So the time has come to type on my PC the name of Olga Bulgakova. I have already had a chance to write about the so-called ‘70s artists – Natalia Nesterova, Tatyana Nazarenko, Irina Zatulovskaya, some others, – which means that I have been quite long sizing up this generation close to me in age, upbringing, culture and even complexes. Every time I notice that what interests me in the ‘70s generation is not only their individual artistic discoveries and strategies, but also the reflections they cast and the reactions they provoke – all those layers of interpretation that accompany the evolution of these artists. The important aspect consists in more than just the fact that the combined reactions of the professional reference group have several layers to it, like vodka and juice in a properly mixed bloody Mary: total acceptance and understanding – and rejection; gradual integration into new contexts – and recurrences of antagonism. And we are not talking here about the quality of art – there is no question of quality: museums – yes, the gallery establishment – sure. A different thing is being contested: the status of the ‘70s artists itself, their right to exist in the space of the relevant art. Critics belonging to different generations return to this question, in the manner described by Ossip Mandelstam – "debates going round after round"… So, the important thing does not amount only to the fact that the combined reactions are determined by a particular time period, although the instance of defending the "right to the contemporary" in itself is of undeniable historic and cultural significance. Another thing matters more to me – a special responsiveness to the context, the ability to be glued to it. A generational cohesion among artists is always inevitable (this issue has become lately a subject of conceptual scholarship), even if artists from same generation are flung wide apart ideologically and artistically. However, centripetal or centrifugal forces inside a generation do not always have a big impact; more often the key is individual or group strategies or, as they said in the ‘20s – directionalism… But along come the ‘70s artists… As it appears, their lives in art have been different, the amplitude of variations in the individual evolutions of the key figures of the generation are obvious, and as for attempts to unite, to find a common ground, much less to institutionalize a group – nothing like that has been noticed… In a word, they never joined hands. But even when not together, they did not get lost either… Thanks, in no small part, to this unity – unity woven of most diverse threads, which does not lend itself easily to verbal description, elusive when you try to figure out the methods of visualization…

Not that I am trying to pigeonhole this unity with all its variety of dimensions. Although I will be attempting time and again to identify at least some binders. And I will certainly try to describe the most obvious, "basic" stuff.

We still rarely use the opportunities to study the culture of the everyday. Not only as a method of anthropological and socio-psychological interpretation of historical process, but also as a method of understanding art. Meanwhile, the unity of our group of artists, who entered the art arena in the Soviet ‘70s, reveals itself in no small degree through the stuff of current history as well… Through a prism which the classics of the Annals School would have labeled with an archaic term – the culture of a professional guild, a guild culture. And this is not a metaphor. Indeed, guild network was important for them all: institutes, academies, artists’ unions and the public around the unions, all the multifarious institutional aspects present in the life of a Soviet artist. Later these artists would be blamed for not having been able to step down from the official track and to go underground; they would be scorned because of the fact that the authorities did not prohibit their art. These criticisms were not unfounded: the way art exists cannot leave unaffected art’s well-being. But one should not ignore the specificity of the guild consciousness itself: it has a powerful sway. (I will never forget how I showed to a big name in the contemporary art his early children’s illustration – I came in possession of this piece by pure chance – with an approval stamp from the then all-powerful art editor. The big name gasped: look, Degtyarev himself signed it… Everything changed, but the magic of the name and the ritual still holds…). And you have to understand meanwhile that "guild" and the Soviet artists union as an institution are no synonyms: the union had long been pulled apart in different directions by different fractions – not so much based on ideas – what kind of ideas could you expect in the ‘70s! – but on the professional basis. On purely artistic grounds, the ‘70s artists gravitated to the tradition of pictorial representation with its purpose to convey a sum total, a whole piece of reality – which is to say they gravitated to different versions of the 20th century realism. A holistic picture of the world pre-supposes a certain teleology consistently carried through – an hierarchy of goals and values. Oh yeah – a whole, regular, organic world is structured and hierarchical: top-bottom, good-evil, spirit-flesh, etc. And nearly all ‘70s artists, even those who started out assured of the security, pastorality and inviolable stableness of the world presented to them – each one of them is greatly aggrieved by deviations from this wholeness and regularity. Even when, as most of them do, they build their poetics precisely on these deviations. And in this sense they are the last extant moralists.

The young artists of the ‘70s "guild" were also united in their cult of craftsmanship. Probably as the reaction to the doughiness and flaccidity of the stuff that the traditional Moscow school of painting degenerated into. And it was no accident that the Renaissance images, with their execution so perfect as to acquire a nearly metaphysical dimension, were most often looked to by these artists as an ideal. I would add to all this an almost unconcealed indifference to what Erich Bulatov termed as actual life. It simply did not interest them. As an unwitting proof to this, the exhibitions began to feature an array of self-portraits which, either by way of a quotation, or an allusion, or an attribute – bespoke this desire of the young artists to elope to different times… Critics turned up, for whom this stuff was sufficient for rating this kind of art as spiritual, elevated, a dialogue with the classics. Most artists did not succeed at the dialogue: now we have as the leftovers funny hob-and-nob titles such as "Vermeer called upon my studio"… You have to pay for everything: the next generation of young conceptualists had a field day poking fun at what they termed "dukhovka" (oven). (See Slovar terminov moskovskoi kontseptualnoi shkoly (Dictionary of terms of Moscow conceptualist school). Ad Marginem publisher, Moscow, 1999). And not without reason. And yet, the typological, no matter how vulnerable to criticism its run-of-the-mill specimens are, remains an excellent binding substance. And how the individual germinates from the typological is a mystery never to be solved.

So, for now we will not go further than just say: the case of the ‘70s artists has a distinct professional and worldview coloration. Of course, this is not a judgemental category. And there are all sorts of character among the colored lot: most of them are naïve and even funny, never going further than the declarations about anticipation of heavenly inspiration. And – a minority, to be sure – those who fashioned themselves into superb craftsmen… But the presence of this professional and worldview coloration is in itself important: it pre-supposes the presence of folks who are involved, who share with you a common ground, who have a professional affinity. And it explains to some extent the power of the guild ties, which preclude from transition to different types of artistic and professional/institutional self-actualization.

I recall that I probably was marked by this coloration too…

I remember the nearly shocking impression produced on me by the first pieces of Bulgakova I saw at some now forgotten exhibitions. Pieces from the period prior to her "Gogol." What it was exactly I do not remember, too many memories since then. But I do remember the sense that some new forces who entered the art scene were making themselves visible. I also felt that thanks to the new arrival this art scene, no longer uninvolving and boring, had turned about to face us. Surely, I and my fellow art studies majors were an ideal target audience. Well-read, capable of expounding tropes, ready to recite by heart passages from Bakhtin and Lotman and to easily identify quotations from other artwork, and finding pleasure in this (it seems that we were the last generation of art studies majors of that kind), we were also fed up with the official rhetoric. No, not with the moth-eaten officialdom – by then even the dyed-in-the-wool theoreticians of socialist realism did not even dream of supporting the collective hallucinations (to quote the superb phrase of Alexander Yakimovich) of the art and the audience about the victory of the parallel Soviet reality. By that time elements of the official rhetoric were also imprinted on the ubiquitous austere style, which, as a counter to the hallucinogens of the grand Soviet style, referenced "the truth of life." Accordingly, the austerity of tone, the asperity of vision prevailed, and even the color schemes purported to literally convey "the down-to-earthness." Well, "the pill of truth" tasted bitter, that was its virtue; moreover, there were quite a few good, sound works created… Meanwhile, on the ontological plane, with respect to sorting out the general relations between art and life, even the neophytes like us felt that we were dealing with placebo: the ailments of the official art, which, in one way or another setting the tone for these relations, was unable to relinquish this tone-setting function, did not lend themselves to cure, and as it turned out later, were basically incurable… And as for "the truth of life"… First, the artists, like us, who were a target group of enlightened spectators, were under the sway of the national mythology of thematic painting. (And were not ready, did not see then – with respect to ontologisation of the relations between art and life – how one could escape from it to other forms of art activities – such as object art, installation, etc. – bypassing the form of direct pictorial representation). Besides, if I may reiterate, the problematics of the real, "down-to-earth" life was not a part of the teleology of this type of art (instead, it became pivotal for the conceptual art, which valorized the stuff of the Soviet everyday life using the relevant art forms negating the traditional pictorial mythology – Ilya Kabakov, Victor Pivovarov, Erich Bulatov and others). The ‘70s art (and we, the viewers offering compassion and co-authorship) believed that we knew everything about that comatose Brezhnevian life. To hell with it – may it rest in the realm of the powerful mega-narrative of the late Soviet joke… We were eager to learn what was behind "the little iron door in the wall" – a life individualized, spiritual, "ironic uninvolvement and frantic dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that is sad and hysterical, fragmented, desperate and at the same time the source of all insight and of the true, destructive and also creative, inspiration…" Isaiah Berlin, who wrote this, was actually talking about classic Romanticism… Oh well, wasn’t the elitist artistic consciousness permanently fixated on the romantic discourse… In spite of all the vulgarization it was subjected to by the Komsomol-land with its mythology centered around commissars and geological exploration, with its amateur song writing and performing…

Yes, from her first shows Bulgakova articulated – no, I would not call it elitism, for this word has been tainted by the modern world of glamour – but her chosenness. "To be clear to his contemporaries, a poet keeps his soul wide open", wrote mischievously Anna Akhmatova, whom you could hardly suspect of seeking to ingratiate herself with the audience or trading off the smallest inch of her poetic principles for the sake of increasing her readership. The "wide open" was something Bulgakova avoided from the very beginning. No, she was not building defenses between her art and the audience – no barriers, caltrops, trenches, etc. She was building some "backdrop" – enclosures, "trompe l'oeil"’s, phantom arches… For she was not waging war against the audience. She was filtering and sieving them.

Actually, the 1976 picture "Young Artists" laid everything bare. The world created by Bulgakova in this picture, if not entirely esoteric, is very secluded. The main characters are young artists (Bulgakova herself and her husband, a like-minded associate and, to some extent, at the beginner stage, teacher Alexander Sitnikov) stand rigidly in positions convoluted and, I would say, disjoined: obviously they are connected but not directly – the logic of quotidian gesture is always spare, whereas in this picture the pretentiousness, significativeness of the gesture is the key. The characters communicate in a convoluted indirect way: the man presses with one hand a paintbrush to his chest while showing a letter with another hand, and the woman, stretching her palm to take the letter, holds in her other hand a little mirror which reflects a work of art. And the reflection in the mirror is, so to say, edited: the direct reflection is overlaid with the profile of a man from a nineteenth-century portrait. Actually the allusion vested in the character can be easily transcribed if desired: it is the Russian primitive style favoured by the entire generation – Grigory Ostrovsky and his entourage. But should we transcribe it? Generally, should we decipher all the ciphers, allusions, symbols the picture is generously loaded with? Bulgakova readily references both visual primary sources and the symbolisms of different cultures. However, this does not mean that the message is in the cipher. I think that the message is in the possibility of deciphering as such, in the presence of a trope, in the presence of metaphors. I think all this amounts to the "backdrop" through which the audience is sieved and the search for the like-minded is conducted. This is an access code. So why did the communication become so convoluted (sometimes to the point of breaking down), whence originated this allegorical mindset?

Let me remind you of a factor that is one of the "binders" of the ‘70s generation’s creative consciousness. So, this professional consciousness comprises permanently, albeit not always with a sufficient depth of reflexivity, three components. First is the legacy of Mikhail Bakhtin, about whose influence on the ‘70s artists we will talk later. Second is popularity of the Latin American literature of magic realism, which sharply expanded the strategy of representation. Third is the scholarship of the Tartu school in the field of semiotics of behavior – in particular, Yuri Lotman’s analysis of the behavioral patterns of people living in Pushkin’s times. I do not know whether specifically Lotman’s study was the form-creator, but the significativeness of every gesture in the paintings of the ’70s artists was altogether self-conscious. Actually, everything was transparent. How did Leo Tolstoy put it? –- "by his walk and the first words he uttered, recognized him as a man of her own class…". "Her own class" was vitally important for Bulgakova. The awareness of the importance of tropes (ciphers, parables, allegories, etc.) was a password for the viewer, "access code" of a kind. (By the way, for those who do not understand the current historical context, this heightened semiotic load of gestures and poses can appear exaggerated or even pretentious – which was the case of several critics of next generation, who did not wish to read a text circumscribed within the mores and interests of a decade. And yet the philosopher Vadim Rudnev was right saying, "Text does not die within compound of the culture that created it because, first of all, unequal to its material substance, it is intentional, that is related to the consciousness that perceives it." The ability to comprehend current history is one of the instruments of this intentionality.)

Okay then, the audience is tested, filtered, won over; it consists of kindred spirits. What next? What does the artist share with her inner circle?

It should be mentioned that the ‘70s artists, and Bulgakova in particular, have been lucky to have good expounders. At different times she was written about by Alexander Yakimovich, Anna Yagodovskaya, Viktoria Lebedeva… They found adequate key words for describing the "70s artists" art practices: play, substitution, estrangement, reflection of reflection…

I think one can say today that even in her early works the very young artist who appeared to be more suited to guilelessly paint portraits of her family full of domestic warmth (in one of her interviews then she just happened to articulate guilelessness: "The smell of primed canvas is a marvelous, exciting instance, similar to that which happens when the curtain goes up in a theatre…") – this artist dared to take on one of the major myths of the national art. The myth of the Artist.

The national fate of this myth is quite interesting. It took root quite deeply in the subconscious of the Soviet state-governed art, which holds out a paradox: state-governed art means an art that has forever deferred the role of demiurge to the state, and to the state leaders who personify the state. It was not for nothing that Kazimir Malevich at a moment of crisis returned to this myth. In spite of what he had been doing all his life – dematerializing, derepresenting and demythologizing the visual, – he materialized in his 1933 "Self-Portrait" precisely as the all-powerful Artist. Hence the apparel of a doge, the symbols and emblems of suprematism, which had become signs of distinction, a majestic pose which pre-supposes the backing of an entire army and navy, never mind that it is just the army and navy of the Republic of Venetia… The artist who experienced a bankruptcy of the ambitions of a life-time, who was discarded by the state which for so many years he believed to be his state – this artist, as a last resort, brought forward the classic glorious mythology of the Artist who, supposedly, smilingly tells the truth to czars… The ordinary Soviet artist, meanwhile, was happy to paint self-portraits and portraits of his friends/fellows, understanding, however, where his place was: we are little people, private persons, or one of a service class. Sometimes we are distinguished with honours (Pavel Korin. "Kukryniksy"), right, but without any claims to providentiality accompanying the title of Artist… "Café Greco"?, a picture by Victor Ivanov, is interesting in this respect – a group of pensive artists, nothing artistic about their appearances, are seated at a table of the famous café in Rome. The liberal art critics filled hundreds of pages with writing striving to fathom what they think about: at what heights of what Quattrocento their souls of business travelers are soaring? No, it hardly occurred to Victor Ivanov then that the mission of the Soviet artist was ambiguous, although over the years – probably beyond his will – it was this ambiguity that came to the foreground.

And here a very young damsel dared to introduce herself and her husband precisely as Artists – with a capital "A" and in the providential sense. Exactly so – as liberal Artists, not out in the fields of a collective farm or in anticipation of the state awards, not in a domestic environment, but with a spirit soaring freely, face to face with the sublime, meeting with the great predecessors. Or else what was this all about – all these poses and gestures pregnant with meaning, all these prestigious exalted allusions to the great masters – what purpose did they serve? Why all these access codes – the challenge to our traditional focus on the masses and populism? For the sake of what did the audience, discarding its undeserving and unenlightened members, broke through to the inner circle? In a word, the time had come to share – to educate the audience in things Exclusively Beautiful. And at that final stage the more enlightened critics instinctively felt… no, not a hoax: I think Bulgakova as an artist is a stranger to irony. Nor was it a neglect of the Artist’s duties… It was just that these critics, and then the viewers felt… They felt before all that the author was not equal to the self-representation. That she hid behind the image she created and peeked out from behind it. Also, these critics, and then the viewers, sensed an alienation suffusing the space of the picture. The artist’s uninvolvement with the audience. The uninvolvement of characters in the picture – with each other. And the uninvolvement of both artists featured in the painting – with the romantic specialization of being the Artist.

One would think – hell, why? The state, personified by the tired old men, does not harass you: if you want to be an Artist – let it be so. The audience, too, as told above, is groomed. Speak! Lead!

As it turned out, that was not what the artist meant. The artist on principle evaded any relations with the state power. The artist had this ability (the array of professional instruments was obviously in place, the "contact" with things exalted and even transcendent was established, the great predecessors were lined up behind the back). But the artist did not want to, did not deem it necessary. The artist on principle evaded any relations with the state power.

That was an interesting stance. Highly personal, independently arrived at, this stance was undoubtedly prepared by the overall situation in the Soviet art in its wane. First of all, in the realm of relations with the state power.

If we look at the late Soviet art outside of the banal opposition "official – non-official", it becomes obvious that the state abruptly lost interest in the messages sent to it by the state-"owned" art.

Yes, the big personalities from the camp of liberals were rewarded "for craftsmanship", but no serious dialogue "to the point" was coming about. The state did not ask for help, for cooperation; it did not turn to them for support in a moment of hardship. There was no talk about delegating the power of the state! Paradoxically, the state displayed much more interest – albeit not without resentment – in real and potential dissidents, in all that left or threatened to leave the fields of official culture. It appeared that in fine art the state was heavily relying on primitive servilism and the observance of conservative ideological rituals. Although perfectly alright for the rank-and-file art workmen, this did not in the least suit big masters even from the camp of the state-aligned – and certainly there were big masters in that camp! So, the hermetically sealed edifice of academic art built by Andrey Mylnikov, Evsey Moiseenko, Dmitry Zhilinsky during the late Soviet period was precisely a response to the new position in the state system: altogether privileged, but without a trace of chosenness. To some extent (considering that all those masters, highly pampered by the regime, would never dream to forsake the benefits granted to them) it was a sort of escapism: since you assign to us a purely decorative or tokenistic role, we will withdraw ourselves into aesthetism, into service to the ideal, etc. Or – literally – "to the countryside" (many masters of the austere style withdrew themselves into the pochvennichestvo [return to the soil], as if awaiting to be summoned for great missions)…

There was an impression that the authorities would have been satisfied even with a more banal art practice containing no message other than the signals of obedience and observance of the rules of the game. This could not but have disoriented somewhat the elite of the late Soviet art. It may seem strange, but the non-official, non-conformist art too originated in no small degree due to the unsatisfied power ambitions. Already by the late 1950s the young artists had a lot of questions to ask the state authorities. And not only about "life in art", that is the questions of social status, distribution of social benefits and rewards, the freedom of display and sales of their artwork, etc. They demanded answers not so much to the questions of art’s day-to-day existence, but first of all – the questions of Existence with capital E. The authorities, however, refused to communicate with the artists directly, outside of the official established institutions of the Soviet culture. And when the authorities did speak directly – here we are reminded of the famous escapade of Nikita Khrushchev, the then leader of the Communist Party and the state, at an exhibition at the Manezh in 1962, – the communication was unmotivatedly hostile. And the situation of personal war with the regime, of the persecutions and even exile (in some cases provoked by the victims of the regime themselves) later began to suit the artists working in the modernist vein: after all, that was a dialogism of sorts. If you are exiled, this means that you have been listened to and turned down, well then, we will bring our personal stance and mythology to the West. (On the other hand, the postmodernist artists – first of all Ilya Kabakov and the conceptualists of the older generation, and then sotsartists – upset this atavistic seriousness distinguishing the relations with the authorities, imbuing their posture vis-à-vis the authorities with an individually unpredictable stamp or even wickedness.)

I believe this is the context – quite real, although the artist was hardly aware of it then – within which Bulgakova’s position was formed.

Obviously, she completely ignored the relations with the power. Her message was not for the eyes and ears of the authorities.

Nor was she satisfied with the seemingly carefully prepared, custom-made romantic role of the All-Powerful Artist.

In spite of all the historic arsenal of visual culture, she obviously was not a retro-artist – "an artist of backtracking", as Alexander Benois put it. (Neither at a serious level nor in the light, laughably showy version of the "Vermeer or, say, Cranach dropped by" variety mentioned above.)

She was an artist of the period of stagnation, and she was probably aware of it. I think she was not alone to understand that: Tatyana Nazarenko, Natalia Nesterova too had similar ideas about themselves and their times.

Nazarenko, in "Pugachev" and "Mutiny of Chernigovsky regiment", showed the exhaustedness of the late Soviet period by representing historical time – time used up, stagnant, having spent its passionarism.

Nesterova resorted to a method of eroding the modalities of the time into which the artist was hallucinatingly immersed: she seems to be with us, here and now, but no one including herself knows where she would be drifted "in search of time lost" or time that is yet to come…

Bulgakova had her own track. Flight from a time, naïve escapism are not for her.

Having realized that she lived in a time of stagnation, she started – probably intuitively at the beginning – to look for means to fashion a piece of art out of this socio-generational-biographical piece of fact. I believe that the described above means of suspension of communication that the artist uses (mimetic legibility of the imagery and, due to allegorical modality, a nearly Freemason-like reconditeness of some points) precisely constitute an approach route to this problematics. And so do the purely visual means too. She paints densely, "solidly", with all the characteristics of "accomplishedness" – from underpainting to fine hues and scumbles, and yet, the declared materiality is negated by the brittleness and fragility of the silhouettes. Likewise, the solid, old-fashioned three-dimensionality of the picture space, propped up by careful arrangement of viewpoints and specially introduced visual accents which enhance volume – little mirrors, lenses on the table, etc. – are subjected to internal inspection. Inspection through the use of the motif of slipperiness, imbalance, sliding. This is achieved both by adjustments of the perspective – the inklings of the reverse perspective – and situationally: the heavy table-cloth is ready to slip off dragging with itself the whole still-life set, an egg will roll off in a moment, etc.

As is always the case with Bulgakova, all this is carried through consistently through all of her early pieces. So it is a design, not an accident. Everything is presented in terms of opposition between materiality and dematerialization, reality and derealization. The opposition which is nothing other than a metaphor of presence in the world – "being-in-the-world", as philosophers say. The artist is not certain that her presence in the world here and now is the objective reality. Nor is she certain that the world itself is material and objectively exists. Doubting reality, forever testing it – the transition from a mild mistrust to a no less mild acceptance and a delicate hope – I believe this is where the basis of Bulgakova’s poetics lies.

In this respect, later family portraits with a child – from the early 1980s – are of interest. Here the resolute "sheltering" gesture becomes a "telling" one: the parents form with their palms a little box enclosing a space for the child. A safe space? Of course, safety is a natural desire for parents. But it is also a space of reality, the only space that they do not want to, and cannot, call in question…

The categories of uncertainty, mistrust, fragility have an existential basis, although they are also predicated on the specific socio-biographical situation of an artist in the wane of a certain historical spell of time (in the Soviet period. Accordingly, in the wane of the relevant aesthetics, the practices of art’s everyday existence, guild ethics.) It was at that time that Merab Mamardashvili uttered the phrase "horror of specifics". Bulgakova’s strategy is to evade any such specifics.

And here she could not do without theatre. Theatre attracted her as an ideal, a situationally motivated space of visualization of the metaphor of presence, of "being in the world" – the metaphor we have spoken about earlier. Reality and derealization are theatre’s core business; it is a part of theatre’s ontology. How can one not use this centuries-long arsenal, how can one turn down, to use Alexander Blok’s words, "a walking verity"? It would make sense to remind that precisely at that period the minds of the intelligentsia fell under the sway of Mikhail Bakhtin’s philosophy. Not that his philosophy was studied in-depth – study of Bakhtin is being "finished off" to the present day (See: M. Lipovetsky, I. Sandomirskaya. How not to "finish off" Bakhtin? – NLO (Novoye Literaturnoe Obozrenie – New Literary Review), 2006, N 3). But the two main vectors of Bakhtin’s writing, no matter how much its multiplicity of dimensions has been reduced, took hold of the minds of the generation: dialogism and the carnivalesque. Surely, Bakhtin’s "root taking" in the ‘70s had certain socio-political reasons. The non-stop monologue, permanently translated by the totalitarian state, albeit a weakening one, became a permanent irritant for all layers of the society (and we have mentioned above its sway over the mindset even of the artistic elite). Society was anxious for a dialogue! In a more narrow sense, another irritant was the hierarchical structure, the crustiness, "senility" of the late Soviet culture – the carnivalesque consciousness was viewed as at least a symbolical elimination of hierarchies. Bring in the carnivalesque! So, as they would say today, the discourse of the carnivalesque and dialogism played into the hopes of many. (The late Soviet carnivalesque was, in addition, legitimized in the eyes of the art censors by several shrewd critics who discovered in it parallels with the archetype of the post-Bolshevik revolution festivities.)

Bulgakova’s 1976 picture "Theatre. Actress Marina Neelova" is a flesh of the flesh of the hopes, passions and moods of that time. But how far is it from that typological, banal histrionics which inundated then not only the exhibitions but the public space as well: only very lazy muralists did not paint with distemper, or made mosaics featuring jesters or harlequins or, with the utmost guilelessness, simply theatre masks! The message of Bulgakova’s picture is not that "the world is a theatre". By the way, the message is not "about" Marina Neelova either, no matter how much affinity to her personality and her theatrical activities the artist may feel… The picture’s message, if I may reiterate, is "about" presence in the world, with all the hopes, doubts, phobias and complexes attached to it. The dialectics of reality and derealization permeates every component of the picture. Compositionally the painting is made with all the due nods to the rules of equilibrium and materiality: the picture is centered around the figure of the actress and the curtain pulled up to the middle, and braced with a heavy arc above. However, as Bulgakova always does, a category declared as essential seems to be negated: in the wings of the stage, in the archways there are still-lifes placed amidst the space with the illusory perspective, which is unfathomably deep. This negates both equilibrium and materiality. Materiality, in its turn, is "undermined" by a transcendent device: the curtain in the centre of the stage has a life of its own, as if there are ghosts making home within its pleats. This reminds of the surrealist picture by René Magritte "The Central Story", where a shawl cast over the face of a woman has an infernal life of its own. This would become Bulgakova’s favorite artistic device: a piece of fabric covering a canvas, a drapery, or even a night gown or a straightjacket ("Gogol") becomes a sign of alternate existence…

The stableness of the picture of the world that is theatre is questioned through the manner the actress is represented as well. The fragile, brittle-looking figure, with all the delicate portrait-ness of the image, is somehow not fit for holding up the space which is vast in contrast to her. Probably she "has a hold" over the audience, but she is not coping with the space of the stage: this space seems to be driving her out, pushing forward to the spectator. The actress is the artist’s alter ego, she is ready to come down from the stage to face her… And on the stage, there is a different life, obviously eluding not only "stage direction", but also the requirements of the unity of place, time and action. The symbolical becomes the hyper-real, the grotesque becomes the quotidian, the characters of varied stripes play individual games, and every "personage" commits an "excessive act"… The exchange of roles and substitution of characters, the doubles… (By the way, it was then that the characters which were to become permanent fixtures made their first appearance – jesters in red clothes, very special, typically Bulgakovian, although rich in numerous visual allusions – from Bosch’s beasts to the Harlequin in the style of Vassily Shukhaev and Alexander Yakovlev… And inevitably there is the bald-headed gentleman whose visual pedigree can be traced to the "Portrait of Ivan Grigorievich Cherevin" by a primitivist artist from Grigory Ostrovsky’s entourage.) Well, this picture brought into relief even more sharply Bulgakova’s poetics: trust of reality and mistrust of reality, which is rendered concrete in the ambivalence of the role of creator. The creator can "have a hold over the audience", but is unable to control beasts behind his/her back. The same goes for the creator-artist, who can sympathize with an actor, change places with him/her (hence the motif of pushing the actress from the stage – into the auditorium, to the artist) and even merge with him/her in body and spirit, but cannot control the stage. And how can one exercise control when the dramatis personae are imparted with the author’s own suppressed passions, hopes and phobias… Where is the artist’s place? In the auditorium? On the stage? Over the stage? Probably not "over the stage", though: the mythology of all-might of the Author was questioned by Bulgakova in her "Young Artists" still.

It should be noted that Bulgakova’s theatre is not a street theatre, a theatre for the masses. Bulgakova is different in this respect from Tatyana Nazarenko, who, seeing in the carnivalesque a demotic element, is ready to plunge into it so deeply as to have body contact (later she would show herself, quite in line with the theory of the grotesque body raping and being raped, as a victim of carnival.) In Bulgakova’s works, there always is a distance. She would not walk, like one would into a river, into the free-flowing, epiphanic stream of the carnival. The moments of mental reflection are what matters to her: identifying role functions, symbolically exchanging meanings. Why does the "man in green" (in fact, the traditional Pushkin’s and Mozart’s "man in black"), a re-incarnation of the already mentioned Cherevin, nearly breaches the psychological defenses of the kind-hearted and beloved man – namely, husband, who is artist ("Conversation", 1977)? Why are the faces of the participants of the pantomime, which, one would think, is a symbol-based art form by definition, so psychologically textured and nearly recognizable ("Buffoons", 1979)? Why does the good old business of drinking ("Feast meal under the moon", 1980), done by characters which, originating from different time strands, are also somnambulistically self-absorbed, becomes a dangerous enterprise fraught with a poison in the glass, evoking our favorite subject of "genius and villainy"?

Bulgakova’s theatre certainly has more kinship to the intelligentsia’s dramatic theatre. Her borrowings from Bakhtin, besides the emblematically medieval backdrops, include the permanent vector of death, thanatological inflections present in the action. However, theatre is not the most important thing either; all these rehearsals, performances and buffooneries do not belong in the realm of theatre alone.

They exist in the context of a process of derealization of the real and return to the real, which is vitally important to her. It is not always possible to exercise control over the process, and when it gets loose, the emblematic becomes too estranged, vanishes forever, sets for free flotation… Such things interest me less. Of more interest are the instances when the process of transition from the real to alternate existence and back comes about. Then you comprehend all this Bulgakovian diablerie and epiphanies: it has a psycho-compensatory character. The artist tries on her signature characters her own anxieties, doubts, cultural traumas. Then she delegates it to them. And eventually she takes it back as a proof of her proper identity. (The 1983 triptych "Family" is interesting when looked at through this interpretative lens: I think that this picture narrativizes the instance of struggle against one’s own devils: there is nothing private around, the characters alertly watch what is going on outside, and the artist’s instruments are likened to weapons – a stiletto, an armour… And even the child holds the toylike palette like a shield.)

Interestingly, the conceptualists at that period used the techniques of transfer, delegation of "the right to speak". They delegated the narration to the numerous "narrators", such as Sitting-in-the-Closet Primakov or Looking-Through-the-Window Arkhipov (Ilya Kabakov), or to the "dramatis personae" or "agents" (Victor Pivovarov, later), who symbolized the topographical and spatial situation of positioning in the world. But they insisted on the impersonality of their experience, which made the juncture of the transfer akin to game-playing or a purely textual instance. Bulgakova’s is a personal experience, non-ironic and non-game-playing – an old-fashioned experience of living and feeling one’s time. And notably, during a period of stagnation and, accordingly, of everlasting questioning of reality and her presence in it ("Am I real // And will death really come?" – Ossip Mandelstam).

Perhaps this is the source of the viscous, psychotic persuasiveness of Bulgakova’s imagery – the parables without the moral, the processualness of the estranging, searching glance, mistrustful and seeking trust…

With a vision like hers, Bulgakova could not have ignored Gogol – of course, her personal Gogol, a visionary with the most complicated relations with reality who "annuls", as the philosopher Valery Podoroga put it, whole layers of it. Bulgakova’s Gogol, whom she represents in his later years, is ill, phantasmic, convoluted like a corkscrew and resembles a whirlwind… The artist visualizes in Gogol’s image the main reference points of his poetics: spinning, whirling ("The town, which had hitherto seemed to be asleep, was lashed as by a whirlwind!"), a whirlwind of gossip, a whirlwind of ball ("everything is flying on and away in a fast gallopade"), and finally, the whirlwind-like chaos ("I continue to work, i.e., sketch on paper the chaos from which Dead Souls is to emerge"). Usually the illustrators and artists painting Gogol’s world hold on to its material, mimetic aspect. This is a long-standing tradition, dating nearly as far back as Pavel Fedotov’s times. (I believe that Bulgakova has a precursor – Nathan Altman, who in his illustration for the cover of "St. Petersburg Stories" represented Gogol emerging from a blizzardous snow swirl.) They seem not to understand that Gogol articulates the notions of bizarre and weird no less frequently than the notions of naturalistic or true-to-life. In all of Bulgakova’s pictures with Gogol themes the writer is moveless or nearly moveless, and yet the element of convolution, whirling or corkscrew-like movement at the basis of the visualization implies an anterior or suspended dynamics. At the same time, there is the theme of bind – straitjacket, immobility, death. I think that Bulgakova has discovered yet another important reference point of Gogol’s poetics: the force of likelihood which has the force of the real, an overwhelming mimicry. Valery Podoroga, who studies the subject of mimicry of animate and inanimate nature in Gogol’s works, quoted the following typical passage: "…at [the] window, sat a sbiten seller, with a samovar of red copper, and a face as red as his samovar. At a distance it might have even been supposed that two samovars were standing in the window, had not the man had a beard as black as pitch". Podoroga sees in this an effect of non-likeness in likeness, in other words – an effect of metamorphosis. In Bulgakova’s visual language this question was raised already in the late 1970s (in her 1978 "Gogol") by way of likening three figures: the image of Gogol himself, in a dressing gown; a straitjacketed man; and the old acquaintance – a reincarnation of Cherevin. The artist does not achieve a full likeness because all three characters have individual faces, and yet their rhythms, movements, "behavior in space" are alike. The visualization is focused on the process of metamorphoses (or at least the possibility thereof): Gogol can well stand in for the madman in a straitjacket, while the faux Cherevin in green clothes can stand in for the writer. (By the way, Gogol’s contemporaries remember Gogol "in a green tail-coat with long coat-tails". See: Vladimir Veresaev. Gogol in life.) And the other way round. Search for realities and transition from one reality to another – subjects that have always engaged and involved Bulgakova – are manifested in an increasingly more self-aware utilization of the technique of "autonomous details". It has been noted already that the motif of cloth (drapery, coverlet, etc.) in Bulgakova’s paintings alludes to alternate existence, implies different realities (in the "Theatre of Marina Neelova", for instance). In 1978 "Gogol" this autonomy is controllable: the cloth on the easel generates a distinctly directed search for meanings. Undoubtedly, the picture references "The Mysterious Portrait", the story with great appeal for any artist. Next comes a figurative support for the motif of a straitjacket – as a reminder of the evanescence and transience of "actual reality". And finally, there is the theme of death, the custom of covering mirrors in the home of a deceased person… And this is only the beginning… On the whole, the series that the artist worked on for many years seems to be amazingly in line with Gogol’s poetics. And in line with the problematics of the time which had a strong Gogol touch to it. First of all the sensation grimly summed up by Gogol himself: "Death defeats a stale world".

The stale late Soviet world could not have left artists undefeated as well. Yes, some, including Bulgakova, managed to express the crisis of this world through a system of allegories. But the process lasted way too long. The stagnation of the regime had little heroic or grand about it. To the contrary, the material aspect, the everyday life were giving more accurate signals about what was going on than what used to think of itself as High Art. It was not for nothing that the requiem for the regime was played out by the mega-narrative of the late Soviet joke (anecdote) and the art forms such as sotsart that became adept at working with it. Bulgakova’ art, intricately structured, perfectionist and fairly inaccessible, seemed to have stopped stirring souls. And referentiality too: suspension of communication that the artist so often resorted to as a meaning- and form-producing technique turned into reality of her relationships with the audience. The increasingly more complicated phantasms, the heavy-handed symbolism, the obsessive dreamlike imagery were losing their existential contact with the sense and the feeling. Bulgakova has always been adept at manipulating realities, "making home" either in one or another of them. But in her ‘80s works, in all those "Dwarfs", "Feasts of the thirsty", "Metamorphoses" this sense of the author’s presence is weakened, and another term of Bakhtin – transgredience (outsideness) – would seem the proper definition for the artist’s position. Bulgakova appears to be obviously dissatisfied with her relations with "reality". And she is probably aware of it herself – her pictures repeatedly feature a female character in a red dress, wearing a pair of round spectacles with reflective glasses – red, yellow, etc.: is this woman an illusionist, an artist, a daughter? This pair of spectacles is a sign of special vision. More precisely, it signifies that the phantasmagoria, the carnivalesque, the illusiveness are not the properties of the mind, but a setting of the viewing system. That it is predicated on instruments. In the Soviet time, the term "formalism" had currency in art. It was applied to different things, most often inappropriately, but on the whole the meaning was clear: estrangement from substantive and emotional aspects along with a careful treatment of form. I think that given these connotations, this term can be applied to Bulgakova’s art of the late 1980s. The formalistic component was growing: Bulgakova was building an increasingly more hermetic, starch-collared, estranged art.

The world, meanwhile, had been unmoored and set in motion, gathering pace at that. The position of the ‘70s generation had changed. The theatre of phantasmagoria, circumlocution and historical allusions had been moved aside, there had been no one around with enough time on one’s hands to read into the metaphorics of the adventure of the grotesque body – simpler solutions were in circulation. To top it off, the new generation of critics, fighting for the place under the sun, criticized the ‘70s generation for "having been allowed by the authorities": indeed, that generation was not into defying the regime directly. And the new critics did not care about the inner dramas and the anxieties over disconnect with reality. Bulgakova, in fact, had two alternatives to choose from: to continue "distancing herself", creating an increasingly more refined and inaccessible art, or to look for new options. At first it appeared that she chose "departure" and even narrativized her choice in her 1994 picture "Conversation. The Blind." The blind crowd apparently included her fellow countrymen, who did not understand the drama of the artist, as well as Westerners, who by that time became the main consumers of Bulgakova’s art. And even the artist’s characters, if not blind, were obviously unsociable: looking fixedly at the viewer they did not see him, withdrawing into themselves. Hence, in the mid-1990s’ works ("Black fan" and others), glasses over the heroine’s eyes – this time, black eyeglasses. On the whole, these pieces, wrought so exquisitely that the artist appears to be flaunting her craftsmanship, referenced the experience of theatre constructivism in their reliance on the dynamics of differently-directed planes and the capacity of colour fills to cut short this dynamics when needed – in a word, they flaunted the virtuosity, which appeared to be challenging the "low" art practices, perceived by the artist as a rampancy of amateurism. (I think these pieces were marked by perhaps unconscious associations with the invocations of the geometric tradition practiced by the artists from an entirely different circle – Vladimir Nemukhin and Edouard Shteinberg.) The 1997 piece "Geometry" is a transitional work: it combines geometrism with an esoteric symbolism favoured by Bulgakova – she appears simply not to be able to close the door on allegorism. But in 2004 "Nostalgia" the symbolical and the theatrical exist already as a rudiment: the surface in the low section of the picture is pleated, reminding that it is made of cloth – and this reminder, in turn, invokes the theme of theatre.

The "Archaisms" series is free from any "rational" associations: it is a pure, objectless experience of geometrically treated colours of varied intensity. And why, indeed, archaisms? And why is the series titled "Nostalgia"? This is probably a nostalgia for the simpleness of primordial creation, when firmament was cut in simple slices, colour was born from light, and in production of form you sensed the simplest archetypes that had not lost their primordial meaning – steps? gate? Perhaps because later pieces from the series – "Psalms" and "Gravitation" – feature matter begotten from chaos. Bulgakova sees two tracks of this germination. One is connected with some laws of physics: in "Gravitation" form condenses becoming more or less regular and repetitive. On the other track – pursued in "Psalms" – word is more important. And only in one detail – a diagonal line scoring out a circle – the artist dares to remind of the old literary connotations of the image: this diagonal is nothing other than the staff from the Bible.

Once Harold Rosenberg saw in abstract paintings a "gesture of liberation" before all. Metaphysics was included in the list of disciplines one was to get liberated from. But not for a Russian artist: in Bulgakova’s pieces, both amorphous coagulations of matter and its regularly shaped blocks are equally suffused with an inner, Rothkovian metaphysical glow… (Well, it was probably not for nothing that Mark Rothko always remembered about his Russian lineage). Next stage (the series "Names") is demiurgic: from plasma state, from lava and suspended particles of colour the artist sculpts the heads of humans. This is the return of the mimetic, the anthropological. Of course, all this is archetypes, without psychological nuances. But they represent powerfully sculpted blocks with a pronounced, as anthropologists say, psycho-optical relief. And if names are given according to characters, then yes, here we have the beginnings of characters. These primeval people have deserved names.

Well, this world is astonishingly different from Bulgakova’s world of the 70s-80s. That was a refined world burdened with the cultural codes and full of mistrust of reality and uncertainty of one’s place in it. Accordingly, that world was fragile, brittle, a spectacle. This world is captured in the period of formation, development – pre-reflexive, tactile, roughly processed. How did the great writer put it? – "Death defeats stale world". Well, both worlds of Bulgakova turned out to be mobile, inter-relating, "taking off". And therefore – live.

Alexander Borovsky

head of the Department of Modern Art State Russian Museum, St.Petersburg