The colourful exhibition HE+SHE, featuring works by Tatyana Nazarenko & Igor Novikov, opened at Galerie Shchukin, just off the Champs-Elysées, on April 27 and runs until June 14. Our International Editor Simon Hewitt reports.

When Igor Novikov and Tatyana Nazarenko married in July 2014, glamorous images of their celebratory boat-trip along the River Moscova floated around the world. They joined the Russian tradition of artistic couples that stretches back to Oskar Rabin and Valentina Kropivnitskaya – and forward, via the Kabakovs, to Dima Goryachin/Dasha Delaunay and Ivan Plusch/Irina Drozd.

Tatyana and Igor may have been a little older than their colleagues when they tied the romantic knot but the humour, élan and candy-crush colours of their paintings reek of eternal youth.

Look a bit closer, mind you, and the humour veers to irony and a lurking tragedy inherited from Hieronymous Bosch.

Tatyana is also the heiress to the longstanding Russian – and Soviet – affection for Figurative art. Her canvases are peopled with characters whose faces look almost simplistic, even anonymous, yet are so deftly painted they convey an encyclopedic range of expressions. In many of her works a story is clearly unfolding, but we have no clue as to its origins or dénouement.

Igor’s figures are expression-less. His faces are either blank ovals that nod to Malevich, or pictograms that evoke Keith Haring or road signs – an obsession Igor shares with French artist Jean-Pierre Raynaud. On the rare occasions that Igor paints the human body (with no little skill), he either spoofs the work of other artists or shrouds the face in a limp white cloth. Igor’s paintings tell stories, too – but via gestures, not expressions.

Large-scale works by both artists are handsomely displayed at Galerie Shchukin and the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. Sharp spotlighting and sober grey walls showcase their canvases to stunning effect, with each artist granted two walls apiece in the gallery’s two ground-floor rooms on Avenue Matignon, opposite Christie’s Paris HQ.

The April 27 vernissage attracted the artistic élite of the French capital – headed by the legendary Oleg Tselkov in a natty red flat-hat, looking fit as a fiddle at 82.

The He + She image par excellence is Igor’s 2014 Wägitalersee, starring a rapacious centaur (Igor) brandishing a topless brunette (Tatyana).

The couple appear again a bit lower down – in a rowing-boat on the Swiss lake after which the picture is named. Tatyana is naked but Igor wears a red jumper. His face is covered by his hallmark shroud: love, so to speak, being blind. Three red figures with ladders bestride the Alpine background like Goya colossi, adding a third layer of narrative to a picture that is otherwise a placid, vaguely abstract array of unruffled pinks, greens and watery blue.

The Swiss setting offers an escape from the airlessness of the Russia in which Igor rose to prominence a decade after Tatyana as a denizen of the rebellious artists’ squat on Furmanny Pereulok. With its red showers, glowering skies and brutally applied black and grey background, Good Morning Moscow (1993) typifies his mood of the period.

Does a sprinkling of post-Communist hope infuse Igor’s Green Dream of 1991: an artist in love with his easel, amidst a restrained but this time soothing palette of green, white, brown and black?

Igor’s later Russian works are sunnier but more sarcastic – take Golden Autumn (2007) with its parade of upside-down drunks, or Evening Bell (2016) with its bottle-slurping figures gliding upriver backwards.

Booze is a common He & She theme. Each of the three nudes in Tatyana’s Lady Company (2007) is enjoying a glass of beer; the three (clothed) figures in her matching Male Company slurp vodka from plastic cups, as three women skip past behind – two ludicrously naked, the third clutching a bottle of her own.

Tatyana’s snow-scenes blend Kustodiev jollity with Brueghelian ribaldry and vodka-swilling down-and-outs. Three boozy Bogatyrs clatter through the slush into her Farewell to Winter (2011) where, amidst a forest of fur hats, one woman is licking an ice-cream and another selling high-heeled shoes.

The Bible is another source of Nazarenko irreverence. Her Salome brandishes a plattered head in bra and mini-skirt: she looks like a belly-dancer. We see no sweating, stumbling Christ Carrying the Cross (2016) – but a tearful female in lilac robes… the first Feminist? Identification (2015), with its black-sheeted corpse, reduces The Deposition to the anonymity in which it was probably carried out. Women & The Birds (2016) is a startling vision of a jet-haired, Tatyana-like sacrificial nude surrounded by pink-skinned angels with black wings. One peers over her with a nose like a woodpecker.

Tatyana first made a name for himself as a Non-Conformist Amazon who, alongside Natalya Nesterova, Xenya Nechitailo and Olga Bulgakova, braved a Brezhnevian browbeating to take part in Moscow’s renegade Exhibition 23 in 1980. She appeared as a Soviet magazine cover-girl and developed a Tinkerbell gift for eternal youth, becoming a muse to other artists and sculptors and the apasionara of Russia’s Second Avant-Garde.

Her stylistic influences span the centuries. One of the market-women in Fish Ranks (2016) has the Picasso gaze of a Demoiselle d’Avignon. The four satanic creatures eyeing their Entree (2015) – a large plateful of lettuce, hands and feet – are part Bosch, part Maxim Kantor. Nazarenko switches seamlessly from savagery to serenity: the swathes of shimmering flesh in Autumn (2013) have the statuesque feel of Puvis de Chavannes.

Tatyana, at her best, reduces the visual to essentials. The Game (2014) is a macabre vision of Salome’s head surrounded by semi-naked females: what matters is the intricate interplay of legs and feet on a shock-contrast red-and-black ground. In Killing Of Babes (2015) the cheap, criss-cross beams of a verandah awaiting its glass roof mimic the odd angles of lifeless limbs. Her enormous Destination shows a toppled statue, gorily pink like a sliced pig, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers – some shielding their eyes, some snapping away.

Her Holiday in Wengen features two men in Swiss folk costumes, sporting oversize cow-bells and ridiculous wedding-cake hats. Switzerland is Igor’s adopted homeland and has swiftly become another bond between him and Tatyana – no surprise given her painterly affinity with Félix Vallotton.

Her Night in Appenzell (2015), a work of rare chromatic subtlety, has sober-clad villagers whose blue jeans and jackets are echoed by blue shadows falling across the snow; the yellow-metal cow-bells echo the bright-lit windows in the wooden huts behind.

The cow-bells in both pictures are so enormous they would fell an ox. Us humans, implies Tatyana, are the real beasts of burden.

Who knows which is which, and who is who?

 

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