Riders in the Sky: A Review

Last week, Dr. Anthony Parton delivered the History of Art Society’s first lecture of the year, ‘Riders in the Sky: the Shamanic Voyages of the Avant-Garde’. The talk presented an unorthodox way to view twentieth century Russian avant-garde art – as influenced by Shamanism.

Why would Shamanism have interested these artists? The answer lies in a wider cultural context. A deep pessimism dominated much of the late nineteenth century – there was a crisis of faith in Modernity. The Enlightenment and the scientific and technological advances it preached had failed to deliver. In the words of art critic G. Albert Aurier, ‘A great many scientists and scholars today have come to a halt discouraged. They realize that … science … is a thousand times less certain than the most bizarre theogony, the maddest metaphysical reverie, the least acceptable poet’s dream … and that they themselves have nothing to put on old Olympus, from which they have removed the deities and unhinged the constellations.’

As class divisions widened and poverty worsened, the modern utopia modernity had once promised now seemed a pipe dream. Materialism and a focus on cold, hard logic impelled many to feel that modern man had cut himself off from Nature, from the world of the spirit and imagination, from his roots – and that the modern world was in imminent danger of collapse unless some reconnection could be made. Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, believed that if nothing changed, apocalypse was inevitable; interestingly in July 1914, he believed it had arrived.

Shamanism presented a way of life rooted in utterly different beliefs than ‘modernised’ Russia. Modernity urged faith in material goods and scientific rationale, Shamanism a connection to nature and a traditional, spiritual faith. It is a belief system found all over the world but best documented in Siberia and Mongolia. Many Russian avant-garde artists engaged in this research. Some read the many anthropological studies undertaken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Others, like Kandinsky, carried out their own first hand research. Having learned about them, many artists clearly felt a close affinity with these cultures. Natalia Goncharova (the great painter and later, Ballet Russes set designer) for example painted her face with Shamanic patterns. The Union of Youth, the Saint Petersburg-based avant-garde group, staged their own Shamanic dances.

These dances were inspired by the rituals which mark the ‘transcendental journey’ of a Shamanic leader – rituals that were deeply impacting upon the Russian avant-garde. They appealed to the artists’ rejection of modern logic and science; for the Shamanic leader makes, not a real, but mental journey. The intention is to fly across the earth to find a stolen or lost soul or to fly into the heavens to intercede with the gods on the part of his or her (Shamans can be either male or female) community. Before setting out a state of ecstasy is induced. The Shaman may drink, smoke marijuana, dance and beat a drum. The drum is believed to be impregnated with ‘tutelary spirits’, which are then summoned to possess the Shaman. Finally, the shaman imitates the sounds and replicates the movements of these spirits, which appear in the form of birds, horses, pigs, and all flying creatures. This indicates that the shaman has acquired their power of mystical flight. At this point the Shaman collapses on the floor in ecstatic trance and begins the journey into the heavens.

Aspects of this ritual appear in across the Russian arts, both in written and visual mediums. Inspired by the Shaman’s tutelary spirit imitations, the poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh wrote works intended to sound like birdsong. In line with the idea of transcendental flight, they called their poetry the ‘language of the stars’. A clear influence is present in Larionov’s series of paintings, Seasons, which depict female Shamans. The women are painted without pupils, symbolising a state of trance, while birds and animals fly around their heads. They are naked, entranced – liberated from the confines of modernity. Similarly, the cover of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider almanac depicts a man flying through the sky aboard a horse.

Kandinsky’s Almanac marks another reason behind the Russian avant-garde interest in Shamanism. The Blue Rider artists represented in the Almanac all have a common desire to express spiritual truths in their art and, with these, to cleanse society. Similarly the journeying Shaman occupied the role of divine healer for the community. Thus Shamanism provided the perfect platform whereby artists could conceive themselves as cultural healers whilst also engaging the ‘primitive’, the ‘immaterial’ – that truthful spirituality which modern man had lost. Take Kandinsky’s Composition series. The artist aimed for these seven paintings, steeped in mystical imagery, to avert the imminent apocalypse.

Over time, the Shamanic influence upon Russian art took on a different aesthetic. The Wright Brothers’ magical feat in 1903 meant that the once magical idea of flying through the heavens suddenly became real. Airplanes start appearing in Russian avant-garde art. Malevich’s Aviator is one example. Malevich later went on to pioneer the avant-garde movement, Suprematism. The Shamanic influence is clear. Suprematism aims to separate art from the material world; as in a Shamanic trance, real, visual phenomena are meaningless; the focus lies in what makes a person feel. Perhaps the greatest indication of the Shamanic influence upon Malevich is his own writing on the establishment of Suprematism. The words seem to sum up how the Russian avant-garde embraced Shamanism, viewing it as a force which could free them from the constraints of modernity:

‘I have transformed myself … after me comrade aviators sail into the chasm… I have conquered the lining of the heavenly, have torn it down and, making a bag, put in colour and tied it with a knot. Sail forth! The white, free chasm, infinity is before us.’

The next History of Art talk is on ‘Art and the Life of Gauguin’ by Marie-Therese Mayne from the Laing Gallery, on October 30th.

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