– Spring 2014

On the Humility of Modern Life: Olga Chernysheva’s Notes and Reflections

Ekaterina Degot

Olga Chernysheva, Untitled: Dedicated to Sengai, 2008, video, colour, sound, 5min 40sec, still

In Olga Chernysheva’s video Untitled: Dedicated to Sengai (2008), a young woman stands in the middle of an urban whirl. Every second or so, she throws a quick glance in front of her, attentively
 and sternly, and then lowers her eyes
 while moving her hand. Yes, she is drawing from life.

And life is running around, plain and pedestrian, mundane and meagre, on the edge of survival. Sandwich-women smile, oblivious to their humiliation; anonymous men carry their heavy bags towards a Moscow underground station; unearthly high heels reveal desperate attempts at dressing up. The woman artist must be a realist, a role Chernysheva can relate to (she considered filming herself before deciding to work with a stand-in).1

Chernysheva’s drawings, watercolours and videos evoke nineteenth-century popular prints of street types, and, more generally, the ethos of nineteenth-century realism, which Friedrich Engels memorably described as depicting ‘typical characters under typical circumstances’.2 In Chernysheva’s case, these may be outdoor vendors as lost on a sheet of white paper as they are in time, as in the drawing series Emerging Figures (2002—05) and Citizens (2009— 10). Humans and commodities, subjects and objects, inseparable from one another — like a sandwich-man, or a vendor peddling a stuffed crocodile — freeze into

  1. Conversation with the artist, 2008.

  2. Friedrich Engels, letter to Margaret Harkness , London, April 1888, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1888/letters/88_04_15.htm (last accessed on 6 December 2013).

  3. Karl Marx, ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’, Capital (trans. Samuel Moore 
and Edward Aveling), vol.1, Chapter 1, Section IV, London: S. Sonnenschein, 1887.

  4. See Leon Trotsky, ‘The Soviet Thermidor’, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going? (1936, trans. Max Eastman), New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972.

  5. Olga Chernysheva, ‘Thinking Realism’, WAM, special issue for the 2nd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, no.26, 2007, p.93.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-century Art and Society, New York: Harper & Row, 1987, p.187.

  8. Evsei Rotenberg, Zapadnoevropeiskoe iskusstvo XVII veka, Moskow: Iskusstvo, 1971.

  9. The term ‘formalism’, initially the banner of early Russian futurist theory (Roman Jakobson, Viktor 
Shklovsky and others), became in the 1930s the central object of heavy critique, represented by Georg Lukács and other Marxist theorists, who longed for full dialectical truth in literature and art and rejected anything that looked remotely like schematism or ‘fetishisation’ of any particular style.
The fact that this anti-formalist rhetoric was adopted by Stalin and his cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov in the late 30s and 40s as a weapon to discredit artists, and sometimes even to get them arrested and executed, should not obscure the aesthetic validity of this debate. The majority of artists and theorists in the Soviet Union openly rejected formalism, only differing in the specific works they included in this category.

  10. See Andrei Konsantinovich Burov, Pisma. Dnevniki. Besedy s aspirantami. Suzhdenia sovremennikov, (ed. R.G. Burova and O.I. Rzhekhina), Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1980, plate 42.

  11. Tatyana Kovalevskaya (ed.), Kramskoy ob iskusstve, Moscow: Izobrazitelnoe Iskusstvo, 1988, pp.48, 158.

  12. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, ‘Apropos of the Exhibition’, A Writer’s Diary (1873, trans. Kenneth Lantz), Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1994, p.211.