Eugenie Vronskaya: Look, Stranger by Laura Gascoigne

In the context of the current revival in figurative painting, Eugenie Vronskaya’s work stands out. At first sight her poetic figures in the landscape might seem to be riding the same imaginative wave as the paintings of Peter Doig and Chris Ofili. Look closer, though, and there’s something different about her vision. Something stranger.

For the past decade, the settings of Vronskaya’s paintings have been the Highlands of Inverness-shire, where she moved as a young mother in 1989 and brought up her sons. But despite their faithfulness to the forms of the Scottish landscape – its mountains, rivers, lochs and skies – there’s nothing Scottish about the way they’re painted. There’s no trace in Vronskaya’s cool, restricted palette of the French influence that has coloured Scottish painting since the Glasgow Boys. The cold blue light on her landscapes, typically captured at dawn or dusk, belongs to a more northerly tradition. It has more in common with Munch’s Starry Night or Isaac Levitan’s Silence.

The latter is perhaps no accident. Vronskaya, as the name she shares with the hero of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina betrays, is Russian. And that accounts for something else that sets her apart from the new generation of British painters of dreamscapes: the strength of her draughtsmanship. As a student at the Fine Art University of Moscow in the 1980s, she went through five years of the sort of rigorous academic training no longer taught in English art schools. But it’s her earlier training as an icon painter that explains another aspect of her art: its metaphysical dimension. In the icon painting tradition, the painted image is regarded as a portal into another world.

You can take the artist out of Russia, but you can’t take Russia out of the artist. The Russian soul may be as much of national cliché as British phlegm, but like all clichés it contains a kernel of truth. The poetic prism through which Vronskaya views the landscape recalls the writing of Maxim Gorky: there is the same mix of the cosmic and the microcosmic, and the same feeling that all of nature is in flux. Take this description from The Birth of a Man in Gorky’s Through Russia: ‘The season being autumn, leaves of wild laurel were glistening and gyrating on the white foam of the Kodor like a quantity of mercurial salmon fry.’ It gives you exactly the same impression of pullulating life that you get from a Vronskaya painting.

‘Look Stranger’, the title of this essay, is taken from a poem by WH Auden; Vronskaya’s inspiration is often literary. The show’s centrepiece, the autobiographical triptych The Birth of the Goddess, was inspired by Madeline Miller’s retelling of the story of Circe from the point of view of the sorceress who bewitches Odysseus’s crew in Homer’s Odyssey. To Vronskaya, Miller’s account of Circe’s discovery and acceptance of being a witch seemed to chime with her own experience as an artist: that you don’t choose art as a profession, it chooses you and you have to grow into it. Her Circe is an undisguised self-portrait, while her equine companion – her witch’s familiar, if you like – is the old horse she used to take on nocturnal rambles. As an embodiment of man’s connection with nature, the horse has become a signature motif.

Like songs of exile, these Scottish landscapes painted in London gain a deeper resonance from being rooted in remembrance of a familiar but now faraway place. The physical merges into the metaphysical: the figure in The Air Is Part of the Mountain, based on her memories of early morning dips in the loch, could be bathing in a meteor shower; a particular oak at a turn in the river on a favourite walk is imagined in The Greeting Tree whispering ‘hello’ as she passes. In her London studio, experience is passed through the filter of recollection in an intuitive process she calls ‘inner drawing’. The figure, horse and rushing stream in In Oneness with the Water appear light against the dark like undeveloped negatives in the mind’s darkroom. ‘You spend a lot of time figuring it out, sitting back,’ she says. ‘It may be more about taking off than putting on; it’s a back-and-forth.’ A painting like Winter Horse has been painted and repainted, bringing out the image by redrawing and refining shapes with layers and layers of transparent colour. The traces of its previous lives remain: ‘You can see how many horses are behind that,’ she says, ‘how many landscapes have disappeared.’

Contemporary as it feels, Vronskaya’s art stands firmly in the European tradition. The serpentine line around the man and horse in Dreammaker is a direct descendant of Hogarth’s ‘Line of Beauty’, which ‘leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety’, requiring from the artist’s hand ‘a lively movement’ and ‘the assistance of the imagination or the help of the figure’. Thanks to her Russian training Vronskaya rarely needs the help of the latter – she can hold a figure in her head and rotate it at will – but as a stimulant to her imagination she has become increasingly experimental in her methods. Each image, she finds, calls for a different treatment. While the delicacy of Rising Little Souls required the finest linen canvas, the brooding Land and Light with its banks of heavy cloud whipped up into Munchian volutes by the wind demanded the roughest hessian.

In place of manufactured oil paint, the witch in Vronskaya prefers to brew up alchemical mixtures of rabbit skin glue, turps, damar varnish and chalk with pigment to achieve her effects. In Winter Horse, a mix of turps and damar lifts the colour, streaking the canvas like melting ice; in The Birth of the Goddess, oily Inverness-shire clay combined with the paint makes the brushwork curdle, leaving beads like condensation on the picture surface. There are no formulas; with each new picture, she feels compelled to reinvent the wheel: ‘I know what I want, but I don’t know how to make it work’. Her readiness to start and restart from scratch is the mark of a natural-born artist, driven to capture the strangeness in familiar experience and render it anew.


Laura Gascoigne





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