2/26/11

Mikhail Vrubel, Flying Demon


The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Date: 1899
Technique: Oil on canvas,158 x 430.5 cm

The Demon is a central theme of Vrubel's work. The artist returned it throughout his career, embodying the image in painting, drawing and sculpture. The image of the Demon first entered the artist's mind during the Kiev period, when he was sketching murals for the Vladimir Cathedral (1884-1889). As he pondered the challenges of monumental painting, Vrubel studied Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. In a time of a deep crisis in faith and religious searching, thinking about the spiritual ideal, the artist did not find it in the image of Christ, although he did make some attempts. The era of Art Nouveau and Symbolism made beauty an absolute, a higher truth. Vrubel created the image of the "Light" Demon, attempting to deviate from the Christian interpretation of his hero as the personification of darkness, but he did not accept old traditions or contemporary interpretations of European Symbolism. He said: "The Demon is misunderstood; he is confused with the devil… But Demon is Greek for ‘Soul." Having passed a complex path of rethinking literary prototypes (Hamlet and Ophelia, 1884, State Russian Museum; Hamlet and Ophelia, 1888, State Tretyakov Gallery; polyptych on the theme of Goethe's Faust, 1896, State Tretyakov Gallery; Head of the Demon, State Tretyakov Gallery) the artist departed from them.

Vrubel first imagined something "demonic" during his 1889 trip to Moscow: "…A half-naked, winged, young, moody and thoughtful figure sits, hugging his knees against the sunset and looks at a flowering field, where branches rotting under flowers stretch." The first attempts to capture this vision were lost, and the small watercolor Demon (Seated) (1890, State Tretyakov Gallery) is perceived as the closest to it. But Vrubel had yet to make his monumental Demon Seated (1890, State Tretyakov Gallery). Vrubel found his hero to embody the creative spirit of the era, which "aspired to live, touching the shroud of divinity, if not with a praying hand, then with a feeling of beauty in its imperishability and eternality." (S. N. Bulgakov). Vrubel alluded to the image of the ancient Demon, the Socratic "divine voice" that in Platonic philosophy is interpreted as "an intermediary between people and gods, leading man down a path of passion and death to knowledge of the immortal and higher beauty." (Vladimir Solovyov, The Vital Drama of Plato). "Suffering and mourning, yet nonetheless powerful and grand," in the words of the artist, he personifies the eternal struggle of the human soul, "not finding an answer to his doubts either on the earth or in the sky." The theme of spiritual turmoil interweaves features of sacrifice and grief. Vrubel's Demon is closest of all to the poetic images of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, his Christ/Dionysus, and reflects a desire to reconcile Christianity and paganism characteristic for religious thought of the period.

The superhuman features of Vrubel's Demon are neutralized by his aloof and contemplative nature. On the other hand, the high degree of spiritual concentration in Vrubel's hero echoes Schopenhauer's teaching about the resistance of peaceful will with the help of ecstatic creative contemplation, opening the mind to higher forms of the Beautiful, as absolute ideas, that which he called "the highest good and state of the gods." Thus, the Demon to a considerable degree reflects an abstract idea of a certain spiritual state, rather than a personification of a certain character. Vrubel's method of mystic, creative intuition is parallel to images from Solovyov's poetry, penetrated by a premonition of an "unknown god":

Wingless soul, fastened to earth,
A forgotten god, you have forgotten yourself,
Just an exhalation and you are winged again,
You rush skyward away from vain worries.

Just sleep — and in a burdensome awakening
You will wait with yearning
Again the glare of a distant vision,
Again the echo of a holy harmony.

The Demon's soul is bound in his body, like an enormous stone that flows in the rays of the sunset, rising on the peak of the cliff. The composition is full of inner tension. The horizontal format of the canvas is opposed by the dominating vertical figure, the upper part of the head is cut off by the edge of the painting. The powerful shoulders and arms, seemingly cast in molten bronze, recall the figures of Michelangelo. The contours of the hulking figure suggest a blooming flower or a chalice. These contours repeat several times in the space, bordered by a gesture of the hands, which creates an impression of a huge energy growing from within. His knees, enclosed by his hands, form a heart-like, crystalline shape. The multitude of lines strengthens the impression of constantly transforming shapes and their vivid multiple facets. His hands are tensely folded, and yet resemble broken chains. The Demon's arms remind us of the powerful wings that the character no longer has. Covered in shadow, the Demon's profile is a contrast to his massive body, and seems to belong to another creature. He is "the son of heavenly abundance and earthly scarcity" (Solovyov, The Vital Drama of Plato). The turned head and dark, flowing tresses create a feeling of flight. His facial features seem to melt in the rays of the setting sun, in the process of transformation. Vrubel avoids painting idol-like stiff features. This giant contains huge energy, and yet he is filled with melancholy.

Directing his gaze at the rays of the setting sun, he remembers the world of heavenly harmony he left behind, and grieves from the feeling of the imperfect beauty of earth. A pearly tear glitters on the Demon's cheek. His yearning for absolute beauty is not in vain. It carries a creative blast. The world around him is illuminated by a new, fantastic glow. The flowers surrounding his figure transform into crystals, as if fused in a new substance transfigured by light. The Demon and the beautiful flowers form a unified whole.

Vrubel's painterly manner suggests a titanic emphasis on form, which lends the pathos of cutting spiritual energy out of fossilized matter. Powerful brushstrokes of the edges are in perpetual motion. The artist creates an imperishable supersubstance of painting, a kind of philosopher's stone. Layering paint with a palette knife, Vrubel synthesized oil painting, sculpture and mosaic. The key to Vrubel's unique painterly method as displayed in Demon (Seated) is his special device of stylized crystal faceting. The complex play of form in the painting helps the artist avoid superficial allegories. The struggle of the visual fabric gives birth to an impression of a constantly transforming symbolic image, like a crystal. This results in a paradox, striking in its aesthetic tension, in which the protagonist's hermit-like contemplation and noble inertia are in opposition to the artist's creative drama. Vrubel does not give his image a sense of completion, as if he is afraid to distort it.

Earlier he created the head of the Demon in a sculpture (Head of the Demon, 1890, State Russian Museum). For a master whose oil paintings appeared to be composed of shimmering crystals, majolica which combined color and volume in a seamless whole held endless possibilities. As a painter, Vrubel strove to overcome the flatness of canvas to become a sculptor. He shaped volume and form in a complex play of surfaces to reach their inner depths. «I was pleased to notice that my desire to embrace form as fully as possible interfered with my painting; I made a digression and decided to sculpt the Demon: sculpted, he would only help my painting, since after illuminating him according to the demands of the painting, I could use him as the ideal model», - the artist wrote in 1888.

The most complete anticipation of the image of the painterly canvas is the drawing Head of the Demon (1889, State Tretyakov Gallery). In it the artist achieves the greatest dematerialization of means of artistic expression. Like Alexander Blok, he is afraid of seeing a distortion, the other side, a shadow:

The horizon is all aflame, and its radiance is dear
Yet frightening to me: You will change your face.

The multi-faceted symbolic meaning of Demon Seated reflects the diverse aspects of the aspiration to ideal beauty through a labyrinth of the relative beauty of the real world. This is the first work that embodied the theme of the Demon, and it became Vrubel's most perfect work.

The next stage in Vrubel's interpretation of the theme came with his illustrations to Lermontov's poem, "Demon." Facing the task of illustration, Vrubel was involuntarily immersed in the world of romantic human passions that Lermontov's hero lives in. Lermontov's Demon is a Luciferian spirit who tempts man's hubris. His love for the world and for Tamara brings destruction. Vrubel drew the head of the Demon as a kind of mask. In one version, framed with a crystalline stratification of hair, it appears on a background of mountains, distorted by a torturous grimace of hatred (Head of the Demon, State Tretyakov Gallery ); in another, it is a refined face with a lips that burn with an inner flame and a feverish glint in his eyes (Head of the Demon, Kiev Museum of Russian Art).

In his painting Demon Seated (1890) Vrubel departs from Luciferism. In the era of Solovyov, love for the world's beauty no longer carries doom, but is the highest justification for life, the prototype for victory over death. "Beauty is necessary for executing good in the material world, for only it can illuminate and decorate the unkind darkness of this world," writes the thinker in "The General Meaning of Art."

The next stage in the development of the theme is Flying Demon (1899, State Russian Museum), which was conceived as the culminating work of the Demon theme, but did not become such in actuality and is perceived instead as a prologue to Demon Prostrate (1902). The proud flight above the world ended in a tragedy of loneliness and repudiation of the hero. The entire canvas is rendered in dark tones; the mystical light that lit Demon Seated has been extinguished, and the image has taken on a heavy inertia, petrified, which in combination with the horizontally elongated composition led to a contradiction of the very theme of flight. Flying Demon seems to touch the peaks of mountains. The figure's movement is hindered by the fantastic weight of his warped wings. The flight creates a feeling of the Demon's tormented imprisonment, like a billowing cloud that encounters the resistance of the elements.

The theme of flight receives a proper artistic treatment in Vrubel's cycle of monumental panels based on Goethe's Faust (1896).

The concluding step in Vrubel's Demoniana was his work on Demon Prostrate (1902), which to a large extent was perceived as an attempt to escape the crisis established in the previous work. While working on this image, the problem of impossibility of creating a perfect work became even clearer to Vrubel. The artist made a number of preparatory sketches (Demon Prostrate, 1901, sketch for the first version of the painting; Demon Prostrate, 1901, sketch), in which he changed the pose of the Demon, the color scheme and his orientation in the landscape. E.I. Ge described the frenzied creative state in which Vrubel repeatedly reworked the painting at the World of Art exhibition: "There were days when Demon was very frightening, and then again the facial expression of the Demon acquired sadness and a new beauty. Mikhail Alexandrovich said that now the Demon is no longer downcast, but flies; and many saw the flight of the Demon." N.A. Dmitriyeva, a researcher of Vrubel's work, writes: "Perhaps it was in this whirlwind of flashes, alternating faces and expressions, in this multi-faced transmutability and there was an essence of the image that haunted the artist."

The body of the Demon is bound by powerful cosmic embraces. The horizontally elongated canvas reinforces the feeling of an inexorable fall. The sense of catastrophe is encourage by a strange, seemingly upturned mountainous landscape, underscored by the blue triangle of the sky, with its upturned peak at the composition's center. At the same time, complex whorl-shaped streams of clouds resist the fall — the Demon hovers. His body is tortuously twisted and pointed downward at a falling diagonal, but his cross-wise broken arms mark an opposite motion. They frame his head, which is set at a diagonal and pointed upward. Scholars of Vrubel's works have often noted the similarity of the position of the Demon's head with that Christ's head in The Lamentation (1887, second version, sketch of an unrealized mural, Kiev Museum of Russian Art) of his Kiev period.

The head, or the face, is transformed into an almost ghostlike mask, in which huge eyes burn out of the darkness. The face is separated from the body by a black shadow and seems to belong to a different being, risen from the ashes, born of the torment of death. A pink ray plays on the Demon's diadem; it falls from the upper right corner of the composition, like Plato's "ray of truth," a touch of which can grant the soul immortality. This struggle with death gives birth to a new winged creature, like a seraphim, a herald of light. But this metaphor is only hinted at; in the painting it unfolds without closure. The Demon is surrounded by the broken peacock feather of his own wings, which hang around him like a nest, or burning like a bonfire, which makes it possible to read the image as a metaphor of a clairvoyant creature, like the Phoenix, which burns to ash and comes to life from its own remains. Peacock feathers are an ancient symbol of resurrection and eternal life. Vrubel painted them with metallic varnish, which from the beginning created a shimmering surface.

Vrubel's artistic devices create a crumple, layered painting, where above the textured strokes of the palette knife pile up semi-transparent layers of metallic varnish, sharp edges neighbor fluid lines. Now the darkened paints have reinforced the struggle of darkness and light, imperishable beauty and death. Vrubel transforms the theme of death in the context of symbolism into a myth of death and subsequent resurrection. Later Vrubel developed the theme of the Demon in his series of works about Prophet. The image of the Demon collapses into two hypostases: the prophet and the herald, the six-winged seraphim. The final chord to this theme is Six-Winged Seraphim (1904, State Russian Museum).

Vrubel's Demon works grow in an existential myth that lies at the roots of the neo-mythology in 20th century art. The myth, built on a complex drama of victory, sacrificial death and resurrection of the hero, refers to the mythological archetype of a hero who dies and is reborn. In the context of aesthetic theory, Russian Symbolism in many ways pushes away from the artistic practice of Vrubel and his Demon works as perceived as a mystery play, a mystical life order, understood by the Symbolists as the highest form of art. The poet Vyacheslav Ivanov wrote: "Mystery is the annihilation of the symbol as an imitation and myth as a reflection, a crowning and triumph through the gates of death. Mystery is a victory over death, a positive affirmation of identity. The restoration of a symbol as an embodied reality and myth come to pass — "Let it be so!?" (Vyacheslav Ivanov, The Precepts of Symbolism).

Ekaterina Seredniakova
State Tretyakov Gallery

Source 1
Source 2

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