Boris Zaborov has been living in France for the last 30 years, having relocated in pursuit of his career as an artist. Beforehand, Mr. Zaborov had already established himself as a book illustrator, having studied in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, Minsk is his birth place and it was there that he took his first creative steps.
Initially, life in Paris was hard and he was obliged to illustrate books — despite having sworn off of this in pursuit of his dream. However, his skills were in demand, allowing him to pay the bills and become independent. Experience taught him that it was vital to arouse a feeling of kinship between people and it was certainly in Paris that this idea crystallised for him. Photos from his Motherland haunted his mind: of relatives and friends. However, a photo is a fact while a picture is an image. The painful nostalgia aroused of course inspired him and helped him create unique connections in his works.
In Paris he achieved great triumphs, building on his successes in Belarus, where he had already been a professional. However, Paris gave him creative freedom to realise his main theme.
Three years ago, Boris Zaborov’s exhibition made a real splash in Minsk. He had collected canvases from private collectors across France, the UK, Belgium and Holland, persuading those at first reluctant in some cases. Having learnt his purpose, they could not refuse. Some works are from museum collections in France, while others are from his own archive. The exhibition at the National Art Museum of Belarus displayed his whole Parisian period of creativity, with 37 works created over the last quarter of the century.
Today, it’s easy for people to learn about Zaborov on the Internet, where images are abundant. Of course, electronic versions cannot live up to the original or even reproductions, since computer monitors have a limited ability to portray tines and shades. However, they give us a flavour of his talent. It becomes obvious to everyone that the artist did not turn off the once selected way, being in constant search.
The artist sees painting as his vocation, though it has had to take a ‘backseat’ at times. His expressive book covers and illustrations gained notice in Minsk in the 1960-1970s — despite the sphere attracting a great deal of critical opinion. It was difficult to be notable in that environment without a well trained ‘voice’ and developed imagination, since the census of high professional approach functioned there more than in the related art fields. Zaborov’s early pictures are remarkable in showing those style and ideological attitudes — as taught at Leningrad’s Academy of Arts and at the Moscow Institute (honouring Surikov). He was rather remarkable for guidelines tempting several young graphical artists in spite of institutional programmes. In those days, the creativity of Chagall and Jack of Diamonds artists was not fashionably ‘retro’ or post-modernistic but seen as a suspicious deviation.
The artist is not inclined to recollect his works from those years but, even then, his works showed confidence in technique and boasted his own style. He prefers his last, Parisian period, although there are few obvious symbols of the French capital on those canvases. Meanwhile, they are connected by invisible threads to the place of their origin. His Eden, in the Heart of Parisian Deadlock as he puts it is mysteriously present in his pictures which weren’t inspired by Paris.
The works presented at that Minsk exhibition three years ago were united in theme and style, while ranging from landscapes to figured compositions and, mostly, portraits (anonymous as a rule) and nudes. Moreover, there’re also pictures, which could be hardly referred to the genre art if they were not absolutely devoid of usual interest and plot intrigue, which are principally alien to the artist. The titles are very neutral, the literature ‘is blocked’ already here — such as Old Woman near Window, Family Portrait and Girl in Space. If Entrance to the Banya were otherwise named, it might be difficult to guess that the nude man was in the dressing-room of a banya. His nakedness releases him from all distinction of social status, creating an almost abstract feel. This is simply space in which a person ‘is thrown’. In this painting we face very big generalisations and, consequently, with abstractness, while, on the other hand, each picture unambiguously shows individuality of the author.
Such is Zaborov’s distinctive style: deeply personal — to the point of self-portrait. Rather than viewing his characters as people from the past epoch, we see them through a prism of ‘historical’ inclination, viewing each in their universal and eternal essence. And what artistic value is able to attract more than the artist’s own individuality? Zaborov soundly declared his author’s ‘I’, with all searches and inevitable internal shifts which were taking him away and finally took him away from aesthetic paradigm of the Soviet Empire style.
Zaborov shifted promptly from the Soviet Empire style he was taught towards his Paris phase, which distinguishes him from other artists who emigrated from native lands. He believes that this very circumstance fed his inspiration, bringing him success and pan-European recognition. While others gained their renown from depicting the French capital in recognisable images, Zaborov’s references are more obscure. His landscapes hold an important place in his creativity yet bear no relation to French landscapes; rather, they recall images from his younger, formative years: lopsided peasant log huts and squat barns with heavy straw thatch. His Shed (1995), Shed and a Two-wheeled Cart (1997) and Barn (2008) depict memories of youth, with meticulous detail. These are impressions which engraved on his memory back in his youth, were permanently in his mind in the first half of 1980s and are coming back even nowadays. A landscape image is as if a sign of time that suddenly stopped. The image is so evident in all details that each of them pretends to that nothing has been missed, though these details are insignificant in themselves. The importance of this image is predetermined by the fact that it is not invented or copied — it is simply deeply implanted in the nature of the artist. The importance of each image is determined by the fact that those details come from Zaborov’s memory, although they may have the sheen of a far-off dream. Those landscapes retain a surreal element — a feeling of mystery — as if existing separately from mankind. Only in Horse (1983) do we see nature co-existing with a living being. A beautiful four-legged creature stands statue-like in front of inexplicable landscape. The horse’s white croup looks mysteriously and surreal in the fading light; as does the landscape background with whitish clouds and mysterious darkness of the field, appealing to the artist, as well as us, towards impressions from his distant childhood.
Of course, such compositions don’t have any relation to Paris. If this city somehow participates in the painter’s creativity, so this is only as an invisible stimulator of composition creation. This great city in its all infinite diversity participates in the work for whose advancement constant spiritual balance is needed. Paris is Zaborov’s invisible inspiration, in its infinite diversity and spiritual presence.
The author singles out his Parisian period also because it incorporates two previous periods; both have shaped his personality. He would do the same while organising the exposition in France — his ‘third homeland’. Two others are certainly Belarus and Russia. His life has followed a geographical curve — from Minsk, through Leningrad and Moscow, again through Minsk, and, finally, to Paris.
What gives his Parisian period its rare originality? Perhaps the deliberate lack of use of traditional picturesqueness: mountain or sea landscapes, a bank of clouds in the spacious heavens or a stream in a wood. His manner is rare regarding his use of space and his particular style of brushwork. He sets aside vivid exuberance, rather using understatement. Nevertheless, his canvases are captivating. Zaborov’s picture arises on a sharp junction of painting and drawing. Any author who finds themselves in a similar situation, doesn’t have any other choice as to tirelessly struggle for finding and maintaining the balance. Zaborov balances between simple drawing and painting: a rare talent. In an age when so many artists lack true technical skills, he claims the honest talent of being able to draw well: the skill long praised by great masters. The 20th century was a time of largely putting aside the fine arts in search of abstract originality, primitivism and experimentation; proficiency in drawing was unnecessary.
Our modern age is one of colour: at the cinema, on TV and, even, on our mobile phones and computers. Our worldwide cult of colour tends to place painting above sculpture and drawing, with few artists working in monochrome. Of course, film began in black and white, only later embracing colour; there was no turning back, due to cost and efficiency. Those early films are occasionally re-mastered, adding colour artificially — but rarely with success; they tend to look inappropriate — in fact, vulgar.
Zaborov as a true artist uses colour with economy, even avoiding it, preferring a very limited range of shades close to simple black and white. Some themes have no need of a vivid palette. Such is the graphic heart of his works that colour is unnecessary. His union of painting and drawing is sometimes abstract: Entrance to the Banya (1989) and Girl with Mannequins (1992). His characters’ faces are almost seen through a metaphysical fog — as if barely real. We view them from afar, like an omnipotent God — just as we do in surveying old photos, where the subjects seem to look out from their frame like people from a lost world.
It’s difficult to keep on the brink of two spheres — real and conceptually abstractive, because it is necessary to co-ordinate painting and drawing, and, that it is even more important, to constantly feel certain ‘pulse’ of the environment — not of the humdrum, but of poetry.
They stand apart from reality. Those moments of captured time exist as if conjured from nothing — totally improvised. The use of shots to view a photo-finish of a race shows this well: each scene is self-contained, despite being part of continuous motion. Our modern experience of vividly coloured photography is quite different to that past, so that black and white shots cannot help but seem set apart from real human life.
Century-old bleached or faded photos — the memory which lost codes of someone’s anonymous ancestors — are to a certain extent immaterial in all their specified concreteness. They do not attract people by sensual temptation, especially because contemporary spectators inevitably compare them to everywhere multiplied journal and television photo fixations which are distinguished by heightened brightness and contrast, as well as exclusively high instantaneity. That is the ability to catch the moment, which is imperceptible to a human eye (for this purpose photographing is used to identify the place of an athlete on race finish).
Of course, in the early days of photography, long exposures necessitated subjects standing still for long periods: hardly conducive to appearing natural. Faces stiffened in tense expectation lose the individuality of expression. Unless the subject is famous, we tend to view such shots as no more than curiosities. Probably, it is necessary to be an artist of special talent in order to learn to enter into their old-fashioned life. Other painters resorting to photos are allured by other interests. They are interested not in centuries-old photo, but in something immea-surably more actual: with those tensions of form which modern photo art adopted from newest painting.
For many years, Boris Zaborov has been attracted by the super-individuality of his characters, which facilitates transformations occurring with the participants of his arrangements at their bringing on the canvas, saying, “I start to fill the picture, which becomes more complicated as I work, adding texture, structure and small elements. If I bring this process to its logical end, I reach a certain ideal — an absence of image.”
His moving to France coincided with an ardour for old photos, inspired not perhaps by pure nostalgia for the country left behind but by a desire to revive long forgotten ancestors. Those dry and cracked rectangles of once-glossy paper were created by proud photographers, bustling around their bulky equipment, casting magic spells. Their records for eternity are not ‘high art’ but are true archives of weddings, christenings and other family celebrations. Such records tend to only have interest to immediate family members, being nothing out of the ordinary and not even telling a ‘story’. Zaborov collected such photos in Minsk and, in Paris, on ‘looking through luggage, came upon a folder... and so all this began’. Family albums or isolated photos from forgotten package suddenly appeared as separate reality, in simple imprinting of which, for some reason, there was not any desire to look into.
In 1986, Nicole Zand, in his article for Le Monde newspaper, called Boris Zaborov a ‘hyperrealist of past time’. The term retains its gleam of fashion. Zaborov never concealed his interest in photos, which perhaps inspired a sense of empathy from the journalist. Neither Russian nor Belarusian art ever embraced hyperrealism, designated quite distinctly in Western Europe, although never a popular trend. It found most expression in the United States of America, reflecting an optimistic belief in the progress of market-unified civilisation.
Comparing pictures by Zaborov with his peers in the camp of American hyperrealism, they clearly differ not so much in plot as in spirit. Robert Cottingham (also born in 1935) uses glowing signs, neon advertising and extremely bright signboards, while Richard Estes (1936) displays modern metallic, glossy architecture: huge mirrored windows and luxurious limousines. John Salt (born 1937) also features magnificent shining cars, with expensive soft seating. Boris Zaborov, of course, was not interested in such things, so we can hardly compare him with Estes or Cottingham. The hyperrealists soon formed a uniform movement, expressing the same beliefs in the same style; Zaborov remained outside of any distinct direction. Nevertheless, photography was widely influencing all art.
Unlike the masters of the 19th century, modern artists can’t be constantly in touch with nature — so they must be guided by something else. Perhaps afraid of being captured by academic banalities, as had ruined thousand of his predecessors, Zaborov sought a new path. Photographs are a reliable version of reality: authentic and documented. Meanwhile, painting presupposes fiction.
In the 1980s, Zaborov sometimes reproduced the atmosphere of long forgotten provincial photo-workshops. His Young Man with Hat (1986) features a clumsy teenager standing beside a set featuring a vase of magnificent roses. The contrast between such beauty and such ‘commonplace looks’ creates a dark humour rarely seen in his works. The juxtaposition of the two creates a jarring artificiality. Young Man Sitting in an Armchair (1984) features a heavy rocking chair on which sits a skinny child with big ears and a large hat. An eloquent contrast exists between the lad’s youth and the ‘maturity’ of the hat, and between his lack of substance and the chair’s solidity. The contrast is at once ridiculous and familiar.
Nevertheless, the main thing to which the artist aspires in compositions of such kind, is to ‘change’ a quite concrete room caught by a studio lens, for the space of another, mental by its nature, world, which is rebuilt each time. This world is not any more identical to a standard scenic platform of studio, which is easily recognised and which is of real interest.
Artist’s look at the pauses of the bygone life — the pauses which became as tips for his pictures — is unusual, and for the majority is unacceptable, probably, at least because the newest photos which we constantly use, train to other visual reactions. But for us they serve in any case as the most reliable tools of memory. These are they which are give us as a keepsake, and are made in big quantities for themselves. Neither scientific travel-lers, nor leisure tourists go without them. They have considerably changed the shape of our civilisation. Naturally, artists class their creativity above that of photographers. Many look at souvenir snap shots as careless moments in time, taken in abundance on holiday and at celebrations. Undoubtedly, they have helped shape our civilisation and our sense of self. Zaborov’s use of photos relies on those from the distant past — taken long before his birth. They are ‘theatre’ for him, inspiring his own plots and character portrayals. He views those shots objectively, distancing himself, while capturing the essence of each person, to inspire empathy or sympathy. On looking at those faces from one hundred years ago, we might imagine they resemble neighbours from a far off childhood courtyard — or newcomers from another continent. The artist who constantly felt a temptation of communication with people, who were photographed a hundred years ago, got a skill to find in their commonness something lofty, but also humble and free.
Some of Zaborov’s portraits are full-length: Woman in White Hat (1984) shows a lady perhaps newly married, wearing white; of course, at the time, the bourgeois classes favoured pale coloured clothes. Masters of Parisian salons would often skilfully flatter customers by accentuating the grace of their figure — even elongating limbs as necessary — and photographers endeavoured to follow suit. In this case, Zaborov plays a portraitist and it does not matter from what he makes a start: from painting or from a wedding photo. But he does not intend to go a long way in such games. Not burdened with care to flatter to a lady, and pursuing just creative goals, he is reliably insured against sugariness of salon art. He is interested in painting itself. In a sketch to the picture the model is standing on the floor near a wall. In the picture this banal background gave the way to space of enve-loping, which forces a figure to behave a little bit differently, than in sketches. The arrangement of as though floating or soaring figure becomes less precise. We cannot but think of Italian Renaissance frescoes.
Zaborov understands the ‘magic’ which can occur simply by placing figures against different settings or backgrounds. The main thing, apparently, is in organic interrelations of backgrounds and figures, in their unalterable unification. The background, even when it does not include any details, could not remain faceless. Its format which predetermines the course of work is caused not by rationally counted geometry of proportions, but by the character of an image and intuition of the painter. The surface of a picture, structured by blows and lines of the brush, alongside colour stains, scratching and other methods, incorporates not only the energy of strokes of the brush, but also certain ‘substance’ of spatial environment. Let a real wall of a workshop or an interior in a photo be evenly painted, what else to expect from it. Let the sky behind a window be ideally clean. However, Zaborov’s pictures do not grasp and do not accept such cleanliness. The space which he creates step by step gets certain materiality, some kind of a corporality the density of which is directly proportional to a dissolved corporality of characters. Even seemingly empty backgrounds have their purpose. Brushstrokes and application of colour contain their own energy and ‘substance’ — as if alive. No background is without meaning. The more substance bestowed on the surrounding environment, the more his characters appear to lose their physical tangibility — becoming ethereal. He notes that ‘space cannot
In his painting much depends on scale, in which figures are destined to exist. He often selects the range of double demagnification. Sometimes, he prepares a ‘heroic zoom’ for his characters. They do not want to yield to their full size, and this brings additional internal tension in a picture, which a priori does not stipulate anything heroic. Double Portrait with Doll (1993) places the doll at the centre of our attention, rather than the elderly man and woman bizarrely accompanying it. Instantly, there is discord and we see his message of irrevocably lost youth. There is no sarcasm, only sadness and a sense of fragility.
While working over his works, Zaborov’s space, being actively emphasised, quite often appropriates the functions which by right should belong to the character. According to the artist, he begins from bringing a figure into emptiness of a canvas or a sheet of paper, realistically revealing the features of his characters — a boring stage for the artist, but inevitable; otherwise he won’t be able pass to the ‘inclusion’ of a character into the space, when the process of picture making fetches headway and internal meaningfulness. The canvas gradually acquires its structure, and at the same time texture, in which are reflected not only physical qualities of object prompted by a photo, but even time influence.
Zaborov’s juxtaposition of characters against their environment adds meaning beyond the immediately physical. His contrasts inspire much deeper contemplation, making us ponder themes universal and timeless. The longer we look, the more we see, as with poetry and the other higher art forms.
Such poetic duality generates the situation of ‘a picture in the picture’, when the viewer simultaneously sees two states of a composition. The first is more likely to be guessed, as it was initial, while the second is found by us when we examine what, apparently, should not find; namely, along with a picture we see its destiny, what it will live through. The picture became old, undergone various tests of time which acts as its main character. Painting is designed into forestalling of that should happen, and this distinguishes the already old things, decaying icons, for example. Decay and loss are common themes for him. A beetle eating a tree acts as a timekeeper, leaving traces, which show the passing of time. The stains and scratches on Zaborov’s canvases also indicate the distortions of time, impossible to resist. These echoes on the surface of each canvas are like the marks upon our skin: not that of a babe in arms, but the skin of those who have lived and suffered, endured and survived. A portrait without this element of ‘time’ cannot move us, since our vulnerability to time and the fleeting nature of human life is the very element which unites us with those who lived before us. They have left their legacy, via historical and museum monuments, art works and architecture, but all are empty vessels without the sense that living people created them, leaving a small piece of their soul and passion within.
Zaborov chooses not to present the ‘sleek and smooth’ in any sense. His brushstrokes include clots and daubs and small defects — as life contains them. Those canvases are alive, as we are, breathing wisdom through imperfection.
Zaborov admits that people are ‘the most interesting, most mysterious objects’ in his works; even his landscapes hold human presence. He gives us not perfection but the essence of humanity: that life is not perfect and can never be fully comprehended.
By Victor Mikhailov
From Paris — to home
[b]Boris Zaborov has been living in France for the last 30 years, having relocated in pursuit of his career as an artist. Beforehand, Mr. Zaborov had already established himself as a book illustrator, having studied in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, Minsk is his birth place and it was there that he took his first creative steps.[/b]