There is almost nothing I hate more in the world of art writing than the continuing misuse of the word ‘iconic’. Almost everything that is now churned out of studios and factories is described as an ‘iconic’ work by yet another ‘iconic’ young artist, despite him only being known for fifteen minutes and his art not even seen for that long.
Only certain works deserve the title of ‘icon’. Only certain works make the transition from piece of art to an instantly recognisable symbol representative of a certain mood, time, culture, context. Only certain places offer the fertile artistic environment needed to create this generation’s – this century’s – artistic icon. Places like Russia.
A country with a deeply intimate understanding of the art of the icon, Russia (and its predecessors) spent almost the whole of the twentieth century producing works that transformed themselves into symbols of the disorientating changes the entire modern world had endured. The Russian painter Dmitri Vrubel undoubtedly stands among this number. His ubiquitous mural My God, help me to survive this deadly love was not only seen by everybody whose eyes were fixed on the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s, but came to be instantly recognisable as the face of sharp, public satire in the world of a divided Germany. The image of the two politicians sharing a fraternal, celebratory kiss became the face of the repressive Communist Europe behind the Iron Curtain. A truly ‘iconic’ work.
Vrubel, Dmitri. My God, help me to survive this deadly love. 1990. East Side Gallery, Berlin.
Ten years later, Vrubel again revealed his Warholian instinct for iconography and fame, combining the unmistakable face of Vladimir Putin with the pop culture medium of the celebrity calendar. The Twelve Moods of Putin depicts exactly that: twelve paintings of the President of Russia in Vrubel’s and his wife Viktoria Timofeyeva’s hyper-realistic style.
This is more than just a series of portraits of a famous political face. Vrubel and Timofeyeva reconstruct the relationship between content and form that made My God… such an overwhelming success. Instead of repeating the graffiti style of the earlier work – a medium that reflected the age of public protest, spray paint, and the rise of commercial street art – the choice of the calendar demonstrates a clever understanding of the world of millennium PR and celebrity merchandise.
As well as a witty use of an innovative medium, the artists also skilfully blend Pop Art with Russian culture. In particular, the painting of Putin in his judo outfit is reminiscent of Soviet Socialist Realist art, a genre in which sport and physical fitness were subjects to be joyfully celebrated and cultivated. The close focus on Putin’s face recalls the eulogising ‘leader’ portraits of Russia’s immediate past; the reproductions of Stalin, the omnipresent dictator of a vast and varied country.
However, instead of simply placing Putin in line with his earlier counterparts, Vrubel and Timofeyeva humanise their icon.
They portray twelve emotions of a man, rather than twelve pictures of a ruler. He is famous, he is iconic, he is instantly recognisable, but he is still a human being that can experience boredom, disgust, amusement. Gone is the official political portraiture of the age of cultural censorship. Gone is the world of the leader as god. In its place is a carefully crafted study of the subtle mood changes of a powerful and influential man. This is not just a Pop Art statement on the new political celebrity, this is a reminder that however powerful and influential, Putin is still a man. This is a reminder that those we detest or adore are also human.The genius of this work is not in its satire, but in the question it leaves in its wake: what makes a man into an icon?
Vrubel, Dmitri and Timofeyeva, Viktoria. The Twelve Moods of Putin. 2001. A5 Gallery, Russia.