According to the Chinese artist and philosopher Shi Tao, only one who knows the rules can be successful in changing them.
And though the modern world has enough space for anything and every kind of art somwhow finds its audience, the ability of a “traditional artist” to persevere is sometimes more difficult than that of an “ultramodern” one.
This is, I believe, the case of Alena Vasilyeva.
The artist draws on so-called “enduring themes”, timeless motifs of painting: cityscapes, nature and still life. And the most surprising thing is that she creates without trying to generate mainstream fashion or being dictated by current trends – those “little but strong rules that even their censors are unable to deny” (Nikolai Gogol). Alena Vasilyeva has found a manner of her own, a plastique intonation, her personal style, without abandoning tradition.
I would not say that a traditional painting is always “better” than so-called “contemporary art” with its effective technology, amusing metaphorical chains, shocking and yet hypnotising contrasts of materials, texts and “ready made” objects that its creators, addicted to conceptualism, often introduce into their compositions. There is, however, one undoubted rule – in figurative work it is not permissible to reduce quality to mere sensation, bravura, entertainment or a flow of interpretations.
A truly serious artist (and Alena Vasilyeva is, undoubtedly, a serious professional) doesn’t cast himself either to the Left or the Right politically, not as a “social realist” or a conservative, and not as a dissident or radical remover of essentials. She is just who she is – a fine and free artist.
It’s a rare thing indeed when professional culture and commitment to the serious classical tradition synthesises with a sense of modernity, all the more so when that modernity resonates with the social codes of the present, and preserves her own inimitable intonation in terms of both content and plastique.
Speaking of the “codes of the present” I mean those delicate yet fundamental threads that tie Vasilyeva’s art with the tradition of so-called “Leningrad Cézannism”. It is commonly accepted to apply this term to the trend of Petrograd-Leningrad art of the 1920–1930-s, a trend where strength and the consistence of Cézanne’s manner combined with a delicate lyricism.
This is exactly the prism through which Vasilyeva’s art should be perceived.
I would say that in her creations there persists an immediate acuteness of “first impression”, a sharpness of something “suddenly seen” synthesised with energetic architectonics, alignment and the effect of the total, strength and comprehensive result of the canvas. In her works you will not find that “album-approximate-nature” so common even for the most perfect salon “gallery” works. In general, I have to say that even the most accomplished, ideally composed paintings of the city never happen to be trite or “postcard-like”, although it’s amazingly difficult for an artist to achieve this. On the contrary, her brushwork is so quivering and loaded with artistic “plasma” that her art certainly remains in the forefront of one’s mind.
In Alena Vasilyeva’s art you can find a precious and generally now rare quality: she doesn’t simply draw well, she draws as a maestro who knows “occult” architectural rhythms; she feels the levity and severity of buildings when standing on the ground. She understands how the “austere and slender form” of St Petersburg appears. She first trained professionally at the Art Lyceum (once acclaimed as the Leningrad Secondary Art School), department of architecture. And I believe that her university diploma for a series now known under the name of St Petersburg from under the Sky, drawn on a damp surface with ink, pen and watercolours, has formed the basis of her current art work.
The fact is that in a pictorial “flash” of her works one can always find a perfect drawing that defines the level of her paintings and watercolours and their artistry (an all but forgotten word which is jest right here!).
“Harmony calibrated with algebra” found in these works, a fluent choreography of lines subjected to the accurate construction of the compositional structure as a whole have become the principal basis of Alena Vasilyeva’s art. Furthermore, her cityscapes are always “portrait-like”, and even Florence and Venice are recognisable not so much by their famous monuments as by their “expression”, look and colour.
In the current arts world, defined as “glamour”, in this “parade” of ostensibility that covers the lack of neither real nor apparent beauty, the paintings of Alena Vasilyeva appear as islands of peace that gently preserve the timeless values of art.
A gallery visitor is unlikely to guess how much dedicated and hard work is behind her poetic, seemingly tranquil paintings. The main difficulty for a watercolourist is often not the process of painting itself (usually this is a quick process), but the choice of the only right, inconvertible movement of the brush – how much water and colour to take on, what the strength of the connection between the brush and the paper should be, how quickly a sketch should be made, where the hand should rest and where it should make a “runback”.
All of her watercolours maintain a spontaneity based on personal experience and strong capability (so many works to come!) of an easy draw-down, sometimes blinding brightness of non-traditional and daring colour. Vasilyeva always transforms paint into colour, undoubtedly the evidence of true skill.
Indeed, Alena Vasilyeva has painted many cities both abroad and in Russia, though St Petersburg is enthroned in her art. It is immediately recognised in its rhythms – calm and majestic, of course, in the local colour; in these houses, dim, but almost always multicoloured, in silver-ashen old stones, in the lofty sky in pale and delicate hues. This artist is not afraid of familiar views or well-known places.
She has sufficient personal perception to make any painfully familiar sight appear different, unknown, infinitely individual:
I know by heart every familiar walk
The tan of salt – that too is not so bad.
In my opinion, Alena Vasilyeva is, fortunately, not concerned with self-esteem or with vanity at all. She is not isolated from the art process of Contemporary history; she runs deep in it, but at the same time is independent from it.
Alena Vasilyeva is one of those few artists about whom it is a shame to stop speaking. Her works provoke fascination. However, her art – despite of all its maturity – is only beginning...
Professor, Doctor of Art Studies,
Academician of the Academy of the Humanities,
Member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA)
under the patronage of UNESCO