Erik Bulatov
Solo exhibition at Arndt & Partner, Berlin

Erik Bulatov, solo exhibition at Arndt & Partner, Berlin Erik Bulatov, solo exhibition at Arndt & Partner, Berlin

When it comes to Erik Bulatov’s work, one of the most frequent errors of interpretation consists of perceiving him in terms of his nationality. He was of course born into the Soviet world; but his art transcends any such framework, and has done so since the start of his career, in the 1950s. His move to Europe, and more particularly to Paris in the early 1990s, accentuated this phenomenon, and his last works should not be seen as the culmination of an investigation carried out by an expatriate Russian artist, but as a receptiveness to new problematics on the part of a painter who unceasingly probes the question of pictorial space, and that of situating objects within it.

Je vis plus loin (ou Je continue à vivre) [I live farther away (or I continue to live), 2008] is without doubt the most classical among his recent paintings. Its composition and internal logic are of a piece with Bulatov’s work over recent years. In the background there is a landscape seen from above, including a vaguely meandering river. And standing out in front of them, deliberately asymmetrical, there is the simple statement: “Je continue à vivre.” As Bulatov says: “The phrase is taken from one of Vsevolod Nekrassov’s poems. In Russian, unlike other languages, it has two meanings. The first, and most obvious, is temporal. ‘I’m still alive.’ It’s an injunction, a way of recalling oneself to other people’s memories. The second, which is specific to the Russian world, introduces a notion of distance. ‘I’m not here, close to you, but farther off, elsewhere. I could be anywhere in this world, alive.’ It’s a way of indicating a displacement, and the possibility that I could live differently in a distant place. And this double meaning is the subject of the picture.”

This work would thus seem to deal with Bulatov himself. He lives in Paris, far from his culture of origin, and though he and his wife Natacha are lavish in their praise of the French capital, one can sense an undeniable nostalgia in him – not for Muscovite life, as such, but for a certain kind of relationship to other people. He misses Moscow for its promise of hours spent talking to his friends about anything and nothing. It is true that this kind of interpretation might be taken sim-ply as an indication of his attachment to a world he earlier fled, starved of recognition – the first retrospective of his work in Moscow took place only in 2006. But this distant statement addressed to his country goes beyond that. It makes the legibility of the work entirely conditional upon another sort of movement – one which can be evoked through the means of painting.

Two types of light enter into the composition. The first has to do with representation as such: landscape, clouds, and a sun that is hinted at in the upper right-hand corner. The second, which derives from our own universe, and from the viewer's space (but also that of the painter), irradiates the written words. The two are opposed, locked in struggle, as they define two distinct areas. And the composition contributes to this. As so often, Bulatov bases the tension on a double diagonal. Bulatov outlines his theory: “For a painting to succeed – for it to exist – requires more than for it to be lit from the interior. A source of light has to be represented in it. The painting must have its own source of light – a light that emanates from it – in order for light to flash out from it; otherwise it will be extinct, inert, on the surface; and nothing other than a pictorial layer will be seen.” But this condition can only be satisfied if a certain tension is created between the light that is inherent in the representation and another light, which comes directly from the viewer’s space (and is visible on the words, phrases, sentences). Often pure white, it reaffirms the flatness of the surface, while a composition based on a dynamic of diagonals projects the viewer into the space of the painting. In Je vis plus loin (ou Je continue à vivre), the swelling of the clouds traversing the sun contradicts the movement of the phrase, and yet the two movements are opposed to and at the same time still reconciled with one another.
In classical painting since the Renaissance, the diagonal – unlike the horizontal, which splits the image in two – has been used to create dynamics, notably when it moves upwards from left to right, thus following the natural direction of the eye. With Bulatov, the diagonal is not just an echo of classical compositions (as found, for example, in baroque figurations, or in dozens of representations of Saint George slaying the dragon), but also a more or less conscious reference to the principles of Suprematism and Constructivism. The diagonal serves to open up space, and to enter into it, while asserting the absolute planeness of the pictorial surface. Bulatov discovered this effect early on, in the 1950s, when composition was very much occupying his thoughts. Among his encounters with abstraction, the diagonal suggested itself as an effective means of structuring a picture. It was also, and above all, a violent reaction to the norms of official art, for which the dynamism displayed by this type of composition was suspect, in that it harked back to the avantgardist experimentations of the 1920s.

Damien Sausset (Excerpt from the author’s essay in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (Erik Bulatov. O, KerberArt, Bielefeld, 2009, ISBN: 978-3-86678-234-1)