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Till They Have Faces

A single generation of subversive genius can retain its brilliance, but would-be imitators following manage only to echo the subversion.

Alexander Vasilyev was working last December at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and—fittingly for a place called the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center—he was bored out of his mind. Goaded (he said) by a group of teenage visitors, the security guard took a souvenir ballpoint pen from the museum’s gift shop and with it etched two hurried pairs of eyes on two faceless figures in what he later claimed he thought was a “children’s drawing.”

Vasilyev could hardly be blamed for the error. What he had mistaken for a kindergarten doodle was in reality Three Figures by the Soviet avant-garde painter Anna Leporskaya, valued at roughly $974,000. The damage done to Leporskaya’s painting—three long-necked, faceless, stylized human figures—will cost about $3,300 to restore, all of which is covered by insurance. Nonetheless, the rogue security guard was swiftly fired and now faces a police investigation for his misdeeds.

But Vasilyev’s grave sin, besides being excusable and kind of hilarious, is hardly a unique one. A New York Times report on the incident mentions in conclusion:

“Three Figures” is the latest piece of artwork to suffer random damage. In 2018, one of Russia’s most famous paintings, “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581,” by Ilya Repin, was badly damaged in a Moscow gallery after a man attacked it with a metal pole. And last year, a paint-splattered canvas worth more than $400,000 on display at a shopping mall in Seoul was vandalized by a couple who thought the work was a participatory mural.

One of these things is not like the others.

The paint-splattered canvas in Seoul was exactly that: a paint-splattered canvas. It’s called Untitled, and on display in the shopping mall it even had cans of paint and paintbrushes laying out in front of it. The best that can be said for Untitled is that its arrangement of colors, while meaningless, is at least vaguely inoffensive. It would have been strange for the couple to think it was a nearly half-million dollar deliberate work, rather than the disjointed brushstrokes of a hundred random passersby. Yet the couple were arrested and held until the police at last managed to determine that their actions made a good deal of sense given the circumstances.

Interviewed by the Times, the artist, John Andrew Perello, who calls himself JonOne, expressed his anger at the couple’s innocent mistake, stating that “art should be religious. You don’t paint on a church.” This is a rather odd line of argument, not least of all because churches do, in fact, get painted. The finer points of ecclesial design notwithstanding, however, JonOne’s oblivious egomania points to something true. Art should be religious; but he has chosen to spend his career dripping paint on canvas in a way that a toddler or moderately well-trained monkey could pull off just as competently.

This, of course, is to be expected from a religion whose creed is “Painting opens me to myself, it allows me to enter into communication with who I am.” This is nonsense.

The artistic creed that inspired Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581, the other painting mentioned, must have been a rather different one. Contrary to the assertion of the New York Times, the 2018 vandalism of that painting was not “random damage.” The work was intentionally attacked by a Russian nationalist who objected to its content because, unlike Untitled and Three Figures, it actually has some.

It is one of the great masterpieces of Russian painting. It depicts the moment after the tsar has struck a fatal blow to his own son’s head in a bout of unthinking anger. The scepter he used is cast off in the foreground. A tear streaming from his eye and blood gushing from his temple, the dying tsarevich rests his hand on his father’s arm. The father, meanwhile, cradles his son, one hand holding tight his waist while the other covers the bloodflow from the tsarevich’s head. His own face streaked with red, the tsar stares off into the distance, bulging eyes overflowing with the horror of what he’s done.

Of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, Repin later said:

I painted in tears, I was tortured, I tormented myself, I corrected again and again what I had painted, I hid it, in a sickly disappointment, no longer believing in my strength, I erased what I had painted. I had already erased, and I was attacking the canvas again. Every minute was terrible to me. I was disappointed with this painting, I hid it. And she made the same impression on my friends. But something pushed me towards her, and again I was working on it.

He scoured the country’s palaces and museums for artifacts whose inclusion might move the work toward completion. He picked men whose faces held the exact qualities he needed for the tortured father and the sacrificed son, and he reproduced them until he commanded a mastery of their features bordering on ownership. He modeled and remodeled, sketched and resketched, painted in an agony that actually approached the intensity of religion.

JonOne, meanwhile, can be seen in the Times article sitting crosslegged like a preschooler on the floor of his studio, smock and workpants dotted with paint that looks no less ordered than the markings on the canvas. These men are not the same.

And yet Repin, for all his genius, is not blameless. One of the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), a collective of liberal populists whose realist paintings dominated the late-19th-century Russian art scene, Repin in this most famous work is, at least in part, making a statement on the brutality of the monarchy, about the violence inherent in Russia’s old order. This is why it was attacked, not once but twice (the first time in 1913), by those who object to a dubious historical episode’s elevation to such a high place in the Russian cultural imagination.

Like so many who shared his political sensibilities, Repin supported the February Revolution in 1917 but soured on the project when October rolled around. Born a subject of Tsar Nicholas I, he lived to see six years of rule by Josef Stalin. In the decade of his death at 86, Anna Leporskaya would paint Three Figures, a catastrophic decline in Russian art from Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan half a century before.

JonOne styles himself an heir to Jackson Pollock, who (in the process of destroying the last vestiges of fine art in the West) managed at least to produce a few genuine articles of beauty, however simple they may be. Leporskaya was a protege of Kazimir Malevich, whose best works retain a certain haunting quality, if not the virtuosity of Repin and his contemporaries. It is a commonplace in art of any medium that a single generation of subversive genius can, in fact, retain its brilliance, while any would-be imitators manage only to echo the subversion.

Perhaps Repin, were he alive today, would be horrified at the grotesqueness of his successors. Perhaps he could find it in himself to mourn the murder not just of Tsarevich Ivan but of the entire world he might have represented, the world into which Repin was born and whose beauty he so faithfully reproduced.

Perhaps those haunting, tortured eyes of Ivan the Terrible would be turned outward from the canvas. As it is, we’ll have to make do with a souvenir ballpoint pen.