Palingenesis, and the Art of Everythingism

Two important exhibitions in London last weekend: Natalia Goncharova Retrospective at Tate Modern, and Lee Krasner: Living Colour at Barbican.

In Goncharova’s famous painting, The Cyclist, the figure is willfully heading in the opposite direction to that indicated by the pointing authoritarian finger.

It suitably sums up Goncharova’s spirit. A leading figure of the new avant-garde art scene in Russia, she defied convention at every turn.

The Cyclist (1912-13), with its Futurist devices of depicting time and speed with multiple outlines, challenged the Italian Futurists obsession with machines by choosing a more peaceful mode of transport, a bicycle.

 

Born in 1881, the same year as Picasso, Natalia Goncharova was a generation older than Lee Krasner, with origins very different to that of Krasner’s Jewish parentage.  From a family of impoverished aristocrats, Goncharova learned about the lives and traditions of the peasants who lived on the family estate, which was to become a great influence on her work.

The first modern artist to have a retrospective exhibition in Russia, Goncharova had previously been charged with obscenity and had her paintings confiscated for daring to paint the female nude so explicitly.

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The breadth of her work is astonishing. Painter, printmaker, fashion and set designer, she also embraced and initiated art forms such as Rayonism. To indicate the diverse range of her work,  life-long partner, Mikhail Larionov coined the term ‘everythingism’.

She was one of the first Russian artists to perceive and value the high artistic merits of Russian national creativity, and some wonderful samples are shown in the exhibition. In Round Dance, 1910, for example, the artist imitates peasant woodcuts in paint. She portrays the peasants with faces like in icons, which has the effect of a attributing to them a saintly status.  She explained that ‘the need to go back to these naive forms of art, is necessary to find new forms’.

Natalia-Goncharova-Round-dance       goncharova

Folk art is not refined. But it is sincere, revealing the instinct of the tribe/community, the people unconsciously preserving the treasure of these primal concerns. Goncharova recognised this. She also recognized the power of folk tales and mythology, and her ground-breaking sets and costumes for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel (1914), produced by Diaghilev as a part of the famous Saisons Russes in Paris, are based on the Old Believer lubki’s subjects and colour palette as well.

I got the sense that Lee Krasner (1908-84) was just as determined, radical and brave. She also refused to develop a ‘signature image’;  being restless like Goncharova, she continued to experiment with different styles and forms throughout her life. It was most important to her that her paintings emerged authentically from within.

“I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.”

The show at the Barbican gives a rich overview of her life and career from early self-portraits and life drawing, showing a progression into the abstract expressionist works for which she is known.

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Siren, 1966

I was particularly interested in the ‘hieroglyphic’ images and her abstract alphabets, what she called her “mysterious writings”. They reminded me of Mark Tobey’s ‘white writing’ paintings:  dense, rhythmic nets of black paint over multicolor backgrounds or meticulously over-written in white like sacred scripts.

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It was after her husband died and she was able to work in the barn space that she really found her artistic identity. Here she could work on an unprecedented scale, tacking lengths of canvas directly to the wall. She then produced her ‘Night Journeys’ series of paintings, made during chronic insomnia using organic, umber tones because she didn’t like using colour in artificial light.

Vibrant colours returned some years later in a shift from soft, biomorphic shapes to more hard-edged abstract forms. Palingenesis, titled after the Greek word for re-birth was something Krasner considered fundamental for her practice.

“Evolution, growth and change go on. Change is life.”

Lee Krasner Palingenesis, 1971 Pollock Krasner Foundation_0

Palingenesis, 1971 by Lee Krasner

In another act of metamorphosis, she tore up work she wasn’t happy with and created astonishing collages from the fragments.

Burning Candles, Desert Moon, and Bald Eagle collages by Lee Krasner.

 

“Painting is a revelation, an act of love…as a painter I can’t experience it any other way.”

lee krasner painting portrait in green in her studio 1969

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Chimeric Collages

Travelling back in time to Ancient Greece this week, the children of the Storytelling and Art course heard about the many chimeric creatures that inhabit the myths: Minotaur, Satyr, Harpy, Sphinx, and Chimera. Inspired, they created their own hybrid monsters, cutting up old magazines to produce these fantastic collages.

Creative Journeys

In the creative wellbeing sessions this week, I asked participants to create collages and sculptures to represent aspects of themselves. Searching through old magazines for words that resonated seemed to be conducive to both reflection and supportive conversations about elements of participants’ lives. I don’t initiate these conversations, as I am not an art therapist; they arise naturally, just as elements of participant’s journeys towards wellness often manifest in the artworks. I work with individuals who may be coping with conditions such as OCD, paraplegia, anorexia, anxiety and depression, but the emphasis in these sessions is always on the creative process. The classes are a safe, confidential space to share, join in with creative activities, or just take time out from other concerns.

When the sculptures were placed together, there was great potential for narratives about the characters and objects that had emerged from the clay. Participants wrote wonderful short pieces, linking  sculptures together in often stream-of-consciousness poetry and prose which was afterwards shared.

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The Other Side

The bat told them of a flower

beginning to unfurl

so the tree walked along the ridge

with a basket to collect the petals and the tears.

When it came to the river’s edge, the tree

stood there for ten years.

One day a terrapin cracked the water’s mirror,

bearing a golden seed in its beak.

This is you, it said.

I will take you to the other side.

 

 

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

For the last week of this five week cycle of storytelling and art from around the world, we travelled to Russia to hear about the enigmatic Baba Yaga.  She is a many-faceted figure, variously seen as a Moon, Death, Winter, Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, or archetypal image.[4]

After discussing some of Baba Yaga’s traits: iron teeth, lives in a house that walks around on chicken legs, sails through the sky in a mortar yielding a pestle,  the children listened to one of the many tales involving Baba Yaga: Vasilisa the Brave. It exhibits Baba Yaga’s ambiguous nature – scary, yet wise, and the choices of a girl who triumphs through courage and perseverance.

Below is a selection of the wonderful illustrations of Baba Yaga by children on the course. I’m always amazed at the detail, personality and energy of these drawings that the children do without hesitating as they listen to the stories.

 

Vasilisa’s magic doll by Lily.

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Collagraph Day

Seven gathered around the tables at Cardiff Print Workshop for a day of creating and printing. In the morning, collages were created from recycled materials, selected for the effect they would produce when inked and printed. From out of the gluing and layering, etching and sharing, scenes and shapes gradually emerged. A hare running through a forest, a sassy pineapple, boats in the mist and a lighthouse, a spider in a web. Blank white boards and shiny silver squares were transformed and transformed again as they were inked and run through the press.

 

Sian’s tetrapak plate and resulting prints, using parcel tape for lighter tones, sandpaper for textured bird and fence, and added plant material.

Witnessing other people’s creative work from conception to completion is as satisfying as doing my own work. Time dissolves as all are absorbed in the flow that comes with focusing on common creative goals.

 

A selection of prints from the day: Stevo’s bird, Sian’s pineapple, Jane’s flower, Mary’s spider and Karen’s hare.

Illustrating the Inner: The work of Anna Zemánková

“If we make one criterion for defining the artist… the impulse to make something new… — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.” – Margaret Mead

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Following the threads of curiosity deeper into the realms of mediumistic art, and through my delvings into Outsider art , I came across  Anna Zemánková, a remarkable artist of organic, abstract compositions.

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