More images

* * *

Water and rocks

By Boris Bernstein

Certain artists have single-mindedly devoted their life to a particular genre: Aivazovsky only painted marine landscapes, Heda only ``luncheons;'' Giorgio Morandi, one of the most important Italian masters of the last century, painted so many bottles, one might think he spent the best portion of his life at a recycling facility. Others, on the other hand, feel stifled in the confines of a single genre or medium, and so they liberally employ the possibilities offered by a whole spectrum of media.

In Maria Kazanskaya's show at Stanford in Spring, 2008 one could see the meeting of these opposites. Her obviously wide range of interests and visual multilingualism easily coexist with a loyalty to certain topics. The key words here are "series" and "variation." But an image can be a key as well as a word.

I believe that such a key image -- a code image -- is hidden in her large series of works on paper under the umbrella title Water and Rocks. Water and Rocks: of course, we are reminded of Pushkin's lines ("And so they met -- like wave with mountain, / Like verse with prose, like flame with fountain: / Their natures distant and apart." -- Eugene Onegin, Ch. 2, translated by James E. Falen), where this pair epitomizes the clash of opposites giving rise to the paradoxical harmony of friendship. In the history of art there is an episode of great scale and importance in which the antinomy of water and rock -- literally -- was developed with a special subtlety and sweep and endowed with a universal philosophical meaning. Looking at Kazanskaya's stones and streams, it's hard not to be reminded of it. Let's digress for a moment.

While in 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance Italy controversies flared about the primacy of painting versus sculpture, far in the East, in China, it had been known for a good half-millennium that painting is the highest of the visual arts, and that landscape is the highest of its genres, its acme and crown. The Chinese name for landscape is shan shui, literally -- "mountains-and-water".

A Chinese landscape painting was not a faithful representation of a particular location; it was composed from imagination, composed as a visual explication of weighty philosophical truths. The mountains and water depicted by the Chinese masters symbolize the eternal foundations of the world as it appeared to the Chinese religious-philosophical consciousness. Mountains symbolize the solid, stable, immutable elements of the world; water stands for mobility, change, fluidity, transparency, penetrability. They complement each other and permeate the entire universe, manifesting themselves in the whole as well as in the smallest particle. Therefore, every classical Chinese landscape painting is a sublime philosophical poem on the nature of things.

Maria Kazanskaya's landscapes have a different origin. Usually, they grow out of a natural scene or motif. Everything here is genuine: the polished, smooth boulders amid calm or rushing waters are just as the artist saw them in reality. However, we find here the same unity in the contraposition of universal foundations: immutable and fleeting, solid and fluid; we recognize the outlines of the "Chinese" principle of landscape showing through the living flesh of immediate observation and experience. One can conclude that these water and rocks are a kind of European, but most of all an individualized equivalent of the classical Chinese landscape.