Despite its undeniably realistic appearance, this Vase of Flowers by AMBROSIUS BOSSCHAERT [c. 1618-1621, Mauritshuis] could only have existed in the painter’s mind. The reason is that these species, so meticulously represented in a single place and time, did not flower at the same time of year in the Netherlands.1 Before painting this impossible bouquet, the artist captured them over several months in pencil and watercolour, like the industrious bee choosing the finest specimens throughout spring and summer to make its honey. This vase could be seen as a metaphor for SASHA DRUTSKOY’s painting. Like Bosschaert, he places incompatible, anachronistic figurative elements side by side in a unified image. He depicts objects and creatures which, like the flowers in this vase, do not belong together.
At least, this is how he has worked since 2007, the year he perfected his own distinctive pictorial world. His Debatable Proposition is a prime example. Via the shadow cast by a figure, the fiction of theatre — evoked by a spotlight and a curtain — cuts through the fiction of the painting and the frame, which ALBERTI compared to an “open window” on the world. The fairy, the oversized rabbit and the stupefied man are suddenly part of the same improbable spatio-temporal framework. This produces an impenetrable composition set against an industrial veduta with dramatically charged, sinister clouds. Delimiting Drutskoy’s pictorial system is no easy task. Nevertheless, we could attempt to define it as an unlikely unification of objects and figures whose minimal interactions create an enigmatic narrative – a narrative within an ambiguous space where codes of representation are explored and landscape is primarily used for emotional impact. To substantiate this description and understand the mechanisms at play, we need to examine four key aspects of Drutskoy’s painting.
1. SWALLOWING PICTURES AND DIGESTING THE ALPS
The richness of the references in Drutskoy’s paintings is striking. Various evocations of the Old Masters are perceptible, although we may not always notice them. His painting is informed but not pretentious. The essay by CHRISTIAN DUMAIS-LVOWSKI is very enlightening about the concept of genius of admiration, and the subtle links that bind painters like Drutskoy to their predecessors (be they artists or writers). He demonstrates that this relationship is based on “elective affinities” rather than mere influence – an outdated notion that would reduce it to a kind of artistic determinism.
Sometimes it is possible to identify deliberately clear references in his work. For example, in his Melancholia, the famous polyhedron in DÜRER’s Melancholia is discernible.
At other times, the intericonicity does not seem as intentional. The echoes of the works the painter has admired and reflected upon appear in these instances to stem from those phenomena which, while not unconscious, are not completely conscientised either. In his Institutio Oratoria (X, I), QUINTILIAN described reading as a process of mental digestion: “Just as we do not swallow our food till we have chewed it and reduced it almost to a state of liquefaction to assist the process of digestion, so what we read must not be committed to the memory for subsequent imitation while it is still in a crude state, but must be softened and […] reduced to a pulp by frequent re-perusal.” Attentive observation and copying of other artists’ works are to the painter what reading is to the poet. Thus, the figurative motifs “devoured” by the artist remain so firmly ingrained in his memory that they may spontaneously resurface at any moment in the creative process. Each visual impression that passes from the retina to the brain changes the potential of the canvas yet to be painted, over and over again. The digested motifs sometimes appear in an altered state, making their identification almost impossible, but not to the extent of removing our intuitive ability to recognise them.
The painting entitled What Now? is one such work. You can see the “digested” memory of JOACHIM PATINIR’s Crossing the River Styx [1520-1524, Prado]. It is clear that the two compositions are related: a river winds through the left of the painting, while the sky at the top is cut off on the right-hand side by flames and smoke from a terrible fire. There are several figurative elements also present in both works: the distant fountain, the boat, the trees, the water, the mountains, the small nudes, etc. The chromatic distribution is also comparable. Despite these similarities, it is difficult to be sure to what extent the reference to Crossing the River Styx is intended to be noticed by the viewer.
Drutskoy is a picture-swallower. But he doesn’t simply digest elements of the old and contemporary masters. He also takes gestures and objects that are essentially fairly banal and makes them extraordinarily picturesque. Take the curious way in which the soldiers on patrol are holding their machine guns. This iconic pose, which appears all over the international press, seems familiar, terrifying and ridiculous here. Familiar, because we see it every week in the media or at train stations. Terrifying, due to its lethal potential. And ridiculous, because the arm bent in a constrained way and the broken wrist sit uneasily with the ultramasculinity and violence that the armed man seeks to project. Isolated in this context, the paradox is magnified and its familiar strangeness adds to the overall composition.
His use of Segways in an untitled drawing works in a similar manner. Despite its ingenuity and undeniably futuristic design, this form of transport has an air of ridicule which is impossible to shake off. It is difficult not to be amused by the contorted postures the riders have to assume, seen here – arching their backs to go at full pelt, or jerking their pelvises to slow down. Drutskoy has meticulously retained that sense of the grotesque. Here, the silly machine on wheels reduces its users to absurd cockerels paying court to a chicken on a high perch.
The artist’s insatiable appetite extends further, to the grey rocks of the Alps. In this respect he is comparable to BRUEGHEL who, “when in the Alps, made so many views from nature that you could say he swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels, such was his success at faithfully depicting nature”. However, that faithfulness has to be relativised somewhat, because, in Breughel’s paintings and sketches, it is not possible to identify a specific place in the Alps.
The mountains depicted by Brueghel are distorted by his visual memory, then reconfigured and rearranged by his instinct for composition. VAN MANDER describes them as not made from nature but from the mind.
Sasha Drutskoy is a seasoned hiker in the Swiss Alps. On these occasions he devours the rocks, committing them to memory, and uses them to invent realistic alpine landscapes, as in On the Subject of Innocence, for example. Anyone familiar with mountain walks will recognise its paths, such as the one that encircles the gloomy carousel in Small Merry-Go-Round. They would guess from experience that it does not lead to a precipice, but to a descent, at the end of which the path will again seem to fall into the abyss. Therefore, despite these realistic effects, these landscapes, which resonate with the viewer’s experience, do not exist in any location and were not drawn from nature during an expedition. It is an invention of the mind, to which we give the same credit as the places we visit in our dreams.
2. LANDSCAPE DRAMA
These idealised views of nature seek in various ways to stimulate the spectator’s emotions, with the aim of dramatising the scene at centre stage. In Light Bearer, the mountain range, which atmospheric perspective has turned blue, divides our minds: while marvelling at the sublime before its immensity, we also feel melancholy regret that it has never existed in nature. The artist knows how to move us with a few strokes of orange-red light to pick out the rocky silhouettes and separate them from the sombre, dead sky – a process whose effectiveness is shown in several other works reproduced here.
Elements of our industrial architectural heritage appear time and again as players in Drutskoy’s landscape theatre. Plague is a masterly example of the way he dramatises the deadly smoke pouring out of factory and power plant chimneys. They are to Drutskoy’s painting what “fabriques” is to Claude’s landscapes. Not only are they picturesque and decorative: they can also highlight an atmosphere in a scene, as in The Offering, in which a modern Andromeda seems to be awaiting the monster sent to avenge the gods.
This successful instrumentalisation of landscape and the leading role Sasha Drutskoy gives it in his paintings reminds us that, before developing the pictorial world discussed in this essay, for a long time he was classed as a landscape painter. In April 2005, CLAUDE LORENT was already describing Drutskoy’s landscapes as fictional and geographical enigmas stripped of “all superfluous detail and anecdote”, where “the physical absence of human beings necessitates a commitment of the mind.” 2007 was a decisive turning point, when detail, anecdote and human figures were introduced into his paintings to add to his geographical enigmas the “seasoning” they needed: narration.
3. SEMI-GUIDED NARRATION
So how can we define the unique narrative method in the paintings of Sasha Drutskoy? Constructed as guessing games, can his works be decoded? Can we uncover the painter’s intention, any design hidden behind the design of his figures? It is certainly not possible to “read” his paintings in the sense meant by the Académie Royale in the 17th century. As CHARLES LE BRUN said of the Israelites Gathering the Manna in the Desert [1637-1639], NICOLAS POUSSIN“made all his figures so relevant to his subject that there is not a single one whose action is unconnected” to the episode represented. Le Brun then demonstrates how meticulous deciphering of the gestures, attitudes and facial expressions enable us to reconstitute the entirety of the details in this Bible story. This method does not completely fit with the enigmas painted by Drutskoy, whose atmosphere makes them more similar to the Fêtes Galantes of ANTOINE WATTEAU. The COMTE DE CAYLUS said of that artist (and strangely this also seems to fit Drutskoy’s painting): “His compositions have no purpose. They express none of the conflicts of the passions and are consequently deprived of one of the most affecting characteristics of narration, that is, action.” Indeed, like Watteau, Drutskoy presents characters whose actions are minimal and suspended, and interact in a subtle, inexplicit way: they seem to be waiting, meditating, hesitating.
Nevertheless, with both Drutskoy’s and Watteau’s painting, the viewer still has a sense that there is something to understand and to be told. The numerous references to the realm of theatre (spotlights, stages, red or blue curtains, even some of the titles) reinforce the impression that we are witnessing a moment in a scene that has already begun or has not yet finished.
Contrary to what Sasha Drutskoy sometimes implies, the story is not entirely left up to the viewer to decide. We can see this from the preparatory study for On The Subject Of Innocence. It clearly demonstrates that before putting paint to canvas, the artist has a fairly precise idea of the direction he wants to take, even though there will be many changes and adjustments along the way to the end result. So what can we deduce from this composition? Is it as opaque as it appears? On the right, the woman’s pose – head lowered, legs together, knees bent, and particularly her hand trying to hide her breast – denotes shame and modesty. This attitude, the fruit she is pointing to and the seated man, who is gracefully turned, showing us his back and neck at the same time, reveals that these figures are Adam and Eve. In the background, a lugubrious face juts out from the stone. It is made to look like the faces we might imagine we see in craggy rocks or cracks in bark, and evokes the presence of Evil. Its positioning, above the fruit it guards, follows the centuries-old tradition of the serpent and the apple. Comparing the canvas with its preparatory study, in which there was an indecent
variation of the Virgin Mary with her cloak, we can see how the artist’s ideas firmed up in his mind as he painted.
On the other side of the image, in the extended landscape of this alpine Garden of Eden, are two soldiers. Here too, Drutskoy has refined his initial plan. One of the soldiers is now sprawled on the ground and appears to be dead. The other seems to be his killer. Since they are wearing the same uniform, we know that this is fratricide. The withered tree (of Knowledge?) with its red fruit 10 and the pile of rocks, which recalls the iconographic tradition of the stone altars before the Exodus, suggest that they are Cain and Abel. On one side are the parents of humanity and the origin of evil, and on the other side, the initiator of the violence and the consequence of original sin.
But what is the significance of the couple, their heads inclined and eyes closed, cutting the composition in two and drawing across them a blood-red curtain as if to avoid seeing what is going on around them? Where have they come from, where are they? Drutskoy gives us a few clues. The spotlight suggests that these three groups are situated in the same space. In the initial study, the lines of perspective give the impression that the scenes on each side are painted on cylindrical walls, or that the two protagonists are in between sealed glass display cabinets, like those you would find in natural history and ethnology museums. In the final version, the painter has muddied the path to this interpretation. He has added a second curtain which masks the escape route and encroaches upon both the central corridor and the space occupied by Adam and Eve. However, the wall on which the curtain hangs is suggestive of a curved corridor. Are they suddenly appearing on a stage where something is going on, or on a film set? Are they visiting an exhibition? Or are they making their entrance between the pages of an enormous book – the Book of Genesis – placed upright and left half open? Inside this museum (or theatre) of icons of Western culture, the figures in the watercolour are retreating, while those in the oil painting are looking away as best they can. In both cases we can imagine the mixed feelings of the couple, faced with these images or forms of representation. The painting itself does not permit a more objective interpretation. A number of questions remain unanswered, despite the many clues left by the painter.
As we have seen, the story already takes shape in the preparatory study. It then becomes clearer during the act of painting, but never exceeds the bounds of its embryonic state. Therefore, the painter constructs his istoria with an intention we could describe as intuitive. The viewer can of course construct his own story from the painting, but he is definitely not the sole decider of the tale. He is like the reader of a novel rushing towards an open ending. He can imagine a thousand ways of closing the scenario, all the time knowing that the author who has guided him to this point has not given him the tools needed to determine the most probable of the potential denouements. Therefore, it makes sense to describe the narrative method of Sasha Drutskoy as semi-guided narration.
4. VORTICAL STRATEGIES
CHRISTIAN DUMAIS-LVOWSKI wrote in his essay that “the power of Sasha Drutskoy’s painting lies in its capacity to lead the viewer into internal worlds […].” This impression is fully justified by various formal processes that we could call vortical strategies. In On The Subject Of Innocence, and in several other canvases and drawings, the curved lines of perspective draw our attention into the internal fiction of the painting, a bit like a vortex. Similarly, the paths that erupt into the viewer’s space, as in Small Merry-Go-Round, are pathways inviting us to look further forward, while the rivers meandering across vast spaces and into the horizon, as in The Offering or The Visitor, lead our gaze into the far-off distance.
The most interesting of these strategies is that famously used by CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH: the figure seen from behind. Psychosomatically, our brains seem more inclined to identify with the human figure that is facing the same way as us. Dance beginners, for example, would find it hard to imitate a teacher who was facing them (i.e. as a mirror image).
This is also why so-called “third-person” video games present their hero from behind – a position that offers the player a more immersive experience. Sasha Drutskoy often takes advantage of this highly effective artifice, most notably in Merry-Go-Round. Here, the composition evokes contradictory feelings. The carousel certainly exults a child’s joy at a house illuminated by night at Christmas; but this elation immediately becomes sinister once situated in a dark and hostile forest. Moreover, the presence of the two armed soldiers watching the unsuspecting children on the merry-go-round introduces the possibility of violence. Which of the two groups is more frightening: the soldiers who could commit a massacre, or the ghostly carousel which may be populated with spectres? In fact, presenting the soldiers with their backs to us renders them inoffensive to our eyes, because their position reinforces their association with us. They are foils, serving as a protective screen between the viewer and the strange phenomenon taking place on the merry-go-round. Therefore, their position is the key to interpreting the scene.
Rather than simple worshop recipes, Sasha Drutskoy’s vortical strategies reveal a stance that is almost marginal in the contemporary art world. The artist orients all his paintings towards the viewer, paints for him, invites him to pass through Alberti’s open window. Drutskoy’s paintings are addressed to us; they delight our eyes while stimulating our intelligence. The viewer is not considered to be of secondary importance in the pictorial world of which he is also part. The paintings seek to please him through their powerful images, masterly brushstrokes, rich symbolism and evocations, intriguing enigmas, and the unsettling sublime and infinite qualities of his landscapes. In today’s art world, pleasing the public is often perceived by artists as a loss of artistic freedom or a degrading concession to which great painting should never stop. These artists sometimes appear to address their painting not to the public but to an evolutionary history of painting which must always emancipate itself further and further from its roots in a mad dash for originality.
When he paints, Sasha Drutskoy does not burden himself with all that. He is original without renouncing his predecessors. He paints simply for our attention without ever seeking to lessen the pleasure we derive from his paintings.