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  • Provenance

    Feldman Fine Arts, New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Ronald Feldman Gallery, Ten Characters, 30 April – 7 June, 1988; Hamburg, Deichtorhallen, Ilya Kabakov – Der Lesesaal (The Reading Room), 19 April – 28 July, 1996

  • Catalogue Essay

    You can tell immediately that The Little Water Sprite is a typical Kabakov: an enlarged ‘little drawing' with a text caption appears as a hypertrophied fragment of a literary-visual narrative whose original version remains unknown. This painting is a faithful enlargement of one of Kabakov's illustrations to The Little Water Sprite, a fairytale by the German writer Ottfried Preussler, which the artist produced for the ‘Detskaya Literatura' publishing house in 1979. But there is nothing in the painting to indicate this fact. As the picture is enlarged and torn from its context, the utilitarian illustration becomes a conceptual commentary, addressing a totally different audience. Though Kabakov has executed this illustration himself, he is now reusing it just as a pop-artist would have used the readymades of anonymous mass culture. A similar conceptual reading of commercial work performed as an illustrator (for fashion magazines) can be found in the early work of Andy Warhol.
    In the 1960s-70s, Kabakov worked extensively as an illustrator of children's books, which – as did all forms of narrative illustration – enjoyed a unique development in the Soviet Union, in part due to the tradition of an Enlightenment-approach to culture on the whole. Fiction and poetry were almost always published with carefully drawn ‘pictures,' usually on paste-in plates, which would interrupt the text's flow like inserted fragments of film. This coupling of narrative image with narrative text proved a lasting source of inspiration, so that almost all of Kabakov's work in the medium of painting, albums, or installation uses this device in some way or another.
    In one of the essays for his installation ‘Fly with Wings' (1991), Kabakov writes about this phenomenon, remembering his own childhood and his fascination with illustrations in books. "More than anything, I was amazed by the relationship between pictures and captions. If [the caption said that] ‘the navigator was holding a list in his right hand', then this really was the case in the picture too. [...] But I now also remember another thing: not only did the caption fail to give meaning to the picture, to make it clear or easier to read (which, as I know now, is what the book's editors were trying to do), but quite on the contrary [...] everything became even more mysterious, more problematical, and more intriguing." A picture in as¬of¬yet unread book "held an endless attraction [...] like a math problem whose answer can only be found on the last textbook page [...] but now looks like a sweet misunderstanding that cannot be solved." (Ilya Kabakov, Three Installations, 2002, pp.229-230) This is exactly the effect Kabakov tries to achieve in The Little Water Sprite.
    According to Kabakov, only pictures with captions could produce this mysterious effect, while images without texts seemed like little more than things, ‘like cupboards or something,' completely commoditized and instantly readable. Kabakov draws a clear distinction between ‘reading' and ‘looking,' demonstrating a Duchampian disdain for ‘the retinal.' At the same time, he suggests that we read images, and not a purely literary narrative.
    This gesture should be seen in the context of the famous demarche that Mallarmé undertook at the close of the 19th century in his text ‘Et un coup de des n'abolira jamais le hazard' (1897): Mallarmé suggested a simultaneous reading of narrative texts as works of visual art, thus paving the way for the European avant-garde. Kabakov counters this ‘visual poetry' with his own ‘narrative vision.'
    Dr. Ekaterina Degot

15

The Little Water Sprite

1980
Enamel paint on board.
260 x 190.5 cm. (102 3/8 x 75 in).
Signed, titled and dated ‘I.Kabakov The Little Water Sprite 1980 [in Cyrillic]’ on the stretcher.

Estimate
£150,000 - 200,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £204,500

Important Contemporary Russian Art–Property from a Foundation

28 Feb 2008, 6pm
London