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  • Provenance

     Private Collection, Europe; Private Collection, USA

  • Catalogue Essay

    There is no English equivalent to the Russian word toska. It could be interpreted as ‘grief’, but toska implies a less unpleasant feeling. The words ‘melancholy’ and ‘sadness’ are also too strong and too connected with time as they are considered to be temporary states of mind. Russian toska is timeless, it has something to do with space rather than time, and it is a constituent feature of the Russian collective unconscious. The tradition to epitomise toska in Russian art goes back to the 1860s and is directly connected with social engagement, introduced to art by the emergence of the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) movement. The depiction of the everyday life of ‘common’ people within vast landscapes was the manifestation of a new freedom in art; as the art became emancipated from upper-class patrons, it shifted in function to serve society.
     
    Semyon Faibisovich is a contemporary artist who embraces tradition in the most eminent way. Having graduated as an architect in the 1970s, he began taking photographs of people on public transport, later enlarging them with a projector in order to paint large canvases. This was the technique used in American photorealism, although Faibisovich’s results were far from the cold and distantly enquiring look of typical of that style. During this period, the young artist was excited about the contradictions between propaganda and the life of real people in the Soviet Union. But he was far from being an outright critic of the regime and society, for his messages were complex and subtle. He developed a unique language of art, hyperreal and romantic at the same time, and there is an empathy towards the people of this unhappy utopian society in his paintings of the 1970s and 1980s. Though not accepted into official exhibitions of the USSR (he was forced to work as an architect and designer to support himself), these works were popular with the intelligentsia, who from 1977 to 1991 could see them in the semi-underground gallery on Malaya Gruzinskaya.
     
    The MKAD belongs to the most prolific period of the artist’s career, the early 1980s, a time when his works possessed a poignant emotional charge. MKAD is a distinctive and at the same time typical 1980s work by Faibisovich. It is a portrait of a woman, sitting in front of a bus window, painted from a snapshot – as all the works of that period were. We cannot see the woman’s face, which aids us in seeing her purely as a typical character of the late Soviet era. The artist cleverly accentuates a few important details for the viewer: at first glance, the woman does not seem attractive – her heavy figure seated on the chair expresses tiredness and age, though her youthful skin and large, pale hands adorned with rings suggest that she is married but still young. Her outfit is more than modest, but she wears thick, richly golden rings. These are depicted in a most skilful way, reviving the technique of the Dutch Old Masters, and are the brightest part of the picture. It is as if
    they concentrate the rich golden light that is pouring in through the window, and radiate the warmth of the sunny midday scene outside. This landscape occupies the centre of the picture and, indeed, dominates it. It is captured at the most beautiful time of a year, ‘golden autumn’, which is so full of allusions in Russian culture.
      
    There is a certain strangeness about the landscape: the golden-hued straw together with the golden-hued trees never, in reality, occur at the same time of year, and are always tinted with different tones of ochre. In this work the artist has chosen to paint the landscape in reflective gold, abandoning the naturalistic palette in order to reinforce this feeling of toska. By thus enveloping the living organisms in gold the artist points to varying notions of life, death, value and wealth. In addition, the use of gold enables the artist to inject light and reflection into the work, once again referencing techniques of Dutch Old Master painting. The light highlights the woman’s jewellery, making it a significant part of the picture. The jewellery reveals a truth about the Soviet economy, where elegant clothes were inaccessible for the population, but real solid gold was easily affordable. The false ‘golden autumn’ landscape mocks the clichés of the official culture of Social Realism, which in turn was a false culture. Thus, the artist is playing a clever game, encoding social issues in the innocent image. The woman’s clothes look clumsy and a touch childish, but this detail, seemingly casual, reveals another important truth about Soviet society, which was infantile and patriarchal. We can see the severe characters of the woman’s contemporaries as shadows in the window’s reflection, underlining the fact that the woman is with other people in a public space yet at the same time all alone. The artist allows the viewer to enter into the woman’s personal toska. The slight gesture of her index finger against the side of her face suggests a possible tear. Every detail of the interior of the bus is reproduced with loving touches of the painter’s brush, especially the ticket machine, which is depicted in a detailed manner yet at the same time appears almost dissolved and dematerialised by the pouring golden light. The ticket machines in these buses were designed in order for people to control each other. The lid of the money-box was transparent so everyone could see how much money had been put in. To produce the ticket, one had to turn the handle and everyone would hear the coins drop into the box. It was a strange machine of utopian design for a utopian society ruled and controlled by its citizens.
     
    The painting’s subtle undertones reference a collective portrait of Soviet society. That society was both utopian and, simultaneously, very real. Its time has passed and will never return. Faibisovich’s works, of which the present lot is a prime example, powerfully captures this emotional state of toska experienced by people under the Soviet system.
     
    Dr. Elena Zaytseva

11

MKAD from the series Shuttle Bus

1984
Oil on canvas.
100 x 162 cm (39 3/8 x 63 3/4 in).
Signed and titled in Cyrillic and dated 'S. Faibisovich << MKAD>> Shuttle Bus 1984' on the reverse; further initialled in Cyrillic and dated 'S.F. 84' lower right.

Estimate
£150,000 - 250,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £145,250

BRIC

14 - 15 April 2011
London