What mark do you want to leave ?
I would like to say that all the projects I started are really over. But there are so many that it is a disaster inside my head! That being said, everything I have accomplished when it comes to art makes me the happiest man on Earth.
An epitaph ?
“Don’t be jealous, asshole”.
Some encounters come into your life out of the blue, magical and leaving a mark. My meeting with Anton came naturally, without artifice, as a foregone conclusion, a sort of premeditated rendez-vous. For months, I had contacted this Ukrainian photographer whom we wanted at all costs for the next edition. At that time I didn’t know that he was still living in France, and I didn’t know anything about his story yet, a full and fertile past, as the next pages will show.
The first time I met Anton was at his place. I was confused and a little anxious as I had made myself a completely unfounded portrayal of the person, filled with prejudices and common preconceptions that I had forged trying to decipher his work: a concupiscent individual, distraught and eccentric. Far from that! He addressed me with a Russian accent, behind smoky eyeglasses and this air of genius which certain people have, too rare, too precious, in a verbal elation coupled with this glimmer of madness which characterizes this craziness of living and of enjoying everything. I entered in his lair. A place saturated with dolls, multicolored wigs, a pilling up of handcuffs, empty frames and a mismatched paraphernalia of all kinds. No icebreaker here, no bow and scrape or introductory spiel. The first embarrassments are erased straight away, the platitudes left outside. After many meetings, especially at the Paris Photo show or at private viewings such as Witkin or Lagrange, we thought we had to do an interview which might be insane. He proposed for us to come to his studio «at the top of Paris» and here we are with three of our team members and as many bottles of red wine to start the interview. At his place, three other already-opened bottles are waiting for us. An outburst of enthusiasm suddenly sets in, a devouring passion. This is a guy who lives! We are everything but bored. For that matter time flies by very fast.
Anton is 69 and you can’t make that up. Assign this year, so dear to Gainsbourg to this lustful chap. Provocative, licentious but not corrupted. Attempting to reduce this character to a simple biography would be emptying him from his own essence, even though we must go thought it to understand its contours. Anton Solomoukha trained in Kiev to become a multidisciplinary member of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. Painting, drawing, collage, photography, you name it. When he arrived in Paris, he befriended Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, two meetings which will influence his implication in photography. Anton is famous for being the inventor of a new genre, the “painting photography” which associates photographic imagery with pictorial art. His settings, his “mental theater” are unfathomable shambles, orgiastic entanglements, where the abundance of human forms and characters reminds the great classical masters. Only here, the break from classicism is taken on, asserted and intentional, gives way to the paradox of the composition and to contemporary art throughout an aesthetic provocation of the modern rules. Enhanced by a black sooty background unearthing Caravaggio, his works (“The girl with the cup-and-ball”, “The Sex of Angels”, “I Fuck Your TV”, “ Little Red Riding Hood”, “Odalisque” etc. So many evocative and corrosive titles) are equivocal and carnal poetries, absolute and deconstructed nonsense, aberrant absurdities shaping this awkward jumble of the Kitsch and the lacerated baroque. The pose, as for the light, tainted with mysteries and symbols, is pictorial. The photography is built up like a canvass, a painting. The artist defies the infinite possibilities of the digital composition. Even if the selected work here, and also the recent exclusives are the least indecent and deviant, all his work is worth the journey…
AN AUTO-ANTHROPOPHAGOUS TALE
How does a summons at the KGB happen ?
Transgression often has an ostentatious side: we also transgress to be noticed, we break a law to be seen and identified as a defiant individual, even rebel or dissident, to be situated in relation with ethics, a set of behavioral rules. The phone rings. It is an invitation for a meeting at a grand hotel in Kiev. The hotel room is empty. I have been waiting for ten minutes. Two men arrive. The conversation starts. They ask you very simple questions. - Are you a patriot? No other choice but to say: - Of course! - Would you like to help certain organizations protecting people’s tranquility and the nation’s stability ? And then they tell you “You must betray your friends as they are misled. This is to purge the society from the rotten people.” Hard to pull the wool over my eyes, I have lived all my childhood around the sharpest politicians, guys who did nothing but lying and who excelled in that area. I had read Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche and they had convinced me that someone who doesn’t know how to lie is boring and not creative. I love creation. Reality is noting. Everyone is able to spit the truth but inventing lies is amazing. They summoned me for 6 months. One day, they gave me a tape recorder with bobbins. My mission was to squeeze the facts out of my friends and to record the conversations. Of course, I never came down to accomplish this treason. Under the watchful eye of an agent, while I was getting wasted with my friends at a café, I purposely “forgot” the tape recorder on the table. One must know that the KGB in 1977 wasn’t as repressive as at the Stalin era. Moreover, I was married to a French girl and it protected me in a way. After that, I decided to leave the USSR for France. During my childhood, I had Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Celine, Apollinaire’s poems which I knew by heart in Russian. France was my second home. Besides, my wife was from Guadeloupe. I filed two visa applications for France. My wife was of mixed-race and I played on that. I accused the administration of being racist. Within two weeks, I got 2 visas for one month. I thus arrived in Paris in 1978.
Can you tell us “briefly” about your arrival in Paris ?
In the USSR, there was a saying: “A foreign woman isn’t for love, she is for the visa.” When I explained to some French students my desire to leave my country, they were all very enthusiastic with the idea of a fake marriage to save a “radical” artist from suppression. My “fake” marriage became a real love match. I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow with my file fully complete in order to get my application approved or not, to get the stamp or not. I arrived early in front of a “splendid” gothic Stalinist house with a star at the top. I have been waiting for five hours. The person before me leaves in tears. His visa had been refused as were those of all the people before me. The door opens. A colonel looks at me from head to toe and tells me to come back the next morning as it is 7 pm and it is the end of his day. I am normally rather obedient and submissive but that time, I don’t know why, I said to him: “Today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday. Here, it’s Moscow. I live in Kiev. I have no place to sleep. My return ticket is for tomorrow morning and moreover your ministry will be closed tomorrow.” He asked me where my accent came from. I answer: “From a lovely Southern town near Kiev.” He answers in return: “Right. You’re still young, you don’t understand anything but you seem nice. If you want to leave for France, that’s alright. But come in my office, I’ll tell you my story.” His story lasted until 7 am. I was the last customer of his career. He opened up the bottle of vodka, … caviar. We got drunk all night long and sang Ukrainian songs. That’s how I got my visa. I got back in Kiev and it was raining. As I am walking in a park I see an ex great anti-Soviet from the time, a radical activist (who became the Minister for Culture when the USSR collapsed), Ivan Dziuba. I had met him twice before. As I was heading towards him, a guy from the KGB came out of nowhere and told me: “You can go talk to him.” Stressed out by the situation, I answer that I don’t know him. He asks me to listen to him. I ask if I was forced to it, he said: “No. But I know you have received your visa for France today. Your father helped me to defend my thesis in college, I want to return the favor. On Monday, the KGB is coming to arrest you under any circumstances. Your visa is going to be canceled. We gave it to you but it’s a strategy to fool the Unesco, to show them we are a free society. We deliver An auto-anthropophagous tale visas, but weirdly people “don’t want to leave anymore”. “You have 2 days. Leave now.” I returned to Moscow with my wife this time. I didn’t have tickets to Paris… We met a woman at a canteen. She was the secretary of the French embassy: “Do you want me to hide you at the embassy? I can get you tickets but only within 5 days.” A miracle! This woman became a great friend. Thanks to her I was in Paris in 1978. Two hours later, I was in front of the judge of the 9th arrondissement. (I was living in the 9th, rue des Martyrs). She tells me she has nothing against me but before handing me the paper authorizing the nationality application, I must go to the DTS ( Directorate of Territorial Surveillance). Supported by a friend who was a translator, I get in. They give me form to fill in. I am exhausted. They ask me then if I am in connection with communists. I tell them: “I am not filling this in! It’s as if I was arriving to China and you’re asking me if I am in connection with Chinese people!” The situation calms down. My arrival is a series of miracles! I move from a black and white world to world in color. It’s beautiful. But beauty is fragile and I still don’t think that the miracle can last.
In which circumstances did you mix with Doisneau and Cartier- Bresson ?
To stand in for his Principal Private Secretary who was very sick, Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris at the time, wanted to replace him by a person “who knew the capital inside out.” One of his close friends jokes: “The chief fireman!” The next day, my friend Jean-Eudes Rabut (a socialist), chief fireman, becomes the Principal Private Secretary of the mayor of Paris. He is married to a very close friend with whom I exhibited my work. At this time, I was showing a series of big canvasses around the world, from Paris to New York. It is through one of my exhibitions at the Orangeries of Bagatelle that I meet Jacques Chirac. He tells me one day: “What is Ukrainian? It’s a little Russian, isn’t it?” To what I answer: “And Italy, it’s a little bit France, isn’t it?”. Right at this time the USSR collapsed and the town hall of Kiev, suddenly built up from scratch, wants to exist on an international level. The mayor then asked me to make the connection with Paris. I was thus invited to the conferences at the town hall of Paris in the years 1988/89 where, every Thursdays and Fridays, meetings were held with the artists. One evening, Jacques Chirac warmly welcomed me, wearing an apron and opening oysters. He offered me to sit down next to a guy with a cap, a cigarette butt glued to his gum, drinking. I then asked him who this man was: - It’s Robert Doisneau. - Oh, right, very well. I will ! I asked this photography genius to pardon me for my French. We started talking about the principles of the visual composition. We got to talk about the “Kiss”. He confided: “Oh, the Kiss! It’s the torture of my life. Assholes, they are always suing me. And what about you? Who are you? What’s this accent?” He had the same voice as Edith Piaf, nasal but adorable. Behind his visible bad humor was hiding a very considerate and benevolent person. We shared this traditional bourgeois education. We saw each other regularly after that. I last saw him for the release of Picto. We only talked for two minutes. Habitually very informal with me he said: “Be mindful with overworking.” He died two months later. One day, a friend invited me to see a drawing exhibition. As usual, amongst artists, we started analyzing the works. At this time, I didn’t master French that much, especially to have a technical conversation on drawing. A man next to us, in the appearance of being an aristocrat, scanned us with his piercing eye. He suddenly asked me if I was a drawer. I answered him in full modesty that I was the second best drawer in the world! I then offered him to participate to the nude models drawing sessions which we regularly do with friends painters in my studio in Bastille. For 6 months we shared our ideas on drawing, on the different schools, eras and masters. This man was Cartier-Bresson.
Any plans ?
I am forever dissatisfied with the means of visual language. In my opinion, the woman’s body offers the biggest range of picture creations. We can say everything poetically, it’s a real challenge. I still continue my drawing series. I also have some series of collage projects staging characters like Wagner or Sigmund Freud combined in my drawings. Maybe one day I’ll actualize my dream, to produce an autobiographical and paradoxical photo-novel. Concerning photography, I am carrying out a project: Erotic Still Life. I am also exhibiting a series of drawings at the Fôret Verte gallery, Guénégaud Street, in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and at the Schwab gallery, rue Quincampoix in Paris also.
How would you define photopainting ?
I am originally a painter. In soviet Ukraine, where I grew up, all the Fine Arts students, received mandatorily an academic training in drawing, painting and composition. Since 2005, all my projects consist in building voluntarily a series of composite photo paintings. Each picture is composed from multiple independent elements which I voluntarily put together in order to define a scenic composition. This process is probably comparable to the Neo-happenings (collective improvisation very fashionable in the 60s).
When we read that you are the creator of photo-painting, what comes to your mind ?
I started with the assumption: “art doesn’t imitates nature, nature imitates art” ( O.Wilde). I am looking for an environment, sometimes structured and mechanic, sometimes overloaded and organic (there are no innocent choices) - these are the contradictory patterns of my mental theater. Ideas materialize, hatch in a sum of tension, fitting the initial idea. My digital phantasmagories are more of a baroque allegory ( almost polytheist), which projects a vision of a misleading subjectivism, eminently pictorial. I often dream about Allegory, this antithesis of art, this “aesthetic aberration” is constantly accused of venturing to a no-go area: contemporary Art. It appeared as a response to a feeling of despair, opposed to aesthetics, philosophy, moral and even to the traditional mystical movements. In fact, Allegory represents the space between the present and an unalterable past, a mirror investigation on modern fascination for mystical subjects… Everything but a frivolous or stupid behavior.
How did you become an academician ?
My father worked for Khrushchev’s administration (who was at the time the First Secretary of the communist party in Ukraine). From time to time, all the gang crammed together in our apartment to stuff their stomach. During a diner washed down with alcohol, the family legend says that when Khrushchev asked: “Anton, what would you like to do later in life?”, I answered with my five years of age’s naivety: “ I want to become a fisherman.” Khrushchev then replied: “In reality, there are two noble titles: the Field Marshall (5-star General in the US) and the academician. The rest is shit.” Growing up, I became disappointed with fishing. Thus in 2009 I yield to the insistent proposals of my academician friends to take part in their circle. I had to get 75% of the votes and I got 100% (they were probably not quite awake).
The nude wasn’t a problem for them ?
Not really. In 2009 Ukraine certain transgressive projects were rather welcomed as the real stake was more about sweeping the consequences of the USSR. The Soviet artistic school was well-built but too academic and opaque. It was against contemporary research. Because in Europe, for decades, the practice of art had been dominated by certain master ideas such as freedom of expression or the pre-eminence of form. This period, associated to the neopost- modernity will open a new era of bursting forms and schools of thoughts everywhere around the world, as in Ukraine. If there is no passion for contemporary art, it is maybe because there is no need to be passionate about it. One gets more excited when it comes to Houellebecq, Jeff Koons or the last Lars Von Trier… And what if that was contemporary art? And art is also medicine, carpentry and pastry. I hope the desire of derision will spread to numerous aspects of artistic creation without sparing no prejudices or the viewers tastes.
How does the son of a Soviet apparatchik become a provocative contemporary artist?
When I was 6, by sheer accident, I won the silver medal of the world’s best drawing in Tokyo. My indifference for this honor changed completely when one of my father’s friend shouted: “Now throw away maths, physics and chemistry to the garbage! Anton is going to be a painter”. I was suddenly thrilled with this idea. Then, when I was 7, I learned that all the spoken or written sentences were limited to the sole indicative, interrogative of exclamative forms. I was really disappointed. My foreseeable career as a writer was compromised. Painting offered me a greater perspective.
In certain projects, you call yourself a “pornographer”. What does it mean ?
I am obsessed with my work, I insist on technical virtuosity, on my mysterious and perverse imagination and on the expressiveness of pictorial matter. The word pornography was invented by the Enlightenment and it can be defined as such: “a lenient representation - reputed sexual- of subjects, obscene details, in an artistic, literary or cinematographic work”. Back then, it referred more specifically to prostitution studies. As for me, real pornography (in the sense of the Enlightenment) is about all the lurid posters of candidates to the presidential elections posted on walls and panels. Concerning the showing of nude bodies, I bet 1000 against 1 that on the paintings at the Louvres there isn’t one bra or one panties. My photographic paintings are reports of my meditative vision, simulacra of reality. Thus, anything that isn’t necessary, as it is harmful or pervert, is then by a dichotomy welcomed and desirable. If art causes destructive passions, it is almost always because of political, religious, puritan or intolerant oppositions. Finally never for its content. It is taken for a scapegoat, it symbolizes the enemy to destroy.
So, are you anti-establishment ?
To contest, in art means to abolish taboos, prejudices and traditional visions of the past times. My mises en scène mingle on a very small surface the commentary on the relationship between body and evil, Art and evil. I am looking for the formula of an iconography of an intense beauty. I talk about pornography in an act of provocation but I think more about the idea of transgression rather than about the idea suggested by this king of pictures. Each artist is looking for his own language, the symbols to express himself. For me, the language with which I express myself best is the female body. I think one can say everything with a woman’s body, it’s a universal language. Moreover, all my models have an angelic substance, which adds a divine light to my work. Joel Peter Witkin once said: “ I shocked him. It means the picture was good. Art must open up the eyes and to do that one must rap on knuckles otherwise people stay blind.”
Certain pictures were shot in Chernobyl. Any anecdote about this shooting ?
Chernobyl was, and still is for me, an abandoned and betrayed territory. I went to this damned place to transgress, to cross the moral and ethic Rubicon, to not respect one rule, to not conform to rules taken for granted, integrated and accepted by all, to cross a line, a forbidden line, most of the time willingly, questioning violently and sometimes ironically, the rule or rules we thus scorn conspicuously. As an automaton, I took hundreds of pictures where almost no one has set a foot for 22 years. Suddenly, I felt that I was alone, that the two technicians who were with me had disappeared after drinking 5 bottles of vodka. I felt a deep feeling of void, almost an absence of any will to live. The sun was going down, animals and birds started to make some sounds, nature became very sad. I climbed on the roof of a building waiting for the bus that brought us. At almost nightfall, I saw its lights, all of a sudden. They were looking for me for hours. Poor them, they were more desperate then I was!
- Meet Anton Solomoukha in Normal Magazine n° 5 -