Alexander Sitnikov, born in 1945 in Iva, in the Penza region, is a classic example of the inadequacy of the system which in the ex-USSR divided art into “official” and “unofficial” categories. During his activity in the period from the end of his studies until the beginning of Perestroika in 1985 he drifted here, there and everywhere and, like many of his contemporaries, could be termed as a “maverick”. His formation as an artist took place during the 1970s, so he belongs to the so-called “Semidesyatniki” generation (the “people of the 1970s”). It was after his graduation from the prominent Surikov Institute (the Surikov Moscow State Academic Art Institute) in Moscow in 1975 when a brand new period of his life started, of a kind that, in the USSR, could only be possible in the West. The Western and Soviet perception of art was quite different: according to the ideas of the Soviet government at that time, art was to be absolutely true to the official ideology. Sitnikov’s specialization during his studies was political posters and his handicraft and technical skills were acquired in the studio of Nikolai Ponomarev and Oleg Savostyuk – skills which have proved useful right up to the present time. Fundamentally educated – and also mastering such spheres as observation and realistic representation of visual phenomena – he decided to earn his living as a poster artist.

In his graduation year Sitnikov was awarded a Komsomol (Communist youth organization) prize. In the same period appeared his work titled “Women Students” (1972, Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen), leaving the forefeeling of the overwhelming depth that his art was bound to achieve. The painting featuring over-stretched figures with a slightly anaemic look, busy with Shakespeare and fables by Ivan Krylov, subtly symbolizes the artist’s inner relation with literature, which, like music, is closely connected with Sitnikov’s painting.

In 1974 Sitnikov received another Komsomol Prize for a series of graphic works (“Fight for Peace”). In the following year he joined the Union of Artists of the USSR, and a year later that membership enabled him to take part in exhibitions both at home and abroad. At that time foreign exhibitions were extremely important: within their framework Soviet artists – for purely artistic purposes – were represented first in the East European socialist countries, and later in Western Europe and in the USA as well. It helped to bring them a certain level of international recognition.

After graduation Sitnikov participated predominantly in Moscow exhibitions which featured only official and sometimes moderately divergent art like, for instance, an All-union exhibition “The Self-Portrait in Russian and Soviet Art” at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (1977), or “Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture” (1977) at the Central House of Artists in Moscow.

In the mid-1980s Sitnikov started to take part in exhibitions and art fairs in Western Europe and in the USA. One of his latest exhibitions, where his and Olga Bulgakova’s works were presented together, took place in the Moscow gallery M’ARS under the title “Znaki Zhizni” (Signs of Life). The title appears to be a semantic summary of his works and is to be understood metaphorically and symbolically, both in the figurative and abstract sense.

Before he turned again to abstraction, the main themes of his paintings were fantastic creatures and theatre compositions. These are figurative compositions, painted in glowing colours, which manifest Sitnikov’s aesthetic and philosophical beliefs. Refined, spiritual Old Russian painting and naïve colourful folklore, classical moderne and Russian avant-garde painting are closely related to his art and are melted together in the form of old traditions and new impulses to make an enchanting world of paintings. His fantasy has no limits and the most imaginative paintings express his clinging to memories, dreams and to the sphere of the enigmatic.

He perceives the rivalry between the beautiful and the ugly as a tragedy and visualizes it in his art in a reassuring manner. He scrutinizes not only the tragedy as such but seeks it “in its manifestation in carnivals, in the climax of colour shades from a red rose to a MORTAL lethal wound”, in the colour tension of “a white dress, the black sky and the green Moon”. “I view the space where my heroes are placed,” he says, “as a universal substance which generated the planets and mankind with their feelings.” His works often portray animals whose images transmit and interpret all kinds of passions and experiences. His work is based on his perception of the world, the eternal struggle of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly.

“The Rape of Europa” (1978, oil on canvas, 100 by 100 cm, in the Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen) gives an example of the sources of his inspiration: reminiscences of the eternal myths of mankind. In this case he turns to Greek mythology: Europa is a daughter of the Phoenician king with whom Zeus falls in love (and after whom, according to Aphrodite’s prediction, a continent was named). Europa, a dollish feminine figure, is lying, as if entranced, on the back of the bull carrying her to the island of Crete: Zeus turned into a bull as a precaution against Hera, his jealous spouse. When they reach the island, he takes his normal shape again. Here Sitnikov creates tense and phantasmagorical creatures which, like pieces of a dream, drag on or drift away in a vague, coloured haze.

Another work, “The Blind” (1979), which appeared only a year later, seems to be focused on his personal nightmare: to be blind and deaf, which is absolutely unimaginable for someone like Sitnikov. Stylistically the painting belongs to the same terrain as “The Rape of Europa” and “My Daughter Has a Beautiful Mother” (1980, oil on canvas, 100 by 100 cm, Ludwig Museum for International Art, Beijing), although the latter appeared later. The artist acts as a small-format portraitist depicting a woman holding a small child with a dove in her lap. Strangely enough, it’s the dove that appears on the artist’s canvas and not the ensemble, as one might expect. The whole composition recalls the favourite medieval topos painted by St. Luke, the author of the “Mother of God with the Child”. The figures are rendered in a simplified form, typical for Sitnikov of that period. Their garments gently stream around the bodies and intensify the sacred impetus of the painting.

The work “Shining Stars (In Remembrance of the Fallen Cosmonaut)”, from 1980 (oil on canvas, 130 by 133 cm, Ludwig Museum in the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) grasps two topics that have always been important for Russian art: one concerns the links of humanity with the cosmos, the other appeals to the theme of space flight, that is so fundamental for the Russian identity. The first human in space, Yury Gagarin, became a national hero, and the space flights – like the first air flights in the early 20th century – symbolized the victory of Communism. Cosmonauts were taken as protagonists of “new human beings”, and at the same time they were viewed as a living proof of the non-existence of God. This was used as propaganda for the Soviet atheist ideology.

The painting features a cosmonaut, similar to a figure by Marc Chagall, floating above the earth surrounded by three women on each side. They stretch their arms to the sky in deep regret or dry their tears with white handkerchiefs: it is an accusation of Brezhnev’s secrecy policy for Gagarin’s tragic fate.

In the same period appears the “Taming” series (1979 - 80) and afterwards, between 1980 and 1990, a series of non-figurative works joined under the title “Instincts”. Both series were referred to as romantic expressionism. In these series for the first time he moves away artistically from the object – although he never gave it up completely and always kept a link with it. In Sitnikov’s case artistic development is by no means a linear process, as he moves from a certain object, through abstraction, to reach a non-figurative expression. It is much more about a gradual back-and-forth movement, and the artistic power of works like “Duet” (oil on canvas, 100 by 100 cm) or “Happy Birthday” (oil on canvas, 100 by 100 cm, both in the De Twee Pauwen Fine Art Gallery) proceeds from an explicit coexistence of figuration and abstraction.

The slightly ironical painting “Third Rome”(1994 - 2000) is also in a way part of the “Instinct” period. The work is an expressive combination of the classical or even the narrative content of the inner level with the innovative form of the formal, upper level. The content concerns the foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus, suckled by a she-wolf (Sitnikov portrays the she-wolf in a way that makes her similar to a pig). The form is presented as a figurative composition outlined with clear contours and rendered with abstract, almost suprematistically appealing elements. These can be regarded as an abstract representation of the hammer and sickle. The animal is side-drawn and a creature that it suckles appears absolutely symmetric in the painting. This creature is Sitnikov’s formal return to “The Blind” and other symmetric painting discoveries.
What was in the case of “Third Rome” a non-figurative part of a figurative painting conception is in other works exactly the contrary – a figurative part of a non-figurative conception. It can be illustrated with such examples, as “Concerto” (1998) and “Schnittke (Concerto)”, where fragments of musical instruments are visible against an abstract background. Here Sitnikov is focused on music and his respective definitions are closely related to works where a word becomes a formal system element, and at the same time a theme in its broadest sense. Concerning systemic elements, words which repeatedly appear in his work in this function include “poesiya” (poetry), Mayakovsky (the Russian poet of the first half of the 20th century – Transl. Note) or even “slovo” (word), as well as Schnittke, as in “Schnittke” (2000, mixed media on canvas, 36 by 34 inches, Mimi Fertz Gallery, New York). Alfred Shnittke, the famous musician and composer born on the Volga river into a family originally of German origin, is continually quoted by Sitnikov, partly because Schnittke is famous for his polystylistic manner of composition and this connects him spiritually with the painter.

Using such words and names and referring to the futuristic writer and artist Mayakovsky (who is in a certain sense recognized as a reformer of poetry), Sitnikov integrates another type of art in his works: literature. But nevertheless music remains the strongest force in his works; and for him the music that, as an inspiring and catalysing moment, penetrates most deeply into the soul and touches the feelings was classical music with its colouring, rhythm and tempo. One of the most important composers for Sitnikov, besides Schnittke, was Shostakovich, and he produced plenty of works related to him more or less closely.

Sitnikov’s abstractive works are marked with the influence of the suprematist and/or constructivist trends of the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century. It is particularly traceable in “Schnittke”(2000 - 2006). Sitnikov uses his own meaningful accents: what matters is not so much the absence of objects as such and the objectless art postulated by Malevich, but rather the expressive means of abstraction as opposed to abstract notions and phenomena. While his figurative works possess abstract features, his abstract compositions often contain definite and material elements and thus are not meant as objects or object parts borrowed exclusively from his objects trouvés.

“Concerto” (1998) is another variation of the musical theme, this time an abstract phenomenon. The painting formally correlates with some works where Sitnikov chooses love as his central subject. Different variations of “Eros. Philos. Agape”, with reference to classical Greek philosophy, place the focus on the notions categorized by Plato: Eros stands for sexual love, Filia means more friendship than love, and Agape is the spiritual and metaphysical connection between people manifested in the cognition of one another through challenging, broadening and enhancing the potential of the perceiver.

Since 2000 Sitnikov has been working on a plastic and constructivist work series which subtly integrates the method, roots and motifs of his art: although in the title – “Mother Tongue” or “Native Language” – there’s again a relation to the linguistic phenomena, some of the symbols used in the composition, particularly the hammer and sickle, remind us of his motherland, the Soviet Union. He uses non-figurative and constructivist patterns in formal representation as his native artistic vocabulary. The socialist symbols are used in the love theme in the same way: a deep identification with the intellectual and spiritual potential of his socialist provenance is time and again visible.

Between 2000 and 2006 Sitnikov has worked on the so-called “Pictroglyphs”, and with their help he transfers the word play of poetry and philosophy into an artistic form. For instance, the works “Aphorism” and very similar “Aphorism II” formulate the artist’s maxims which can be unambiguously related neither to literature nor to philosophy. This theme marks his work with an intellectual depth, whereas the connection with earlier works portraying anaemic “Women Students” absorbed from Shakespeare and Krylov is not in the least affected.

Barbara M. Thiemann
art historian, Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation, Aachen