Mikhail Spiridonov is among those few gifted individuals with a creative turn of mind who had an early awareness that their earthly encounters were far from being accidental occurrences. His life-story in terms of what actually happened to him is rather uneventful whereas if regarded from the viewpoint of inner life experience it proves to be by far more interesting, full of impressions and observations that are reflected in his mysterious pictures which sometimes put one on one's guard.
Spiridonov was born in Ufa, in a district on the outskirts of the city, where the would-be painter was raised as a child and grew into a youth. This was the old half-urban and half-rural world of huts and communally shared flats, of quiet small houses buried in the thick of green gardens, the "one-family" world where every neighbour's "hens" were as recognizable at first sight as those of one's own, and every one's personal affairs became the talk of the town as fast as they developed. It is exactly these small homesteads that Spiridonov pictured in his early works ("A Warm Night", "An Ufa Homestead Yard", 1977; "Talking", 1978; "Rustles", 1979).
The melancholic sadness apparent in the pictures of the seventies is evoked by the painter's anticipation that these long lived-in, secure and cozy homes of childhood and youth were doomed. Indeed, the old parts of Ufa were being demolished as planned. Gardens were cut down, houses pulled down. One could see stray dogs running wild among the ruins, and all this made the painter's love for the elegiac beauty of this passing-into-eternity world even stronger. The "new world" was becoming more and more alien to man and nature, turning into a power which neither man nor nature could ever stand against. This motif almost on a declarative level can be felt in his picture "Outskirts") 1980), where nature meekly awaiting its tragic end is opposed to the fledgling industrial octopus - factory chimneys, reinforced concrete blocks of flats, cranes with raised booms looking like birds of prey. That same year saw his picture "An Urban Landscape" imbued with a poetic reminiscence of the good old life that reached a point of no return. Later, varying in many different ways, the motifs of sad hopes and nostalgia for childhood were to become a run-through theme in the works of the "huts painter".
However it is hardly possible that a search for "topographical" details in the painter's suburban landscapes is capable of shedding light on his world outlook that was the source of his creative work. Little can be added to this by a reference to "the underground" which, much as one should like to, Spiridonov's art can be attributed to. "Perestroika" followed by freedom of self-expression changed little if anything in the painter's artistic awareness. Man and nature, the mystery of their tragic estrangement and a way to achieving harmony - these are the problems that determined the tendency of the painter's search after truth along the lines of metaphysics and nature philosophy. The fundamental unalterable motifs arising out of one another, unchanging in the course of time are subject to this semantic core; and that is what is very likely to be one of Spiridonov's peculiar features as an artistic personality.
His focus on life's tragic origin, on "time in itself", his bent for mysteries which no power can immediately unravel marked the points of contact he had with various schools and trends, both artistic and philosophical. As for artists, he met, of course, some of his "predecessors", and I will touch on this topic in due time in this paper. But it is much more complicated so far as philosophers are concerned. If one would ignore both the life-story facts and Spiridonov's own evidence, it would be easy to fit the painter's art into the framework of the European philosophical tradition. However, one should always keep in mind that most of the painters (at least in the Urals Region) were shaping upunder conditions of complete isolation from developments in philosophical science, very much so if one excludes from them those practical-purpose articles intended for the general public and those echoes of esoteric concepts which found their way into provinces in the shape of all sorts of reprints or xeroxed copies whose contents authenticity was undoubtedly open to question.
But, in Spiridonov's system of artistic presentation some individual concepts of the Western philosophy are reflected indirectly, very often fancifully interlaced with the ideas one readily associates with such names as N.K.Rerikh and E.P. Blavatskaya. It is, however, important to note that the painter's "magical realism" is first and foremost based on the experience related to his personality and inner makeup, on sudden inspiration; he derives his philosophical ideas from the energy of emotions open to acceptance of a wealth of humanistic ideas pursued both in the West and in the East.
Spiridonov's painting may be divided into two stages which on the whole coincide with the boundaries of the two decades, the 70s and the 80s. Associated with the last "open" period are the painter's latest, intentionally Buddhism-oriented pictures (the Indian series).
In the pictures painted in the 70s, mostly portraying suburban landscapes, the artist gives close attention to the surrounding reality, invariably avoiding to approach that reality by presenting everyday life details. The works of that period abound with trees, forest roads made slushy by rains, small creeks, hills and ravines; but in this love of the painter for the enlivened and spirited landscape there is neither room for tearful sentiment nor ostentatious bravado. An elegiac touch, dark or, on the contrary, silvery-gray palette slightly brightened with red-and-brown, green or blue colours, the shading techniques employed, a soft and subtly attenuated transition of colours, these are the distinctive features of these pictures which make it possible to assume that we have here Spiridonov's fledgling orientation towards the lyrical and emotional line of the West European landscape painting, i.e. orientation now to T.Rousseau and J.Dupre, and now to C.Corot and K.Fridrich. Hence come his persistent attempts to capture landscapes at night, sunset and sunrise when outlines of things are foggy and blurred and a man wrapped in this still silence can have a look into life's mysterious and basic origin concealed by the hurly-burly of daytime ("Fog", 1974; "A June Night", 1978; "A Road in the Twilight", 1978; "Rustles", 1979).
When found together with the theme of stillness and silence, the motif of expectation blurred the space and time boundaries of depicted objects and helped fathom timeless wisdom in a manner that was as simple as life itself. It is worth reminding here that "the night theme" was all too common for the literature and art of the 19th century when the problem of Man's desire to rediscover himself, Man's link with Nature were addressed, the problem reflected in Tyutchev's well-knownlines:
A godly hour at night when silent is the Earth Gives birth
to real miracle and phantom. 'Tis then the living chariot of
Universe Makes overt progress to the Heaven's sanctum.
Portrayal of human silence, "the night side" of the nature and the human soul becomes in Spiridonov's art one of the main methods of penetrating into genuine "universal" secrets. That is exactly the reason why in the works of this period and especially of the one that followed he does not portray the Urals scenery so much as he creates an image of the human frame of mind and the disposition of nature as intangible psychological qualities projected onto a visible world.
Search after the meaning of life in the privacy of silence, solitude made the painter take up a challenge to depict what one may call using Meterlinck's words "the tragedy of everyday life routine". Presentation of events gave way to an exposure of the human inner world, a man's strife for existence in spiritual domain. But this spiritual domain hidden behind the curtains of daylight proved to be in an odd and mysterious sort of way associated with the unfathomable powers of chaos. A man's real environment was presented only as a reflected gleam of a far removed invisible truth. "Both what you can see with your eyes and what you can hear with your ears", said one of the characters in Khlebnikov's "Esir", "all these things are of the ghostly world, maya, but one is given no power either to see the universal truth with one's eyes or to hear it with one's ears. This truth is the universal spirit, Brahma. Its face is completely concealed behind a shroud of dream, silvery fabric of delusion. And the only thing that the poor human mind is allowed to see is the shroud that conceals the truth, but not the truth itself."
Later this romantic quest for "the India of spirit" was to lead Spiridonov to the India of reality. But even in his works of the late seventies there is at first a hesitant attempt ("A Road in the Twilight", "Rustles") and a more persistent effort later ("A Journey to the Blue Distance", 1979) to deal with the motif of man's transient, fleeting existence in the boundless eternity of the universe. A similar idea is also behind his "a la Breugel" picture called "Thaw" (1977). The same play on contrasts - obscurity of black against brightness of white - that sets the tone of perception of early spring arrival; the same crawling about of tiny people in a clear-cut landscape space. Obviously, it is not a matter of compositional similarity or identity of some means of artistic portrayal. It is a matter of being an echo of Breugel's picture in that there is a rudimentary, so far indefinitely expressed perception of the world as "a grand and mysterious panorama with people captured in it" (quotation of R. Klimov's words about P.Breugel).
Spiridonov's main motifs of the estrangement of man from nature and that of nature from material products of civilization derive their origin from that system of ideas. The possibility of knowing the world by the power of reason as opposed to intuitive penetration into the essence of existence was used as the basis for pictures painted in the 80s and 90s which constitute the second period of the painter's creative work. Consistent with the previous experience becomes an extrapolation of psychological characteristics onto the world of things, or "the second nature". Hence his desire to depict an object on the borderline between everyday life and eternal existence, which in itself would call to mind some features in common with surrealistic paintings, existentialist literature, A.Bely's prose and so on. As a matter of fact, such semblances in Spiridonov's art are numerous. But semblances only, and not borrowings (although there is nothing blameworthy in the latter), for "the night theme" carried him more and more away to the "twilight-of-spirit" mystery and from that to the artistic penetration into the hidden links between the man and the world. Logically continued these ideas turned into a conviction that the mighty and destructive "powers of night" arise from the very human and metaphysical origin; so in the works of this period a magically alienated world with a dismal presentiment of perpetually impending and inevitable cataclysms. The nature itself becomes a reflection of the man's fear of the unknown always present in his soul.
Intimate experience in getting the feel of his own inner makeup along with the process of self-rediscovery that was developing and strengthening at the same time led Spiridonov to the eastern religious and philosophical concepts much focused on helping a person to find a way to attain his spiritual liberation, i.e perfection. He found it interesting to study the rounds-of-time concept which proffers the round of rebirths and deaths of a soul and the oblivion of the past between the two transformation phases of the immortal substance, subject to the karma laws (the sum total of the ethical consequences of a person's good or bad actions). The universal recurrence of phenomena (which is, in essence, immobility) becomes an important structure forming element of Spiridonov's artistic system.
In line with the idea of the rounds of time is a retrospective principle used as a basis for his pictures of the "huts series". This is exactly where a system of techniques is designed allowing the painter to modify the range of constant images and motifs.
When seen for the first time these paintings produce an overpowering feeling that the world is unstable, volatile, and that a man is abandoned and incapable to communicate in this life. Constantly showing through the realities of life depicted in the canvasses is "a splash of alien existence" whereas reality is comprehended as a universal illusion, delusion, maya ("Travelling within an Interval of Time", 1987; "Apotheosis", 1990). One can seldom find people in Spiridonov's pictures; more often than not there is one man, motionless, reserved, separated from the reality by some invisible partition. But sometimes one can find images of children not yet rejected by the knowledge thirsty mind from the secrets of nature, which, in essence, is an "avatar" of the painter himself who has a vague vision of his past rebirths and deaths.
Life regarded as eternal existence which is spilled and spread across the cosmic time and space and only for a split moment embodied here and now in an earthly shell is depicted in his work "Call" (1990-93). The image of a girl frozen in prayer, holding the thread of fate with breathless fear in her hands is interlaced here with the motif of Tara, the Indian redeemer.
The theme of childhood spent in "backyards", a child's friendly pets and favourite trees apparently develops into a recurrent image of a small house, "a hut" ("Nostalgia", "A Red Window", 1988; "A Sleeping House", 1992 and others), or a disheartening redbrick two-storeyed block of flats ("Noon", 1981) which, depending on the way the light is shed on it, can acquire the shape of a gothically austere, mysterious building ("Solitude", 1989). The dramatic tension of these canvasses brings them considerably closer to expressionism, although the very manner of their artistic presentation is somewhat different. A sharp, cold outline, a static composition, hieratic stillness of images - all these make one recall the metaphysical painting in Germany and Italy in the second half of the twenties. However, that acid and chilling skepsis which frequently went together with the esthetic utopia of the painters of "new things" is not present in Spiridonov's pictures. An atmosphere of anxious expectation, fear of mysterious cosmic powers was generated by a transitional situation in which characters were captured in his pictures.
The attempt at getting to know the mystic essence of the world conforms to the poetry of "presentation in a strange manner" and the painter's orientation to a "devised-in-the-armchair" landscape rather than to "a direct vision" of it as was the case in the works of the seventies. This selective approach to the realities of life and their speculative arrangement in the picture, i.e. a precise array in an air space void of the air itself, a tendency to put a special "coloured light" on images (R.Dufy), expanded the boundaries of the reality, moved it beyond the habitual order of things, allowing the spectators to see the familiar in a new way. In every depicted object, in every part of it Spiridonov manages to find a new meaning, another life concealed from a glance cast at it in the course of everyday routine. Presented "in a strange way" the world of surrounding things that could be recognized at once acquires the character of a disquieting mystery and begins to live a new life subject to the laws of its own whose logic is hard to grasp.
The tendency to animate things relating to nature and everyday life can already be detected in the works of the late seventies ("A Man with a Painter"s Case', 1978; "A Shack", 1977; "A Journey to the Blue Distance", 1979). Posts one after another stretching into distance, abandoned builders' shacks, wilted trees, a table made of boards, an abandoned "outhouse John", a broken gate frame nobody can make use of, all these are living and thinking participants of the life drama, so eloquent and full of hidden meaning are their poses and "gestures". Spiridonov's attitude to "the second nature" is ambiguous: on the one hand, things are the memory of the past, the witnesses to human life; on the other hand, they threaten to set themselves free from the human and accomplish their mysterious mission. This is where the painter very closely approaches "the rebellion of things" topic which is well-known in world art from romanticists to surrealists. However, Spiridonov does not develop the conflict between nature and civilization any further; it runs through his pictures as a side motif, strengthening the central theme of inability to grasp connections between anything in the world. The objects do not break over the "authorized" bounds and never pull through "the plot they have devised".
A reconstruction of the general outline of the world model as designed by Spiridonov reveals two interconnected key images: the light and the way whose structure requires a detailed consideration. Without clearing up their nature and functional peculiarities in a picture it seems impossible to develop an adequate understanding of the majority of the artist's works.
In the early works the motif of the way and its mythological equivalents - roads, journeys, wanderings, etc -subconsciously reflected the painter's negative attitude to civilization because of its contradictions. Gradually as the painter develops the "theme of the East", the persistently recurring road motif becomes a synonym of the predetermined, preordained movement in the round of empirical time, opposite to the way to attaining the highest reality of spirit. In other words, the free world of thought is opposed to mechanical movement in the material world with no freedom of choice. Interesting in this respect will be a comparison between such works as "Allegory" (1986), "Procession" (1990) on the one hand, and "A Road to the Spring" (1990), "Talking With Heaven" (1989), "Entrance into White Space" (1991) on the other hand.
The name of the first picture mentioned above is a proof of Spiridonov's orientation, which began in the eighties, to the trope-like manner of expressing an abstract idea, in this case, the idea of a man wandering in the labyrinth of life. Depression, anxiety evoked by a lonely travelling figure lost in the vast empty world is supported by a dimly coloured luminescence of the landscape - the sun washed and dimmed by a yellowish haze of clouds and the anemic blind sky. The painter reminds that sufferings and dangers are the ageless companions of a man on the road of his life. Eternity is what is "always the same", and time is "a return to the same".
A similar theme is dealt with in the picture called "Procession" which internally has something in common with Breugel's "Blind Men". The disembodied figures of wayfarers somnambulistically floating in a conventional light emitting medium from the spectator to the depths of the picture symbolize the "sleeping" humanity and its macabre dependence on their lot and fate.
But a man's journey in this world is only one of the stages of his "horizontal" wayfaring in the process of which the wanderer perceives the outside world on a totally impressionistic level. The next step of his roving brings him to an aspiration to Infinity, to the knowledge of internal flame and unearthly fires. But "isn't the entire boundless infinity expressed in your consciousness", as one of the points of the agni-yoga says, "for where is the measure and limit of your consciousness?"
Here we shall have to turn to a consideration of the second key image in Spiridonov's art, the notion of light whose dynamics reveals its exceptional multifunctionality. In the ontological sense light is the substance of everything that exists; in the gnosiological sense it is the principle of knowledge; in the esthetic sense it is the essence of the beautiful (cf. respectively: 'The Birth of a Flower", "A Cup", 1993-94, "A Road to the Spring", 1991 and "Awakening of Light", 1992).
It is easy to see that the very titles of the pictures indicate that light is given a special place in Spiridonov's artistic world. As early as in the mid-eighties light becomes the main constructive principle and later the "main hero" of his pictures. In some works ("Something Floating Across Time", "An Evening Portrait", 1987; "A Yard with A Pigeon-loft", "A Red Window", 1988) light is used to swallow up, smooth away and generalize all details without blurring the outline of objects as was the case with the impressionists, but, on the contrary, making them sharper which sometimes evokes memories of the paintings of the American "Eight" - R. Henry and Z. Hopper. Light, now bright and cold, now soft and warm either floods things forming a transparent filmy obstruction for communication, or wraps things making their shapes even more disembodied and ghostly. But this stabbing, throbbing, unearthly light produces a stronger feeling of anxiety, disquietude, helplessness of "time-fettered" living creatures ("Confusion", 1987).
Quite obviously such a state of "discomfort" experienced by the depicted characters and transferred to the spectator is produced by some "out-of-beingness" of the light source, its constant gravitational displacement, its ability to affect the course of events and to penetrate into everything that exists, and at the same time being its origin. This is the reason why the painter comprehends many situations he depicts on an exclusively psychological level - the names of various states and sensations become the titles of his pictures: "Awakening", "Bliss", "Confusion", etc. Light is capable to simulate not only space but also time (a transformation of the image of the redbrick two-storeyed block of flats into a gothically austere building, see above).
The origin of such "metaphysics of light" can be traced back deep into the past centuries. For instance, in the Old Testament the creation of light precedes all other things God created; the New Testament says not only about "the unapproachable light" as a place God dwells in (1st Tim. 6, 16), but also that "God is light" (1st lo. 1,5). The medieval Christian theology held that light was the finest substance underlying everything that exists.
As for "Awakening", "Entrance into White Space" or "The State of Internal Light", they are undoubtedly associated in Spiridonov's art with the yoga experience of going through a "pure" endless space during one stage of which "the mind totally enters the object of meditation, taking its shape and allowing to perceive that object in its absolute entirety and clarity" (V.N. Toporov). An evocative description of such a state can be found in one of Blok's verses:
All things and entities are in accord In never
ending silent cosmic splendour. Gaze into it
with interest or be bored, I care not; in me the
"The highest genuine awakening" (bodhi) or the state of ecstatic "enlightenment" is an accumulation of internal energy which a yogin attains when being transformed from the "unenlightened" state of ignorance to the state of "pure light", void (sunyata). According to the study of yogacaras, the Void, Ultimate, is the substance of thought whose energy as a matter of fact is light; the merging of sunyata with the energy of thought generates light.
This aspiration to the ascent of spirit, awareness of the reality of a higher order constitutes the "vertical axis" of "journeys" a la Spiridonov across time and space. "Horizontally" the outside existence makes progress "in an interval of time", whereas the inner structure of consciousness develops "vertically" where a personality in all its profundity merges with the infinity of the world. The combination of the vertical and the horizontal, the material and the spiritual, the finite and the infinite makes up the semantic nucleus of Spiridonov's works. A symbolic presentation of this unity can be detected in the composition of "A Road to the Spring", "Entrance into White Space", "Talking with Heaven", where "entrance" designates "awakening", "reunion" of man, nature and universe.
Such an internally enlightened and reunited nature in its "solemn anxiety" (the title of a picture painted in 1991) is presented in the Indian series landscapes. One can see the world opening to a person in the process of entering into white space, the world whose presence he perceives vaguely and incompletely in terms of his earthly existence. In other words, one can see the landscape of the soul (Vyach. Ivanov's expression) where the painter is both the subject and the object of his own creative work. Hence, he turns to a symbolic method of presentation; a man's aspirations to the divine origin (cf. "Ask, and it shall be given you", Mat. 7, 7); also symbolic is birth of a flower in a burst of energy ("The Birth of A Flower", 1994).
The main theme of these canvasses, the attainment of the desired harmony, is established by all methods possible: exaggeration, shading, selection of soft hues; the space of the background is filled with air, the previously used gloomy, unemotional palette is replaced with resonant chords of golden-and-yellow, blue, green and purple colours. Featuring here is still light, but the light that transfigures everything around, that sets a mood of elation for the landscape ("Aspiration", 1993; "Attraction", 1992; "State of Maturity", 1991; "Beyond Space and Time", 1992, etc.).
Trees are also presented in a new way. If in the works of the seventies the painter's focus is on each tree, its individual peculiarities, its trunk curve and its texture, and later due to A. Deren's influence, its resemblance to a lonely suffering man, though their fates were quite different, now trees that raise their tops high into the sky become a symbol of union between Earth and Heaven, man and cosmos. It seems appropriate to quote N. Gumilev's and M. Voloshin's verses as a closest analogy of such a vision:
The grandeur of enlightened life, I understand, All trees
possess by birth, to us is strange. The Earth akin to
stars is their native land. We do inhabit it but only as an alien cage.
The canopy of moonlit sky the eye beholds At night
that distant stars so relish, The tree of times gives birth
to scores of worlds That flash to fleeting life and
However, it would be erroneous to suppose that in Spiridonov's art transformations of the key images keep on rising to a higher pitch of optimism. The image of the way to light, or the "enlightening way", is in line with the alternative nature of the world which the human consciousness tries to grasp; the "attainment of enlightenment", the retirement to "the gardens of another land" (Gumilev), is associated with an ethical effort, with an either-or situation where the making of the man who has united his consciousness with that of cosmos takes place.
To illustrate the above we will turn to one of the painter's latest works "Journey" (1992) in which the artist again returns to the problem of "the real human existence". The viewer's attention is riveted to the bright red arched umbrella canopy that shelters a man, a woman and a little boy clinging close to one another. A vague feeling of anxiety that the frozen figures emanate is intensified by the dynamics of the striking colour contrasts between the impenetrably dark night and a dazzlingly lighted stretch of the way. In fact, there is no conflict in the picture, but there is an apprehension of the life drama brought about by a gap between "not yet" and "already", so typical of Spiridonov's plots. In the context of Spiridonov's major theme, the motif of a journey that lies ahead shows a man's attempt to overcome his "last loneliness" against the all-devouring chaos of time. This way is full of imminent uncertainties and dangers; a decision-making risk is no guarantee of success, but it is only this road he can take to attain the new, the transcendental: enlightened awareness of being.
It is this acute feeling of the tragical, this ability to feel the supersensible in the phenomena of ordinary life that is the main peculiarity of Spiridonov's artistio awareness. One may choose to disagree with his interpretation of the problems he brings up; however, a painter is not a preacher; and his works are not a doctrine but art even though intimately connected with the philosophy of self-awareness and sense perception. The magical power of Spiridonov's painting with all his delusions, if any, rests on his genuine sincerity. But such genuine sincerity is in conflict with the collective psychology. It can be attained only in the moment of spiritual ascent when a man rediscovers himself in his totally naked "self-awareness". It is this sincerity that makes his paintings a success with art connoisseurs and lovers.