Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / If they are successful, artists transport those who view their work to a different visual and psychic environment that nonetheless bears some crucial familiarity to the objective one that most people consciously share. The overlapping frames of reference enable critics, artists, and others to talk about art coherently. That much is fairly obvious. Harder to grasp are the varying psychological and existential gyrations to which artists are subject – or to which they subject themselves. In her profoundly deadpan “The Story of a Painter,” published in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker, Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya clamps her talons onto her readers’ temples and hurtles them through the inner life of an artist.
[Image at top: Illustration by Henning Wagenbreth]
The artist in question is a destitute painter named Igor who rents a pathetic little lean-to from the janitor of the apartment building from which he has been fraudulently ejected. The story starts out with a kind of gritty but lyrical realism, à la Dostoyevsky. For a long while Igor plays the “gullible sap” to dishonest landlords, insolent children, patronizing bullies, ignorant onlookers, and overbearing squatters for the sake of his outsider street art, finding solace in the kindness of the tenants of his old flat, who were guiltless.
Then, marking an end to Igor’s Sisyphean passivity, Petrushevskaya shifts smoothly into magical realism. Having tenuously won back his apartment and barricaded himself inside, Igor’s love for his landlord’s estranged and now missing wife – one of the sympathetic ex-tenants – prompts him to open the door and try to find her. Predatory vagrants inundate the place. Furiously he records the horde of desperate people on his canvas, and one by one they disappear into it. “Terrified, the painter stared into the painting,” she writes, “and back at him stared the migrant family, whom he had probably murdered.” He does not yet know that his newfound artistic potency can be put to beneficent use.
Beckett is a definite influence here: Igor is like the tramp trying to claim his squalid place in the world. More particularly, though, “The Story of a Painter” dramatizes the artist’s resolve to soldier on against circumstantial repression, and the reward of eventual internal empowerment. Petrushevskaya acknowledges that others, not enjoying full access to the artist’s mind, will not usually appreciate the extent of that power. Yet the author’s flatly matter-of-fact tone, and her confinement of any sardonicism to the external world, reflects her certainty that the power, though perhaps rooted in fantasy, is absolutely real.
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