SASHA DRUTSKOY’s painting overflows with enigmas. It originates in the psyche of the artist, where he is a god reigning over space and time, ordering it as he pleases. His oeuvre presents a metaphysical world, in that it surpasses nature, and is beyond causality and language. It seems to pose questions about the nature of being: existence, time, the future. In that respect, it can be described as ontological.
Some might think that his unusual style of painting is not very contemporary, because at first sight it does not seem relevant to our age. However, Sasha Drutskoy defines it and claims it as narrative, to the extent that, in his words: it may be a place of convergence and expansion. We can, he writes, transcend our individual experiences by comparing them against stories with symbolic value. These stories enlighten us about the element of universality present within each of us.
So they are paintings of stories, expressed through figures and symbols, creations and creatures, before which we must agree to suspend our disbelief.
Here, looking at three of Sasha Drutskoy’s paintings, we adopt the position of simple spectator, free to hazard interpretations of these symbols and explore the correlations with our own imagination. The artist helps us to do this by providing some indications. Some influences. Some inspiring works that he admires.
Thus we find Drutskoy has a particular affection for GIOVANNI BELLINI, which is expressed in his painting Melancholia.
In GIAMBELLINO’s Holy Allegory, we have a vast terrace with polychrome marble paving in front of a lake which cuts the composition horizontally; a landscape of rocks, people and animals in the background; and the figures of St Anne, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and, according to several commentators, one of the Magi and St Joseph on the left. In the centre, four putti are playing with the silver fruits of a tree, while on the right, St Sebastian and another figure, generally accepted as Job, stand at a distance. Art historians are still arguing about the significance of the titular allegory, its iconography, which blends religious and neo-Platonic symbols of the Renaissance: it is a work of exemplary geometry and theatrical composition. Sasha Drutskoy says of this work that: it is essential, the model of the benchmark painting. A scene that opens every door: anyone can enter it as they please.
The important thing here is that the arrangement – the mathematics, you could say – is identical to that used in Melancholia: the same terrace, this time overhanging a river, opening out into a more austere landscape, a petrified canyon as old as the world, which seems to sink into the unconscious of the person looking at it. While, in Holy Allegory, Bellini presents figures in attitudes and clothing that allow us to identify them and what they signify, those in Melancholia are anonymous, ordinary. They seem to be hollow inside, separated from one another by an inability to communicate. Like chess pieces, their shadows are more lively than they are. The scene is bathed in crepuscular light, beneath a black sun. Their bodies, so undecorative, float weightlessly. The wide terrace could be situated at the end of the lawn of a villa, a theatre set with seven bored protagonists from a Chekhov play who have run out of things to talk about, beyond the causality of language, weary of too long a summer in the country (the last days of summer, judging by the autumnal colours of the trees on the banks of the river).
Far away from all excitement, other than that in the minds of the characters perhaps, you could say that Melancholia is a play with no music other than silence. Everything is still. The air. The bodies. This is a landscape of the mind with a group, in which each of the elements has the same melancholic value. And what to make of the polyhedron in the foreground (a symbol of perfection according to Plato)? Is it a mathematical key to unlock the painting? Melancholia is a mirror that reflects the unconscious, an invitation to introspection.
IN SUSPENDED TIME
Now let’s look at another painting, entitled The Stage. It could be the stage of a theatre of course, showing an opera, a comedy or a tragedy, or it could be the stage of a film set. A freeze frame. A woman stands immobile, in the halo of a follow spot. An Enigma. Who is she? What is this spectacle? We are the only people watching this woman with the look of a Tanagra, but she has her back to us. At what and at whom are we looking – we the spectators, or maybe even voyeurs, as this scene appears so intimate. Secret. Just like the rocks and the river in Melancholia, here a clearing opens up between the trees, leading to somewhere far off and inaccessible, down a surreal path. Who among the absent viewers has thrown the two bouquets of red flowers, the only props in this drama? It is reminiscent of MARIA CALLAS in an evening performance of Medea at EPIDAURUS, with silence instead of an ovation; a serene expression of solitude; or of TERESA RAFFO in the film L’Innocente by LUCHINO VISCONTI, based on the novel by GABRIELE D’ANNUNZIO, standing at the edge of the grounds of her lover’s villa, which she has just left, after his suicide. The Stage gives us access to a spatio-temporal domain, to an operatic or theatrical placement of characters, which we find in many of the artist’s works.
We might ardently believe that Sasha Drutskoy’s painting is fundamentally poetic. We might read into it a romanticism that has little to do with our age… and yet it is not outdated, probably because it explores the archetypes that Carl Jung tells us are part of our psyche. From this point of view it is timeless, even though its vocabulary can be found in the works of the old masters.
The genius of admiration is embodied here. This concept, formulated by Balzac in La Comédie Humaine, then taken up by Althusser and subsequently Marguerite Yourcenar, elevates the artist to the heights of his master or masters through the quasi-innate comprehension he has of their works. With Drutskoy, we are far from the genius of imitation. It is more of a reinterpretation of certain codes, revisited by a different psyche, a different self. It is the product of a maturation, certainly a conscious one at times, but with dreamlike associations drawn from a mysterious source which, in the absence of any other word, we call inspiration.
Asked about who has inspired him, Drutskoy gives us an incomplete list, or rather a genealogical line of descent of which he is part. His ancestors include PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, CASPAR FRIEDRICH, GIORGIO MORANDI, ANDREÏ TARKOVSKI, VIRGINIA WOOLF, DINO BUZZATI, LEWIS CAROLL and others. We might be so bold as to add to this list ANTON CHEKHOV, MARCEL PROUST, CARL JUNG and HENRI BERGSON. It matters little whether he has read them or not. They are from the same «family», in that they are explorers of «Time, that mighty sculptor», as Marguerite Yourcenar defined it. Sculptors of the imagination, and even more so of dreams. Be it in The Waves, The Tartar Steppe, The Magic Mountain or À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, these great writers take us on a journey into another time, on a Voyage Out. Sasha Drutskoy’s characters seem to be waiting for something that is already in the past, or something that has not yet happened. He seemed to confirm this when, talking about his painting, he said: history can also be a dilation of time in which the before and after exist simultaneously. It dissolves everyday chronology and eliminates individual time.
Among all these influences on his painting, the elective affinities he cultivates with his chosen forebears, Sasha Drutskoy has a unique psychic relationship with ARNOLD BÖCKLIN, the Swiss 19th-century Symbolist admired by the Surrealists, who cited him as one of their great predecessors. The link is clear, not just pictorially, but also in terms of some of their tastes, such as a shared love of Italy. Böcklin painted five versions of his most famous work, Die Toteninsel(The Isle of the Dead), between 1880 and 1886. His paintings, with their romantic themes and names – Venus Anadyomene, Ruin by the Sea, Silence of the Forest – are perfectly in tune with the world of Sasha Drutskoy. We could say that their works are sisters from the same dream. The Isle of the Dead (which evokes a painting by Patinir) depicts the cemetery of San Michele in Venice, partly covered by tall funereal trees – mute sentinels guarding the departed – with the white spray of the waves dying on the shore, and an immaculate frail silhouette arriving in a boat rowed by a ferryman with an orientalist appearance. The deceased is approaching a grandiose landscape, the entrance to an eternal unknown or hereafter.
This traveller leaves us at the gateway to the final journey. We have to stay behind until the time comes when we will inevitably join him.
This water of dreams, beloved by GASTON BACHELARD, is a recurrent theme in Drutskoy’s work; it carries with it strange emotions, bathing his oeuvre in melancholy. We might dream of the Venetian Lagoon and the boat that takes GUSTAV VON ASCHENBACH towards the beauty of Tadzio and to his death, which is caused by his quest for that beauty. In Death in Venice by THOMAS MANN , Aschenbach sails towards the Most Serene Republic as if in Böcklin’s floweradorned boat.
On Life and Death is certainly one of Drutskoy’s most enigmatic works. He deconstructs Böcklin’s painting, including various elements of it but dissociating them. The island has become a group of rocks partially emerging from the water, like separate motifs, details, fragments, dividing the composition. The cypress trees, the floating mastaba tomb and the boat, this time with no passenger, have all been split up. The only figures here are three winged silhouettes, isolated from one another. They could be creatures of the hereafter, promises of another world, or dreamlike metaphors. Is this the underworld of the Romans, with its five rivers, beneath an infernal cloud of smoke? Here again, the figures are turned towards the abyss, and silence reigns. The viewer can reconstruct this sparse landscape and travel there in spirit.
The power of Sasha Drutskoy’s painting lies in its capacity to lead the viewer into internal worlds which are beyond appearances, beyond ourselves. In that sense it is part of imprescriptible Time: perennial and, paradoxically, timeless. This ability makes his work both close to and distant from us, but we can stop before it, as we would stop to observe ourselves and examine our own chasms. It is introspective and resolutely modern because it addresses our deepest, perhaps buried, questions where, the artist tells us, reality can resonate with a multitude of other realities. Painting can then claim to be a source of lucidity about the experience of living.
His painting is of dreams, of the unconscious, an expression of Time and Enigma.