Gudzenko’s “Quiet Non-Alignment”
Eduard Gudzenko is practically unknown to the Russian public. During his lifetime he had several devoted admirers, who even managed to “push through” his solo exhibit at the Cherkasy Art Museum in 2007, one year after the artist’s death. An exhibit of Gudzenko’s works was held in Kyiv a year later. After his death (as is usually the case), experienced “outsider” art critics began to familiarize themselves with his art. It is my hope that the exhibit of his works at the Russian Museum will finally bring Gudzenko wide recognition which is long overdue.
Gudzenko spent most of his life in the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, where he endured all the difficulties of life as a provincial Soviet artist. The point is not just that he led a modest life presiding over a pictorial art study group and eking out a living filling orders in local art studios. What was considerably worse was the rejection of his attempts to break out of the straitjacket of the official, parochial understanding of art and the mediocre, semi-professional language of art. His longing to declare himself as an independent creative personality provoked a hostile reaction not only from the ideological authorities but also his fellow artists, who took the need for a creative levelling-off for granted. Pressure from Soviet officialdom was ubiquitous, but in the provinces—outside the established creative milieu and without the support of liberal intellectual circles—it had a special, invincible power.
Perhaps, in his longing to recover from the blows that were inflicted more often than not by members of the artist’s own professional milieu, Gudzenko spent the last period of his life in the utterly ordinary Ukrainian village of Budyshche, located in Cherkasy oblast. Thus, one can only be amazed at how the artist, who stood practically outside the professional milieu, accumulated his creative force and set himself increasingly more refined and individualized painting tasks, as though he were living not in a village far removed from cultural life but surrounded by the competitive denizens of Barbizon, Worpswede, South Hampton, Newlyn (Cornwall), and other world-famous art colonies. So, who was Gudzenko?
On the one hand, he was the living embodiment of the artistic thinking and behavior that the British art critic Roger Cardinal called “outsider art.” He singles out such indicators as disinterest in the art establishment, lack of coordination with works created by contemporary professionals, and independence from so-called expert professional assessments; that is, an outsider artist creates works exclusively for himself or herself. Another theoretician, the American critic and curator John Beardsley, correctly defines a similar method of existence: living and working at a certain remove from the predominant artistic culture. But these are external analogies. In fact, Gudzenko not only obtained an art education, he felt that he was, indeed, a professional, and he asserted himself by accumulating professionalism. All the rest was forced, situational: disconnection from his creative surroundings, the involuntariness of working for himself, without access to “art consumers,” and disconnection from that which was subsequently called the art establishment. (At one time, a particular type of art establishment also existed in the Soviet era: it had its own hierarchy and an established institutional system governing the production and consumption of art.)
Gudzenko strove to be part of the professional milieu (he was proud of the comments about his work of such distinguished masters as Tatiana Yablonska and George Yakutovich); he thirsted for the opportunity to show his works and be presented to viewers (as a rule, all his exhibit experiences ended with unwarranted attacks and “organizational findings”). At the same time, Gudzenko was an extremely modest person, self-focused, even “concealed,” to use a word from the Leskovian lexicon. He was absolutely averse to self-promotion or generally any kind of ritual, public manifestations that were an obligatory part official art of the time. In its turn, official art treated him like an alien, and not once in his life did Gudzenko create a worthy, made-to-order, ideologically-themed painting. Evidently, in keeping with an old tradition, he was considered blessed, not of this world: even if he had been a representative of the cultural elite, he, that brilliant follower of Post-Impressionism, would have been regarded as a Westerner, a cosmopolite, which in and of itself would have been dangerous. However, he was a man of peasant roots, “from the earth,” and he could be suspected of Westernism (and, in fact, was) only by his utterly obdurate local colleagues. His Impressionist and, later, Post-Impressionist goals were achieved independently, through suffering; they were the fruit of his self-evolution.
He thus became an outsider in the late-Soviet sense: an outsider against his will.
He was neither an ideological figure of the underground nor a convinced “country bumpkin” (by analogy with late Soviet literature in which the division into urban prose and country bumpkin writers was ideological, principled: for the latter, village life was the last outpost of national traditions, spiritual sources, and the like). In the context of Soviet artistic life during that period, Gudzenko’s “quiet non-alignment” was involuntary. From the point of view of Soviet officialdom, he was simply unlucky. It seems that no one took him seriously; his work was simply suppressed. He was considered a crank, a rural philosopher, a disaster as an artist, inflexible in his independence, and incapable of producing an ordinary, custom-made painting—in a word, a loser.
Gudzenko was a nobody where officialdom was concerned—that much is clear. He was especially not welcome in the circles of the so-called left wing of professional creative associations: there was a left Moscow Union of Artists (MOSKh) and Leningrad Union of Artists (LOSKh); there was even a “left” Kyiv. That circle of artists showed no interest whatsoever in Gudzenko, who was ranked as a member of the underground only a single time: the Ukrainian artist and researcher Serhii Kniazev, author of The Second Odessa Avant-garde: Space and Perspectives, mentions Gudzenko’s name, evidently on the basis of binary opposition: everything that was not part of the official art scene was underground. Gudzenko did not belong to the “southern wave” (in Moscow, this school was considered the “south-Russian wave”) even in generational terms. Of course, its representatives could have included the legacy of their elder brother in their sphere of interests, but in terms of its goals it was a bit removed from their art practice, “staggering by its baroque sweep and splendor, wild blend of irony and ardent naiveté, heightened temperature of bombast, and grotesque, quasi-academic substantial program” (Vladimir Levashov). Thus, Gudzenko was sidelined even in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet state.
It is therefore all the more important to establish historical and artistic justice, which is the goal of this museum exhibition: to reveal the art of Eduard Gudzenko to the broad public and to try to make sense of him in the context of the development of the contemporary artistic process.
Eduard Gudzenko was born in the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, and he moved to Kishinev, in Belarus, at the age of twenty. Judging by everything, the atmosphere in the Kishinev Art College was surprisingly liberal. One of his teachers was the young Mikhail Grek, who soon became the rising star of “multinational Soviet art.” The Romanian artist Corneliu Baba, who was held in high esteem, was better known in the Soviet Union, where he eventually became an honorary member of the Soviet Academy of Arts, than in his homeland, where his relations with the Romanian regime were marked by conflicts. It is high time to declare that long before the 1990s, when the phenomenon of the “south-Russian wave” was first reflected upon, there was a certain commonality of aspirations, so to speak, in the southwestern vector of art in the USSR. The “geographic conditions” in western Ukraine and, partly, the central regions of that republic, as well as Moldova, played a considerable role in the formation of a specific kind of chromatics—exuberant, brilliant, and accelerated. It was not simply a question of original local color, if by this one understands not only ethnographic features but also color in the literal sense, that is, the objective qualities of chromatics. For a number of reasons (some of the teachers at western Ukrainian and Moldovan art institutes had studied in the West; the local artistic culture, which never severed its contacts with Western European culture in the 1930s, had not become frozen from the icy breath of officialdom) a certain culture of color perception developed there. For example, the Leningrad artist Ivan Godlevsky, who before the war managed to complete several years of studies at the All-Russian Academy of Arts, ended up in western Ukraine, where over a brief period of time he utterly reworked his palette.
The special character of Gudzenko’s early works can probably be explained by the existence of this southwestern vector (and not by the general Thaw moods that were spreading from Moscow, with no way of telling when they would reach Kishinev). Strictly speaking, during this period he was still a student at a provincial art institute, with everything that this entailed: a general lack of technique, especially drawing, in figurative culture. The typological reaction of a student who engages in any kind of objective self-assessment is the longing to fill in the blanks. In Gudzenko’s case this was expressed, especially during this period, in an original, naturalistic version of realism whereby the artist, attentive to particulars more than to the general, sought to convey the “entire totality” of nature in the diversity of its details and minuteness. At this stage, the cult of “correctness,” technical competence, and a rise to a certain conventional level of mastery were indispensable. (Alas, this path is often coupled with loss of identity and dilution in some kind of collective professional attitude. Thus, it was precisely in those years that Russia witnessed the formation of a type of first-rate landscape painter, whose development reached the level of the pre-Impressionist plein-air painting of the Union of Russian Artists that was active in the 1910s. The group’s production was altogether sound and professionally of the same equal type. However, it was precisely this “collectivism” and consistency of self-determination that did not allow specific artists to lay claim to the individuality of self-expression.)
Nothing of the kind is evident in Gudzenko’s very first works. His paintings dating to the late 1950s—Moldova: The Thaw, An Old House, A Country Road—are completely typological and rendered in the pre-Impressionist spirit of the landscape (that is, with generalized color-tone designs but also with realities prescribed in detail). As stated earlier, here the aspects of Impressionism derive rather from the Union of Russian Artists. Chronologically parallel with these works are paintings with a completely different pictorial incandescence, such as The White House, Laundry, The Dnister River, and Mother and Child: the artist’s temperament strives for freedom and is clearly not fettered by inadequate technical equipment. Hatchings, slashes, and streams of color appear to be autonomous; they form recognizable images of objects with some difficulty, as though unwillingly, and in such a way that this clumsy, homely (seemingly uncertain, as though some kind of inner opposition has been overcome), created figurativeness becomes firmly entrenched in memory. In the painting entitled The First Drawing Teacher, P. Poshyvanyk, lack of inhibition takes on a riskier character. The theme of the “artist amidst nature” was quite popular in Soviet art, and it even proposed a certain industrial nuance: a tractor driver tilling a field, a dairymaid milking cows, a painter working in the open air. Here everything is unexpectedly exaggerated, even uneasy: nature clearly does not submit, it slips away; the artist, as though perched on a raft, is balanced on the surface “knocked together” out of pasty, tactilely perceived paintbrush strokes. This self-forgetful readiness to plunge into the natural is in fact the emotional theme of the work. Of course, this was no simple task for Gudzenko the beginner. What unites all these works? The answer is unquestionable emotionality and volatility, as well as an indisputable lack of concern for the technical rules of the game: the correctness of a drawing, composition, and painting. Evidently, for the first and practically the last time Gudzenko felt as though he were part of a promising professional environment. If one examines the experience of Mikhail Grek, who was a powerful colorist and refined arranger of unsophisticated folkloric motifs, or the art practice of Corneliu Baba with his sfumato technique with which he ennobled all, even socially opportunistic, subjects, then one instantly realizes that the young Gudzenko could encounter understanding. So, it appears that for Gudzenko the provincial Republican Art Institute in Kishinev was the right place for him and he was there at the right time. If he had studied in the art institutes of Moscow, Leningrad, or Kyiv, would he have withstood the hailstorm of reproaches from the specialists of “smooth painting” (gladkopis; with no distinct style), professional competence, and technical sophistication?
It is difficult to overestimate the latter. As an inexperienced artist, did he intuitively seek out a highly individual and original path? Why did he find within himself the courage to focus on self-expression, and why did he believe it possible to depart from the generally obligatory scheme of professional development for the sake of independent expression? Evidently, he had much to express, to say. A lot of things had accumulated and a creative resolution was required. That which was related to his identity and attitude turned out to be fully mature.
However, it cannot be said that Gudzenko acted only intuitively. For him the decade of the 1960s was a time of choices: professional, attitudinal (world perception), even sociopolitical (in 1960 he took part in a student protest meeting; he was no activist and merely came out “in support of justice” for a female student who was arrested; nevertheless, the “organs” noted his presence and recorded his name in their notebooks). He painted landscapes and still lifes that were optically more precise; this line, beginning with an earlier work entitled Strawberries, was continued with increasing deliberateness in Still Life with a Fish, Still Life with Flowers, Crockery, Breams, and Interior of Shyroky). Some critics believe that in those years Gudzenko came under the influence of the Severe Style “everywhere” (povsegradno) to use a neologism coined by the Russian poet Igor Severianin, which had gained somewhat of a foothold in official Soviet art. If that is not so, then this style applied to Gudzenko very indirectly, not that the goal of the busily severe was foreign to him, in contrast to the decorativeness and substitutivity of good old-fashioned Socialist Realism and the perception of reality. No, it was simply that Gudzenko had a southern artistic temperament, and he was inclined to exaltation, even carnivalization, as the period of the 1970s would demonstrate. No adversities and misfortunes of life could vanquish this. The Severe Style was the last attempt to humanize Socialist Realism in some way. I am convinced that Gudzenko treated it with all sympathy, but was it possible to violate himself for the sake of a socially advantageous manifestation of the prosaic?—hardly. he was not ready for that. Therefore, I would use a different term in relation to the works described above: Contemporary Style. It appeared earlier and was introduced into the art world by the champions of the need to update artistic thinking, which by the 1950s was truly and utterly blinkered by the canons of imitated life. It arose in the milieu of artists from the material sphere, the most archaic and impoverished. Gradually, however, it spread to design and applied art as well as graphics, and then it was everywhere. The Severe Style had ideologically social connotations. The term “Contemporary Style” had an extremely general and ideologically benign subtext: even the fiercest curators barely had anything against the idea of renewing the external aspect of the material world. For that reason, the Contemporary Style was able to achieve much secretly, especially in the sphere of shaping. It transmitted ideas pertaining to the active work of form, its logic and constructiveness, energy of generalization, and the right to conventionality. As a result, the goal of mimesis and imitated life began to be perceived altogether archaically. Thus, I would describe Gudzenko’s still lifes in Contemporary Style terms: generalization, constructiveness, energy. True, this was a bit insipid for Gudzenko: it was definitely necessary to add corporeality. Indeed, the artist’s logic of shaping was not to the detriment of tactile impulses and sensations of the self-sufficient life of what was depicted (the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls this the “apple-ness of apples”). In this regard, one can speak of the “bream-ness” of Gudzenko’s breams: the stirring of the body flattened out on the sides, the trembling of water meadows, the hues of the fish scales.
The second creative line of the 1960s is marked by portraits. For the most part, these are Gudzenko’s village grannies: Aunt Pelaheia, Granny Ulita. In these works one can also find external, especially intonational, manifestations of the Severe Style, but here the essence of figurativeness is different. There is an extraordinarily intense color range in Aunt Pelaheia: dark ochers “push through” in bright-red and bleaching colors. A red towel underneath icons, an old woman’s blue and white shawl emphasizing the dark, wrinkled face. There is absolutely no ethnographism here, let alone affection for the traditional peasant way of life: only the dramatic character of a life of grueling work, solitude, old age. A similar emotional feeling is also conveyed in Granny Ulita through coloristic devices. In my opinion, Gudzenko’s female images have something in common with the old women of the northern Russian villages captured by the Russian artist Viktor Popkov. (Incidentally, there are also chronological similarities here: both artists began painting elderly peasant women during the second half of the 1960s. True, Gudzenko was just a beginner, while Popkov, six years his senior, was already a famous painter.) Popkov is one of the native artists of the Severe Style. It is my view, however, that in his Mezensk Widows he “outgrew” this style both in terms of content and graphics. As stated earlier, Gudzenko (probably sharing the aspirations of leading masters of the Severe Style to renew the intuitive and graphic foundations of the reigning Socialist Realist method), did not proceed along the path aimed at reproducing the patterns of the Severe Style. He emerged with his own material, and the definite commonality with Popkov’s most powerful works—coloristic, emotional, and even psychological—attests, in my view, not to the typological nature of his quests but the opposite: to their independence and maturity.
A line whose sources may be traced to Gudzenko’s early sketches, which were marked by an expressiveness that was so difficult to control, also developed in the 1960s. It appears that the artist, realizing that he had a weakness, an unbridled temperament along with its reverse side—a happy-go-lucky hand and a feeling of rawness, “undigestedness,” of his painting efforts—strove for a kind of synthesis. It was important for him to preserve immediacy of feeling.
Above all, the plasticity, modelling, and shaping of Gudzenko’s painting surfaces are dynamic and filled with energy. But it was no less important for him to enrich his color, tone, and textural decisions. These processes that “complicate” his paintings can be traced to works which he produced during that decade: Garden, Cherkasy, On the Beach, Leafy Grove/or Oak Forest, check against painting/, Fisherman, A Homestead in Winter, and Large Village. In a number of works he gravitates toward picturesqueness and sets himself the task of overcoming the “sketching” nature of plein-air painting: hence the suspension as well as the compositional, rhythmic, and calculated nature of a number of works (Field, Hot Red Sun).
For Gudzenko the 1970s began with the rather unexpected paintings Comedians, The Premiere, Portrait of Natalia, and later, Don Quixote, which were united by a trend that was new for the painter. They convey “picturesqueness” to which he had been long attracted, that is, a new level (in contrast to location reaction/? naturnoi reaktsii) of compositional and color organization, a specific “conjuring.” But the main thing is that the nature of these works is openly theatrical and carnivalesque. In this regard, in the 1970s the artist from Cherkasy was on the same wavelength as the members of a large group of Soviet master painters that hailed from practically every republic of the USSR, in whose individual and collective artistic mythology lay theatrilization.
It is worthwhile noting that at this very time the creative intelligentsia was in thrall to the philosophical writings of Mikhail Bakhtin. Two main vectors—dialogism and the carnivalesque—given the reductiveness of the genuine multidimensionality of Bakhtin’s message, weighed heavily on the souls of that generation. Of course, there were sociopolitical causes behind the “implanting” of Bakhtin in the 1970s. Above all, it was dissatisfaction with contemporary reality: carnivalization, mythologization, and archaization, what have you, but just not the hierarchy, inflexibility, and “senility” of late Soviet culture. (These phenomena include allegorical Georgian cinema, the Soviet Armenian director Serhii Paradzhanov, and the Soviet reading public’s passion for the “magical realism” of Latin American novels.) Reflectively or intuitively, Gudzenko sensed this nerve pulsing in the social moods, and he opted for the poetics of domestic theater permeated with folkloric motifs. This choice—made when he was living in the small professional art world of Cherkasy—was also a kind of escapism, soft and polite though it may have been; it was a departure from reality. In his Self-Portrait (1975) the general theatricality of the artistic decision cannot conceal the dramatic notes. In terms of his painterly development, two works “from the ’70s” are very important in my view: Cabbage and Windy. They are very different in terms of their arrangement: the first demonstrates contemplation and a tranquil color synthesis; the second reveals impulsiveness, impetuousness, and the extroverted power of gesture. Through their contrast they reveal the growth of the painter’s expressive capacities.
The 1980s and 1990s were a period marked by a significant upsurge in Gudzenko’s creative activity. He had managed to preserve the energy and demiurgic mood of his initial period, but now he was not an artist with a “single but burning passion.” If you look at the 1980s, Gudzenko is capable of switching from subtle, “Yuon-type” warm/cold gradations (Snowy Winter) to stormy color expression (Linden on a Hill). In the 1990s the expressive line prevailed. However, Gudzenko’s expressionism is now significantly more diverse and sophisticated.
What also changed was the context in which his self-identification took place. Earlier, it was comprised of his life experiences, scant education, and the art practice of his older confreres and those few of his teachers to whose level he aspired to reach. Now this context also included the experience of European pictorial modernism, above all, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which Gudzenko learned on his own by studying such sources as museum and library collections.
The result was also different. Instead of unexpected successes that were striking for their elemental illogicality (Where did someone like him come from? Where did he get such energy and audacity—from his naiveté, through ignorance, by accident?), there was consistent, deliberate development and the faculty for switching from one task to another. The paintings The Cutting/check against painting, A Garden in Summertime, Birch Tree, Turkey, Grape Leaves, Hillside, and Fall Motif are diverse in terms of arrangement: Post-Impressionism and Expressionism are two poles between which the action in the paintings plays out. The main feeling derived from these works is freedom of painterly feeling, its liveliness and sophistication. In some paintings we see the most important plastic idea—the most diverse “threading” of the surface into color layers that are in harmony with nature’s realities. In others, we see shaping and color decisions—textural modeling and blotches of color tones that are often “not in proper form.”
The more self-sufficiently and powerfully Gudzenko worked, the more unendurable was the pressure to which he was subjected. Feliks Kokrykht, the Ukrainian journalist, collector, and chronicler of the Ukrainian underground is responsible for coining an exact definition of the Soviet period: “The environment supplanted the country.” Gudzenko did not have a worthy environment either in the Soviet or the post-Soviet period. The environment was hostile. (Of course, there were some like-minded people, such as Mykola Babak, who organized several posthumous exhibits of Gudzenko’s works in Cherkasy and Kyiv.) In the early 1990s the artist sought shelter in the village of Budyshche, preferring inescapable everyday difficulties to life in the difficult, “parochial” circumstances of his native city. Despite his ill health, he continued to work amidst nature. As I see it, in the last five years of his life, the first half of the 2000s, the artist produced his finest works. When, in relation to Gudzenko, we use classical terms from the history of twentieth-century art—Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism—a certain conditional character naturally comes into play. Gudzenko was not and could not be part of a current, in the “ranks” of the artists who, historically, had created these trends. If he had limited himself to “repeating the past,” that is, if he had gone over the “lesson,” then we would have a specific attitude to him. Indeed, this was a talented individual who independently “incubated” in the silence of his studio that with which the finest masters of the age had struggled. Yes, he was sincere; otherwise, one would instantly sense stylization, hack work. But what would be the point of that? The job was done, and the problems connected with the trends that this artist experienced anew and utterly candidly entered the history of the arts long ago.
The sceptics would have been right, if not for one key reason. In his oeuvre, thanks to his instrumentalized, impressionistic, and expressionistic devices, Gudzenko did not express issues pertaining to the “short history of the arts,” even though he went through it independently.
He sought to express questions related to the evolution of his own artistic consciousness, appropriating, naturally, some elements from the language of twentieth-century art. In his most mature works, including his last ones (The Alley of Peace, Sunflowers, Flowers, Guelder Rose), he is barely interested in problems connected with “survival in reality,” in the “physical,” that is, in the object/space or emotional, “moody” structure of landscape. The basic drama of these works unfolds not outside but inside; within the artist’s consciousness.
It may be argued that all of Gudzenko’s works dating to the final period of his life (he died in 2006) are subordinated to a single goal: to bring the viewer from out of the stupor of setting (ustanovka) into what is easily recognizable, habitual, similar, and expected; to endow it with some kind of new level of receptivity. A solitary artist who shut himself up in a village, he truly no longer worked with nature situations but with situations that involved discretion, perception, and sensations. He worked with states of a consciousness that was oneiric, mirage-like.
The painting entitled Landscape: Autumn, unfolding along a spiral of color and space composition, leads the viewer into its depths, on the heels of mirage-like figures semi-dissolved in the medium of color.
The Alley of Peace is a feeling of an engulfing (as in a crater) color mirage linked with a direct visual impression, but which is utterly self-sufficient, possessing a kind of independent psychedelic power.
The artist’s life passed imperceptibly: short on biographical milestones, it was fully absorbed with his painting. That is why our encounter with Gudzenko’s art is all the more significant.