Great pieces of literature create images in the minds of readers. Even if one has never been to a place, through the pages of fiction one is able to visit great cities conjured up by master story-tellers. We can visualise Fyodor Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, Jams Joyce’s Dublin, Quratulain Hyder’s Lucknow, Salman Rushdie’s Bombay, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo, Gunter Grass’s Danzig, Mario Vargas Llosa’s Lima, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, Haruki Murakami’s Tokyo and Patrick Modiano’s Paris; locations, which may not match actual places, but are more permanent, pleasant and – populated. Because every reader who opens their books becomes an inhabitant of those cities. Hence the perpetual increase in population!
The text, besides invoking visuals, often inspires visual artists too. Or if not quite that, yet there is a link between writers and artists. A number of image makers are in conversation with authors, since the two creative endeavours are connected on many levels. A few of writers begin their fiction through images (for instance Garcia Marquez described the genealogy of his novel The Autumn of the Patriarch in seeing a photograph), and several artists interact with the pieces of literature.
Yana Germann, a multidisciplinary artist from Russia “dreams of a cultural dialogue between the greatest Russian writer [Dostoevsky] and herself,” resulting in a series of paintings and porcelain sculptures, which were displayed from the 18th to the 26th October 2021at the Maison Russe des Sciences et de le Culture in Paris. Curated by Eugenia Durandy de Naurois-Turgot, the solo exhibition was called ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ (after Dostoevsky’s short story published in Russian in 1877).
If the artist based in St. Petersburg have her dream-dialogue with the author from St Petersburg and “exhumes her hopes for a mass spiritual revival in order to save our civilisation from destruction”; she also converses with the artists of another era, Renaissance, the glorious period in the European Civilization. Yana Germann aims for a new Renaissance (as mentioned in her Metarenaissance Manifesto) in/through her art. In the works included in her one-person show, one finds a relationship between the inner world of the Russian writer and the aspect of outward-ness gleaned from the aesthetics of Italian masters.
Actually there is an intrinsic difference between the act of writing and producing art. Former is conducted in the solitude of a study, even at a café or inside a library, since writing is a sole person’s job; but making art requires space, tools, material – and in some instances presence and participation of apprentices/pupils. Also both kinds of creations are accessed in different manner. A book is read by a single person in his/her space (both physical and mental), while a work of art is normally viewed by several people simultaneously, as observed in galleries, museums and public and private collections.
However, after/due to Covid-19 the situation shifted, loneliness became a norm, and shared spaces, experiences, and encounters were associated with risk. Yana Germann in her manifesto comments on this condition: “The post pandemic world pushes us to observe from within. Internal will manifest externally. To create not only as an individual but as part of the global community”.
The work of Yana Germann mediates between the past and the present, to glimpse and comment on a future that, like the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s novels, is pristine, precise and pure. In a number of works, Germann refers to Renaissance imagery, but the works – with imbibed historic links – indicate another, a contemporary scenario. Only if a spectator is familiar with the past paintings, then they pick strands, but if not, the works offer a subtle view of our inner and outer landscape.
In fact, the separation between inner and outer is intriguingly challenged in the art of Yana Germann. One of her main motifs is presenting objects and human beings wrapped in an opaque or transparent fabric/material. This suggests a world that is hidden yet not completely concealed. Every artist is aware that the outer arena/substance is as potent part as the inner self when it comes to the act of creation.
The work of Yana Germann not only connects us to the art of Renaissance, it opens up to a Meta-Renaissance. It aims to makes us recognise our situation: in art, life and ideas
Germann uses the symbol of creation, the egg that recurred in various mythologies as the beginning of the universe. Primordial, primitive or tangible egg, covered in white sheet, is balanced on its base in her Egg (porcelain sculpture), or placed amid cloth of light grey/white, or coated in gold is next to several other white eggs arranged on a blank fabric.
The egg was the beginning and so was the Renaissance, and somehow the same is the case with the Metarenaissance in the case of Yana Germann. To her, “Metarenaissance explores what it means to be a Human in our digital era”. The sense of solitary is shown through a thin or translucent layer which overlaps but fails to diminish identities. In her oil on canvas, New Renaissance, a woman’s profile (slightly upturned echoing the Nefertiti’s features!) is under a plastic sheet with the curve of numerical forming a halo around the head. Likewise, in another porcelain sculpture a female head is wrapped under a thin fabric.
The subject of covering, veiling and revealing is not unusual in a world marred by religious repression, and pandemic protection, but Germann attained a sophistication in terms of her pictorial language. Her porcelain sculpture New Renaissance, in its refined and superb execution reminds of Hellenistic statue Nike of Samothrace (ca. 190 BCE). The thin sheet that shields the head of a young person in Germann’s work reminds the way a flimsy transparent cloth clings to the marble figure from the Greek period.
The most impressive aspect of her work is that it can be read differently in many parts of the world. In societies bent on subjugating women, it may be viewed as a symbol of resistance, of asserting one’s presence behind/besides all blinding efforts/measures/materials. It may be comprehended as a comment on the societal scenario in/after Covid-19 in which hands were gloved, faces were masked, bodies were protected. An unprecedented situation that forced artists to respond, and according to her manifesto pushed them “to observe from within……. To create not only as an individual but as part of the global community”.
The landscape of global community is fully portrayed in a couple of paintings by Yana Germann who “developed her artistic skills at the New York Academy of Art, New York, USA, and The Russian Imperial Academy of Fine Art”. In her painting, Last Supper, one finds the table cloth clutched and collected, but without any human presence. In another painting, Germann even goes further, because Uncertainty is a sheet of white tapestry spread from the top, depicting an immense absence/void.
Perhaps the painting that represents our unfortunate times fully and most accurately is the one appropriated from that age-old clip of the Creation of Adam, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco painted between 1508-1512. In her canvas, called Portal, two hands are about to connect – but stop in the midst, under the sign of internet connectivity; the immaculately rendered male and female hands against a white background of sheets. Germann reflects on this physical estrangement: “Loneliness in the digital era is more present than ever.
The work of Yana Germann not only connects us to the art of Renaissance, it opens up to a Meta-Renaissance. It aims to makes us recognise our situation: in art, life and ideas – and in the remarkable paintings and sculptures of Yana Germann.