Artists on a pilgrimage

September 21, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

When Sergei Daniel went painting for a day in Federal Hill Park, he turned his back on the Inner Harbor and set up his easel so that he could peer through a gap in the trees to a slice of a view of the Domino Sugar factory.

To an artist who has spent his life in the old Russian city of St. Petersburg, it was new, of course, but in some undefinable way familiar as well. He was looking at it as a door -- a door to a bigger space, to an ocean, even, somewhere farther out there. Through this door, he hoped, there might be another clue to the way the world is put together.

Mr. Daniel was delighted to learn that the Domino Sugar sign is a landmark to Baltimoreans, one of the beacons in the mental landscape of the city's residents.

"You see, I was drawn to it, and I was right," he said.

Mr. Daniel is one of seven Russian painters who have worked together for 25 years and are in Baltimore this week as they wind up an American tour. (An exhibit of their work will run through Oct. 21 at the IBM building downtown). They call themselves the Hermitage Group, because for years they honed their art through studies and interpretations of the European masters in the great St. Petersburg museum.

Their aim was to restore a classical tradition that they felt had been lost in Soviet times, a tradition of bringing a whole worldview to bear in a single painting, in a single moment. As young painters in the 1970s, they would take, perhaps, an eye from a Frans Hals painting, a corner of a Poussin, a figure in a Rembrandt -- and make it their own, working it and reworking it. For their devotion to the great painters of Europe, they were harassed, arrested, ousted from jobs by a Communist regime that demanded artistic conformity. They were an underground school, because they took the past seriously.

"It was very funny and very terrible at the same time," Mr. Daniel said. It didn't matter that Picasso's paintings were hanging in the Hermitage; they were officially unsuitable for schools, and so Mr. Daniel once lost his job as a teacher for making the mistake of talking about them in front of a class that included the son of a KGB officer.

But that time has gone, the old restrictions have vanished, and now Mr. Daniel was standing in South Baltimore finding something transcendent in an old brick factory: "It's like a remembrance of my city. It's like seeing, in a new face, the face of an old friend."

The Russians have a word -- "toska" -- that means not just melancholy, but a melancholy you can savor and appreciate. It was just such a feeling that had settled over the park this week. Vladimir Obatnin, who was working on a landscape of the park itself, was dazzled but saddened by the brilliant sunlight.

"I have to use all new colors in my palette," he said. "It's sunny even in the autumn here -- it's very strange. In Petersburg we have only 80 sunny days a year. It's important for artists to see new light, but our pearly light, our grays, many different grays -- they're very beautiful, too."

Mr. Obatnin said the ships' horns reminded him of home, and this made him fonder of Baltimore and nostalgic for Petersburg.

America, said Mr. Daniel, trying to analyze his sense of being a stranger in a strange land, is a culture in "eternal movement."

Squinting at a freighter unloading sugar at the Domino plant, he said, "To me it is a reason to create a very different kind of space in painting. Many stops -- fragments. Maybe it's painting more in time than in space."

Mr. Daniel and Mr. Obatnin went to Dulaney High School in Timonium Tuesday to talk with students. They described how they and the other members of their group believe that something went wrong with art in the early years of this century -- that it became disconnected from nature, and from the heart. Art, they believe, no longer tries to reflect the whole world. The artist isn't even central anymore -- that role has fallen to the art dealer, or, even worse, the art historian.

The Hermitage Group painters want to reanimate the old traditions. "Most important to us," said Mr. Daniel, "is to renew this connection between hand, mind, soul, heart."

Their mentor in the early, dangerous days, was an older painter named Grigory Dlugach. He told them that a good painting could be read like a great novel. "Our teacher said to us, our main task is to open our eyes," said Mr. Daniel.

America has been a good exercise in that. The seven artists, who have been selling paintings through galleries to support an art school they now run in St. Petersburg, and doing some teaching as well, began this summer in California. "The ocean! We didn't imagine!" said Mr. Daniel.

They spent a few weeks in the Colorado Rockies. "We could see new structures there, we could see how our world was built," he said.

Baltimore was something different again.

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