The wide range of themes, trends, and styles in contemporary art often stupefies the public. More rarely does contemporary art find an audience through painterly skill and substantial engagement with powerful ideas. In the last several years these are the qualities that many artists have lacked; the absence of clearly formulated ideas is often hidden under apparently significant titles claiming philosophical depth.
In search of new means of expression, Russian art has returned to basic issues such as technical skill, composition, and inquiries into the nature and the essence of things in general. Attention to the academic tradition has not lessened; on the contrary, it has become a certain axis, or rather a reference point for Russian art. That is why it is no surprise that many artists have chosen classical art as their primary creative referent. Vladimir Borisovitch Sokovnin is located in this new generation.
The artist is descended from the ancient family of Sokovniny, which since the 16th century has played an important role in Russian history. Famous figures such as the Boyarynia Morozova and Princess Urusova were members of the Sokovniny family.
Vladimir Sokovnin was born in Moscow, in 1955. His childhood was lived in an atmosphere of cinema and theatre; through his parents he encountered both the joys and the difficulties of the creative process.
As a boy in art school, Sokovnin tried to focus his artistic interests. It was there that his first real love for painting emerged, inspired by the teachers I. K. Yanova and N. P. Blagikh.
After two years in the army (1973-1975) Sokovnin entered the Moscow Textile Institute, in the faculty of applied art, where he specialized in costume design. Among his teachers were A. S. Trofimov and D. F. Domagatsky, both of whom strongly influenced the artists creative direction. Since then, painting has become his life work. The years spent in the institute allowed the artist to acquire important professional skills. He worked a lot, spending his holidays travelling around Russia in order to find new subjects for his art. For example, in the summer of 1978 he visited the Karelia, Archangelsk and Vologda regions. Multiple sketches done there are evidence of his intense interest in the perception of nature, and of his attempt to reproduce the state of nature and its specific emotional effects. In accumulating these new impressions during his travels, the artist perfected his skills of composition and color.
After graduating from the institute, the young artist worked for several years in the cinema as a costume designer. He worked on the films "Magicians" (the film studio of Odessa) in 1982-1983; and "Kin-dza-dza" ("Mosfilm" studio) in 1985, in collaboration with N. Zhuravleva. For several years Sokovnin collaborated closely with the creative union "Ekran" in the Central TV. Striving to widen his creative range, he enthusiastically worked on the decorations for "The Festival of Youth and Students" in Moscow in 1985 (also in collaboration with N. Zhuravleva).
In spite of his achievements in more contemporary media, Vladimir Sokovnin finally came to the conclusion that he wanted his primary work to be painting. His first ten years of independent work were devoted to developing his painterly skills. For this purpose he travelled around the country depicting nature, working on landscapes and portraits, attempting to render as exactly as possible what he saw while at the same time trying to convey the inner character of people and nature. His landscape sketches are done in a most generalized way; they are reserved in colour. They exemplify the artist's close attention to the organization of space on the canvas, and to the construction of rhythmical compositions. Good examples of this work are the sketches of Kirillov (1978), Odessa (1982), and other Russian towns.
The range of places visited by the artist is quite impressive: Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, Odessa, and Kamchatka. On Kamchatka he exhibited portraits of sailors and landscapes. (Sokovnin began participating in exhibitions during his student years.) Later on he worked in Khiva (1988), and Angola (1988). Recently he has visited Israel (1988) and Indonesia (1999) where he painted the portrait of the President of Indonesia, Megavati Sukarno Putri.
Sokovnin's subconscious preference for large canvases, large-scale images, and significant themes appeared shortly after his graduation from the institute. For the Republican exhibition "We Have Defended Peace We Will Preserve It" (1985) Sokovnin created one of his first major painting projects. This was the triptych "Victory Day," devoted to the artist-veterans of the Second World War. The central panel of the triptych is a group portrait; the side ones are depictions of an artist's studio in wartime and peacetime. The major strengths of this painting are the precision of detail in the portraits combined with the representation of a general atmosphere of people united through reflection and memory. Sokovnin worked on this painting at the Academic Dacha of I.Ye. Repin the house of creative work for Russian artists (the unique place near Vyshny Volotchek, connected with the names of famous Russian artists such as I. Repin, A. Kuindji, K. Korovin, V. Byalinitsky-Birulya, V. Rozhdestvensky, and many others).
Since then Sokovnin has regularly worked and lived at the Academic Dacha, spending time with other Soviet artists such as A.M. Gritsai, the brothers A.P. and S. P. Tkatchevy, A. P. Levitin, V. M. Sidorov, and others. The very atmosphere of the Academic Dacha, its natural beauty and creative energy has greatly aided Sokovnin in his professional growth.
After "Victory Day," Sokovnin painted several other large canvases, including "The Theatre of the Revolution" (1985) in which the artist dealt with the many problems suggested by the theme itself, "All to the Front" (1986-1987), "The Establishment of the Soviet Authority in Rybinsk" (1986-1988), and "The First Kolkhoz in Khiva" (1990).
After working for a time with large-scale narrative pictures, Sokovnin turned his attention primarily to portraiture and landscapes. One of the first paintings in this new direction was "Russian Beauty" (1993), which became a turning point for the artist, as it was here that he developed his new approach to composition. The painting depicts a young woman walking on a blossoming meadow with woods in the background. She is wearing wide clothes and a kokoshnik with a long ribbon characteristics of traditional Russian costume. Other typical national features are embodied in her slight turn of the head and soft features. This picture is often treated as a poetic symbol of Russia. At the exhibition of Russian Art in China in 2001, "Russian Beauty" was featured on the exhibition poster. This canvas demonstrated what would become the most recognizable feature of the artists creative work a synthesis of portraiture and landscape painting.
Sokovnin's work in portraiture is diverse. He has painted friends and acquaintances, as well as commissioned portraits of both private and official persons. People belonging to the first type occupy the space of the painting much more freely and organically. In the portrait of his wife ("Natasha", 1996) a slim figure in a red-brown dress looks monumental against the background of dark-green trees and bluish sky seen through the branches. The figure is in 3/4 profile, with a serious look turned to the viewer. A poetic image is created by the contrast between the attentively painted face and the general atmosphere of the portrait. Modern in spirit and strict in terms of its compositional choices, it continues a centuries-old tradition of portraits of women set in landscapes.
As for commissioned portraits, Sokovnin closely adheres to the border between a realistic portrayal and the artistic interpretation of a persons image, which brings into the picture the personal attitude of the artist and his vision of the model. To this end, he often uses costumes and accessories that would help to avoid constraint and coldness and would correspond to the inner qualities of portrayed people: he dresses them in ancient frocks, or, for example, a fencing outfit ("A Boy Fencing", 2000). This makes the task easier and helps one grasp the state of mind and the specificity of the person portrayed.
The portrait gallery of the directors of "Gazprom" painted in 1994 is purposely official, but even here one can feel that Sokovnin is always looking for features that communicate the individuality of the sitters. Among the official portraits, the portrait of the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, with the young birches in the background (1998), stands out. Here, Sokovnin consciously aimed to create the image of a private person and not that of a state man. This can be seen from Yeltsin's facial expression as well as his clothes. Portraying down to the knees in the foreground (a typical gesture for Sokovnin) emphasizes the figure; the contrast between the light colored clothes and the dark wood in the background adds to the monumentality of the figure. The clear resemblance of the portrait to the man and the virtuosity of the compositional decisions make it possible to consider this portrait among the best examples of Russian portraiture.
In the artist's longstanding engagement with the landscape genre we can see the development of his understanding of the genre. As his interests develop what we see are not so much sketches as thoughtful plunges into what he has seen, a desire to reproduce the feeling that contact with nature produces in the artist. His favorite season is that moment when the presage of spring can be seen among the signs of winter, such as snow with thawed patches and blue shadows. We can see this moment portrayed, for example, in "March" (1995), "March Sun" (1995), "Black Water" (1995), and "Drifting of Ice" (1995). In other paintings we find the sensation of an expansive space and distances, flanked by woods, with a wide sky above. Such are the panoramic landscapes "The Warm Evening" (1995), "Autumn" (1995) and "Tvertsa" (1997). In general, the artist aims not only at reproducing the image of nature but, mainly, at creating a generalized synthetic image-symbol, and, in doing this, continuing the tradition of Russian landscape painting.
A series of Jerusalem landscapes occupies a special place in the works of Vladimir Sokovnin. The series was made in 1998 during his visit to important religious sites there. In Jerusalem Sokovnin painted numerous landscapes related to the history of Christ and Christianity. Among them are: "Jerusalem in the Evening," "The Valley of Kedron", "The Gorge of Chariton the Confessor". In these paintings, the viewer can appreciate a specific flowing light that symbolizes the blessed spirit of the Holy Land, and its never-fading beauty. Seeing these eternal places, which have captured imaginations for two thousand years, strengthened the artist in his desire to create a generalized image of nature.
This trip and the paintings that it enabled allowed Sokovnin to reconsider his creative experience and marked a new stage in his creative development, which was the creation of a landscape-symbol, a landscape-idea. This new stage took shape with great mastery in the monumental "Old Elm" (1994). This was the first in a series of landscapes, including "Clouds" (1996), "Earth and Heaven" (2000), and "Heaven and Earth" (2002). In this series Sokovnin's approach to the genre of landscape changed dramatically. Here we see a landscape-painting made in the studio on the basis of what has been seen, felt, and thought, a kind of generalization based on years of abundant experience and work. The most important thing here is the thought of the artist, which breaks the borders of a concrete portrayal of nature, giving one instead the impression of a boundless universe, of heaven, stretching all over the Earth.
Throughout history, the masters of the various arts have made attempts to visualize a universal space in their works. In Sokovnins works this idea is localized and concrete: he expresses it through a monumentality achieved through the contrast of spaces, vast scales, and the elimination of superfluous details. This is the approach used, for example, in "Old Elm." In "Earth and Heaven" we see a well defined coexistence of the earth and the huge cupola of the sky. There is more tension in the canvas "Earth and Heaven," with its integrated dark masses of trees contrasting with the light blue sky and anxious clouds. It is opposed and at the same time supplemented in terms of content by the landscape "Heaven and Earth," where the trees reach up to the light clear sky. In these pictures the artist uses dark spots to create a volume of large masses of green within which the alternation of dark and light green colours plays a significant role.
Perhaps the award of which Sokovnin is most proud is the award of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Reverend Sergy of the 3rd degree. In 1997-2000 Sokovnin took part in the competition for the right to restore the Church of Christ the Savior, working with N. Kolupayev and V. Kharlov under the direction of N. Solomin. They painted the niches of the four corners of the central nave: "The Birth of Jesus Christ. The Adoration of the Shepherds at the Birth of the Child Jesus in Bethlehem," "The Birth of Jesus Christ. The Adoration of the Magi and the Bringing of Gifts to the Child Jesus," "The Blessing of Prince Dmitry Donskoy by Reverend Sergy before the Battle with the Tartars," "The Anointment of David, Son of Jesse, by the Prophet Samuel." This was preceded by a great deal of preparatory work devoted to collecting historic and archival materials, making sketches and cardboard paintings. Vereshyagins original sketches-small black and white pictures which had been kept in the archive of the Academy of Fine Arts, were used as the models for this work.
In 2000 Sokovnin was commissioned to restore a painting in the church of the Resurrection of Saint Pokrov Convent. Here the artist made the altar image and the paintings devoted to the miraculous appearance of the Tikhvin icon of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Alexandra.
In working on large-scale religious compositions, the artist, in fact, creates a whole gallery of historic portraits. It, obviously, adds to the spiritual concentration of the author special trustworthiness and significance.
Although he adheres to traditional modes of composition, Sokovnin is not a blind imitator of the art of the past. While working in illusionistic academic perspective, he avoids passive naturalistic forms of representation and works out large spots with colour, playing with confrontation and contrasts of light and dark. His works, portraits and landscapes are full of a romantic mood, are meaningful and imbued with the authors feeling. In his works of art, tradition organically interweaves with the latest achievements of art generalization, the absence of minutely detailed volumes, and a modern treatment of colour.
Over the last decade, Sokovnin's many exhibitions in Russia and abroad have drawn deserved public attention and acclaim to his diverse and talented work.
Butorina Ye., art critic