The Greater and Lesser Ways


Exhibition Dates
8 February - 4 March 2017

Private View
Tuesday 7 February 6:30 -8:30pm

Veronica Smirnoff is a British artist of Russian origin. Her paintings evolve out of close and intimate study of pre-Renaissance art, from ancient topography to icon painting. The artist’s mystical narratives are inspired by Russo-Asian folklore and Eastern story-telling, her vast landscapes depicting unchartered territories haunted by often solitary female figures; gatekeepers, perhaps, or prophets.

Mixing pigments from ground semi-precious stones, wine and egg yolk, and painting on oak panels blessed in a Russian monastery, Smirnoff’s textured surfaces appear as ancient as the tales they depict. Water is instrumental to her method, the medium’s fluidity dictating a way of working flat on the studio floor. In this series of paintings, particular attention is paid to water’s nature as a medium and its potential as pictorial motif, illustrating the distance of oceans and the division of seas, and signifying transformation, purity and the source of life.

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Essay by Kate Bryan

As an art historian I feel a weight press down on me when I reflect on how much there is to learn about the art of the past. The depth and breadth of each country’s heritage is both boundlessly exciting and overwhelmingly daunting – there would not be enough hours in ten lifetimes to indulge in all that wisdom. In contrast to this kind of melancholic anxiety, the abundance of art historical knowledge in the work of Veronica Smirnoff comes across as sheer joy.

Smirnoff is an artist who moves in and out of the art history tomes that swamp her studio with ease. Taking materials, symbols, ideas and gestures from a multitude of sources, she refashions them in her own practice, not in shy re-workings, hiding in a language only she understands, but in lucid paintings which reveal themselves generously to the viewer. These works give a vitality to aspects of art history which are, frankly speaking, pretty unfashionable today: Russian folklore, egg tempera, the tondo, fantasy, religion, myth.

Of her motivations Smirnoff says “I have always been interested in the construction of the iconic, the icon as the object of worship, and its relationship to “popular art”; its wide repertoire of signs: the flat moulding of figures, schematic linearity and cut-out two-dimensional quality, the abstract effects of colour, flatness and tilted depth. There’s nothing accidental about its inner logic - the sensitivity to relative positions of objects in a visual composition and expressive use of lines; iconographic registers are all about what’s signified and how.” 

Clearly Smirnoff is a deep thinker and a well-read artist, but these words are not embellishment. There is a simple truth both in her thoughts and her paintings. She reminds us that art has always been made for the viewer - to capture, to seduce, to persuade. Many modernists talked with such aspirations before Smirnoff’s generation; they sought to connect to the modern eyes of the new world with an abstract visual language. Rothko, for instance, wanted to provide salvation in a unique visual language that was devoid of figuration, signs, symbols and narrative. 

Somewhat unusually, Smirnoff’s endeavour is to unite this kind of pure, abstracted spiritual realm with a grounding in reality and figuration. She cites the Russian twentieth century philosopher Pavel Florensky. Florensky defined culture in two parts; one was material and the other irrational and spiritual. In a sense it is the dichotomy between the two aspects of culture that is at the heart of her work. Consequently, the works in this exhibition manage to be many things at once; recognizable and comforting yet disconcerting and strange. 

For example, I think I know where I am with Terra Incognito. It speaks of Renaissance tondo paintings with its appropriation of the historical circular format. The egg tempera sits nicely alongside that reference and the attractive landscape properties appeal immediately. There seems to be a clear sense of an actual place and boundaries between spaces. But then, further into my gaze, things shift considerably. Following the path through to the distance, as Constable taught us to do, results in the entire landscape tilting, falling away and leaving me ungrounded, like Alice in Wonderland. The paint handling, somewhat quaint in its reference to pre Renaissance art, is deft and complex – there is a clear tension between water and pigment on the surface. The central form that anchored the space a moment ago now seems threatening – maybe a storm, maybe an apparition? 

The fact that Smirnoff uses anachronistic processes adds further appeal to her practice. There is a depth here because of the way she employs process to add meaning. Her egg tempera is formed from gesso and pigment ground from semi-precious stones and mixed with egg yoke and white wine. Instead of canvas, she prepares Russian oak and these wooden boards are blessed in Russian monasteries. The story of making each work is spiritual and also inquisitive as she explores the validity of such procedures in a secular age. For despite the references to religion, Byzantine art, Russian folklore and Renaissance painting, Smirnoff‘s paintings are still determined to be contemporary. This is probably in part because Smirnoff also reinterprets imagery from outside the rarefied world of art, borrowing ideas and images from newspapers, journals and other ‘found’ modern sources. There is a purposeful tension between how much she acknowledges of the original and how much is pure ‘irrational’ juxtaposition. Periphery Vision speaks of Van Gogh’s figure drawings of peasants crouching at work. The art historical reference is right there in the foreground, her figure even wears the crude garments. But the left hand side townscape is more akin to an aerial photograph, working on a completely different scale and perspective point. Despite its nod to Chagall, it is also rather like an advertisement or other piece of design work. The wash across the surface looks like a damaged sepia print whilst the abstract blue swirls in the lower left lend an Asian inflection. 

The success of these paintings is how the artist allows her points of reference to coexist and create something distinctly belonging to the artist whilst also being allowed to speak of their own origins. It is almost as if the artist is directly confronting the weight of the artistic canon and acknowledging the saturation of our modern world with imagery. There can be nothing new. And yet … here she is forging a small crack into the bulk of all of that has gone before. Through a deeply felt intuition, Smirnoff gives a great deal of herself to the work. This personal expressiveness, combined with a near complete rejection of modern materials, makes for arresting and distinctive work.

Kate Bryan, 2017
Art Historian, broadcaster and curator