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Alexander Deineka: light without shadow

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In his book, Mythologies, Roland Bathes wrote, The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus and the area for what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve. In this passage, Barthes revealed the true essence of sport, its structure and metaphysics. Dimension wise sport can be descriped as a vertical line in terms of achieving excellence. In this construct, soul-body dichotomy disappears and a human being becomes an unbroken, undivided entity.

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In Russia, when someone mentions a famous Latin quote, mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body), the first thing that comes to mind is a legendary Russian artist of the Soviet era, Alexander Deineka (1899-1969). Whatever Barthes delivered in words, Deineka magnificently rendered in colors. Deineka’s artistic legacy is all-encompassing and diverse. Like Honoré Daumier, he believed that artist should belong to his time. In many ways Deineka was indeed a child of post-revolutionary Russia with all its ideologies and imposed dogmas. But his paintings, mosaics, designs and sculptures were sieved through barbed wire of epoch owing to his talent and ideals he believed in and portrayed.

Deineka is a great example of a subtle line that separates the Soviet culture from the previous classical discourse. Being a bold experimenter in avant-garde trends and techniques, he was equally committed to traditional art in shaping his own unique monumental style. Young Deineka is strongly influenced by Cezanne, cubists and the Swiss expressionist, Ferdinand Hodler. Vrubel also was one of his beloved muses. The Lilac of his illustrious precursor haunts him with its delightful hues and visual fragrance. Eventually brilliantly innovative compositions and outstanding craft will ensure Deineka international recognition. In 1937, the panel painting, “Great people of the Soviet Union”, brings him the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. In 1939, Deineka wins the Grand Prix at New York World Fair for the architectural design of Moscow metro station “Mayakovsky”.

Sport as subject matter continuously inspired Deineka. Being an excellent athlete himself, he shared his infatuation with a healthy lifestyle and harmoniously developed personality. Once he said, Sport is an exciting spectacle. One cannot apply to it such a word as indifference. I enjoy the beauty of free movement, swiftness of sprinters, splendor of the blue sky and the green field . . . Sport contains all the shades of feelings. It’s lyrical and invigorating. It’s full of optimism. It instigates heroism. He also used to say that sport ennobles man. He admires in athletes self-control, dedication and ability to fight what Roland Barthes called resistance of things.

His favorites models were blue eyed blonds with beautiful healthy bodies. They are always surrounded by a sparkling aura. Geometry of their aspirations is strictly vertical. In his canvas, Soccer Player, a jumping figure of the athlete is highlighted by a Gothic cathedral in the background and a soaring ball. The figures he depicted emit an inner glow and optimism. His heroes are both here and there, in the radiant future. They are both physical and luminous, as if defeating the dark shadows from long-ago that threaten their beliefs. They are Soviet saints, holy in their youth, innocence and devotion to their ideals. They transcend and conquer gravity and inertia of the past.

In spite of all dramatic changes that Russian culture underwent after Bolshevik Revolution with its new superstructure, the core national values appeared to be reversed concepts of the previous historical discourse. Deineka’s favorite poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, in one of his best poems, A cloud in pants, used a beautiful metaphor -- emeralds of madness. It's a powerful trope for revolutionary and uncompromising spirit, which young Mayakovsky vehemently opposed to his predecessors. Nonetheless, these very emeralds of madness were scattered all over the Russian literature and fueled its development and growth. Prince Myshkin of Dostoevsky, Chatsky of Griboedov or Alexander Pushkin himself, regardless his writings, are imbued with the same courage and aspirations. The same spirit of idealism permeates Deineka’s art with vivid imagery and vibrant characters as in Defense of Sevastopol, Goal Keeper, Running Girls, etc.

Deineka’s art to a certain extent reflects traditions of Russian iconography with its ideals of asceticism, which is deeply rooted in the national psyche. At the same time, the notion of the divine flesh endowed with the capacity to transformation and sainthood as a visual pattern of Russian mysticism, left a strong imprint on the Soviet concept of heroism. Asceticism as the mode of spirituality pervades the entire history Russian history.

Pavel Florensky in his oeuvre, Iconostas (1922), noted that asceticism cannot be interpreted in terms of philanthropy or just good deeds followed by immediate practical results. Sainthood, depicted in the icon is not about charity , although the latter is always implicated. And it's not about moralizing about Good and Evil in Tolstoy’s sense either. It’s about a human face being an infinite source of light. When sin prevails, it casts a dark shadow on the image of God and by distorting it, turns it into a mask. When sin is trampled, the face becomes light itself – light without darkness -- as the image of God is supposed to be. Likewise, sport in Deineka’s universe has nothing to do with pragmatism and utilitarian applications. It refers to self-control and self-perfection as the cause of virtue.

The Soviet reality was also energized by the standards of austere self-discipline in the name of a better future. Consumerism and hedonism were not appreciated, which is not surprising. Most of the leading Russian revolutionaries, like Chernishevsky, Dobroliubov and decades later, Joseph Stalin, were graduates of theological seminaries. They were supposed to become clergy, but they chose to fight “demons” with fanfares rather than in silent meditation. Bolsheviks disguised traditional archetypes into the freshly coined semantics, but kept intact the mode in which these archetypes manifested themselves.

Structurally, poetics of sport is akin to that of asceticism. Both the ascetic and the athlete fight “resistance of things”: the former defeats it in his own soul, the latter overpowers it by his own body. Deineka’s art exhibits a splendid synthesis of both.

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