Lidya Blinova: The Learned Pussycat

LIDYA BLINOVA (1948–1996)
The Learned Pussycat

The wind whipped the atmosphere.
Clouds coursed without fear.
The moon in its seething frills
Ascended over the hills.
The earth poured towards it:
Villages, fields, and hamlets.
A dark forest nodded from vast plains
To heaven’s chatelaine.
And everything sublunar under the moon
Rose higher and aloft:
The waves and the land,
A cat on a roof and its thoughts,
And, deep below the waves, the sand.

After buzzing out the day like combs,
The ancient city slumbered: the moon’s
Mead trickled towards the mountain’s foot.
Parades, promenades, and fêtes
Raged here a century ago,
But now the ruins slept in rows.

The overgrown gardens were bothered
Only by the water’s patter.
The stream’s angelic tone
Resounded where the water’s flow
Was dammed by fallen leaves.
What emptiness and peace!

But what did we see?
In a window a candle was burning,
And the candle revealed
A pussycat purring.

A tizzy swept over the old garden.
Doors were slammed, footsteps cascaded.
And, quite as black as a roach,
Into the light’s triangle crept a coach.

The learned pussycat, dismayed and aggrieved,
Leapt into the carriage, shouting “To the sea!”
A dog dolefully howled in the park.
A sinister coachman emerged from the dark,
An amulet glinting and melting under his cape.
The moon went pale, giving chase.
Raving, the steeds thundered, frothing at the mouth.
The uneven pursuit made the moon catch its breath.
Over rooftops, twixt chimneys, through poplar fleece,
It rushed to the place beyond the fields
Where the sea stood like a living wall.

And the pussycat in the coach?
She was crazed, she was ill.
What thought could she give to the coachman?
What matter to her was the moon’s will?

For every piece of iron in the womblike contraption
The patter of hooves smashed into fractions.
The pussycat imagined that, through flint and dirt,
Alongside her, Achilles roared, and the turtle crept.

Oh, the running in place, the maundering
Of things moving motionlessly toward their mark!

Oh, the trellised mirrors of old aporias!
And the sea came ever closer, the cherished sea!
Every jolt and pothole on the highway
Sent the pussycat higher into the sky,
As if yeast were stirred into things at creation
By someone quite batty about expansion.

Madness’s abyss beckoned to the pussycat.
Panting, the moon whispered, “Drat!
All we needed was for the pussycat to flip!”
It was so angry it slipped,
And, suddenly, it dropped into the coach
Out of the empyrean like ice hurtling off a roof.

The straps and traces were lost in a blink,
The horses speeding off down the stony brink.
The driver melted into thin air,
And his passengers missed dying by a hair,
As his chariot fell to pieces.
The pussycat and the moon sat on the beach.

It is a pity their important chat
Has come down to us in bits and scraps.
“There is a gazillion . . .
Issues of logic.”
“But there is a gamut.”
“Then what is it?
Philosophizing like Hamlet?
No, Buridan . . .”
“I’ve been harping on that for ages.
We’re again walking on bodies . . .”
“The unthinkable . . .” “ . . . cat sausage
turned into the coveted puss in booties.”
“Uniqueness seduces you.”
“And what is your métier?”
“Everyone needs a milieu:
Water is my cup of tea.”

Then the breeze blew in our direction,
Making audible their conversation.

“Listen, I’ve seen your face before.
I remember: it was on the roof next door.
You often peered through the dusty lunette
Into chambers I no longer rent.

“With a gaze now joyful, now sad, you kept watch
Over all the ups and downs in the masterwork
That consumed me then from paws to ears.
But it seems as if years,
No, as if centuries have passed since that time,
And suddenly I peer so closely into your eyes.
Oh, what happened? Where we were rushing?
We are mixed up in a terrible muddle!”

“Take courage, take courage, you have friends,
And I dare to rank myself among them.
Let it be known that for a long time
A gilded palace to you has been assigned.
The best pencils have been carefully whetted,
Shelves stacked with books, and lantern lighted.
And out the window what expanses you shall see.”

The pussycat cried, “Where is it? Who did this for me?”

Then the moon, which burned like copper,
Ebbed and faded with a mutter.
It waned so fast, in a thrice,
Its shape resembled a melon slice.
Masts and rigging went up in a jig.
What was left of the thing—
A barely visible ashy oblong—
Burrowed into storm clouds and was gone.
Everyone was forced to feign
It was the face of the moon.

The moon summoned a wave to its side.
The wave lifted the moon up high.
And so between heaven and earth
The little ship hung in mid-air,
As on a tinted postal card.
Grabbing her things from the strand,
The pussycat boarded the bark,
Whispering “Adieu” to the sixth part.

Wisps of phosphoric foam sputtered.
Selene’s new horns glittered,
And with his burning saucers Argus scowled
At the enraptured striped pussycat’s tail.
The first opera’s chimera was born in the pussycat.
There was applause in the stalls, noises in the pit.
The storm clouds rose, opening an entrance
In which the sea sighed like an audience.
Her body filled with an invisible force,
The universe subsided, and the pussycat held forth.
Song’s primordial magical vigor
Reawakened in the fish their ardor.
The starry sky got goosebumps,
And the bowels of the earth rumbled.

By morning, the sea tour was over.
The elements were entrusted with new roles.
The one who came for the cat in the darkness
Had to go looking for the overheated horses.

The tide rolled out, and towards the sea
The grass bent sadly in the estuary.
In the fog, the sandbanks and islands
Altered their outlines.

And then a prickly eyelid opened a bit
Over a gloomy ridge of distant foothills.
Here man and stone conspired ever harder,
Establishing their power over the water.
Battlements and bends were sharper than the shore,
And the sand gave way to the granite.
Farther down, the fog hardened into boulders.
Like crystals, the light they beamed cut.

The golden bark hastened to take
Сover in a tangle of dark channels.
And the passenger? She dreamt of taking
A bath and setting foot on dry land.


…………………………………….………………….. But

The incident was settled with sanity
By the guard, who saluted the cat,
And the porter, who grabbed her tote,
sac de voyage, and the case with her vanity.

The heavy door cut off, like a tail,
The mutters and shouts of the crowd,
The stone bridge, ready to fail,
And the sinister hugger-mugger of the town.

She climbed a steep cascade,
Then walked down the hall to her rooms.
If you such a voyage had made
You’d be glad of an old cozy home.

The End

Courtesy of the estate of Lidya Blinova and Focus Kazakhstan, National Museum of Kazakhstan. Translated by the Russian Reader


“The Learned Pussycat” and other works by Lidya Blinova will be featured in Focus Kazakhstan: Bread and Roses, an exhibition of four generations of Kazakh women artists organized by MOMENTUM in partnership with the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan that will run from September 25 to October 20, 2018, at Studio 1 in the Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.

The show comprises work in a wide-range of media by twenty artists created from 1945 to the present. Emerging Kazakh women artists are prefaced in the show by a group of eminent forerunners who have remained more or less invisible within the history of Soviet, Kazakh, and world art. Against the tumult of Stalinist repression and its aftermath, the work of these women has forged a bridge between traditional Kazakh arts, crafts and ways of living, the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, socialist realism, and a completely new approach to art making that emerged in the early the 1980s. The works that these great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters of contemporary Kazakh art have produced reflect the melting pot of ideas and influences between east and west arising from Kazakhstan’s history of tumultuous political and social change. Bread and Rosestakes place in parallel with the Focus Kazakhstan Artist Residency Exhibition at the MOMENTUM Gallery, also in the Kunstquartier Bethanien.

Poster_Version 3_web

Lidya Blinova’s parents both worked as architects, her grandfather was a priest and mystic. She graduated from the Architecture and Construction Institute in Alma-Ata, and her subsequent work encompassed architecture, art, poetry, sculpture, jewelry, book design, acting, and cinema. By inclination she was a radical. She jointly developed ideas with her husband, Rustam Khalfin, who described her as his “alter ego,” and whom she first met in 1962, at the age of fourteen, in the graphic art studio at Alma-Ata’s Palace of Pioneers. Khalfin’s idea of the pulota, a keyhole into a fragmented world of space, time, and image, originated with Blinova. Formed by the simple gesture of folding a fist and looking through the hole in its middle, it created what she described as the “ultimate plastic object,” replete, at the same time, with fullness and emptiness.

Blinova first began to make wooden sculpture in the studio of Isaak Itkind, a primitivist and friend of Marc Chagall who had been imprisoned in Kazakhstan. and also worked for film director Sergei Bodrov on The Stunned Apostle, for which Pavel Zaltsman, a close associate of Pavel Filonov who had also been interned in Kazakhstan, was production designer. For Bodrov’s second film The Unprofessionals (1985), Blinova worked as costume designer. A polymath, she also made puppet shows for children and experimented on small sculptural forms for jewelry.

During the 1970s, she both organized and was a participant in the private apartment art exhibitions in Alma-Ata that showed autonomous works by pupils of Vladimir Sterligov. Almost the whole group, including Khalfin, had been previously educated as architects. In 1995, she designed a series of catalogues on contemporary Kazakh artists for the Soros Foundation in Almaty and presented her installation Poem for a Cat at the Kokserek Gallery, which also published the eponymous book. In 2011, her work was posthumously represented in the exhibition Between the Past and the Future: Minus 20. The Archeology of Relevance, at the Kasteyev Art Museum in Almaty.


Fond of Paradox: The Works and Days of Vadim Ovchinnikov

Vadim Ovchinnikov, 1990s. Photo by Igor Ryatov. Collection of Igor Ryatov

Ekaterina Andreyeva
Fond of Paradox

Vadim Ovchinnkov’s masterpieces have always been remembered in Petersburg. The paintings Window, Green Square, and What Is Ruining Us, which he exhibited at shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have become enmeshed in the local mythology, just like the image of the man who painted them. According to Dunya Smirnova, Ovchinnikov was “fond of paradox,” and had the looks of a brave, mysterious hero, a Petersburg James Bond.

Atmospheric Phenomena, 1988. Oil on canvas, 60 х 120 cm. Collection of Ekaterina Andreyeva

Ovchinnikov spent the first part of his life in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. He spent the second part on the Gulf of Finland, in Leningrad aka Petersburg, where he moved with his younger brother the artist Alexander Ovchinnikov. Seven factories were built in Pavlodar in the 1950s to assist in conquering the so-called virgin lands. One of Ovchinnikov’s first paintings, which was shown at an exhibition of the nonconformist Society for Experimental Visual Art (TEII), was entitled Factory Gates. Ovchinnikov found a familiar industrial landscape in Leningrad, but there was nothing familiar about his factory gates. They flashed and flared amid the darkness of the canvas like an alchemist’s crucible or a spaceship. What the steppes and the seas have in common is their vastness and inconstancy, and in the steppes, human historical time has been added to these immeasurable dimensions. (“The trough stands like a monument, / The backhoe, like a token of hope.”) The reality of Ovchinnikov’s perpetually mercurial paintings is grounded in the history of the steppes, where magic and industry share the same space. An Asian shaman, he relocated to the north to assemble the Chukchi Poems, which resemble a wizard’s arsenal; to rhyme colors and words by paying heed to the signals emitted by the imagination (“I found gold in the steppe. / It was flat on its back upholstered in sand and gloom”); to give shape to sounds; and to write mail-art letters that always inspired a sense of an unprecedented happening among their readers.

Danger! Keep Out. Enamel on iron, 16 х 12 cm. Collection of Alexei Mitin

The symbols in Ovchinnikov’s paintings are often situated on horizon lines, thus resembling sheet music, but also the patterns on shamans’ tambourines, which facilitate the passage from the underworld to the earthly and heavenly realms. The geography of the voyages he undertook without leaving his studio almost defies description. Ovchinnikov lived several lives simultaneously and was in touch with various worlds. These imaginary spaces were recorded in pictorial series that stretched through the 1980s and 1990s: Spring in Chukotka, Atmospheric Phenomena, City by the Sea, The Life of Plants, Riders, and War Games. Ovchinnikov’s paintings takes viewers on trips to the peculiar worlds of Leningrad’s New Artists and the transavantgarde of the 1980s, while The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution gives them direct access to the Russian avant-garde’s experiments.

The Green Square: Symbol of the International Environmental Revolution, 1988. Oil on plywood, 100 х 99 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

Partly predicted by Boris Ender, who once noted in his diary that a green square on a white field symbolizes the form of human life, the work consists of a sheet of plywood painted bright green. Ovchinnikov probably had not read Ender’s diary entry, but he half parodically and half seriously extended the series of Malevich’s squares by painting a piece of scrap wood he had found somewhere. Ovchinnikov would not have been able to see the paintings of Boris Ender and his sister Maria and Ksenia or the colorful abstractions of Mikhail Matyushin until the late 1980s, when they were exhibited at the Russian Museum for the first time after an interim of more than fifty years. However, he undoubtedly studied the few paintings by Pavel Filonov he had seen at the museum: Solar Energy No. 2 (1981) is painted in the pointillist crystalline manner devised by Filonov. But the dynamic freedom of color combinations and the primary element of color and sound waves fascinated him much more, and so by the mid 1980s he had recreated and completely transformed in his own way the painterly technique of the Matyushin school in the series The Life of Plants and Atmospheric Phenomena. Ovchinnikov’s take on Mikhail Matyushin’s so-called expanded vision involved a combination of imagination and observation. Ovchinnikov discovered and rediscovered the real world, which lives for color, in tense abstract compositions that elaborated Matyushin’s paradoxical notion of the universe, in which rays from different sources intersect after millions of years, where the vast sun permeates our tiny earth with its radiation, and things great thus incorporate themselves into things small. The freedom of the avant-garde’s ideas emerged before we were born, but in Ovchinnikov’s work they found their living, perfect shape.

The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Life of Plants, late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

Among the New Artists who paid tribute to painting—Timur Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, Ivan Sotnikov, and Inal Savchenkov—Ovchinnikov stood out in the sense that his paintings were alive with a sense of the world’s unity, which was bound together by painterly matter. Moreover, the world, dynamic and amenable to harsh mergers and acquisitions, could indulge in contemplation of its own greatness only in the colored substance of paintings, pierced here and there by a sprout, an extraterrestrial beam of light, a magic arrow or an unforgettable hallucination. Like his comrade Timur Novikov, Ovchinnikov had his own philosophy of art making. Their minds sought to master the eastern technique of dashing between microworld and macroworld. Always in motion like the wind, Novikov managed in western fashion to accurately capture the harmony of the capstone, to the find the arch’s single focal point. Ovchinnikov, on the contrary, would quietly meditate in his studio for days on end, captivated by the endless changes, the alchemical process by which colors are sublimated into images, and the reverse process by which images dissolve into color. Ovchinnikov’s work was unique in that he freely drifted between figurative and abstract painting for many years. It helped him couple cross-sections of mythmaking, opened up sites of strength and poles of energy, the stories of flora and fauna before human being emerged, the legends of the saints, and dazzling visions at the limits of the heavens and his own consciousness.

A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin
A Walk, 1992. Oil on board-mounted fabric, 41.7 x 58 cm. Collection of Gennady Pliskin

People who dwell with Ovchinnikov’s pictures on their walls know that, like living beings, they reveal themselves anew and differently every day, giving one the sense of witnessing a transfiguration. The texture of his pictures is as mercurial as a natural landscape.

In 1993, I wrote the following in the booklet for Ovchinnikov’s first solo museum show, A Walk (Progulka): “Next to them you live as it were outside, amidst nature, which ineffably transfigures from one minute to the next. They constantly reveal a changing dynamism of shapes and new shades of color while simultaneously hiding past shapes and colors. Like a living substance, their colorful surface interacts with light and is capable of transforming like the surface of the sea.”

Spatial extension in Ovchinnikov’s paintings and poems changes vis-à-vis the organic budlike capsules of Matyushin’s living spaces or the symbolic fusions of heavenly and earthly worlds in the work of Vladimir Sterligov. In Ovchinnkov’s works, readers and viewers are constantly moving along lines formed by slices of space, along the trajectories traced by pictograms and dialects.

As if it had bathed the rough flanks of cliffs,
The water drained away to the babble of bubbles and never came back.
I saw
Tower cranes constructing a temple,
Clouds from the east racing above them.
Girls from our class
Running along the shore in white dresses.

Unification and harmonization occur in this case thanks to incessant transpersonal movement. Like the contrail left by an airplane in the sky, it shapes the mercurial, intermittent lifeline of the totality, emerging again and again. This line captures acoustic accents and momentary images, simultaneously emancipating them from immediacy. Thus, the word potok (here, “class,” but literally, “stream” or “flow”) once again partakes of free movement, tossing off the shell of Soviet bureaucratese. This harmony is marked by the shade of drama, for it moves via losses and lives only in the temporal being of art, in the event of the creative act, whether pictorial, poetic or musical.

The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak
The Creation of the Universe Has Been Completed, 1987. Mail art. Collection of Svetlana Kozak

For many people, including quite sophisticated professional connoisseurs, the paintings of Vadim Ovchinnikov were testimony to a miracle, the presence of a living, universal art. In the late 1980s, the head editor of the New York-based magazine Art & Antiques was so stunned by Ovchinnikov’s paintings that he undertook something editors rarely undertake: an experiment. He placed on the magazine’s cover a photograph not of the front side but the back side of a painting by Ovchinnikov, that is, a piece of stretched canvas with inscriptions in Cyrillic, indecipherable to most of the magazine’s readers. He thus augmented the effect of a sudden artistic discovery. The painting itself took up a full page inside the magazine. In the historical circumstances of the times, Russia was thus marked out as a continent of new art. This now rather old story persuades us that it suffices for people who want to see authentic postmodernist or transavantgarde painting, meaning art freely transiting the borders of time and space, and implanting itself in the flesh of cultures, from the primitive to the global and urban, look at the work of Vadim Ovchinnikov alone in order to comprehend his illustrious contemporaries such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia. Especially because looking at Ovchinnikov’s pictures is endlessly interesting. For he always followed his own Rule No. 26, as published by the mysterious Collegium D.P.: “Painter! Skillfully using pattern, color, texture, color temperature, tone, daubing, line, tone value, varnish, and Chinese and Indian philosophy, tell the viewer everything, but do not give away any secrets.”

Vadim Ovchinnikov: The Mineshafts of Nirvana, a posthumous retrospective of works by Vadim Ovchinnikov (1951–1991), curated by Dr. Andreyeva and Svetlana Kozak, will be running at the Museum of 20th and 21st Century St. Petersburg Art, in Petersburg, until October 30, 2016. A slightly different version of this text, excerpted from the exhibition catalogue, has been published, in Russian, in ArtGuide. For more information on Vadim Ovchinnikov’s art and life, see the website (in Russian). Translated by the Russian Reader