” and “Rabinovich” exhibits? And here is a truly hooligan type of question: what if you exchange the location of these albums, so the one in Moscow you would exhibit in Berlin and vice versa? What will happen then?

P.S. I have always believed in Schubert, he has such a kind face in his portraits... and the glasses are wonderful!

V.P.: The Moscow “pattern” was a surprise to me. The young curator from the Museum of Oriental Art Diana Farmakovskaya came up with the idea to exhibit my album “Foxes and Holidays” in their museum, and I added to this the album “Sutras of Fear and Doubt” which is closely related to the “Foxes” album, and also the wall-hanging scrolls from the series “The Chinese Lesson”.

At the same time, although I had agreed to this exhibition, I couldn’t get rid of the self-consciousness, since all three projects have already been exhibited in Moscow previously. The surprise, which, by the way, was a happy one, was expecting me in the museum, particularly in the area that I was given for the exhibition. One of the three halls, and this was the main entrance hall, was left entirely painted from a previous exhibition, and it was an excellent dark red “Tibetan” color, and they left this color by chance due to the lack of time. When I started to hang my long scrolls in this hall, my ten meters long “Sutra” of the same red color ended up centered on the plinth, this palace hall of the first half of the 19th century had turned into some kind of temple, into an incredibly strange temple on the central altar place which ended up being the scroll with the fox tail. The temple of the tail!

It was a gift. And I was not ashamed, I was hoping that this “ornamentation” was new and somewhat unexpected not only for me but also for the audience.

I didn’t have to wait for the reaction of the audience, just a couple of days after the opening there was a review of the exhibition in “Novaya Gazeta”. I don’t know whether you can consider a review in the newspaper as the audience’s reaction, but since there isn’t another way to record it, I guess it’s possible to consider it. And this reaction, probably only for me, was completely unexpected. Namely, my poor exhibition was seen and read, however very positively, only in the context of the current political situation in Russia. In other words, I could never have dreamed of this outcome, not even in the wildest surreal dreams. Here is a particularly striking fragment for my fancy:

“... But the absurdist game has historio-philosophical insight, like the Saint Fox Ivan Ivanovich, “the night watchman of the dwellings”, who was invented long before the current triumph of Vladimir Vladimirovich. Or the “Feast of Freedom from Fear and Doubt”, during which “the children are presented with yellow mice”, should have been black with yellow ribbons. We don’t have to be reminded of the bright eastern future under the Huli Jing sign: we are told all about it constantly on the federal channels with their ‘Chinese lessons’.”

Sutra of Fear and Doubt

The author, whom I know personally, and whom I like very much, obviously resisted the the influence of mass propaganda, but could not resist the rampant politicization of his complete consciousness.

Since the Moscow audience’s reaction was a surprise to me, it is useless to even talk about Berlin’s audience, which I just don’t know at all. It would please me to accept your proposal to play the game of “interchange”, but I fear that nothing would come of it. I don’t think I am much mistaken if I suggest that the Berlin exhibition did not cause any reaction at all.

[1] Milena Slavicka is Viktor Pivovarov’s wife, she is a Czech writer and an art historian