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Out and About

Mai Dantsig at the NB Gallery
Ross Hunter

Every picture tells a story. The brief but compelling display of Mai Dantsig’s best works at the NB gallery recently told many more. The small and intimate gallery was packed on the opening night. More remarkable was how fast the red spots appeared on the title cards. The works were by no means cheap, but they were certainly good value. An extraordinarily knowledgeable audience only paused from fascinating conversation to snap up the works. Do try and see them before they are dispersed. If you do miss these, some of his best known paintings are in the Tretyakov, of course, and in his home city of Minsk, and most of those shown recently are reproduced on the NB gallery site:

Mai Dantsig was born in Belarus in 1930, and escaped the Nazi invasion on the last carriage of the last train out in 1941. He survived the war, and trained as a career artist, earning the highest accolade by the Soviet Union.

That is the easy bit. Describing Dantsig’s paintings is harder, so full are they of life, liveable landscapes and associations. They are both timeless and set in their unique historical context. That is the joy of his work. The viewer can step straight into the landscape, and feel the wind blowing, the winter sleet in the face or the summer bugs. Even easier to talk to the skier, get splashed by the passing rattling lorry, or share the balcony view with the new apartment tenant. I really want to see how far the athlete jumps or throws her javelin—she stands with the perfect poise of a sportswoman, watching her friends’ event, while twitching her own muscles to keep them warm. Look again, and you will see the biceps flexing as she waits. One of the drying vests has not been pegged properly, look: it is about to get blown of the line. Then hurry along, as while you have enjoyed the view, your friends are already back in the woods, and skiing hard back towards the distant city.

There is such humanity in Dantsig’s people, and such life in his landscapes that one feels at home with them both, instantly. His style is unique, but at the same time carries echoes of dozens of other artists and several schools and a choice of periods. Some look pre-war, some seem to echo the various changes of the post war recovery (personal and economic!) and others ask to be touched, to verify if the paint is still wet. This is where the printed image is inadequate, it is vital to be right in front of the pictures so as to be able to step into them.

How to classify Dantsig is the hardest job. He is described as a “Socialist Realist”. But something does not fit. Realist it certainly is. But the famous, perhaps clichéd works are almost entirely at variance with Dantsig’s. Are they vast in size, overtly propagandist in message, overoptimistic (the moist polite phrase I can manage) in the allocation of light and in an Orwellian sense realist only by demonstrating completely impossible scenes?

The huge Stalinist canvases in the new Tretyakov fit all those labels; Dantsig’s are altogether more honest and portraying real people, not “The People”. In a sense, Dantsig is in fact a better advertisement for social realism. His people are happy and sad, the roads are in a mess, Russia’s weather is allowed its true volatility from slushy grime to stifling torpor. The factories are dirty, and the oil tanks rusting. And new tenants have to work hard to brighten up their new but cramped living space.

In short, a handful of Mai Dantsig’s paintings taken home would supply exactly what is wanted to remember the real Russia where we live, the better to explain it to the benighted people who have never ventured here.

NB Gallery: 6, Sivtyev Pereleuk, Kropotkinskaya
495 737 5298

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