04.08.22 Yulia Tulegenova, art critic and reviewer.
Vasily Smirnov is an artist who specializes in the art of the portrait. He is known as a master who works in the best traditions of the European realistic school of painting, which has a long history of many centuries. Today, not many artists follow this tradition, as it requires skill, talent and courage in a time when conceptual works are more popular and any traditional approach is often rejected by the artistic elite.
In all his portraits, Vasily Smirnov tries to look beyond the outer appearance of his subjects. The person in front of the artist’s easel usually wants to see himself or herself better than they really are – hoping to be socially acceptable, prosperous and respectable. The person is often surprised to see themselves in a portrait, because the portrait is rarely what they had expected. The portrait is always psychologically deeper, more complex and unexpected. We do not recognise ourselves; we need the eye of those who can assure us that the artist has captured the true inner character in his portrait. Vasily Smirnov is a deeply discerning artist – this is another rare quality in 21st century art. He loves his subjects, he empathises with them and therefore creates a portrait full of sensitivity and deep feeling, expressing the soul of the person. Every time, his portraits reveal the psychology and character of the subject.
One of his most recent works, shown below, stands out among his portraits. This double composition features gallery attendants at the National Gallery, London. We recognise them by their conspicuous uniform and the colour of the walls. Entering a gallery, we rarely ever pay attention to these attendants in their modest but noble profession. They spend their lives close to world masterpieces, not noticing these works. Their job is to protect the treasures of world art from us, idle talkers; they live close to Art without seeing the beauty, and we walk past them without even glancing at these living people.
In the painting below, Vasily Smirnov decided to focus on these museum attendants and to depict their faces and souls. The images of the two men below are full of thought and despair, reminiscent of the characters of Edouard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. They are crushed by their everyday life, ‘nailed’ to the bright pink canvas, like butterflies in a box. The feast and celebration of Art, enveloping their lives, is just routine for them, as they doze, eyes open, crowds lingering by, waiting for the inexorable time to end. Countless people walk past them daily, but they are unnoticed. The attendants are pitifully lonely and even among themselves they do not share the agony of their loneliness – they stand in place for hours without exchanging words.
The masterpieces to which they dedicate their lives are symbolised in the painting by a black, empty canvas in a wide frame, adding a sense of burden and helplessness to this seemingly peaceful subject. The yellow ribbons on their chests add colour intensity and introduce dissension; their black face masks remind us of the barely-ended Covid era and simultaneously seem to initiate them into an Order of Silence – they are the silent guardians of Time, frozen inside the gallery walls.
Great Britain is a country of exhibitions, museums and galleries. Public enthusiasm for the visual arts grows year by year. Tickets for the exhibitions of iconic artists sell out months in advance and in surges of patriotic pride, incredible sums of money are collected to preserve masterpieces of fine art for our national collections.
We come to museums and galleries to drink from the source of beauty and human genius, but we pass by living people who work here, overlooking their lives and destinies. They are less real to us than the characters on the canvases of great painters, and the artist, Vasily Smirnov, encourages us to look at them and their faces.