“Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Let me tell you a story.”
This is what the paintings of Evgenii Mukovnin seem to say to the viewer. Not particularly loud or expressive, the scenes they paint are contemplative, a little sad, nostalgic like so much good Russian art. Instead of demanding a particular response from the viewer, the artist seems content with suggestion, leaving the viewer with a sense of having encountered something transcendent, even if it’s difficult to describe.
It seems appropriate that I found him on Facebook, that strange domain where, lately, all I see is vitriol, stupidity, and an overweening sense of absolute rightness, no matter who the person posting seems to be, no matter what his religious, political, or cultural opinions. Not merely on Facebook, though, this violent need to prove one’s own point of view as the only right one—and its companion, the mockery and vilification of all people holding a different opinion—is increasingly the mode of everyday conversation.
Truth is a tricky thing. It is very easy to fall into the trap of believing that you know the truth for certain, especially for people of faith. Revelation is so often an excuse for absolute certainty. If I am a Christian, it means that I have the answer to every thorny question, and certainly I know my right from wrong.
Well, not so fast. One of the most invigorating Christian thinkers of the last two hundred years is a man not well known in the English-speaking world–St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. He was a fascinating man, a literary giant who hobnobbed with Pushkin and his ilk in the salons of St. Petersburg, yet gave up a brilliant career, fame, and fortune to dedicate himself to the contemplative life. In the first volume of his collected works (to be published next year as The Field by Holy Trinity Publications), he has this to say about the nature of our experience and knowledge of the world:
“Delusion is a sickness of human nature, a state common to all without exception, a state we inherited from our forefathers. All of us are in delusion. [Here St. Ignatius quotes one of only three Fathers of the Church to be given the title “Theologian,” St. Simeon]. Knowledge of this fact is a great guard against delusion. It is the height of delusion to consider oneself free of delusion. All of us are deceived, all of us deluded, all of us are in a false state, all of us need to be freed by truth.”
If more people considered this radical point of view, I think not only would people think twice about airing their well-informed “opinions,” but perhaps people would be more open to experiencing beauty in unexpected places.
I’m going to be annoyingly provocative right now. Here’s a painting that commits several cardinal sins of our politically correct world—it glorifies war, it puts religious imagery in a context of violence, and it leaves no doubt that one side of the conflict is absolutely in the right. Plus, it’s Russian.
Only when putting aside prejudice and preconceived notions, only when considering that “I” don’t really know everything, only when considering the possibility of total self-delusion can the viewer then notice the reflective, attractive piety of the man about to die for his faith, the stern gaze of his brother who knows what the end of the battle will be, the soft eyes of the young man holding the horse—eyes that suggest a depth of pain, early experience, and yet courageous hope. It leaves the humble viewer, frankly, breathless. There is nothing about this painting to demand a particular response from the viewer. It is suggestive, evocative, and profoundly challenging.
To continue the provocation by beauty…
The Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Ivan Bunin, in a cycle of stories describing pre-Revolutionary Russian rural life, wrote such an evocative and beautiful account of the hunt that the reader immediately wants to saddle his horse and join in. Rabid animal-lovers may gasp and turn white-faced from fury, especially after poor Cecil. They would be missing something profound in this painting. But let the words of St. Ignatius temper all their righteous anger, and they might notice a scene of ferocious violence that is, all the same, undeniably beautiful.
His treatment of war is another gem. Here is a series of paintings set around 1914, the year WWI began.
The pro-Putin Russian and the Ukrainian nationalist alike, if they are human, should leave themselves no choice but to put aside their ideologies and simply bask in the universal humanity of these nostalgic, sad, beautiful autumn-themed paintings. They remind one that for all the vituperative arguments of politicos and ideologues, we are all human, and as human, we are all prone to delusion.
Maybe, with a bit of humility, we can allow these paintings to suggest an elusive something that can begin to resolve our common human delusion. I certainly hope so.
Evgenii Mukovnin’s biography and paintings can be viewed at his website.