As he was founding the Ballets Russes, Sergey Diaghilev had an aesthetic and political problem to solve: which Russia to present to an international audience? More than a century later, there remains a distinction between artists who intend their work for a Russian audience and those with an eye on the rest of the world. The contemporary painter Andrey Remnev knows this history well, and is unafraid to plant his brush in the former category. His work is deliberate, stylized “Russian-ness,” unreal and gilded and gorgeous. In his luminescent scenes, we can see symmetry and symbolism, floral patterns and folk motifs, all expertly rendered and composed. The sheer amount of gold warms the severe glamour, and his playful dips into abstraction lighten the solemnity.
Remnev works in traditional materials, including natural pigments bound with egg yolk. His inspirations include Japanese engraving, Italian Renaissance masters, and the Dutch Golden Age. But Russian art—from medieval icon painting to 1920s Russian Constructivism—is Remnev’s major influence, with a wink to Diaghilev’s repackaging of old-world Russia for an eager Europe. “What Diaghilev was selling,” says Molly Brunson, an art historian at Yale University, was a “fantasy Russian-ness that was built on national myths—about the connection between the peasant and the landscape; about the vibrant, communal peasant culture; about the naturalness or primitiveness or Eastern-ness of Russians.”
However vibrant the ghosts of the past, the present tends to have the louder voice. Remnev has painted dancers at the Bolshoi Theatre. The European fashion houses Delpozo and Vivetta launched collections inspired by Remnev’s paintings. Could he be making conservatism avant-garde? “I embody relevant and important conceptions by using the traditional approach,” the painter said in a 2016 interview. Remnev’s confident atavism could be tribute, kitsch, mythology, or simply high style. Or it could be all of the above. Most intriguingly, there is a bold penetration to the gaze of his female subjects that is far from antique. —Emily Gordon