Shemyakin’s Parisian Escapade

Shemyakin’s Parisian Escapade

Mikhail Shemyakin finds inspiration on the streets of Paris.

Published: June 20, 2013 (Issue # 1764)

Mikhail Shemyakin

This dapper gentleman, based on a photograph of leaves, is one of the Shemyakin works on view at the exhibition.

On May 29, a carnival procession, led by Slava Polunin and his well-known clowns, crossed the Field of Mars and entered the courtyard of the Marble Palace to open Mikhail Shemyakin’s latest solo exhibition at the Russian Museum, which also coincides with the celebration of his 70th birthday. To the sound of music and drums, the clowns were welcomed by a huge crowd of art lovers, proving Shemyakin’s status as the most significant figure in the post-Soviet Russian art space.

Titled “The Sidewalks of Paris,” the exhibition displays 210 works by the artist, which, for the most part, were created in the last few years. The unifying theme is a technique Shemyakin developed based on his own photographs, which then serve as the inspiration for his creativity in other media. As the show’s title suggests, the photos used here are precisely of sidewalks in Paris. By enlarging cracks, dead leaves and cigarette butts, Shemyakin has created allusions to St. Petersburg — both the actual city and the mythical city that exists only in his imagination.

Why St. Petersburg? Mikhail Shemyakin was born in Moscow, but spent a number of years in St. Petersburg during his studies. It was here that he emerged as a non-conformist artist. After a long absence abroad, much of it in the New York area, Shemyakin came back to St. Petersburg in the late 1990s and took up his place in the city as a leading Russian painter, sculptor and art philosopher. His presence is noticeable in the city on several levels, with his sculpted monuments found within the architecture of the city.

In 2002, Shemyakin founded The Mikhail Shemyakin Foundation in St. Petersburg with the aim of supporting art in Russia as well as organizing exhibitions and art master classes. In addition to establishing his foundation, Shemyakin is also known to actively participate in public affairs and local social movements, such as trying to protect historic buildings and spaces in St. Petersburg. Other projects include collaborating with the Mariinsky Theater on the staging of new ballet productions.

Shemyakin’s view of Petersburg may be divided into two halves: One is real, with palaces, parks and squares, while the other is unreal — an imagined city, with legends, phantoms and ghosts, which opens itself up only to the artists who populate it. This second city is full of shadows from the past and vestiges of the artist’s own life.

Looking at Shemyakin’s work as exhibited at the Marble Palace, one can also easily recognize familiar St. Petersburg characters derived from the poems of Alexander Pushkin and stories by Nikolai Gogol.

Multiplicity is the backbone of Mikhail Shemyakin’s art, and is demonstrated through mastership, whether it be in drawing, painting or watercolor. His drawings in particular reveal a combination of intimacy and profound intensity, as well as a refined use of the most elegant color schemes.

Mikhail Shemyakin

A bit of crumpled paper and a tangle of ribbon are transformed into a figure.

The majority of the works in the current exhibition are specially processed photos of discarded things found on Parisian pavements. Over the course of 10 years, the painter took countless nocturnal walks over many kilometers of Parisian pavement, taking pictures of every detail. It is on the basis of these pictures that images, scenes and characters were born which formed the foundation of his new show. Visitors to the exhibition are able to read more about these walks, as they are explained on the information panels around the space.

Among the many characters created by Shemyakin, Lady Death features heavily. She reigns in the city of phantoms in the artist’s imagined version of St. Petersburg.

The influence of French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, the creator the fete galante painting style, is obvious as well. However, while Watteau’s art is melancholy, lamenting unfulfilled ambitions and approaching death, Shemyakin’s art is more philosophical in the way it reflects reality and is comparable with the metaphysical school of Italian painting at the start of the 20th century, especially the art of Giorgio de Chirico. This world is hollow and frightening by the absence of not only melancholy but of any other feelings.

Mikhail Shemyakin: Sidewalks of Paris is on view until August 5 at the Marble Palace, 4 Inzhenernaya Ulitsa.

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