by Roderick Conway Morris

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Maxim Kantor
Death of a Salesman by Maxim Kantor, 1995

A Painter's Russia

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 23 July 1997


'I don't like the word 'mainstream', which seems to be so popular these days,' says Maxim Kantor, whose vigorously executed, complex oils fill the Russian Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. 'Because someone who makes something original can't be in a 'stream' of any kind. I'm deeply convinced that there are two types of artists. Those who can create something alone, out of themselves, and those who are in 'streams,' or groups. And I don't think that real art can be produced in a group, in a crowd.'

Kantor has stayed outside the mainstream with considerable success. After the Biennale which closes Nov. 9, his work will be the subject of a major retrospective opening at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow this autumn and going on to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in March.

'I can never remember a time when I did not have a pencil or brush in my hand,' says Kantor, 39, who was born in Moscow of a Jewish father and Russian mother.

He had his share of problems with the Soviet system. 'They said that my paintings showed I didn't like people, that they were antisocial.' He was refused entry to the Artists' Union, which deprived him of the right to buy painting materials at state shops, and had to exhibit at clandestine venues. His canvases were sometimes seized by the authorities.

Yet Kantor, a warm, lively character with a quick sense of humor, is anxious to play down his role as an opponent of the regime.

'I certainly saw being an artist as involving struggle,' he says, 'but even though I had many close friends who were dissidents, I never really thought of myself in quite this way - partly, I suppose, because there was always a danger that being a dissident could become a profession in itself.'

By what he sees now as a miraculous stroke of luck, Kantor caught the eye of Henri Nannen, editor-in-chief of Stern magazine, art collector and founder of the Kunsthalle at Emden. 'He came to Moscow in 1987, looked at my pictures, liked them and was the first to buy them. I am incredibly indebted to this man, because in this way I was able to begin to sell to German museums, and avoid getting entangled in the gallery system.'

Although Kantor can now afford to move to the West, he has decided to sit out Russia's anarchy and increasing criminality, together with his wife, Lena, a magazine editor, and their 16-year-old son. 'I think it is a sort of duty to put up with these conditions, which in some ways are not so dreadful,' he says. 'After all, I am a Russian, and I am among the people I grew up with, the people I love.'

Kantor regards his art as containing a strong religious element. He paints from life, but in a style that might be described as heightened realism. 'When I depict what I see, I try to instill it with a symbolic value above and beyond reality. When I started to paint I wanted my canvases to be a kind of memorial, a monument to the people I love, who were oppressed but kept their dignity and remained true to themselves. And I tried to paint silent figures, as though I was working in stone, or creating something like a Fayyum portrait.'

The artist's earlier works, which include some extraordinarily intense portraits of members of his family, as well as the old, the poor, the inmates of prison camps, hospitals and mental wards, and wintry scenes of buildings and factories, were dominated by grays, dark blues, greens and yellows. Since the fall of communism, Kantor's palette and subject matter have undergone significant changes.

'When we entered this chaotic period of Russian history, I began to paint in brighter, more expressive colors, because reality in Russia had becomein many ways more dangerous, disgusting, awful, but at the same time, more exaggerated, more exciting. Some people think that the kind of things that are going on, the violence, the gangsterism, are suitable subjects only for TV and the sensational press, not for art. But I don't agree. Look at Goya, who dealt with terrible scenes, terrible subjects and created out of them great art.'

Among the many arresting canvases on show at the Biennale, one of the most startling, 'Death of a Salesman', is of a gleaming cobalt-blue car, its passengers shot to death through the bullet-holed windscreen. The image seems straight from a shock newspaper or TV picture, but was as much inspired, says Kantor, by the 'troika' passage in Gogol's 'Dead Souls' a mystical celebration of Russia, part of which runs (in Nabokov's translation): 'Oh troika, winged troika, tell me who invented you? Surely nowhere but in a nimble nation could you have been born ... the road gives a shiver, a passerby stops short with an exclamation of fright - and lo, the troika has wings,. wings, wings ...' Thus Kantor's macabre modem troika has come skidding to a halt, in a hail of bullets and welter of gore, in his words, 'the symbol of a country that has lost control of itself and its sense of direction.'

This combining of observed reality with enduring literary, philosophical and artistic resonances also emerges on some large canvases, dominated by an infernal red, in which Kantor represents totalitarianism and its disintegration, such as 'State' and 'Rebellion of the Pygmies,' whose sources are as wide-ranging as Eastern Orthodox Judgment Day icons and Plato's 'Republic,' which, in turn, said Kantor, led him to draw upon Greek Red Figure vases.

Indeed, he deplores postmodernism's abandonment of traditional art in general and Greek art in particular. 'The consequence has been the rejection of individuality in art,' he says.

'The point is that postmodern art has become salon art, directed at a very restricted circle of people, and the avant-garde simply doesn't exist any more. When everybody is radical, nobody is radical, when everybody is ironic, nobody is ironic, and when everybody is revolutionary you have a very stable, very boring regime,' Kantor says.

'Postmodernism is driven by the idea that the greatest value is freedom of expression, but it has reduced art to complete nonsense', he adds. 'And I really believe that after so many years of struggle for human rights and freedeoms, the next great struggle should be for human responsibilities - which is an even more exciting prospect.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024