Horizons: Timur Novikov and Joseph Brodsky
White Space Gallery will present a solo exhibition of works by Timur Novikov, a leading figure in the anarchistic underground art scene in St Petersburg in the last decades of the 20th century, in dialogue through image and text with Joseph Brodsky, the eminent Russian poet and laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Both artists were born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and for both the city remained an important source of reference and inspiration. Novikov spent the majority of his life in the city on the Neva River as the founder and iconic vanguard of the radical nonconformist movements New Artists and the New Academy. Brodsky was forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972 settling in the US, never to return to Russia. He travelled widely with his lectures and he soon became known as a ‘genius in exile’. He would famously adopt Venice as a new home and would spend many winters in the place that reminded him of St Petersburg.
This exhibition takes as its starting point a significant encounter between Novikov and Brodsky that occurred in 1993 in Amsterdam (on the occasion of Novikov’s retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum). Their meeting resulted in a fascinating and erudite exchange, reflecting a reciprocal network of cultural and autobiographical references to St Petersburg as the city “on the edge” – an intersection where Western and Eastern cultural traditions met.
Conceived as an extension of the now historic conversation between the two prominent figures of Russian culture, the works presented in the show create a further – if imagined – cross-temporal dialogue of sorts that weaves together the visual and the literary. The exhibition presents a selection of panels from Novikov’s iconic series Horizons made between 1987 and 1991. The series includes a number of silk-screens as well as Novikov’s signature textile pieces such as White Night (1989) which depicts the St Petersburg skyline during the midnight sun. Here the artist divides the surface into two flat planes creating an aesthetic interpretation or manifestation of the duality he perceived in nature and human thought. He achieved this by sewing two different (and texturally contrasting) pieces of cloth or fabrics (including leather). The seam in the work explicitly signifies a (horizon) line and creates a distinction which also operates as a minimalist gesture, enhancing the work’s focus on the floating horizon and underlining the spatial-temporal aspects of the image. In White Night, as a further focal point two ships or tankers trace opposing diagonal lines towards the two open drawbridges on the River Neva, giving temporary passage to vessels sailing to and from the Baltic Sea – a seemingly limitless space.
In other works (silk-screens) Novikov revisits the Russian folk motifs in the style of his textile pieces by placing small iconic symbols (purposefully generalised, reduced and simplistic images) in large fields of flat, often bright, colour. His method of re-arranging, altering and proposing new semantic representation, use of symmetry and a horizontal (more rarely diagonal), division of space, became the new art language, adapting a three-dimensional world onto a flat surface, in a manner resonant of modern computer graphics or ancient hieroglyphics. Made during the perestroika years, the Horizons series reflects the youthful and optimistic spirit of the times whilst demonstrating the artist’s penchant for open perspectives – new possibilities of imagination and vision, the enlarged horizon, the greater hope.
The works are accompanied by carefully chosen fragments of Brodsky’s poems in which the landscape, memory and language reveal a heightened sense of self through the poetics of space and time. A selection of photographs depicting St Petersburg and Venice by artists such as Olga Tobreluts, Stas Makarov, and Mikhail Rozanov (all disciples of Timur Novikov) draws on the parallels between the two cities of land and water, and the horizontal line.
A fully illustrated publication ‘HORIZONS’ with select poems by Joseph Brodsky will accompany the exhibition. It will also include – for the first time in English translation – a full transcript of the 1993 conversation between Novikov and Brodsky.
Born in 1958 in Leningrad, died in 2002 in St Petersburg. Artist, art theorist, writer and musician. In 1982 became a founder and theorist of the New Artists movement. He performed in concerts with Sergei Kuryokhin’s Popular Mechanics orchestra and the rock group Kino. In 1986, he co-founded the Club of Friends of V. V. Mayakovsky and in 1989 he founded the New Academy of Fine Arts, which he ran as part of an alternative education institute which he called the Leningrad Free University. In 1990 undertook a placement with Pontus Hultén at the Institute of Plastic Arts in Paris. Novikov’s lectures on the history of contemporary art were transcribed and published in 2003. His work is included in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Paris; MUMOK, Vienna; Ludwig Museum, Budapest; Tate, London; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. His work is currently on view at the Centre Pompidou in the exhibition Kollektsia!
Born in Leningrad in 1940 into a Russian-Jewish family, the eminent Russian poet and essayist left school when he was fifteen and began writing poetry three years later. In 1964 he was sent to a labour camp in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia after authorities denounced him as ‘a social parasite’. In June 1972 he was forced to leave the Soviet Union and settled in the United States. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992. He died in New York in 1996 and was buried in Venice on the Island of San Michele.
An excerpt from a conversation between Joseph Brodsky and Timur Novikov, 17 September 1993, The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Joseph Brodsky: I have seen your exhibition
just now and nd the changes that took place in your art fascinating. Until the end of the 80s you worked in a tradition close to Malevich and the Russian Constructivists, but from the beginning
of the 90s the style of your work has changed. Instead of signs, symbols and geometric shapes come photographs, images; your works turn away from painting into ornamental panels, richly decorated with ne, intricate vignettes that present a Classical art image attracting a focused attention – an image of a hero.
Where did you live in Leningrad?
Timur Novikov: On Liteiny Prospekt. There I started creating images with a horizontal line. The Finlyandsky Railway Station was right opposite my house. It was one of the reasons I turned to this particular way of representation. The straight lines of the city’s skyline on the other side of
the Neva, which can be seen from the courtyard archway of my house, in uenced the formation of this type of art, which is based on the principle of semantic perspective.
JB: A man is what he sees. In reality the river’s embankment line, in your case – the horizon’s line on the other side of the Neva, is [quite] close. And the horizon in your works is further away. It’s almost unreachable. You know, sometimes it is hard to enter a landscape. But your landscapes are dif cult to exit. This horizon line draws and holds my attention like a magnet. Your horizon line reminds me of [Francesco] Guardi more than anyone else, perhaps, because I saw so much of
his works. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the master, in the end, starts resembling his own dog. However your horizon does remind me of Guardi somewhat. [The line] is a little bit angled, it is less geometrical.
TN: This was what [our] [Alexander] Labas did in the 30s.
JB: And before Labas, and before [Raoul] Dufy, it was done by Guardi and so on.
TN: And also by Turner.
JB: And before Turner. There is a sensation of the end of the world. Sometime one has such a feeling. You must know what I mean.
TN: As I know, you were lucky to have lived
in Venice for a while. Unfortunately, I have
not yet visited it; I’ve seen the best works of Guardi in reproductions only. I‘ve seen a lot of Turner in London, and lots of Labas in Moscow. But of course, Petersburg is a city “on the
edge”. Vasilievsky Island is the land’s end for a Petersburgian.
JB: Yes, to quote Andrey Bely: there is nothing beyond Petersburg – there is emptiness, a line where the world ends.
TN: That is why the Venetian school [of painting] is close to a native of Petersburg. Both Petersburg and Venice are next to the sea, and open onto the water. The perception of painting and space is similar for people in Petersburg and Venice.
JB: You are absolutely right. Venice and Leningrad are very close, and this closeness is not in the canals as many think, but in the open,
A Man Is What He Sees
broad water. The same happened in Alexandria. The rst academy in history, the Musaeum,
was founded there. Petersburg is located on the same longitude as Alexandria. Petersburg is not
a northern Venice – it is a northern Alexandria, Hyperborea, if you wish. Great waters of the Nile and the Neva, owing through these cities, are equally strong. Egypt lls the Mediterranean Sea – the European South – with its water; [Lake] Ladoga – the Baltic Sea, the European North. Your city view from the Gulf of Finland’s side has a horizon line lled with Suprematist symbols. This reminds me of the Lenin monument on
the Neva embankment you mentioned, the only sculpture of a leader in a car known to me.
It is a symbol of an approaching technogenic Western world.
TN: I agree. Exactly this realisation made me leave the semantic perspective, the issues of which I was addressing in these works, and return to the classical aesthetics.
JB: I am sure it was inevitable. Your city, located of the water edge, is like Narcissus xed on the self- contemplation.
You, looking at the city with attention, could
not fail to notice all those beautiful architectural forms, which ll the horizon. All signi cant creators that lived in this city, from [Mikhail] Lomonosov to [Yevgeny] Baratynsky, from Mandelstam to Akhmatova inevitably turn back to classicism. The city itself enforces one to take care of the form. And even the native of our Liteiny Prospekt was never short of creations by [Giacomo] Quarenghi or [Harald Julius] von Bosse. But the forms I see in your work remind me of another building on our street – a house at
number 4, Liteiny, the building in the style of the late Constructivism of the 30s.
TN: Your observation is amazingly right. I was born at number 60, Liteiny Prospekt, where I
live again now. Next to my house there are two buildings by Quarenghi. Next to your house on the corner of Liteiny and Pestel Street is the Trans guration Cathedral – a masterpiece of Russian classicism. But from the beginning of the 70s until 1987 I lived on the corner of Liteiny and Voinov Street, right opposite the house at number 4. During all these years I was a modernist. A famous poet Leonid Aronson also lived in the same house. I still remember his funeral.
JB: I remember that courtyard, and that large Constructivist-style building looming over it like
a colossal iceberg. It seemed it was about to shift with all its mass and swallow that small ne yard decorated with vases, gurines and ower garlands.
TN: Yes, exactly, that is my courtyard, I lived there till ’87, and almost all the avant-garde art life of the 80s Leningrad revolved around it. Once I left that house and moved back to the house where [Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin and [Konstantin] Pobedonostsev used to live, it was almost as if I woke up: the love of Classics and respect for tradition were reborn in me. I returned to the house located next to the Mariinsky Hospital by Giacomo Quarenghi.
JB: The Saltykov-Shchedrin house? I know that house opposite the Bukinist [bookshop]. But in that house, as I remember, Lenin made a decision to publish the “Iskra” newspaper?
TN: Yes, it took place in the same part of the building where I live now.
JB: Have you started publishing newspapers yet?
TN: We publish a magazine called “Cabinet”, but a newspaper is a good idea. Please take a copy [of “Cabinet”]; it is issue number 4 dedicated to Neo-Academism.
JB: Ah! I see your dialogue called ‘A Secret Cult Russian-style’. Very good. I’ve read it in English in your book published by Mr Fooks. He gave it to me yesterday, when inviting [me] to your private viewing. I read this lovely small play before bed.
It reminded me more of Wilde’s dialogues than Plato’s, maybe because I’ve read it in English. I will read it in Russian now.
By the way, you talk about photography there. I identify with your sentiment about photography becoming a place where an artist can preserve his devotion to image and space in the midst of a modernist tempest.
TN: In my latest works I am “quoting” many photographers who turn to the [idea of ] beautiful in the 20th century. Adolf de Meyer, Fred Holland Day, Wilhelm von Gloeden, Moisey Gershman, Herbert List, George Platt Lynes are my favourite photographers.
JB: You know, it’s remarkable; I know the work of Herbert List very well. At one time I used to see his niece a lot.
The same feeling of an ideal world I see in Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl, in this rare example combining the modernist aesthetics with classi- cism – well, you understand what I mean.
Joseph Brodsky . Selected poems
Everything has its limit, including sorrow.
A windowpane stalls a stare. Nor does a grill abandon a leaf. One may rattle the keys, gurgle down a swallow. Loneliness cubes a man at random.
A camel sniffs at the rail with a resentful nostril;
a perspective cuts emptiness deep and even.
And what is space anyway if not the
body’s absence at every given
point? That’s why Urania’s older than sister Clio!
In daylight or with the soot-rich lantern,
you see the globe’s pate free of any bio,
you see she hides nothing, unlike the latter.
There they are, blueberry-laden forests,
rivers where the folk with bare hands catch sturgeon or the towns in whose soggy phone books
you are starring no longer; farther eastward surge on brown mountain ranges; wild mares carousing
in tall sedge; the cheekbones get yellower
as they turn numerous. And still farther east, steam dreadnoughts or cruisers, and the expanse grows blue like lace underwear.
Translated by the author
Darling, you think it’s love, it’s just a midnight journey.
Best are the dales and rivers removed by force,
as from the next compartment throttles “Oh, stop it, Bernie”, yet the rhythm of those paroxysms is exactly yours.
Hook to the meat! Brush to the red-brick dentures,
alias cigars, smokeless like a driven nail!
Here the works are fewer than monkey wrenches,
and the phones are whining, dwarfed by to-no-avail.
Bark, then, with joy at Clancy, Fitzgibbon, Miller.
Dogs and block letters care how misfortune spells.
Still, you can tell yourself in the john by the spat-at mirror, slamming the ush and emerging with clean lapels.
Only the liquid furniture cradles the dwindling gure.
Man shouldn’t grow in size once he’s been portrayed.
Look: what’s been left behind is about as meager
as what remains ahead. Hence the horizon’s blade.
Written in English
Star of Nativity
In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.
To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.
Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.
Translated by the author
Night in St. Mark’s piazza. A face as creased
as a finger from its fettering ring released,
biting a nail, its gazing high
into that nowhere of pure thought, where sight
is baffled by the bandages of night,
serene, beyond the naked eye,
where, past all boundaries and all predicates,
black, white, or colorless, vague, volatile states,
something, some object, comes to mind.
Perhaps a body. In our dim days and few,
the speed of light equals a fleeting view,
even when blackout robs us blind.
Translated by Anthony Hecht
The poems (or their fragments) were either written in English or translated from the original Russian by or with the author. As originally published in: “Joseph Brodsky, Collected poems in English”, edited by Ann Kjellberg (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000)