About the series «Old Plodders» by Dmitry Kustanovich

The heroes of this series of paintings are the objects of inanimate nature, namely, vehicles: locomotives, helicopters, planes, cars. On what grounds does this choice of the paintings' subjects stand? Why did these means of conveyance rivet the attention of the painter so much that he dedicated a whole series to them? What artistic and philosophical sense does he put into these images? These are the key question the author of this essay plans to answer.

Images of machinery in painting are quite rare. It should be noted that machines (mechanisms) are not common to stir emotional reactions in the painter. If on such a sphere of creative activity as design, technical progress had an obvious impact, then in the field of painting, at first glance, nothing has changed. A rare painter is able to grasp and glorify the beauty of the mechanistic realm more so express his own thoughts and feelings through these images, reveal the problems of our time by means of artistic language. This theme was commenced and praised by artists of the twentieth century (and even earlier — impressionists, who often painted railway stations and trains), but has not exhausted itself until now. Today, unfortunately, this theme is almost consigned to oblivion.  Advancing era of the digital world made the mechanics fade into the background, the mechanical world seems outdated and is perceived as something not relevant.  That is why the appeal to these images by the painter Dmitry Kustanovich is so important. How do the «old plodders» feel today? How do we perceive these mechanisms? What impact do they have on us? What place do their images occupy in our view of the world?

The history of the portrayal of mechanisms can be counted from the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci. However the ones who became seriously interested in images of the machine world for the first time were Italian futurists. Unlike the impressionists for whom the theme of industrial world was not pivotal, the Italian futurists created their own framework of imagery exactly around the theme of the technical progress. Through the images of different mechanisms (Dynamo-machines, projectors, aero machines, etc.) they wanted to convey the atmosphere of modernity. They created a true technical utopia in art. This new aesthetics praising the beauty of mechanisms seemed to have deprived the world of poetry and mystery.  Italian futurists created an artistic image of the real industrial world. However, while admiring the images of machinery, they left the real human with his thoughts and feelings outside of this world. According to this project, a human was also supposed to turn into an uninterruptedly functioning mechanism. The futurists defined a program of anti-psychologism in art. Today, it is followed by many contemporary artists.  

It is important to say that this program did not take root on the ground of Russian art. Russian artists of the early twentieth century followed the Italians and paid tribute to this theme, but perceived their task in a completely different way. New technical world appears in their paintings as the world capable of transforming a human, giving him new opportunities, improving, supplementing (but not changing) his nature. This topic was addressed by Goncharova, Malevich, Larionov and many others. They depicted electric current flowing through wires, lathe machines, aeroplanes controlled by man and making him a kind of «heavenly creature» , etc.

The real heyday of the industrial world theme takes place in Soviet art, but the world created by the artists turns out to be somewhat illusory. The images of socialist realism should have been able to tell an ordinary man in simple and accessible form about the successes of the USSR in various fields, including industry and industrial construction. Images of the technical world were necessarily included in the context of a well-known socio-political program. In them, the viewer should not seek revelation and reproduction of the artist's personal feelings.

Now let's address the series of the paintings «Old Plodders» by Dmitry Kustanovich. First, it is important to note that Kustanovich depicts not modern cars, but Soviet ones, and this is one of the principal ideas of this series. Not modern, expensive cars become the characters of this story, but old Soviet cars that almost outlived their time but still able to be valuable and interesting objects. It is as if Kustanovich addresses these heroes of the past with personal questions, conducts a trustful dialog with them, an unhurried conversation, which the viewer can also join.

When portraying objects of Soviet industry, the painter does not seek to imitate the aesthetics of Soviet art, nor can we talk about borrowing its content program. These are completely new images incorporated in new framework of imagery. This is particularly important: we get an opportunity to figure out how this theme was unfolded in Soviet times and how it is being unfolded today. The period of industrialization has passed but the heroes have stayed. This idea of the painter — to portray the old plodders is in itself very interesting and timely.

If avant-gardists, when glorifying machines, rationality of the technical world, anti-psychologism, brought the most radical characteristics also to the paintings such as destruction, breakdown of rhythm, creation of painterly music of noise, then the works of Kustanovich cannot be called epatering either in terms of form or content. On the contrary, these images narrate the eternal truths so the dominance of the formal side could not have been allowed. Kustanovich uses a very subtle coloration, the composition is simple and clear, the rhythm is correct, and in general the painter does not tend to radicalize the art form.

The program of anti-psychologism also turns out to be completely alien to the painter. In the works under study, Kustanovich does not consider questions about the benefits and harms of technology, completely different aspects are key here.

It is considered today that «technical» is an antonym of the concept of «pictorial», while «rational» is an antonym of «emotional». Kustanovich completely breaks down this stereotype. Technical devices that in their essence are rather prosaic objects, become the embodiment of certain emotional experiences for him. He animates them, gives them their own temperament, character, peers into their nature and tries to understand and unravel their fate. This is where the deep philosophical meaning of this series lies. It is as if Kustanovich tells a story of each of his heroes. The pace of their stories is very slow, melodious. You can imagine the voices of these characters as the voices of older people, and their «stories» as memories of bygone days.

In the memories and stories of these heroes, the heroic theme is distinctly heard. Undoubtedly, we are talking not about regular machines, but those that went through ordeals, whose heroic path was filled up with hardships. Hence, the theme of the Second World War naturally arises. Almost all the images in this series are related to this theme.

Let us examine each of the works in detail.

Художник Дмитрий Кустанович. «Паровоз». Из серии «Старые труженики»Dmitry Kustanovich. «Steam locomotive». From the series «Old Plodders»

The painting «Steam Locomotive» deserves special attention. It is very interesting in composition. In this painting one can feel the painter's desire to capture the very construction, «the structure» of this machine, to illustrate the complexity of its internal constitution. Metaphorically this may be comprehended as the «complexity of inner world» of this artwork's hero. This is a kind of portrait, moreover painted from a very close distance, extremely honest and truthful. Just as realistically painted wrinkles in a portrait of a person reveal character, personality traits and temperament, so here through an accurate and detailed transfer of the internal structure of this mechanism, the painter seems to strive to convey its history, it's character, tell us it's fate. The painter purposely leaves certain parts of this machine beyond the limits of the painting in order to show the main thing in close-up, to explicate the very essence of the image.

Attention is drawn to the highlighted contrast and the ratio of shapes – rectangular and round. The painter admires the beauty of the proportions of this mechanism, in which everything is expedient, everything is indispensable and has its purpose. The «old plodder» is likened to a working man, diligent, with a clear mind, a pure conscience and an unshakable will.

The coloring of this artwork can be characterized as discreet. Terracotta and olive shades create a sense of the patina of time lying on this machine. Shades of blue and green shimmer and create an impression of movement in the painting. In terms of the color scheme this artwork is realistic, though not in the traditional but in a special sense of the term. The painter seeks to capture not so much the old paint coating unevenly peeled off the surfaces and rust-eaten elements but rather the process of «ageing», «withering» itself of this once young and gorgeous vehicle. Therefore the painter generalizes some points, paints sometimes abruptly, sometimes «blurry», creating a sense of real life in the painting, which does not stop, which is an eternal process. It is impossible to imagine or behold life in clear contour because a continuous shift of happenings, points of view, angles creates an endless stream of visual information, which can have only comparatively reliable expression through the transfer of impressions since it is impossible to record reality fully and in all details.

It is interesting to note that the painting of the same name, which is not included in the series «Old Plodders» and painted in a different, more impressionistic manner, has a different meaning. The painting «Steam Locomotive» portrays rather not an image of a particular mechanism but a more generalized and abstract one — an image of times. Rushing at full steam, the locomotive embodies the non-stop running of time, perhaps embodies the image of fate itself. Here it appears very formidable, stately, this operating mechanism seems to mean danger.

Hence, the same object may be presented in entirely different images while there will be a certain connection between them. To find such an object for a painter is a real miracle. It can be compared to a good actor who can play diverse roles in the spectacles of his director.

Художник Дмитрий Кустанович. «Вертолет». Из серии «Старые труженики»Dmitry Kustanovich. «Helicopter». From the series «Old Plodders»

The painting «Helicopter» from the «Old Plodders» series depicts the MI-8 helicopter created in the 60s — a postwar period noted by global advancements and achievements of the USSR. This helicopter is the witness of the unprecedented upturn of the Soviet Union — this was a time of boomish growth in construction, space exploration and a great number of discoveries in various fields of science.  The whole story of the hero of this painting seems to be passing in front of us – from his birth to old age. Even now he still looks efficient, powerful, ready to soar up into the sky, although a slight tiredness is sensed in his appearance. His look evokes the image of a strong—willed person who, no matter what, will be capable if necessary. Of course, the images of aerial technics are always interpreted by the painter in a special way. These devices themselves are likened to birds and refine the nature of man — ascend him to the heights. The pictorial images of aerial technics in the works of Kustanovich are always characterized by a special pride and stateliness, such traits as determination and love of freedom are captured in their characters. The painter probably perceives this technics in a special way that is connected with personal experience — service in the Airborne Forces.

Художник Дмитрий Кустанович. «ИЛ-76». Из серии «Старые труженики»Dmitry Kustanovich. «IL-76». From the series «Old Plodders»

The painting «IL-76» depicts the famous Soviet and Russian military transport aircraft, providing air communication between the cities of a huge country for several decades. In the painting it appears as a huge iceberg, mighty and majestic. However, a certain exhaustion can also be sensed in it, the muted coloration evidences of that as the purposely suppressed brightness of colors, metaphorically meaning «fatigue». The «nebulosity» of the coloration could be attributed to the desire of creating a sense of the air environment, but this technique also carries an additional meaning — a haze as a «spirit», «recollection», «memory waves». Paradoxically, for all its monumentality, this aircraft at some point is starting to resemble a toy, its entire appearance suddenly becomes somewhat generalized, «splint». Just as the real story becomes rich with new details over the years and begins to sound almost fantastic from the mouth of its hero-narrator, so the old plodder IL-76 , as if deliberately trying to give his present self the erstwhile qualities, looks different after all. In the painting «The Aircraft above the City» the machine resembles a strong and young bird soaring in the sky. At the same time the plane from the «Old Plodders» series is akin to a whale beached on the shore, a strong but suffering creature of gigantic size.

Художник Дмитрий Кустанович. «ЗИЛ». Из серии «Старые труженики»Dmitry Kustanovich. «ZIL». From the series «Old Plodders»

The painting «ZIL» depicts a car — a truck of the famous Russian plant. ZIL is shown standing among the tall grass against the backdrop of a wooden house. This veteran of labour appears to us in profile so that we grasp a certain similitude of his image with the image of a person. This anthropomorphism is accentuated by the painter not without reason. This vehicle was driven by a man who had probably grown old along with his faithful assistant. The car becomes a figurative embodiment of a real person who worked together with this vehicle, perhaps already deceased (this may be hinted at by the empty ZIL cab). The machine becomes both an expression of his image and a symbolic embodiment of the» earthly casing», the «shell» of a real person, opposed to his spiritual essence.

Today it can be said with confidence that all the heroes of the painter's artworks have almost burnt out their resource of modernization and have actually found themselves «on the sidelines». However, their previous achievements make these creations truly outstanding. Created in the heyday of the USSR, they outlived a lot: its decline, and the emergence of a new Russia, when they were still in demand and carried their burden of responsibility. Today, however, they have become memorials to themselves, unshakable monuments of their former glory. The artistic embodiment of the motif of memory plays an important role in these images. The painter is indeed focused on how to convey this feeling of «traveling on the waves of memory», so that the viewer can fully feel nostalgia for the bygone time and gratitude to it. Hence the sharp juxtaposition of the foreground and background, the aerial perspective, the «nebulosity» of coloring and the frontal composition, which seems to hint at the portraiture of the images.

Художник Дмитрий Кустанович. «Ботинки художника». Из серии «Старые труженики»Dmitry Kustanovich. «The Boots of the Painter». From the series «Old Plodders»

The painter also included works depicting old boots to the «Old Plodders» series. Artistic simile is quite obvious here — boots become the expositor of a person's feelings, in the most generalized sense, they become his symbolic image. Here Kustanovich applies metonymy (a part instead of the whole), depicting only shoes, he means the whole person. Boots also become an expression of such a quality of a person as industriousness, because it is the lower limbs that are most involved in the daily life of man. These images are highlighted by a great lyricism, despite, at first glance, prosaic choice of the image subject. They excite a lot of contradictory and very vivid feelings in our minds. The object of inanimate nature becomes again a symbol of Man.

This series of paintings is really something fundamentally new in contemporary art. Trying to draw parallels with the images of the past, each time you realize that they are very conventional. The painter does not strive to create an industrial landscape, revel the puissance of machinery, oppose it to human. He manages to create exceedingly veridical and natural images that are understandable to everyone. Kustanovich depicts these objects, without exaggeration, as images of people. They live, live out their days, remember the past, tell their stories. Kustanovich's paintings are an honest answer to the question «how do the heroes and veterans of labour live today?».

In order to fully reveal the key problematic philosophical and artistic aspect of the images of this series, it is necessary to once again turn to the comparison of the images of Kustanovich with the art of socialist realism.

The USSR art created an image of exclusiveness of the man of labour. A working man is a worthy hero of the paintings of socialist realists. However, socialist realism did not provide a personal impression of actual reality. At the same time, the works of Kustanovich are unequivocally the personal vision. Collectivism prevailed in socialist realism and the separate individual was not of great interest. But now it's time to take a look at those who have been part of the collective all those years. That is why Kustanovich paints separately standing machines.

In the art of social realism, there was a real cult of youth. The new technics became the same full-fledged hero of the works as a young, strong, healthy and happy person. The illusion of joy, absolute happiness, aspiration of bright future are characteristical features of the Soviet painter's images. Once upon a time, these machines were the latest inventions. They were young, and so were the people who ran them. Thanks to the works of Kustanovich, today we have the opportunity to look at the heroes of that time at a different age. But not at people, but at machines. This method is a very delicate way of expressing respect and gratitude to those people, thanks to whom we live under a peaceful sky today. And at the same time, there may be a critical sense here. Today, there is no substitute for these heroes. As always, this is a very problematic and complex topic raised by the painter. Artworks cannot give an unambiguous answer to the questions asked by the author himself through them. The right to find an answer remains with the viewer. This essay also does not set a task to consider industrial labour in the artistic representation of socialist realism, but explores the logic of the development of this theme in the history of new art in Russia.

Socialist realism ended long ago, and today, being in front of the paintings of artists of this style, we can try to prescind from the ideological background of its images and try to understand that time anew. This is what Kustanovich does. Turning to the past, he fathoms it, but does not consider its method as a template for his own works.

For Kustanovich, images of machinery are an inexhaustible source of inspiration. They appear in a lot of different series of his paintings. The world of man and the world of technics have been firmly linked to each other for long, so the images of technics cannot be ignored by modern painting. The role and importance of technology in modern culture is difficult to overestimate, but it is very important to remind that technology cannot replace man. The image of man will always stand behind it.

It is not unimportant that the painter always depicts machinery against the landscape on the background, trying to organically include it in the natural environment. Thus, without being extracted from the natural organic environment, the images of machinery acquire a special phonation. The aircraft becomes like a bird, the ground transport — like a large animal. Nature in the artworks of Kustanovich is shown as a workshop in which the heroes of these paintings laboured. In addition, the natural environment serves as a specific emotional backdrop, creating a certain mood. In this series, the artist often depicts a calm, windless day, this particular weather makes it the easiest to indulge in memories, this particular background can be interpreted as a sense of bygone time.

Can these works perform a decorative function? Decorative only — no. However, they will certainly fit harmoniously into the interior, become an important accent, and saturate the space with new meanings. On the one hand, these images can be collated with a certain era of the past, but on the other, they are very modern due to the innovative style of the author's painting. These artworks may be compared to the photographs of people of the past that will always be dear to us.

Art critic Maya Stoltz