Today, I’ll show you a relatively small painting that tells a complicated story. It’s title is “Empty Handed” by Nikolai Solomin, a 73-year-old artist who was extremely successful during the Socialist realism times achieving fame as one of the best propaganda painters. He used to paint huge canvasses glorifying the achievements of the Communist Party. Very false, from both historic and psychological point of view. It was the kind of paintings where all the communists were beautiful, strong, resolute people and all the “enemies of the state” frightened, vicious, and ugly.
But, as the saying goes, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day”. That’s one of those times.
If you’ve been reading me, you know that the first thing we must do to start appreciating a painting is to look at it, scan it, and list things we see. I am not saying the first impression is not important. But the role of the first impression is, in fact, to get you involved in such a way that you’ll keep studying the canvas.
Now, what do we see, overall?
A man was coming from an unsuccessful hunt. He was tired and frustrated because he was coming back empty-handed. It is a fence that marks the territory of his village (it doesn’t have a gate that the fence of his home should have). So, he was very close to his home when he decided to take off his boots, hang his gear on the fence, slump against it and lit a cigarette. This is a cheap brand of cigarettes, so cheap it doesn’t have a filter.
Now, the composition of this painting has a trick that makes it involving.
Yes, you can’t say no to a doggie like that when it asks you to linger, and it is built in a way to make you instantly grasp the plot. The converging lines pointing to the right indicate the very short distance he is yet to cover to his home.
Now, why did the man stop there? Why didn’t he come home, straight? His home is close, he could relax in a more comfortable way there? He’d have to put on all his gear again, the boots, the rifle after this stop. Why!?
Let’s have a closer look at his face, perhaps, it will tell us something?
His flaccid arms do not take any part in his smoking. The cigarette glows in the corner of his mouth, but he doesn’t inhale or exhale the smoke in the way that a smoker should.
How do you think this unlucky hunter feels?
FRUSTRATED. TIRED. But not, actually, tired enough to just drop his gear on the ground. He put it all on the fence in a rather well-organised manner. So, he was not really tired to the extent he couldn’t walk. He sat there not because he had to, but because he needed time to reflect before he confronts the problem of coming home empty-handed.
Everyone knows the feeling. You tried to do something, but failed.
Will this scene be possible in, say, an English-speaking country?
No. You’d come straight home, tell your wife it was an unlucky day, take your gear off, put the rifle back on the wall and enjoy a bath, thinking more about pleasant things awaiting you in the evening.
In Russia, where the roles of men and women are still defined by the old hunter vs.childbearer paradigm, this man failed as a man. It’s not just an unlucky day. It’s a drama. Small-scale, but something to reflect upon, find justification for, analyse and write a novel half the weight of War and Peace.
You may wonder how come reactions to the same situation can be so different in societies standing at roughly the same level of development.
The answer is simple. Linguistics.
In English, frustration is flushed out of the body by one of the two words that take four letters to spell and three sounds to utter.
In Russia, it is a five-letter word, four sounds.
You think, it’s just one sound, one letter! It can’t make the difference!
Remember, the genetic difference between humans and apes is less than 2%.
Here, it’s 20%.
And this is why a Russian painting is often easy to spot: it might be simple, straightforward, and basic in terms of what is shown, but it’s going to be as loaded with messages as an AK47’s magazine is with rounds.