The artist Andrey Remnev

Remnev's Carnation

Exhibition review by Eugene Steiner
Andrey Remnev experiments with traditional painting techniques in a contemporary way

2018, Moscow
"Andrey Remnev" is almost a perfect rhyme for "Andrey Rublev". It is not an attempt to praise or to joke. Such an association arose in my mind when I got myself thinking about Remnev's carnation – he is a rare contemporary artist, who possesses it. He has his own and style-forming carnation, like Rublev had, that was often called "facial depiction" in relation to art of icon painting.

Carnation is a manner of painting faces, hands and flesh in general by mixing paint in such a way that it sets the coloring tone, combining the picture in warm or cold color range and bold and tender velvet or impervious-porcelain tones. It is associated with glazing, but it's more than just glazing. Admittedly, nowadays there are very few artists who trouble themselves with that, whereas Remnev possesses the technique and loves it. A carnation of one's own is when facial depiction becomes personal and gives away the hand of the master before one sees the signature or the plot with the composition. Сarnation in the faces by Remnev, with its combination of the coldish pink dawn of the midnight sun countries and Cimabue or Duccio's olive-greenish, evokes a feeling of ethereal purity, as it was with the artists of the Duecento or Trecento. In this regard, Remnev appears to be a pre-Raphaelite and a much more pre-Raphaelite than Rossetti and his circle with their sensuous images that have far surpassed in their fleshiness the detested Fornarina – Raphael's stoutish baker's wife.

Remnev's figures with their stillness or slow mannequin-statuary plasticity exist in a distinct static space, where time has stopped, and the atmosphere is so clear and transparent that it reaches the state of airlessness. His bodies are associated with the characters of Piero della Francesca, which silently and motionlessly participate in some sacred miracle play– think of the figures of Piero's "Flagellation of Christ" or "Ascension". This gentle pace of life in Remnev's paintings can be described by the words from the old dictionary of art: deisis, or Sacra Conversazione (Holy Conversation). Such is his recurrent motive of the meeting.

In the 2016 painting of the same name "Strelka", hugging women, hieratically straight and reticent, recall the memory of the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth. This meeting here is happening against a background of a wide calm river – probably Volga. On its shores there are Russian izbas and ten-roof bell towers. The water and sky, and most importantly, the dress of a young woman on the right, are full of pinkish cream valeurs, reminiscent of baked milk and gleaming dawn at the same time. Perhaps, the figure on the right (that came from the East), is the dawn Aurora and at the same time, Maria. Maybe, she is not only met and praised by Elizabeth with her entourage, but also by the blue winged creatures in their gold embroidered dresses: Leo, Ox, Eagle and Angel – the symbols of the evangelists, as well as the white unicorn that seems to be jumping towards the virgin.
Remnev's bodies are smooth and are deprived of sensuous curvatures. They seem to be cased in armor in the gold- or silver-broidered heavy dresses as in a protective shell – see, for example, "Tertia Vigilia". The impregnable lady with a stiff neck in a firm collar seems to be standing guard over her domain accompanied by a rooster preparing to announce the oncoming dawn. In this and many other paintings one of the main components of Remnev's individual style is clearly visible: a filigreed elaboration of fabric textures and metal threads. Such glazings with an abundance of light reflexes are very infrequent nowadays, and are one of the artist's strengths.

Remnev opposes flattened and enamel-smooth bodies with the rich Baroque folds of their robes. Meanwhile, he doesn't make them flamboyantly theatrical, but rather symmetrical and frozen in the heraldic manner; see, for example, the folds mirroring each other on the bottom of the peasant girl's dress in the picture "Shavings" – they could have served perfectly as a background for a gorgeous coat of arms or a throne. By the way, this girl is extremely tall: her head is one-eighth of the body. Such are many other heroes by Remnev, who, together with the sublime slowness embody some timeless, larger than life characters. What is heroic about this girl, who just shook off the curly shavings from the bottom of her dress? Perhaps, it's a metaphor for the Samson's cut hair? The lady with the mysterious smile and evasive sideward glance might be Delilah of the Mtsensk county.
Often, looking at the absent and distant female gazes, including very young, girlish models of Remnev, one can feel the delicate aroma of a mismatch with the crystal clarity and serenity of portraits of the Early Renaissance. Sometimes the overall tone with Beato Angelico can be felt, but it is the tone with a syncopic displacement, as intended for a postmodernism artist, who is familiar with the characters of Nabokov and Balthus. Young girls' faces that are at times indistinguishable from the masks, are reminiscent of antique enamel in their coldish perfection and remind of Théophile Gautier's Émaux et Camées ("Enamels and Cameos") translated by Nikolai Gumilyov:

Bright in its pallor lustreless,
Reposing on a velvet bed,
Its fingers, weighted with their dress
Of jewels, delicately spread.
(Agnes Lee)

One recalls about the acmeists' passéisme when looking at a shrewd gaze from underneath the carnival mask in the painting "Navigator". Gaultier's lines about Venice coincide with it:

The domes that on the water dwell
Pursue the melody
In clear-drawn cadences, and swell
Like breasts of love that sigh.

(Agnes Lee)
"High water"– the image of a sleeping girl – a painting, for which the eldest daughter of the artist posed, also reminds of Venice. It is unusual for the image of a sleeping person to have a vertical composition, reinforced by a series of wavy lines. The composition is interesting as it can be examined from both above and below, or from the face of the sleeping girl, following the passage of the swallow and wavy lines going down, or from below – following the same lines and going up with the swallows across the pillow, like going up the stairs to the tranquil sleep of a serene face. The picture brings many cultural associations– from Klimt, with his vertical format and rave of gold (but there's no rave here), to the Japanese motives of irises, delivered through the decorative style of Art Nouveau. The same Gaultier is good enough here with his poem:

Oysters pour a pearly hoarding
Their enrapturing throats to gem,
And the wave, its wealth according,
Tosses other pearls to them.
(Agnes Lee)

and, of course, Osip Mandelstam with his swallows – their Stygian tenderness and night song, sung in a sleepy unconsciousness.

Talking about Japanese art, it is worth mentioning an interesting feature of Remnev: not only he shares the Japanese favorite motives like irises, fish or dragonflies, but also – more interestingly – a way of presentation, similar to the classic Japanese prints. These are frontal images over which the folds of the clothes on which they are embroidered or painted, and the angles have no control (except for "High Water", see, for example "Siesta" or "Habitat").

Overall, it can be said that there are a lot of cultural references – Venice, Delft, provincial Russian towns and Japanese motives seen through Art Nouveau – that serve as an addition to the personal artistic style of Andrei Remnev, that can be easily recognized. And it is based not on references to art of the past, but on personal mastery and skill, developed over the years. It combines the mastery of accurate glazing and broad compositional terseness, the stately calmness of characters, and the hardly discernible at the first glance but talling details of the second plan..

Remnev's chosen path in art is a path of an escapist – a passeist and a stylizer. His language and technique deliberately draw their poetics from the past, but talk about the eternal – and therefore the contemporary.
Eugene Steiner
Doctor of Art History,
member of the Association of Art Critics
Professor of The Higher School of Economics,
Professorial Associate member of Japan Research Centre,
SOAS (Univ. of London)