Reactions to Vysotsky – Scottish Artists Respond to the Russian Bard

26 Aug 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Inchmore Gallery, Inchmore, Inverness, until 27 August 2011

FOLLOWING an initial opening event earlier this month at the Scotland Russia Forum’s Edinburgh premises, Inchmore Gallery is currently hosting Reactions To Vysotsky, featuring work by Highland based artists Vicky Stonebridge and Allison Weightman in collaboration with singer, songwriter and translator Tommy Beavitt.

As part of a wider long term project to interpret and perform the work of the Russian Bard Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) it is an exciting beginning with great potential for future international cultural exchange and further creative development. Parallels between national Bards which Beavitt has explored through performances of the work of Robert Burns in Russia and of Vysotsky in Scotland actively present the Bard as a contemporary figure with global resonance.

Opening night brought image, music and text together with performances of Vysotsky’s songs by Tommy Beavitt in Russian and English accompanied by projections of the visual work, also seen in their original form in the downstairs gallery.

Vicky Stonebridge - Wolf

Vicky Stonebridge - Wolf

Inspired by Vysotsky’s songs, Vicky Stonebridge’s paintings blend Pictish/ Celtic influences with Russian Folk Art and graphic illustration. This latest work is a natural extension of her participation in the Yelabuga International Art symposium in Tatarstan and subsequent exhibition at the Shishkin Gallery (2010). Narrative scenes such as Lyricale are depicted in the manner of a fairytale, in a rainbow of soft colours with a combination of imagery spanning imaginative fantasy, the natural world and interlaced Celtic design.

It is, however, the more stylised work, playing with perspective and with form, that has the most impact in this exhibition. The circular canvas The Wolf, for example, with its outer rim of skeletal trees framing what feels like an entire world within a concave eye-like lens. The wolf‘s body redesigned within this space is fluid with movement and life, bisected in the background by a symbolic line of red flags.

Freedom and containment is also explored in Hunting The Wolf, a rectangular composition of frozen cobalt with wolves corralled by soldiers. The select palette and design of these two compositions distil the image which coupled with Beavitt’s performance of Vysotsky’s song in both Russian and English reveal the potent political content of the imagery.

Vicky Stonebridge - Hunting the Wolf

Vicky Stonebridge - Hunting the Wolf

A folk hero in both Russia and the UK, Stonebridge’s image of Robin Hood is a multilayered work encompassing three ages of man and the idea of escape and freedom in the forest. The detail and delicate handling of light in this acrylic on canvas create an interesting perspective, like a tunnel of time between worlds rural and urban. This type of imagery begs further exploration both ideologically and stylistically.

Arguably while a literal illustration of a lyric or story effectively communicates a particular narrative to an audience, it also leaves less room for imaginative expansion of the originary work in the mind of the viewer. There is a balance to be struck between literally illustrating a particular scene and seizing the thematic guts of the story and its emotional core universally resonant with an audience irrespective of language. Stonebridge’s best work in this show involves manipulation of perspective, stylised design and confinement in terms of the actual form and ground of the painting, linked to the thematic content of the work that inspired it.

Vicky Stonebridge - Horses

Vicky Stonebridge - Horses

Alison Weightman’s interpretation of Vysotsky’s Cupola visualises human form symbolically in its actual material and in the aspirational form of a tower, crowned with a golden dome. Humanity as clay linked with ideas of creation and divinity take on sculptural form, with wired wings of white ceramic bursting from the dome and suspended in multiple from above in various stages of flight. The seemingly brittle vulnerability of ceramic wings carry emotional weight and the contrast of colour – deep earthy brown at the base of the architecture together with the golden ideal of the dome – express the core of the Vysotsky’s song. The idea of humankind burnishing itself to be visible to God is communicated in sculptural form, together with the frailty of human nature. The artist successfully invests her materials with the sentiment of the song, allowing amplification of the Bard’s voice.

The combination of musical performance and visual work on opening night provided a wonderful opportunity to discover Vysotsky, perhaps for the first time for Highland audiences, and prompt further exploration and appreciation of his work. Tommy Beavitt’s performance of songs with acoustic guitar in Russian and English in dialogue with the paintings and ceramic work gave insight into the collaborative and creative process of the exhibiting artists. It will be fascinating to see how this interdisciplinary cross cultural exchange continues to develop, with discussions underway for staging events in 2012 exploring the concept of “Two Bards One Soul” in Moscow and Scotland.

© Georgina Coburn, 2011