Painting `the Memory of Happiness'

MANY of Anvar Saifoutdinov's paintings look like celebrations of folk holidays springing from the history of his native Kazan, in Russia. It is easy to imagine a fairy tale or folk story each of these paintings might be illustrating.

Illustration may be considered a second-class art in the United States, but Anvar Saifoutdinov is delighted with the appellation. He is an illustrator engaged in illustrating his own imaginative life and the history of his culture.

Each of the paintings is packed with detail, rich and varied in meaning. Not all of the ethnic symbolism leaps the culture gap, and some of it is personal and obscure. But his symbolism is recognizable as such and invests these story paintings with a sense of mystery - a feeling that there is more going on in the picture than is at first apparent. Here is a riddle to unravel, there a custom to be explored.

Saifoutdinov cultivates sentiment here because he cultivates nostalgia. Nostalgia is not an admired emotion in our own culture - Americans look on it as sentimentality and are suspicious of artists who express it, especially as it relates to the longing for an idealized past.

But not all cultures share that suspicion. As one great Russian film director explained about his own film, "nostalgia" refers quite specifically to the longing for home, an almost obsessive love of homeland that intensifies with absence.

Fairy tale and dream figures appear in many of Saifoutdinov's paintings - from wise women to crafty old wizards. In one piece, the artist recreates the highly ornate interior of a medieval Russian cathedral under construction: the workmen are humbly dressed, little islands of simplicity in the midst of so much decoration.

But far oftener, Saifoutdinov offers late 19th-century, early 20th-century winter street scenes, with onion-domed churches on the horizon, and peasants elaborately dressed in highly ornamented native garb. Street vendors and beggars have their place here beside the merchants and farmers - the dark realities of daily life insinuate themselves in many of the pictures. But fellowship, family affection, and the drama of daily life are all elements of Saifoutdinov's illustrations.

"Life is not easy," says Mr. Saifoutdinov. "I paint the memory of happiness. Why I paint this time [shortly before the Revolution] is because it is like a renaissance among simple people. Even poor people made beauty in their dress.... Everybody has talent in the heart."

When he speaks of the content of his work, Saifoutdinov speaks in terms almost utterly foreign to American artists. He paints about the history of love in the world, he tells me. Art tries to make the world safe for love, he says, and adds that, like the Bible, the history of art is the history of love. That's one reason so many of the paintings include animals (sometimes domesticated, sometimes wild); they are very much a part of that history of love.

Saifoutdinov likes to play with the push-pull of modeled features embedded in a veil of ornamental design.

In "Kaligeula," for example, three heroic figures almost meld with the highly embellished and abstract design of the overall painting. It is clear that he is deeply engaged with Russian folk art, but it is equally clear that modern-art movements have not escaped his notice. Impressionism and abstraction have their place in this illustrator's art, too.

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