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Strikingly serious

Sun, 17th Jan 2010
Russian artist laughs and paints the world in adopted hometown. (January 2010)

In December 1992, a young Russian artist came to Macao to exhibit his paintings, thinking that he would leave this quiet town for greener pastures after a few days. 

But, like George Chinnery and other well-known European artists centuries ago, Konstantin Bessmertny found himself settling in Macao and blossoming into an internationally acclaimed painter.Working from his studio in the tranquility of Coloane, Bessmertny, 45, has held many exhibitions worldwide from Asia to Europe. His works are admired and loved for their wit, technical mastery, intellectual approach and, above all, an unusual blend of his European heritage with his adopted home in the East. 

Thanks to his artistic achievements, Bessmertny has become an icon of Macao, showing how this former Portuguese enclave with its rich cultural past can nourish talents from all backgrounds. The close-shaven, sporty-looking western artist is an unusual face in the local cultural scene which is dominated by Chinese. “He is a rebel and a critic; he is funny and avant garde. He has qualities not commonly seen in Macao but which it needs to maintain its vibrancy as a cosmopolitan city,” said a long-time Portuguese friend of his. 

In 2007, Macao picked him to represent the city at the prestigious 52nd International Venice Biennale, a global art event held every two years. He created an aircraft-like structure with wheels, from scrap iron, mechanical parts, cartons and other assorted recycled materials. Outside were graffiti in Latin, English, Portuguese and Chinese. Inside were fake baroque paintings, chandeliers and wallpaper painted with Venetican scenes and Nam Van in Macao. He called this plane that could not fly ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’; critics say it is a work that mocks the nouveau riche of the city. Anchored in the sea adjacent to Giardini in Venice, this “aeroplane” attracted several hundred viewers each day. 

All year round, Bessmertny’s works can be seen in many cultural institutions in Macao. In 2007, he had a comprehensive retrospective of his work in the Macao Museum of Art. His most recent local exhibition -- oil paintings and a five-metre high wooden horse sculpture -- was held at the end of 2009 in the Albergue Gallery, an attractively restored century-old house. 

Bessmertny was born far from Macao, in Blagovesthensk, in Amur Oblast, the Russian province bordering China. By six, he was already nicknamed “the artist” for his passion to create things. 

“I have happy memories of myself doing sculptures using clay and other materials, while the other boys were playing football. I was a no-trouble kid, always so busy doing my own art stuff,” the jovial-looking artist said. 

At 7, Bessmertny won his first prize in painting. At 11, his parents sent him to a local art school. At 20, he began six years of study at the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts in Vladivostok. There he learned and painted for eight hours every day, with a strict regime “just like the 17th century,” he recalled. The day began with two hours of drawing with models and sculptures, followed by another three hours of painting, with the classroom door tightly closed during the lessons. In the afternoon, he learned about sketching, art history, anatomy, the technology of materials, perspective analysis and other art-related subjects. 

“The training of an artist in Russia in those days involved great discipline,” he said. He recalled spending months to complete a sculpture of the head of a Roman in 1985, working on it for a few hours each day. 

In 1992, he graduated - then came the invitation to exhibit that would change his life forever. Macao was “love at first sight”; he came via Guangzhou, which was “chaotic, polluted and overcrowded”. Looking back, Bessmertny said there was a China connection even in the early years of his life. 

"Between six and 16, my best friend was a Russian Chinese. Incidentally, my grandmother also spoke some Chinese.” 

Bessmertny never thought of settling in Macao for so long, thinking each year that he would leave eventually. But the city has its charms, pulling the artist back despite his global travels. Disciplined and prolific, Bessmertny works for eight hours or more a day behind closed doors. In the evening, he joins his family and breaks his solitude. “My wife says I am very talkative at home. That is because I am alone the whole day by myself, not talking to anyone.” 

Bessmertny paints, draws, does installation art and makes sculptures. “I like to do three to five subjects at any time. Sticking to just one style is too boring for me. I have so many ideas and have, I believe, the creative energy of two or three artists.” He paints on canvas, objects and musical instruments and does installation art. 

Despite his wide-ranging interests, oil remains his favourite medium. “I believe in oil, as it lasts a long time and can withstand wear and tear. It is a pleasure for me to feel and smell oil. 

With oil, you have to discipline yourself. You have to let it dry and sometimes this can take months” he explained. So while he waits literally for the ink to dry, Bessmertny does other things, like drawing sketches and installation art. 

Whatever Bessmertny creates, it is always complex, filled with characters, icons, languages and messages. His multi-layered works reflect his thoughtfulness and his cultural background. “One senses that the cultural well from which Konstantin draws is a deep one: from opera, Berlin cabaret, vaudeville, burlesque, cartoons, newspapers to theatre and costume design,” wrote art critic Terence Rodrigues. 

“Even the artistic sources of inspiration are multifarious and multilayered: Russian icons, cartoons, ex votos, old master portraits, still lifes, trompe-l’oeil and allegorical painting, from Titian to Vermeer, the Fontainebleau School to Matisse, Bosch to Brueghel, Chagall to Picasso.” 

Rodrigues noted the colourful medley of characters on Bessmertny’s stage, “gamblers, the decollet women of the demi-monde, dictators, Banana Republic generals, cowboys, bourgeois, Mafiosi cigar-smokers, angels in the form of paunchy middle-aged men in saggy underpants and wings, sinister men in suits, naked capitalists, liegemen in 18th century court dress, Zorro, Lenin, Marat - and of course the usual kinky habitus of Konstantin’s work - the cross-dressers and hookers in fishnet tight and stilettos.” 

Literary references are also found, from the Old Testament to Erasmus, Brecht, Kafka, Beckett and Ionesco. The words and texts are in many languages: Latin, Russian, Portuguese, English, French and Chinese. Bessmertny himself speaks many languages, although he confesses that he has just started learning Cantonese. 

Cesar Guillen-Nunez, a Macao-based art historian, noted that Bessmertny studied and drew inspiration from great artists, from Titian to Picasso and more recently, the Dutch Masters of the 17th century. The painter then blended traditional techniques with his own distinct interpretation. 

One example is a painting depicting the handover of Macao to China with Portuguese officials passing the keys of the city to their Chinese counterparts. 

“With a fine sense of historical irony, Konstantin quotes Velasquez’s Rendition of Breda. In Konstantin’s hands, the chivalrous personages of Velasquez are now contem-porary persons, whose egos the artist, Picasso-like, has stripped of all its masks”, Guillen-Nunez observed. 

The techniques might be traditional, but the subject matter is definitely contemporary. “His handling of traditional media produces an effect of instant recognition, as well as feelings akin to joyful surprise. It is as if someone moving through a foreign and unknown land suddenly hears a familiar tongue,” he wrote. 

Chinese culture, however, does not loom large in his works, although Chinese characters, symbols, the Lingnan architecture of southern China, chopsticks, rice bowls, dim sum and other Chinese artifacts pop up occasionally. 

Absurdity, with a touch of humour, is another hallmark of Bessmertny’s oeuvres. His world is often a topsy-turvy one inhabited by grotesque figures, invoking shock, surprise and provoking a good laugh from those who see it. Hilary Binks, an art critic, wrote how she was impressed by the style. 

“I remember being immediately drawn by one painting, Ambience IX: Portrait of a Young Man with Sabre on a Horse. The first thing that struck me was how beautifully it was painted, the excellence of technique. A split second later came a realization of the absurdity of composition: no dashing cavalry officer brandishing his weapon here, but a dumpy little man on horseback inexplicably standing in the middle of an elegant drawing room! A room even furnished with a table whose legs echoed those of the horse!” 

“I love absurdity,” said Bessmertny. “To find the true meaning of things, you have to emphasise the absurdity of it. A famous film director once said that if you do comedy and you manage to have people see the serious side of things, you would have succeeded in your art.” 

“I like my works to be funny, comical and cynical but carry a serious message at the same time. This is my contribution to making a better world, that, through my teasing, people can reflect on things and change for the better.” 

The fun-loving artist laughs at human vices and follies, especially when they are displayed round the gambling table. He captured this behaviour in a series of artwork entitled Casino Republic, the scenes and personages inspired no doubt by what is happening in his adopted hometown, Macao. Distorted human figures are surrounded by chips, gambling machines, coins, roulettes and dirty carpets are seen in the series’ paintings, wood panels and sculptures. “The republic is a city of vice and sin. You have the general in charge and then there are the criminals, prostitutes and others committing a variety of vices, when they are exposed to lots of money, bright lights and a mountain of food in a ridiculously small city,” he said. 

What is Bessmertny’s ambition for the future? More financial reward and recognition? “Why should one want to get more famous? It only generates hatred and envy. There are artists who become very successful financially and quit painting. I want to remain humble. I don’t need big projects or to be in art centres like New York. I do not want to be rushed into doing things there.” 

Bessmertny has done commissioned work, but artistic freedom is his paramount priority. “I have to do it on my own terms and time frame.” The KEE Shanghai club hired him to do one painting and two murals. The painting, Amour Forever, has life-sized men and women posing in Hollywood gangster-movie style. For the huge murals, Antichita Romane, he drew inspiration from Piranesi and his own sketches of Roman sculptures. Alongside the broken sculptures are out-of-context dinosaurs and Latin jokes, done with a touch of his signature ridicule. 

“I like to challenge myself,” he continued. “I work on something and then come back the next day to have a second look. If I am satisfied with it, I put my name on it. I do not need to consider what other people think. It is the only way I can do art, not for money but for my own pleasure.” 

Bessmertny has remained true to his own calling; a former school classmate is now director of a university’s art faculty and another runs a publishing house. “My nightmare is that I would be unable to fulfill the nickname I was given when I was six: an artist.”

 

By Louise Do Rosario in Macao

(Issue N. 2, January 2010)