From Russia with love
Russia’s turbulent history is brought to life in the work of two artists from different eras, as Paul Smith discovers.
Russia has undergone considerable social and political upheaval in the last century. Not only have the fall of imperialism. the rise of Lenin and Stalin. and the collapse of communism left indelible marks on the spirit of everyday Russians. they have also affected the nation's cultural life. with artists and writers striving to retain their freedom of expression.
This month sees the opening of two entirely different exhibitions encompassing both ends of this dynamic period. with St Pctersburg as the common backdrop. in Edinburgh. the Scottish National Portrait Gallery unveils The Carrit'k Family In Russia. a photographic eulogy by Scotsman William Carrick to ordinary folk living in the l860s and l370s while Russia was still under Tsarist rule.
in Glasgow. the Duncan Miller Fine Art gallery has selected twelve paintings by Vladimir Gooss. a contemporary painter from St Petersburg whose work demonstrates the resurging confidence of self- identity after a long winter of repression. He developed his skills as a student within Leningrad's underground artistic life during the l970s. holding clandestine meetings and unofficial exhibitions in the
flats of fellow artists. writers and musicians. AS Russia undergoes another transformation. his work has emerged for the West to see.
Gooss has been heavily influenced by both the artistic heritage of Russia and ofothcr European artists. including Durer. He has been inspired by classical mythology. like Diana and Acteon. as well as childhood folktales (tbosot‘bed in the countryside at his grandmother's knee — Prayer Far The l’mrlllg’al — resulting in images rich in colour and symbolism. But even a painting like The Sea ls Calling. showing a distracted sailor dressing with his back to his mistress. suggests a more contemporary fable illustrated with mystery and simplicity.
It is more by accident than design that Gooss's work is on display concurrently with Carrick's photography. but it is a happy coincidence — Gooss‘s ancestors were European noblemen who came to Russia at the time of Peter the Great. His world could
itself descend from that ofthe Scottish family living l()() years earlier.
St Petersburg clearly captivated William Carrick. Originally from Edinburgh. his family became successful timber merchants in Russia. where they had been established since the l8th century and were welcomed into wealthy. influential society. After the Crimean War. however. the family business was financially ruined. Carrick turned from painting to photography as a way of tnaking a living and set up a studio in St Petersburg with fellow Scot. John MacGregor. Despite his background. his skill at portraying the downtrodden street vendors and peasants — ‘the Russian types‘ or ‘Rasnashchiki' — is evident from this exhibition. l-le allows them to pose naturally. to be themselves. demonstrating his feeling that the poorer people deserved more attention than the loftier and richer.
Little is known about his philosophy. but he did marry one of Russia‘s first women journalists. Alexandrina lvlarkelova. who was part of the radical Nihilist movement — one reason why he kept his marriage secret from his mother for so long. He was clearly sympathetic to the Realist school of thought found in the novels of Tolstoy or in the work of French painters like Millet and Corot. As his photographs reveal. be admired his subjects without sentirnentalising them.
ironically. Carrick increasingly found himself leading a double life. while Gooss has been given the freedom to emerge from hiding. if time could bring these two men together. it could be surprising how many experiences they might share. With Leningrad now reverting to St l’etersburg. there is even a sense that our vision of the city might have come full circle (00.
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View to a kill
In America, 38 states have the death penalty on their statute books, including the formerly liberal New York where capital punishment was introduced earlier this year under a newly elected Republican governor. By chance, American photographer Lucinda Devlin’s pictures of execution facilities were being exhibited in the state capital of Albany while the government was debating the issue but, despite the shocked public reaction to the photographs, the death penalty was introduced anyway.
facilities as empty rooms. The result is quite different from the grim, reportage style commonly used to capture life on Death Row. tier series
‘ of photographs called the Omega Suite !
feature straightforward, almost boring ;
interior shots of gas chambers and electric chairs. Some of them could
. almost be used to illustrate
‘ promotional literature by the companies manufacturing the
execution apparatus. The fact that Devlin’s pictures hang in art galleries leads the viewer to assume they are
from them. Focusing on the execution facilities and apparatus raises a lot of 3 questions that dealing with the people wouldn’t do. Around 80 per cent of Americans are in favour of the death penalty, so when they are presented | with the inmates they don’t ' necessarily change their views ; because there is a stereotype about people on Death Row.’ By focusing on the execution chambers, Devlin believes her 1 photographs help concentrate the viewer’s mind on the issue of state-
Electric Chair at Oreensville Correctional Facility, Virginia
to raise the issue because
‘Once i had done the research there was no way I could be in favour of the death penalty but I didn’t intend for it to be a polemic,’ says Devlin, whose work will be exhibited at Edinburgh’s Stills Gallery. ‘I can’t say that these photographs necessarily change people’s minds and I don’t know if that’s important in the work. I wanted
unfortunately there isn’t much dialogue about the death penalty.’ What is interesting about Devlin’s
decision to photograph execution
an anti-capital punishment statement, but in a different context the photographs could take on another
The absence of people in every frame seems to force the viewer’s imagination to work harder to fill the gap. Devlin’s last project was
photographing hospital operating theatres and recovery rooms, again
without patients or staff in the frame. ‘As soon as people appear in the
space the perspective changes,’ she approach to the project was her E
says. ‘l want the viewer to look at the
sanctioned killing, rather than the
rights and wrongs of individual cases. One of the most unnerving things
about her photographs is the fact that every execution facility features a
’ viewing window through which state
officials can observe the death of
condemned prisoners. ‘To some
, degree the viewer becomes the
. witness that every execution has,’ she 3 says. ‘Dut the viewer can also become
the victim —- it’s easy to place yourself in the chair too.’ (Eddie Gibb) The Omega Suites is at the Stills
space and draw their own information i Gallery, Edinburgh from 23 Nov-6 Jan.
50 The List l7-3() Nov l995