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Alexander Tokarev is an artist who could be the hero of a novel. He lives the way a novel is written, a novel with a certain taste, coherence and range that make you wonder how it will all turn out. He also paints in a novelistic manner: on a generous scale with a multitude of characters and intriguing themes. However, writing about him is difficult because his own hints, comments, and cultural references—everything that permeates his painting— provide too much help. Nor does his painting stand alone: there is also his background in cinema, monumental art, literature, and design. He simply thrusts his intellectual development, his incredible commitment and the extroversion that comes naturally to a southerner at the critic. When you sense such plenitude in a single artist you can’t help sighing: “Man-orchestra, that’s it!” And long ago Tokarev very appropriately took that name by adopting the “man-orchestra” brand as his story, theme, and strategy. So those who write about him, while they may be dancing to his wind instruments, often miss the rhythm. Then the rest of the orchestra can make them stumble.

The temptation to follow the biographic blueprint is hard to resist because the artist’s life story has a rich and convoluted pattern like an EKG where the broadest excursions reach —we must say it again—novelistic proportions. Tokarev himself is a confident writer of “artist’s commentaries”, and his writing has a masculine honesty, sharpness and freedom without any evasions or prolixity. He has such a clear style that it would be foolish to compete with him on that ground. Painting, however, very seldom is treated in Tokarev’s writings and keeps asserting its non-verbal nature by staying in a special realm where language is under stress and must use non-narrative means. I will therefore address the lacunae in those aspects of Tokarev’s art that are minimally related to any obvious quirks of behaviour. We need not even specify them: “What happened along the way? What women were met, how many metres travelled, and how many roubles spent or earned…” Let us omit all that, as the poet has suggested. Let us turn to what really matters—the paintings and the artist, and let us analyse in that order and through the artist’s language.

In the 1980s painting became the most prominent of the arts: there were the German Neoexpressionists, the Italian figurative Transavanguardia, and Francis Bacon’s lonely British way. The gigantic canvases of the Southern Russia Wave were taking Moscow by storm, while Leningrad was hanging on to the leftist academic style in the studios of Mylnikov and Moiseenko. Painting was a characteristic choice, and even an unavoidable one, for many artists active in the 80s, whereas ten years later it already became difficult to place any trust either in a particular means of expression or in painting in general. In Moscow artists such as I. Lubennikov, O. Bulgakova, A. Sitnikov, T. Nazarenko, and N. Nesterova remained true to their artistic heritage—those are the ones that I keep in my mental innermost Moscow circle. Inflation within the art world caused many artists to expect unlimited profits from conceptual discourses that didn’t need painting: “being a painter in the mid-1990s in Moscow was either too presumptuous or too vulgar”[i]. It was only at the start of the third millennium that painting was rehabilitated by theorists and the “coiners of terms”.

During the 1980s vicissitudes of fate that were both dramatic and harsh gave birth to the artist Alexander Tokarev as we know him today—an artist who has abandoned cinema, has experimented with related arts, but has in the end plunged resolutely into painting. That choice results not only from the features of his artistic fate, but also from the general rhythm of the times. Not only European but also “Soviet-European” painting was clearly seeking authenticity and also inventorying its resources and means. Most of all it was looking to its means for communicating with the audience whose most important member would be an educated professional: an intellectual, a peer, or an art scholar. One can find allusions (I believe them to be unintentional.) to D. Zhilinsky’s gymnasts in Midday, to A. Deineka’s sportswomen in The Red Ball, to F. Bacon’s prisoners of the interior in Loneliness of Art. The renewal of this language also extended to the use of individual experience as a theme and to expansion into areas bordering on painting as a form of art.

Tokarev is an artist who thinks strategically but doesn’t neglect tactics. After selecting “Man-Orchestra” as his chief theme, he provided a formal framework for it and even elaborated a theory set forth in his essay on the multi-part poliptych form which he mostly uses. This form does indeed multiply meanings and allows a renewal of the language of painting without clashing with the traditional diptych or triptych format. Tokarev does not paint according to the academic canon which prescribes sketching in all the details at the beginning, making cartoons, and following the other technical steps used in the schools. He completes one canvas not knowing how many there will be in the end nor what their sequence will be, and then…but he describes that in detail himself. This intuitive method produces an unexpected combination of components and avoids any straightforward narrative. Lines of tension open up the borders of each painting and increase the space for meaning. Despite all his cinema experience, his poliptychs and blocks of paintings are far removed from the “storyboard” method. His mise en scenes cannot be interpreted as accidental stills—“an episodic canvas does not have the right to exist” is Tokarev’s conviction. I see that as a director’s working through several visual versions (the self-portrait in “Director” (1984-1985) confirms this image) where events are narrated from different points of view with their participants not merely shifting the emphasis but also rethinking the entire plot using the principle of changing angles. In the history of cinema narration through versification began with A. Kurosawa’s Rashomon; in literature M. Pavic’s hypertexts where the script-writing technique combines the male and the female versions of the novel also come to mind. This kind of directing which allows different viewpoints to have their say and combines their versions into a single visual sequence creates a symphonic plot and most importantly multiplies the added meanings. A combination of layers of various depths can also be seen in the titles of the poliptychs, where Paris and Warm Blow-dryer, or Chare Thursday and Comedian stand side by side. One could say that in one version of the novel the culmination breaks through to the mythological level, while in the other it reaches only the profane.

Those who write about Tokarev’s painting often use analogies, mostly musical and sometimes philological. The artist has led the critics to follow his metaphor—if you call yourself an orchestra and paint musicians with their instruments, you get a symmetrical response. Such a course is quite legitimate as it relies on the inherent foundation of his themes and style. There is no need to argue against the obvious, but there is also no need to elaborate on it carefully transcribing the image into words, since the author affirms that it is not so much the orchestra itself as its music that he treasures. Moreover, he has other series called “Man-Theatre” and “Man-Zoo”, and he could have made a “Man-Carnival”. Underneath it all is the artist’s philosophical confidence that a solo performer is capable of playing choral or polyphonic music.

Another one of Tokarev’s defining themes is sensuousness ranging from the erotic to the ironic. One of the critics has simple-mindedly noted a “plenitude of naked bodies” in his paintings. I would agree that there are some naked ones, but more are nude. Russian art has not developed a set language of description and therefore has no stable attitude toward the nude genre, while the private realm of an individual client did not require the attention of “elevated” critics. A special feature of all the genres employed by Tokarev is their obvious male nature, a clear gender position. That desperate masculinity is reinforced in warm climates, while in Petersburg, for instance, its orthodox thrust is diluted with the cool blue blood of the Northern capital. Among Petersburg artists, Y. Alexandrov, for one, favours parodic visual images, and A. Zaslavsky, for another, romantic ones. The limitations of that acute perceptual angle are nothing new to Tokarev who sometimes approaches the exhaustion of the philosopher, V. Rozanov, when the latter complained of “fumbling with obtrusive rattlers.”

In addition to the aesthetic method, we’ve inherited the chief Western method of analysis which was used indiscriminately for a century both to things that were right on the surface and to those that were hidden in the subconscious. Tokarev’s nude groups and compound characters who don’t ever make a simple move and operate through hints and signs are begging to be analysed in this fashion. However, Freudian analysis is a doubtful concept—specialists can name up to thirty principally different groups of Freudians—and the school itself consists of two parts that can be joined together only by straining. A remarkable example of the tongue-in-cheek Russian attitude to the topic is provided in Dostoyevsky’s Writer’s Diary. On a Petersburg street the author ventured to rebuke some workers for having used a well-known expletive six times in a row. The answer came immediately: “Why then are you using it the seventh time?” So, the phallic subtext appears to me not quite convincing and not comprehensive. Symbols and archetypes of similar scope are more appropriate terms in which to describe Tokarev’s paintings. Otherwise we’ll be facing a cul-de-sac, so to speak, of metaphoric priapism that unjustifiably reduces Tokarev’s surrealistic images to sexual references. A careful analysis of a seemingly unambiguous subtext allows us to reach the freedom which Salvador Dali described as something like “a morning devoid of any signs of an erection”—that is, an escape from tenets, soaring in a creative act above everything, even the inherent, physical features of the creator.

There are not too many of the artist’s own paintings hanging in his studio. One of them is Pyramids (1992). It shows a reclining nude woman in a free and even demonstrative pose surrounded by several colourful children’s pyramids against a deliberately calm background, and she holds one of the pyramids in her hand. One could stop at the first level of meaning—erotic manipulations. However, that reaction is contrived and superficial. The character is too pensive for frolicking; her relaxed body holds too few carnal pleasures; and the body itself is almost immaterial, melting ethereally into the complex grey space, while all of the colour energy builds up in the bright geometric parts. The girl has grown up but retained her old toys? Sensual exhaustion has lead to a dead end of meaninglessness? “Maidens comfort you but to a certain limit— can’t go further than an elbow or a knee line…”? I believe we should accept a broader perspective where there is a clash between the natural and the social, or even an encounter between man and symbol. The pyramid is a variable symbol that combines childhood, sex, power, and a number of other meanings. It can be interpreted as a totemic pillar, an obelisk, a doll, a tower, a cornucopia, a mannequin, a sceptre, an idol, and, for the lack of anything better, a phallus.

In 1977-78 Tokarev painted an expressly symbolic and, we could say, programmatic work: I Set Out a Still Life. In the background there is a combination of landscape elements in sky and earth tones, and there is a sort of a table with three objects on it—a vase with something like a bouquet, a bottle, and a pyramid. The artist’s profile surveys everything from the upper edge of the canvas. A demiurge is evaluating a world, a director is setting up a scene, an artist is choosing a still life. Only one of the three objects is not traditional for a still life, and it stands out from them. This object is either named directly as in Pyramid (1977), or evaluated/classified as in Toys (1978). On a small canvas entitled Loneliness (1981-83) among the everyday accessories of an artist’s studio—bottles, vials, and cans with brushes—there is an anthropomorphic pyramid topped with a hat. A similar pyramid-figure is the main accent in Larissa (1987-1988), and such symbolic signs are numerous and constant. I give these details about the imagery used in Tokarev’s early works (which the artist himself might not remember today) to establish the principle of assembly, the basic matrix from which the complicated anthropologic structures in his later poliptychs grew. It must be noted that beyond his constant imagery there is neither a strict symbolic meaning nor a set of meanings. Otherwise there would be a dogmatic directive, something like “the pyramid is showing the child the hierarchical structure of being, its cohesion, and the sequence of beauty”. Or perhaps it shows the structure of political techniques where the rod would mean the vertical of power, and the crowning element means the Public Chamber. There are theories that would interpret it that way.

Tokarev was not alone when he embarked on a search for an individual symbolic element in the late 70s and early 80s. That search synchronized with the ambitions of his contemporaries among Moscow artists. In 1981 the halls of the Academy of Arts at Kropotkinskaya housed an exhibition devoted to the 70th birthday of Alexander Vasiliev, a theatre artist and painter. His paintings had qualities seldom seen at official exhibitions—a high degree of painterly sophistication, half-forbidden topics, and decidedly non-Soviet images. They included the series Balbettes that were painted over many years “in private”, but they unexpectedly turned up at the exhibition. The balbettes had a simple rounded form and were something between a rolling-pin and a gourd, while etymologically the word was not far removed from the Russian balbes (schnook) and bolvanka (dummy). Remarkably, the balbettes in Vasiliev’s compositions (often called still lives) behaved as a harmless people with a recognizable, habitually dim-witted life—they would get together, talk, fight, and fall in love. Spectators of the late Soviet era were skilled in deciphering the Aesopic language and were not confused—they saw the image of their society in its everyday errands and discrete affairs.

Characters made to slip through censorship of different densities appeared in other artists’ works as well. L. Tishkov’s had his doubloid, L. Purygin his pipa, A. Akopyan his mannequin (Tokarev also investigated the imagery potential of mannequins in his works of 1970.), and many other artists of late Soviet times had such creations. All of them made up stories for their imaginary peoples: they both gave a visual embodiment to apophasis and also staked out in two-dimensional painted space a sanctuary within a system of living rules produced by a creative personality rather than by the mechanism of the state. Vasiliev’s exhibition showed the results of an artistic journey at a time when Tokarev was barely crossing the threshold of youth, as officially determined for a Soviet artist—he turned 35 that year. The historic changes of the mid-80s enabled him to take his imaginary ethnos out of the reservation for artistic euphemisms and place it on the path of free choice.

The “pyramid effect” helped him identify an axis onto which he began to string images. With all the varying combinations of anthropomorphic characters in his paintings, the head has the most independent existence of all. The grotesque shifting of proportions and the schematic simplification in early “Man-Orchestra” works lead to the creation of what childhood psychologists know as a cephalopod—one of the first stages in stylizing a human figure. One can also find in them the anthroposophic canons that R. Steiner linked to the method for teaching art. But Tokarev grows out of his own practice which he does not link even with the most attractive theory, and his heads do not result from “cerebral” art. At the same time, egg-, asteroid-, and apple-like heads are independent characters in Tokarev’s plots; they determine the main emotional tone and are self-portraits in most cases. In general, the characters’ psychological design becomes more complicated as their head size increases, although in those cases where the heads are equipped with musical instruments or other accessories, their role is limited to accompanying and manipulating the props. The Crackpots poliptych (2001-2003) has as its underlying theme the nature of art and the unavoidable strangeness of artistic existence. In every part of the composition, a head reminiscent of Saint-Exupéry’s small planets attracts various objects and images with unexpressed verbal connections and places them in orbit around itself. The world of the sensory and of intuition exists alongside the Head—an embodiment of the artist’s reflection. Contemplative understanding based on intuition rather than on intellect is one of A. Schopenhauer’s sources that he includes in formulating the thesis that artistic work is unconscious and that the artist is unable to explain his own essence to himself. It seems that there is a closed circuit: the author’s reflection is included in the script of the work he is reflecting upon. Observing the observer: Tokarev confirms the role of an artist as a voyeur, but with this difference: the painter trusts methods outside the rational.

Tokarev’s surrealism has been much discussed; layers of the subconscious and things dreamt can be found in most of his works. The same interpretation is prompted by the image of a visionary artist with his night-time, upside down lifestyle. This is someone who sometimes cherishes and sometimes curses his somnambulism; someone who in any case uses legends about his contacts with the paranormal as artistic material: “The mysterious and inexplicable has happened to me,” confirms Tokarev in his writing. The nature of art presupposes the flexibility of ethical boundaries, and the artist expands his opportunities after settling in forbidden territory. In the Russian tradition this is called “gratifying one’s personal demon”. Tokarev takes a peek at the other side of the Moon; he paints Crystal Ball, Minotauria, Bestiary, and other similar subjects. Even though the artist is regarded as suspended in his personal ether, he nevertheless has an exquisite understanding of Moscow’s “delicate matters” since Moscow, “like any self-respecting city, must have a beautifying Hoffmanniade, a number of its own ‘home devils’” wrote economist and writer Alexander Chayanov (whose works later prompted Bulgakov’s creative ideas) in 1928. Visual combinations in Tokarev’s poliptychs are so close to some pages in Chayanov’s stories that they could almost serve as illustrations: “Clepicanus, a Spanish colonel and a great bowler, once happened to be passing through Moscow on his way somewhere. In an ill-starred moment he bet a large amount against Schroeder’s meerschaum pipe, saying that he would win without even trying. So they started to play. Clepicanus took out the entire nine with the first four balls. ‘So, I set up pins for the Baron again,–said Bakastov waving his arms about—and he had probably never held a ball before. He missed with the first, went astray with the second, and the third was no better…so I said to myself: there goes your meerschaum pipe. But then I see our Baron grab his head and then hit the pins with his very own head instead of a ball… Huge noise. All nine flattened. And his collar is smoking. So, I run to the alley for the pins, and I see—O my God and three-handed Holy Virgin!—instead of the pins there are human arms and legs, and the head is not Schroeder’s but Clepicanus’. I turned around. Baron Schroeder is in one piece, smoking his meerschaum pipe. Clepicanus is nowhere to be seen, and all the guests are writhing on the floor in horror.’”[ii]

Love for life that grows into an infernal combat, completeness and full-bodiedness of everything, saturation with the passion of play and life are the traditions of the Moscow Hoffmanniade. Let me quote from Tokarev’s text: “…I lifted my head up: a man was sitting on the chimney. Two legs, a multitude of arms, and about five heads reminiscent of ostrich eggs. His hands were holding musical instruments.”

One of the branches of the theme of heads was the Knobs series begun in the 1990s. That conceptual structure is closely related to the pyramid, while the name (apparently unintentionally) is close to balbettes (the Russian for knobs is nabaldashniki—translator’s note). The image on the whole arises from early works, for example from the portrait where a woman becomes a vase holding a bouquet (The Beloved. 1978). A knob is a decorative element of a functional object—the top of a cane, the hilt of a sword, the handle of an umbrella. At the same time, the tactile comfort permits a mechanical, thoughtless use of that element. The knobs are named: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Einstein, Shostakovich. For the public consciousness, the names are worn brands devoid of personal qualities—we encounter them daily without any feeling, and their image is reduced to a stereotype. The world will sell any intellectual product as a souvenir: “Life’s a freewheeling vendor: occiput, penis, knee”[iii] (J. Brodsky).

Paradoxically, colour is the only key formal element in Tokarev’s paintings that is not symbolically loaded. The explanation is in his youth spent in Odessa and in his work en plein air in Uzbekistan and Armenia, where the artist acquired (in R. Falk’s formulation) a “singing of the eye.” Peculiarities of individual perception and apprehension of colour are associated with Tokarev’s origins, with his visual “slang” which was so clearly heard by the writer A. Kabakov. The artist refined his perception of colour by means of the plein air series Window on Zamoskvorechye, which was painted over a number of years. The actual windows of his studio overlook a panoramic landscape of half of Moscow, from Christ the Saviour Cathedral to the Shukhov TV tower in all the varieties of day- and night-time lighting. The artist uses colour actively and generously, sometimes halting the pictorial dialogue just short of obscene language. The colour scheme discovered by Tokarev comes from his experiences with looking at things en plein air. It has the concision of a sketch yet preserves the polyphonic aspect that a scholastic cast of mind would resist. The artist’s skill with colour permits him to add a third character to the poliptych Intonations (2004). Here light which is expressed through colour takes the lead and stretches the boundaries of the double nude genre. Obviously, the Southern school can also be found in the accents of imagery and in the aphoristic nature of compositions such as Odessa Tablets where the intonations are expressive according to the local fashion but also embody an individual interpretation which sets it apart from the usual rustic humour associated with Odessa. It is impossible “to forget a penetrating wound right next to heart received in that Southern town while toying with the ambivalent and the forbidden […] In the unsmiling air of the North, however, the South was not betrayed—it took on other expressions and was transformed. It became local as art melted into life and life melted into art”[iv]—that was what a Southerner wrote of himself and of others who left the South to come of age in colder latitudes.

Alexander Tokarev’s symbolic art originated at the threshold of the 1990s and evolved to maturity in the 21st century. In dry scholarly terms the art of that time is defined as “postmodernism”. The artist has stayed in step with the epoch. His work with its multiple meanings and images in the multi-part poliptych form is consistent with the general neosyncretic tendency that aspires to return to a baroque idea of space. (That the tendency is still very much current is confirmed by the 2007 exhibition “Baroque (Symptoms of a Grand Style)” in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art). Indeed, the spatial element takes precedence in the imagery of Tokarev’s paintings and dominates their content. A characteristic feature of modern figural art is “revealed in artists’ desire to liken each of their works to a sacral act, to an ancient totem, to a time and space of a magical spiritual performance.”[v]

Tokarev has a poliptych entitled Garland of Sonnets (1992-1993) where the paintings on both ends form a pictorial ring, as is usual for the sonnet form. It makes sense to conclude this article using the same trick. For recent philosophy, it is Schopenhauer who still sustains an aesthetic connection that reaches right down to contemporary figurative art: “When I see a mountain, I am nothing but that mountain, that sky, and those rays: the object stands out and appears in its pure captivating and endless beauty.” The world of intuition remains the foundation of Tokarev’s world of reflection. Beyond this, the synonyms for the words will and representation—freedom and action—give the broadest description of this artist’s creative map.

[i] Balakhnovskaya, F. “Tcherez ternii k Starzam. Dubosarsky and Vinogradov, Molodye gody. [To Starz through the Thatchets. Dubosarsky and Vinogradov. The Youth].” K 15-letiyu galerei M. Gelmana.[To the 15th Birthday of Marat Gelman’s Gallery]. Catalogue. Moscow, 2007. P.398.

[ii] Chayanov, A.V. Yulia ili vstrechi pod Novodedevichiim [Yulia, or Novodevichii Encounters]. Chayanov, A.V. Venetsianskoye zerkalo [Venetian Mirror]. Moscow: Sovremennik, 1989: 142.

[iv] “Shkola Yuga [Southern School].” Klekh, I. Intsident s klassikom [An Encounter with a Classic]. Moscow: Novoye literaturnoye obozrenye, 1998. P.131.

[v] Makhov, N. Kulturologia khudozhestvennogo obraza v XX veke. [Culturology of the Artistic Image in the 20th Century]. Decorativnoye Iskusstvo, 2001, #2. P. 31.


Author: © Anton Uspensky, The State Russian Museum