Why do I Love the Grotesque?
Practically all of my recent cycles of illustrations are based on biographical material. This universal human experience tinted with the personal one is sometimes manifested quite unexpectedly. This is how it was, for example, when I illustrated Nikolai Tikhonov's stories collected under the title War Steeds. The fact that I have loved horses from childhood and was involved in equestrian sports turned out to be important in this case. The common love for horses united the writer and the illustrator. Poet Nikolai Tikhonov, a former cavalry man, had kept this love alive to the end of his life.
Each of the four stories expresses the author's respect for the individuality and originality of these noble animals. The author contrasts the freedom and naturalness of these noble animals with war's filth and lack of humaneness. This bright, active and dynamic theme had to have been present in the plasticity of the illustrations for War Steeds. In this, both the writer and the artist were in full accord. It was the artist's job to find adequate artistic images to express his feelings.
With a power of poetic expression that is peculiar to him, Tikhonov shows the grotesqueness of the situations that arise during war time. He points out the paradox and the absurdity of war. The task of the artist, as I saw it, was to emphasize the contrast between the ruthlessness and at times cruelty of the "word" describing the reality and the author's position towards that reality. A light, dynamic, active and inventive series of illustrations needed to be in opposition to the realities portrayed in the text and accentuate the difference between "light" and "dark" in such a way that the light areas of the drawing vanquished the dark. In correspondence with this, the technique of engraving on copper with an incisor was selected. This technique shows the tension and dynamics of the stroke.
The autobiographical cycle "The Lines of Life" and the illustrations on motifs from works by Mikhail Zoshchenko, Nikolai Tikhonov and Ogden Nash, I did in a style which makes 'them closer to one another. How then are they connected?
Scraps of paper with sketches of workshop interiors and fleeting portraits of acquaintances, drawings done by memory of events in a communal flat and observations made on the street, recollections of particular details of personal life and so forth - all of these drawings have no great aesthetic meaning individually, but when they are taken in totality and placed even without chronological order in a sufficiently lengthy row of illustrations, they unexpectedly take on some type of new qualities. Their correlation with the biography and personal life of the author (whose portrait appears from time to time in his drawings) create out of these chaotic elements a system which it is difficult to formulate, but which is easily felt. It is not isolated illustrations of living events, but their totality creates a certain wholeness.
It is especially interesting that this graphic series could be endless. I still don't know what will happen to "The Lines of Life" and how these "lines of life"
will weave together. The emphasis on documentality and concreteness (each etching has a date and place written on it) obviously lends the cycle an air of "historicism". The whole cycle of "The Lines of Life" begins with a caricature self-portrait and the degree to which it resembles the original is the same degree to which the illustration is correlated with real life.
The cycle "The Lines of Life" came about as if unexpected and accidental, but when the need arose to illustrate Zoshchenko's Blue Book and Stories it became the fundamental material for the work. This "visual narrative" is made of small etchings, where notes and observations are recorded. It is a kind of lightning rod for the emotions that were brought out by the wrongness of communal life in Leningrad. Thus, its form coincided with artistic form needed for Zoshchenko's work.
For the illustration of the Blue Book it was necessary to create the communal apartment's atmosphere of tightness where people live with their petty fears and cares. Almost every story in the Blue Book is accompanied by an illustration.
It was a completely different task to interpret Zoshchenko's Stories. The technique used was also different. The illustrations for the Blue Book were done by etchings, whereas the illustrations for Stories were done in water-colour with pastels, Indian ink and whiting. This was because in the Blue Book it was important to communicate the feelings and relationships of the author (and after him the artist), however in Stories the lyrical personal element should fade into the background and the centre stage be taken by the epic, "pan-human" element. I want to point out that one of my own real live observations influenced the composition of the series of illustrations. I lived in communal apartments in Leningrad and was always struck by the disproportion between the very high ceilings and the sizes of the individual partitioned rooms. Thus, this peculiarity of proportion of "the communal" determined the large blank spaces at the top of the drawings and the cramp-ness of the subjects and people at the bottom. I did not begin to illustrate each story separately, but gathered the events of several stories on one theme in one illustration, for example, The Bath-House, The Kitchen, A Train, Institutions and Offices, A Street and so on.
Thus, an unhurried narrative with a long rhythmic period not unlike a hexameter in poetry was achieved. This narrative covered all spheres of life and work of the 20's as well as those of today.
In January 1987 the publishing house Kniga invited me to do a book of poems by the contemporary American poet Ogden Nash for Lenizdat Publishers.
I knew the work of this paradoxically thinking poet and it was close to my understanding of the grotesque. I agreed to illustrate it. It is possible that as a result of the lack of a break between working on Zoshchenko's Stories and Nash's Everyone but Thee and Me, the approach to the interpretation was to some degree similar, in spite of the fact that the media selected - colour etchings - was different. There are exactly one hundred poems in the collection and each group of ten is supplied by one illustration, thus ten themes were abstracted from the verses themselves. The adequateness to the poetic structure was sought in ironic absurdity of the situations, which I myself thought up during the process of the work, although several subjects, buildings and articles of clothing are associated with the original country - America.
The lines in Nash's poems are long and uneven, not unlike Russian folk poetry, in which reality is interwoven with paradox and with the grotesqueness of folk fantasy. There exists a connection between illustrations for Nash's poems and cheap popular prints and in this way, the two cultures of the different peoples take on a degree of similarity and parallel traits when comparing the drawings and the text.
In spite of the similarity in the approaches to the illustrations for Zoshchenko's Stories and the Ogden Nash book there is an essential difference.
The assembling of many situations in one picture and their graphic loquacity create a sensation of actuality and simultaneous action in Stories, but in the illustrations for Nash's poetry I strove for generalization, for the symbol and for timelessness in depiction as if it were a hieroglyphic sign of events.
I would like to illustrate the work of a Japanese or Chinese author in the same way. The art of these countries has had an influence on my work which appears indirectly in my pictures.
The sketches and illustrations for Gogol's Dead Souls were thought over during the same time that I was working on the Nash book. It seems to me now the "contamination" of the East appeared in the plasticity of the illustrations, and in the effort to make the types and images of Gogol into symbols. This was one way. The development of a "free brush", dynamics and energy in line and form was another.
If I am to speak of the essential side of the illustrations, then I would say that I tried to look at Gogol's poem through the eyes of a modern man and see what is common in Russian reality, i.e. - what was then and what is now. This requires stepping away from the plot of the narrative and concentrating on the analysis of the author's viewpoint.
This is difficult and responsible work. Fifteen illustrations are done now, most of them have been transferred to colour autolithographs, but the work is not finished yet. The main task is to achieve "metaphorical"' illustrations, using the means and devices of the grotesque, which was the crux and core of Gogol's artistic method.
It is very important to remember that the major function of illustrative art, just as it is for the performing arts (movies and stage), is to reach a sympathy with the spectator. It is of essence to create contact and a dialogue with the viewer and I have personally noticed that for me that contact occurs more often where there is the grotesque.