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Analysis of a Painted Text

“Artists today who would welcome the chance to paint works of broad human content for a larger audience, works comparable in scope to those of antiquity of the Middle Ages, find no sustained opportunities for such an art; they have no alternative but to cultivate in their art the only or surest realms of freedom – the interior world of their fancies, sensations, and feelings, and the medium itself”.

(Review of the New York Armory Show of 1913 by Meyer Schapiro, 1952)

That sad pronouncement of the preeminent American art historian describing the disillusion of the 1940’s among intellectuals and artists in the United States is my point of departure in analyzing the work of Alexander Tokarev. His work not only relies on his interior world, but surmounting the current climate of disillusion and chaos is able to achieve a universality and relevance by tapping beyond his own interiority into the language of his deeply appreciated cultural tradition. Two personal and simultaneously universal themes are spectacularly represented in his painting: human striving for freedom and personal desire for pleasure. These two motifs are obviously identical and merely differ in being projected onto the collective and the individual planes of organization. Their symbolic expressions appear in his work at a number of different metaphorical levels of abstraction and concreteness. His images serve to simultaneously elucidate meanings which are recurrent both in myth (collective plane of cognitive organization) and which are also omnipresent in our individual human psychologies in general (oftenmost in dreams). We find these two universal themes merged and foregrounded at an abstract level of the unconscious psychologies of people (in their partial obedience to the ‘pleasure principle’) and also in the underlying ‘deep structural’ source of myths where identical symbolic forms also occur. That Tokarev is able to manifest such simultaneities and merge the desire for freedom and pleasure suggests their ultimate unity. And so we find spectacular representations in his work of honest self-revelation clothed in the traditional language of myths and bespeaking an erudition as well as his academic experience and training.

Excellent examples occur in seven-part ‘polyptych’ entitled “Parables”. It is composed of “Paris”, “The Author”, “Vase”, “Self Portrait with Judith”, “Transfiguration”, “The Sign”, and “The Warm Hairdryer”, where those very motifs already mentioned are represented in symbolic form. In those canvases the twin desires, for freedom and for pleasure, appear within a cosmic ecology, spatially freed in part from the constraints of gravity and the laws of physics in general, quite as those rules are flouted in both dream and myth. We are shown by Tokarev, for example, how people learn to fly, dream of being able to fly (cf. Chagall). Images of humans and even objects in flight have, since the myths of Daedalus and Icarus, preoccupied artists (and of course dreamers). Very often we even find among painters realistic engineering designs for flying machines (cf. Michelangelo, Tatlin). Our greatest contemporary achievements in technology are strongly felt to especially include our conquest of space in rockets that in fact travel in gravity-free ‘ether’ amid ambiguous light which fluctuates in a manner quite uncharacteristic of the ‘normal’ light known to us here on earth as we perceive it before our deaths. Tokarev’s narratives refer to the here-and-now of modern science that somehow accomplishes many human dreams and confronts us with technical realities that are yet as strange as myth. The liminal zones where modern science has transported our convention-bound perceptions, like the liminality of Tokarev’s vision, not only tantalize us with the seductive promise of dreams fulfilled, but as liminal zones always do, present us with the ambiguity and the resultant anxiety of contradiction. The contradictory interpretations of realty vs. the imaginary in the paintings, upsets all previously fixed points of reference and engages us in unavoidable effort to sort out the implied classifications we bring to viewing his work. We come with outdated models of reality gained in the nineteenth century world, and we strain at our newest scientific constructs (e.g., neither particles or waves can account for light; there are established principles of uncertainty; observation alters the observed), and we may well strain at these paintings as similar challenges. Both in science and in Tokarev’s art interplanetary space overlaps our earthly zone. We are constantly confronted with classificatory ambiguity, even panic, and thus it is that our ‘weightless’ astronauts, as well as the actual birds of our terrestrial world, may both server as ‘mediating figures’, able by virtue of their special powers to resolve the ambiguity of the intermediate zone, liminal to our pragmatic reality of the here-and-now, and the unattainable zone only dreamed of, where flight may occur. The special power granting flight includes the power granted by art. We together with Tokarev both resolve our anxiety and the contradictions of life by crossing the boundaries at their liminal extremes with the aid of such mediating figures as we find in the scenes he presents for our delectation. And those images and scenes of his provide power giving mediation through the privilege that Art confides to us.

Tokarev takes up in his painting the general problem of our reality vs. our desires, where there occurs in our human psychology a great need for ‘mediation’ to resolve the huge philosophical contradictions that cause our anxiety and are even as a result typically quite taboo to our consciousness. His Art acts as a mediator for us when in the paintings he proposes flight as the resolution of the apparent irreconcilability of our desires with our human boundedness – we are so pitifully grounded ordinarily. He crosses the boundaries between earth and space using images of flight, birds, religious symbols, mythical references, textured light, transfiguration, and explosion in order to surpass our confinement inside our corruptible flesh and our own limited power during our confining, because finite, lifespans. He fights the threat of Thanatos with Eros, and in his art obliteration is defeated by generative power, and the resultant images may thus manifest the erotic and speak of the delights of pleasure when we can be free, when we can ‘fly’.

Not only does a scrutiny of the paintings thus disclose the meanings of flights, the erotic, and the potential embedded in freedom that can relieve anxiety in our world, but beyond using space as an obvious argument, he also invokes time with equal powers to mediate for us. The contradiction so universal between the two kinds of perceived time: (1) the time of our unidirectional, lineal, terminating, fixed lifespans versus (2) the cyclical, unending time of social life, where all stages are simultaneously and continually being replicated, unendingly, which both religion and myths address, is again resolved in his paintings by his schemata which employ light, flight, Eros, and specific thematic references to classical and Russian methodology and folktale. We may then consider each of the motifs which appear in the paintings, take them in turn, beginning with the first of the seven which make up the polyptych “Parables”.

In the first canvas we see three female figures atop a birdlike head of a non-female (the latter in this painting is the unmarked gender, i.e. simply human in contrast to female). This non-female individual appears in dark blue, a color associated with creatures of the air, but not associated with humans. Birds, one of Tokarev’s most significant motifs as well as ‘birdishness’ imply several references. First of all, the most well-known figure of Russian folktales is the ‘birdish’ Baba-Yaga, a female protagonist with mostly evil (but originally also good) intentions toward the heroes of the tales in their quests. She stands on a bird leg and a claw foot, and that is the epitome of a facilitator-meditator being a female witch with magical powers (to help or not the hero’s quest), whose house is able at her will and power to revolve like the planets in the heavens. The birdlike motif reappears in each of the canvases in various transformations. Moreover, the original meaning of Baba in slavic dialects prior to the spread of the learned Greek term was ‘pelikan’, a meaning of ‘baba’ still extant in rural dialects of the XIX century. Yaga, presumably borrowed from a similar form of neighboring Altaic peoples, refers to a goddess (often of death) appearing on archeologically identified stelae among neighbors of Russian speakers. She is said to have had features associated in lore with pelicans – the feeding of her young from the pouch under her bill, according to folk belief. On her stela is seen a protuberance under her head on which devotees placed ritual food offering parallel to food anticipated in the future and parallel to the food supposedly kept by the pelican to feed its young. Tradition here provides the artist with a paradigm: a bird/superhuman figure, a goddess/witch, both good and bad, able to inspire ‘revolutions’ of her house, existing in the luminal world of Russian folk-magic. She exists as a preeminent form of folk-mediator, a female magician with birdish trappings, at the boundary of the world of man, i.e., in folk belief and tale. May I interject that I make NO implication of a consciousness on the part of the artist or of any conscious premeditation in constructing the narratives, choosing the images, or in any way confronting to this interpretive scenario. These interpretations are all after the fact, post hoc to his creative inspiration.

Secondly, birds in most cultures are mediators, simply because they are able to traverse the earth/sky boundary, properly belonging to neither realm, but mediating between the two. They are familiar in our tradition as religious images, often doves, or even in numerous other cultures such as the Quetzalcoatl god of the Aztecs, etc. That on the collective plane of understanding is paralleled on the individual level of psychology by their connection to the erotic domain. Birds are also liminal creatures because like phalluses they are able to arise – also a variety of exceptionality, a kind of magic potential in both instances defying the usual limits of physicality imposed by nature on all other creatures and body parts. In the case of the phallus, a key to human orgasmic ecstasy, fantasy and dreams of earthly power/pleasure are the most natural associations. In the case of birds, we have a representation of power/pleasure denied to humans, at least before our technology’s recent advances. Both birds and phalluses have become the subjects of our myths (e.g. Leda and the Swan, combining the two motifs) so that their very names may become taboo. It is virtually a taboo to refer to the male bird, the rooster (a euphemism) by the original English word ‘cock’ which is now only used for the phallus, and so too the original word about slavs for the pelican i.e., ‘baba’ has been replaced. The exile of both terms from current speech betokens the power with which the erotic and the supernatural are both invested. Such terms are supplanted by euphemisms in order to disguise their unnatural powers, to shield them from our direct view. In his paintings, Tokarev unmasks them to us and we see bird motifs and even thinly disguised phalluses strongly implicated in his work. They may not always be clearly visible, but we do recognize them and we know they both signify aspects of delight, pleasure, desire, yearning, and untrammeled freedom. We may also note further repeated motifs.

The female figures which appear likewise bear double aspects: evil witch (as in “Self-portrait with Judith”) or perfect complement in pleasure (as in “The Sign”). These females ‘toy’ with ‘birds’ in many of his paintings; the broad suggestion of the erotic is hard to miss here, but also ‘erogenous’ objects (perhaps from the world of ‘toys’) which are scepter/dildos (as in “The Very Tsar Himself”) appear and promise power/pleasure. But they in fact hearken back to the realm of childhood dream time/images, the domain of toys and play. They are infused by Tokarev with an adult’s sophisticated ideas of play and foreplay. The obviousness of the eroticism in the paintings is part of the long tradition of art of the last centuries as well as being rooted in the art and religions of various folk traditions (cf. India) that this erudite painter is devoted to, and he is nourished by it for his inspiration.


As his acquaintance I dare write these suggestions for interpretation in the spirit of a linguist approaching a text analysis, but by no means would I suggest any of these semiotics are at all conscious to Tokarev. He paints with great almost autobiographical egotism, not planning the narratives’ schemata, but with the typical unselfconsciousness and poise of the truly gifted and academically trained creator, as much at home with portraits, landscapes or romantic topics, or for that matter with murals and realistic representations popular earlier. (He was somewhat surprised by these remarks of mine.) These paintings are, I think, palimpsests of layered meanings.

Perhaps something of my view may open the door to a surprise for viewers removed from this tradition of painting, and their surprised eye should then find delight in such very Russian motifs executed in such a modern spirit. (By the way, these are oils that delight the eye in form, color and scale!)

Author: © Prof. Harvey Pitkin, Columbia University