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MYTH AS REALITY. Mikhail Lazarev

The urge to express the personal through art arises from an artist’s view of the world which is influenced by his having been born in a specific place and at a specific time in history. In 1946 Alexander Tokarev was born in Odessa to a family of famous artists and went to Odessa’s School of the Arts. That city has a culture deeply entwined with the Mediterranean, and its inhabitants perceive life as a certain metaphoric device. Until recently it had the famous traditions of the Odessa School of painting with its unmistakably southern character. An inescapable romanticism is at its foundation, and—in contrast to what northerners do—it employs a special approach to handling light that results in a special visual structure in painting. At the age of nineteen Tokarev moved to Moscow, and there he graduated from the Faculties of the Arts and of Directing at the State School of Cinematography (VGIK). He tried his hand at cinema but dropped it to devote his talent solely to painting. Those were the three components that originally influenced his formation as an artist.

He adopted neither an official nor a non-conformist position. He also didn’t fall for the temptations of abstract art, although you certainly couldn’t call him a realist in the full sense of the word (but what is realism after all?) even though images of man, objects, and landscapes are at the foundation of his thematic repertoire. His art is probably best described using Boris Groys’ formula: “Art is returning to depiction; however, what it depicts is not nature but rather anonymous visual signs of culture that have replaced nature as its ‘simulacra’.”[1]

The start of Tokarev’s artistic career did not promise any revolutionary changes. The enclosed world of his paintings from the 70s could be defined by the periods of a “red-haired model” and toys in still lives that seemingly take us and the artist back to the world of childhood fantasies. Even more than childhood, memory is a fundamental and endless source of Tokarev’s images and themes. And these communicate indirectly with actual reality only through allusions, as if with neighbours across the hallway. “Memory is artistic,” writes David Samoilov. “We remember a day, but it seems that we remember the time. Talented people remember better, because details of their memories are better joined in a picture. Moreover, the way the details are joined determines our perception of the duration of time.”[2]

The painting My Home from the early 1980s was an unmistakable sign that the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious had ruptured in Tokarev’s art, and it paved the way for an infinite world of intellectual play, fantasy, and paradox. It shows the Tokarev family, which was large at that time, as if posing. Only one thing about it is strange: the image of the artist himself combines two different ages—his adult head sits on the naked body of a small child. A work of art—metaphorically—is a second body for an artist, and that takes on a literal meaning for Tokarev. Self-baring bordering on exhibitionism has more than a physical meaning for him. After all, any desire to make private areas of one’s life public, which is a characteristic of 20th century art, is also a form of self-exposure.

“All of us remain children until very old age. On the whole, we try to overcome childhood complexes, play children’s games… That is why I play in the theatre I create on my canvases. It is a theatre of metaphors.”[3]

Tokarev’s interest in the erotic was clear from the first “realistic” period of his art in paintings with two nude models. An abundance of naked bodies is characteristic of all his art. It is an expression of the “conventionality of meaning” and of the “defenselessness” of a naked human being. An abundance of naked people entering life and leaving it is also characteristic of Russian icons, which were the “guiding light” for the artist’s creative efforts according to his own testimony.

The year 1987 brought a lucky discovery that, as a music lover, he could not pass up. The theme was the Man-Orchestra, and over time a series of over three hundred and sixty canvases of various sizes was built around it.

While being fully aware of the futility of the task, a number of artists have tried for a long time to describe music through the language of painting—from a simple image of a musician with his instrument to attempts to invoke its sound through painted abstraction, to depict music through color and rhythm.

Tokarev has combined or, rather, synthesized those two approaches. “I am trying to paint music,” he says (and that includes classical music, jazz, and avant-garde). His love for music has given the artist a chance to gain freedom in plastic expression and color. Music prompts endless provocative plots, allows improvising on canvas, and provokes analogies that involve meaning and poetry.

These all-encompassing combinations have become the foundation for Tokarev’s compositional thinking, which has evolved from the Man-Orchestra series. It started with small canvases where the man-orchestra was a lone figure that culminated, like a tree trunk, in a “crown” of shoulders, heads, and hands with musical instruments and the midnight moon. Constructed around a single compositional scheme—a bouquet of human face-masks, arms and legs, musical instruments (from accordion to saxophone), naked female bodies, and birds—the paintings are indeed reminiscent of floral bouquets; and each has its own scale of color-rhythm, as if illustrating (or expressing) a certain musical theme transformed into exactly that form through the artist’s sensibility. The canvases are very diverse pictorially: expressive and very quietly flowing; full of colour contrasts or almost monochrome; quite figurative or tending to be non-figurative. The imagination and ardour of the artist tirelessly working over the same theme are amazing. The moon fallen to a person’s feet, the beach by night, the city veiled by fog, a blue night with a sickle of crescent moon, and more—all are additional motifs, added to variations of the same masks, birds, and instruments gathered in bouquets displayed on all kinds of supports: vases, birds’ feet, and easels. As a matter of fact, the objects themselves do not matter as they are just sign-symbols of a certain musical mood.

The themes of Tokarev’s musical variations arise in different ways: sometimes the key is the background taking on a certain colour, other times it is some favorite piece of music, and in yet others an ironic reference to a popular tune. Some of the works have subtitles: Singing Bird; Blues; Serenade; Rio Rita; To the Motif of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The artist compares his work on that series with a jazz improvisation. The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote once that he had written a “jazz novel”. Alexander Tokarev did the same in painting.

The most fundamental work of the Man-Orchestra series—the 1991 monumental canvas, Big Orchestra, two by four metres—is where the theme has found its culmination for that period. The artist was thinking abstractly while working through figurative materials (and this formula can be read in the reverse order).The content of any work of art fits between the abstract and the concrete. The Big Orchestra takes the expression of the composition to its ultimate limit through dashes and combinations of colour, play with silhouettes and contrasts of light and shade, and through varying conventions for the intersection of pictorial planes with different scales. The expressiveness is aided by the ecstatically spread arms of the musicians and the elaborate outlines of their instruments—the powerful energy of the canvas gives rise to associations if not with the literal sound of a symphony orchestra, then with the idea of music in general. Not only musicians, each of whom is seemingly isolated within his own part and his own sound, but everyone is placed within a disjointed and then arbitrarily reconstructed space. Together all of them make up the painting. We have here the dark powers and a coquettishly bent woman’s leg, and, most importantly, all kinds of circumferences and circles one of which contains a white bird—a symbol of hope and harmony. They are superimposed as it were on the picture and add to the composition a sense of eternal organized movement—eternity in general: “…the music they play is only a pretext for painting the Cosmos” . (A. Tokarev)

All artists might be divided provisionally into two groups: those tending to analyze and the spontaneous ones inclined to unconscious gestures. Tokarev’s art bases itself on both approaches as is obvious from the visual expressions of the content of his works. Regardless of how much an artist may try to seclude himself from petty concerns in his “tower” (Tokarev’s studio is located on the eighth floor, and for a long time it lacked even a TV set) or in the comfortable world of books, music, paint and brushes, thinking and philosophizing, nevertheless his consciousness belongs to the present with its constantly changing swift flow of information. It is quite another matter that a theme and a sense of a future work’s tonality undergo a serious process of maturation and that, once born, they occupy the artist’s mind for a long time.

Tokarev’s art does not have clear boundaries and periods. To the contrary, one theme blends into another, and genres undergo transformations replacing one another. The Man-Orchestra series by the mid-nineties was followed by others: Man-Theatre, Man-Zoo, and later God’s Toys: Knobs and Arm-rests. There are more themes still in the making.

Tokarev’s pursuit of new forms and multi-part compositions—poliptychs—demonstrates his aspiration to go beyond the limits of the visible world through imagination and fantasy, to change visible meanings through the infinite multitude of artistic solutions. That is the very basis of his artistic talent. That worldview is founded on symbol and myth, which makes it difficult for the unknown observer—the recipients of Tokarev’s artistic productions—to comprehend the overall meaning of the artist’s poliptychs. “A symbol dwells in the realm of the universal, and no matter how precise the translation, it only translates the general direction: a literal translation of a symbol is impossible.”[4] And there is really no need for one because of the implied dissimilarity between the thought processes of artist and observer.

In keeping with that thought by the famous founder of the philosophy of the absurd, the understanding and interpretation of Tokarev’s poliptychs—or, rather, approaching an understanding of their meaning—is possible only through hermeneutics, which means through multiple associations, comparisons and guesses, because they usually lie beyond the boundaries of mundane consciousness. However, this text is devoted to Alexander Tokarev’s art rather than to this author’s ability to guess, so let’s see what the artist himself has to say. His love of the word and his conscious need to create literary and poetic analogies to his canvases (and they are analogies rather than explanations) is reminiscent of the succession of literary traditions in the work of the Russian classic avant-garde that necessarily tended to manifestos and declarations. In contrast to Tokarev, however, their paintings would have been inconceivable without them. In the extract below (a shortened quote) Tokarev analyses his poliptych, The Crackpots, and this may be its most adequate description.

“This is a programmatic work made up of five separate canvases. Just like any other poliptych they should preferably be read as one text. A Crackpot (Translator’s note: Literally, it is the Yiddish Mischugene Kopf) is an idiom, an image of a genius, of creative freedom…A Crackpot implies a gentle patronizing of a poet, an artist, a scholar, a weirdo too immersed in himself (a “genius”). Each canvas is an attempt to show in symbolic form the world inside that strange man’s head. The world of childhood and the world of music, of the metropolis and the time in which we exist. The love, the desire to fly, the inspiration, and contemplation of the end of life—the end which may actually be the beginning rather than the conclusion of real existence.”

This “self-analysis” also hardly exhausts the essence of the work. The creative process, especially in its subconscious gestures, is often influenced by chance and by an uncontrollable play of the mind with the outcome often inexplicable even to the artist. As we know, a work of art as it exists independently acquires multiple additional meanings regardless of its creator’s will.

“Only crackpots live forever. That is the theme of the final, fifth canvas, Crackpot #5. The red circle—nimbus-planet-platter—with a head in its center, like John the Baptist’s (a possible, but not a compulsory association). The green iris of a frozen eye, listening to the real world and the eternity. All of the Crackpots in that poliptych are independent planets, or worlds. The drummer is one of the main characters of the composition. A guide to Hell or Paradise. His instruments feature comic mask heads, reminiscent of scalps won by an Indian warrior. He is the Charon of our time. His musical theme is accompanied by allegoric figures with a saw which has become a popular instrument in an avant-garde orchestra. One of the allegoric carpenters is holding a self-portrait pendulum-mask…”

Quotes of that size are unusual, but we’ve made this exception to give the reader (observer) a chance to get a tiny glimpse of the artist’s thinking, as well as of the scale of his creative aspirations; and in their scope and intensity they are possibly comparable only to the ancient tragedies.

It is important to note that the artist says his poliptychs “should preferably be read as a single text” since each of their parts is a separate and independent work that is connected to others only by a “literary” conception underlying the whole. That strange dependence/independence of paintings constituting poliptychs has ultimately led Tokarev to a peculiar “play of meanings.” By connecting different small canvases (usually, three of them) into a “whole” the artist discovers that works whose contents are not related create together a “new interpretation” while also retaining their original meaning. And here we encounter in the painted text the working out of one of the key principles of absurdism (“substitution of connections”).

The artist’s creative intention can be expressed in two ways: in a single painting (meaning not just an easel with a canvas, but a full-fledged work in the classic sense) and through triptychs and poliptychs. Tokarev’s interest in multipart works possibly stems from his cinematic experience with editing and the temporal development of action. One could regard that as the victory of an idea over a search for a plastic solution as such. Still, the overall outcome is positive: Tokarev’s poliptychs are extremely inventive and defiant. Their power is in their paradoxical nature, in the derivation of their symbols from an interest in the invisible and hidden sides of internal human life which are infinitely complex, conflicting, and inexplicable by simple “transparent” means. The significance of one part of any triptych taken separately outgrows the limitations of a self-sufficient easel painting even though that is precisely what it is. Their meaning is different: in the context of a multi-part construction they constitute a pictorial “theatre of the absurd” within which we discover something of an absolutely transcendental nature smouldering and where the painter is “his own dramaturge, director, and actor.” And he is also the first observer to give a thorough evaluation from the outside.

The artist making a selection of phenomena and objects from those used by human civilization has become one of the central figures of modern social mythology. Tokarev projects his own image as he sees it or wants to see it into his art. While doing so, he faces many difficulties and even dangers. The pinnacle of any creative act whose nature is replete with acting and intentional dramatization requires from the artist the ability to declare that impulse. In Tokarev’s works it is allegorically expressed through the figures of an artist-performer—an acrobat, a musician, an actor, and in general a man “not entirely of this world.” The conventional self-portrait—an earless and hairless oval that travels from painting to painting—belongs to the same category of symbols. Such self-identification permits the artist to return to perceiving himself in a new richer way, and to perceive what is his own through that which is not his:

In my poliptychs I often use a self-portrait as a storyteller and an accessory character, an actor and a voyeur who tells the tale… A sign of the artist who has the right to laugh at himself and contemplate others. […] The whole Man-Orchestra series is one big self-portrait where the conventional signs of heads playing musical instruments are my self-portraits.”

One of the tendencies in modern art is the increasing narcissistic element in artistic self-consciousness. The character of an imaginary double is multifaceted and can express itself in various faces that may elevate the creator or—contrary to his intentions—discredit him:

“Let us dream of an unreal, impossible love… Let’s put hooves on our feet and dive into the sweet domain of mythology. I would become a faun. A Pan, with an appalling face and horns. I would become a randy stinking goat. I’d chase nymphs that I envision behind every bush. And when I go crazy from their squeals and willingness, I would make a reed and play tormenting, heavenly melodies understood by few. They would be dedicated to no one. Not to a collection of gods, and not to one god. Goats and fauns exist and sing outside of any faith, outside of styles. An artist is a goat outside of faith.”

“Outside of styles…”—there is a statement to think about and work through. Actually there is no such thing. Being “styleless” also has a name. For instance, it is the eclecticism of recent decades that have been pronounced a universal and unavoidable postmodern epoch by “frontline and “progressive art critics”. This is, of course, not about the term, but about the essence, about the fact that modern art has shunned all definitions of style by working with all kinds of creative practices that blend all styles, epochs, and trends, and the outcome is an indefinable conglomeration. When theorizing on this topic, Tokarev is quite careful to define his expressive and pictorial means: “Through the multitude of contemporary language forms…a striving for a clarity and purity of individual artistic expression—that is a worthy path for any master.” One could not deny Tokarev’s expressive clarity which sometimes reaches poster-quality precision, but that is merely a trick of the eye, another “simulacrum” that hides a total entanglement of reflexive states. That is more than a “head game”. Everything Tokarev lives by in his art is borrowed from his own life experience realized through the multifaceted talent that providence gave him. That gift of destiny gave him a lucky chance, through thinking and philosophizing about the mysteries of human existence, to create objects that defy conclusive deciphering, just as the universe itself defies explanation.

Within the limitless field of individual artistic styles each of them nevertheless has analogies, albeit distant ones, and any work of art is perceived only upon the background of other works in the context of the history of art and culture in general. At first sight, Tokarev’s painting is rooted in surrealism. Consider the classic generic characteristics of surrealism: adherence to the subconscious inasmuch as it can be made conscious; dreams; intricate imagery; sexual “cloudiness”; metaphysical allusions and symbols that defy deciphering; and automatic writing. In fact, some of those features are present in Tokarev’s art, with the exception of the main one. The artist is not wandering in the twilight of the subconscious, but rather takes hints from it. His compositions fundamentally are not spontaneous writing but instead the conscious construction of an image. He does not sketch in parts of future poliptychs trying to make them agree with each other. “Everything happens almost spontaneously”, but then the next stage is the “crystallizing” of images, metaphors, and meanings.

As a result, Tokarev’s symbolic images are clear and definite, seemingly showing with a disarming clarity what the title says. Thus, the Submersion in the Idiots poliptych (one of the recent ones) does indeed depict a person wearing a strange sort of construction and surrounded by fish; the Sleepwalker shows a man walking among television antennae at night; the central part (The Great Pyatikukishnitsa (The Great Five-Way Fuck Off)) depicts a naked woman of formidable dimensions (reminiscent of someone from Odessa’s Privoz market) with five upper limbs, raging and helpless at the same time. But those titles—the “upper layer” of the image—hide quite different, deeply archetypal and poetic matters.

One of the authors writing about Tokarev noted that “his paintings have a special Odessa intonation: a combination of loftiness with the tendency to grin even when talking about dramatic things”. We could add that sometimes it is actually a Homeric laughter we hear in the background.

Tokarev’s works sometimes show almost real scenes from life in Odessa. For example, the Taranka from the Foolish Life poliptych: a scene on the beach with half-naked happy characters, one of whom boasts a taranka (dry salted fish) in his hand, a mug of beer on his head, and a kite tied to his neck.

Tokarev’s art is far from scoffing. On the contrary, his artistic/philosophic quest is eternal in its nature: he is searching for the meaning of our existence on earth. Many of his works have clear dramatic undercurrents, and the Opera. In Memory of Mstislav Rostropovich has an explicitly tragic intonation.

In his literary essays Tokarev on many occasions attempts to link art and philosophy, but how are those matters expressed in his paintings? Their central problems of birth, love, death, and everything that constitutes the existence of man, as well as Time that is at their foundation which is not a physical phenomenon but a chain of eternally expiring moments—all of those things return us to the positions of existentialist philosophy. However, that is not a conscious goal of the artist’s, but rather a legitimate desire to turn to the urgent problems of existence from the position of contemporary science in general. This point is directly referenced in the article “The Time of Eros and the Time of Thanatos” by the Columbia University (New York) Professor, Harvey Pitkin, an intellectual and a man of Western culture. Of everything written about Tokarev to this day, that study is the most articulate and serious.

Two unique themes—a myth and a dream… Pitkin observes that “Their symbolic expressions appear in his (Tokarev’s—M.L.) work at a number of different metaphorical levels of abstraction and concreteness.” They liberate the artist from the reality of time and make way for a sensation of flight by overcoming the harnesses of space. “We are shown by Tokarev…how people learn to fly, dream of being able to fly. […] The special power granting flight includes the power granted by art.” That is probably why the only beings that really can fly—birds—have a special place among Tokarev’s artistic concepts (including in the triptych Time to Love with a gigantic paradoxical rooster in the center). Let us also remember the flying dove that occupies a significant place in the Big Orchestra composition.

“Birds,” writes Pitkin, “in most cultures are mediators, simply because they are able to traverse the earth/sky boundary […] Birds are also liminal creatures because like phalluses they are able to arise…defying the usual limits of physicality imposed by nature …”

The transcendental nature of Tokarev’s images of reality counteracts the routine and stereotypical. It is pictorially expressed through a fundamental rejection of “20th century colourism and the idea of the beautiful”—in his own words it is “harmony in reverse”.

When viewing Tokarev’s works in retrospect one can’t help asking certain questions. The early period in his art is marked by quite extraordinary landscapes of the Odessa seaside. He still paints from nature, as evidenced by his still lives and by over eighty canvases from the series Window on Zamoskvorechye painted from his studio sitting high above the city of Moscow. With a great poetic emotion they show urban landscapes with the Church of Joy to All the Grievers in the foreground in different seasons and times of day and during different aspects of nature and thought. Tokarev explains that this is “like the relationship of the Japanese artist Hokusai with Fujiyama, or Monet with the Cathedral of Rouen. Such landscapes are like small-scale musical works, an endless exercise in plastics and meaning.” Could it be that this is a secret longing for the “lost paradise” of direct communication with nature? But we should recall that you can’t step in twice into the same river…

But this is merely an aside, a retort. In his art Alexander Tokarev aspires to embody the spiritual life of a contemporary person in the multitude of its shades and facets—from unconscious instincts to the heights of spiritual insight. Good and evil, angels and monsters are equally present in the space of his paintings. As Nina Berberova wrote: “Art takes its living essence from the worlds of antiquity and newspaper headlines, from remnants of millennium-old religions and the data of hard sciences, as well as from great artistic myths created in our time”.[5]

[1] Boris Groys. Vechnoe vozvrashenie novogo [The Eternal Return of the New]. Iskusstvo #10, 1989. P. 16.

[2] David Samoilov. Perebiraya nashi daty [Leafing Through Our Dates]//M., Vagrius, 2000. P. 46.

[3] Here and in the rest of text the artist is quoted from his web gallery

[4] Albert Camus. The Sisyphus Myth. Essay on the Absurd. [Quoted from the Russian translation published in Sumerki Bogov//M., 1990. P. 08).

[5] Neizvestnaya Berberova (The Unknown Berberova)//Saint Petersburg. Limbus-Press, 1998. P. 147.


Author: © Mikhail Lazarev