The Utopia of Painting. Gudzenko, or Life in the Countryside
When I elevated colors to sonorous accords, people sometimes felt that form completely disappeared, but it is always present; it simply goes deeper.
Emil Nolde, “Words in the Margin”1
On one of Eduard Gudzenko’s paintings you can see his fingerprint, a unique physiological mark that is forever frozen in the oil painting. This physical trace of the master touching his painting reminds me of the signatures of the ancient Greek potters. Unable to write and ignorant of the practice of branding, they marked their wares with their fingerprints.
Part of an artist always passes into his work. In placing himself into a work of art, he leaves an inimitable trace of himself. This is what that fingerprint says. But it says even more: it speaks to the fact that in his paintings Gudzenko harkens to a different era, to antiquity, to a time when people did not know how to write; to the age when people did not draw a line between themselves and their creations.
What is immediately striking is the power of color, the riotously-hued oil paints that captivated Gudzenko as far back as the early 1960s. Still Life with Gladioli (1961) is an early example of the banquet of colors that is characteristic of this Ukrainian artist. Matter whirls into the air from the touch of a paintbrush; a basket of flowers rises and soars above the earth. This work is imbued with the same kind of penetrating, fire-breathing force as Munch’s sun or van Gogh’s sunflowers. The suggestion of color infects the viewer with the artist’s emotions.
Red and orange colors become pure fire. We return to a world of archetypes, to a sphere where primitive instincts are at work, which govern us in the same way as they governed our ancestors thousands of years ago. The appeal of this painting does not lie in the fact that it is “beautiful” or “harmonious” (it is simply pointless to utter such banalities). It makes us gasp for breath, and this stifled breathing is the truest indication that the effect here goes much deeper than external cultural codes. Through our contemplation of the depicted gladioli, the sun’s energy, which gave birth to these flowers, is restored to us.
Decades of structuralism and post-structuralism have broken us of the habit of perceiving the meaning of art. Beyond references to other images, we no longer conceive of the meaning of a work. It is obliged to exist within a complex system of signs, to send us back to the past or to the side, to our professional colleagues. But, an artist like Gudzenko has neither colleagues nor a past. And yet his finest works are not about this at all, for they exist in a different system of coordinates. Their reference point is nature, not culture.
The call of fire is the most ancient of feelings. Like a moth beating against the glass of a lamp at night, man has gazed in fascination at fire’s flame since the first days of his life journey. A campfire is a friend during the transition to another quality,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “and fire means Agnis, ‘mercurial’ ”2. The artist twists his brushstrokes, and individual curves blend into a general dance. The dancing of the brilliant petals and the twirling ring around them convey not only the rhythm of the quivering gladioli, but they also submerge us much deeper. We see a fire in the hearth, the trembling of life’s conception amidst the endless night.
Gudzhenko’s still lifes are not still “life-like” because nature is not mortal in them. By their intention they are the complete opposite of classical Dutch examples of this genre. They do not present us with a festive catalog of objects, like the works of Pieter Aertsen or Joachim Beuckelaer. They do not show us the high culture of flower growing, like the works of Balthasar van der Ast or the canvases of Jan van Huiysum. Of course, Gudzenko created his paintings after Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, after Expressionism and Suprematism. But he departed even farther from classical painting than Monet or even Nolde.
Gudzenko sheds the line between landscape and still life: the separation that gives rise to the history of these genres. Thus, the exhibit includes a section that may be called “Flowers and Trees.” Both one and the other stop being objects that are external with regard to the artist-observer – they become signs of experiences. Here, the only form is the form of flowers or trees. However, the essence of these paintings resides in the fact that they express states with the aid of color, without becoming abstractions. In Gudzenko’s works nature loses its objectness.
The author disappears into nature, and the viewer – into his works. “The soul, which by contemplating everything that comes after it, takes everything into itself as a living entity, gazes as though into a living mirror at everything that takes part in its life and which, through it, lives and exists as something alive” 3. This is the sense of the all-encompassing unity of matter with a thinking being.
The Guelder-Rose (2005) is one of Gudzenko’s last canvases. It features the same compositional device that he used in Still Life with Gladioli, which was painted when he took his first independent steps in the art world; the shrub is situated in the very center of the canvas, filling up the entire visible space. The earth and the surrounding sky are only hinted at by individual brushstrokes of paint. Everything real is reduced to a single plant. For Gudzenko, this motif is not a haphazard one.
The guelder-rose is no ordinary shrub. The depiction of its inflorescence (the flower cluster on a stem) is an important element of the vyshyvka, traditional Ukrainian embroidery. This shrub is also frequently mentioned in the immense calendar of Ukrainian ritual songs. From its branches children’s carriages were woven because, on the symbolic level, the juice of guelder-rose berries is identified with the blood of women in childbirth 4. On Gudzenko’s canvas the branches and berries of the guelder-rose form a sharp reddish-brown aureole. We would hardly be mistaken if we saw in this a circumference – the maternal womb. The link between images of a flame and a circle with a vulva was studied in detail by the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein 5.
The shrub seems to protrude from Gudzenko’s picture. Thickly covered with paint, the canvas bolsters this impression by virtue of the fact that the object violates the boundary of the surface, passing into the viewer’s three-dimensional world. The ripening, brilliant berries are ablaze. According to the Russian-born German linguist Maks Vasmer 6, one of the main hypotheses about the origins of the term kalyna (guelder-rose) traces it to the word kalit, which in its Ukrainian variant kalyty means “connected with the crimson blossoms of the guelder-rose.” Once again the guelder-rose brings us back to the element of fire, to the conception of our very civilization, to the question of the origins of art.
“The summer solstice, or Midsummer Day, is the great turning-point in the sun’s career, when, after climbing higher and higher day by day in the sky, the luminary stops and thenceforth retraces his steps down the heavenly road. Such a moment could not but be regarded with anxiety by primitive man so soon as he began to observe and ponder the courses of the great lights across the celestial vault; and having still to learn his own powerlessness in face of the vast cyclic changes of nature, he may have fancied that he could help the sun in his seeming decline – could prop his failing steps and rekindle the sinking flame of the red lamp in his feeble hand,” wrote the Scottish classicist and anthropologist George Frazer in his classic study of magic and religion 7, attempting to visualize the sense of self of the first intelligent people. It is precisely this sense that led them to magic and art, which are indissolubly linked with the earliest age of their existence. According to Frazer “…primitive man believed that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them, and that immediately by a secret sympathy or mystic influence the little drama which he acted in forest glade or mountain dell, on desert plain or wind-swept shore, would be taken up and repeated by mightier actors on a vaster stage” 8. Art is born as an attempt to establish magical control over the forces of nature; it is not simply an imitation of reality but its transformation.
It would seem that the feeling of vital kinship with nature has finally disappeared from the present. But it has gone only because people live in cities, and trees do not encircle them with their branches, and meadows do not stretch before them.
Eduard Gudzenko spent the better part of his life in the village of Budyshche, in Ukraine’s Cherkasy region, just like Emil Nolde, who lived on his farm in Seebüll, in Friesland (Frisia), or Paul Cezanne. Just like them, Gudzenko painted his native surroundings. But, unlike them, he lived like a common peasant, a man engaged in ordinary rural work – he was a peasant painter.
No experience that humankind has undergone is irrevocable. And an artist is in a position to traverse a path that leads him back not only to the state of primitive man but also to the state of the very first man.
This is a return to Adam, back to an age when there were no class divisions, no rift between intellectual and physical work, and no conflict between the individual and the collective.
The artist switches from the role of observer of nature to the role of its creator. Eduard Gudzenko reverts to the sources of art. He does not simply celebrate ordinary things – he creates them.
1 Emil Nolde, Polotna, Akvareli, Grafika; Iz sobraniia Fonda Emilia Nolde v Zebiulle; Katalog vistavki (Moscow, Leningrad, 1990), 39.
2 Gaston Bashliar, Psikhoanaliz ognia (Moscow: Progress, 1993), 35, 43.
3 Nikolai Kuzanskii, “O neinom,” in Nikolai Kuzanskii, Izbrannye filosofskie sochineniia (Moscow, 1937), 273.
4 Svitlana Kytova, Polotnianyi litopys Ukrainy (Cherkasy, 2003), 180.
5 Sergei Eizenshteina, MLV (Obraz materinskogo lona) in Sergei Eizenshtein, Metod, 2 vols. (Moscow: Muzei kino: Eizenshtein-tsentr, 2002), 2:530 – 580.
6 Maks Fasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar russkogo iazyka (Moscow: Progress, 1986), 2:168.
7 James George Frazer, Zolotaia vetv: Issledovanie magii i religii (Moscow: AST, 1998), 743.
8 Ibid., 740.