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The gate of a picket fence in the painting Old School (Stará škola, 2019) by Alice Nikitinová remains slightly cracked, just enough for one high school girl to slip through. The pictured buildings are plain blocks depicted without real light, shadow, filth, decoration or architectural ornamentation, while regular rows of windows give each floor the same rhythm. Unacquainted spectators might hesitate as to whether they are looking at a prison, hospital, or an office employing one of Kafka’s heroes. A school may be the most unlikely option to occur to the average viewer. All these institutions are organized according to internal rules which reflect the social norms of criminal justice, healthcare, or education. Surprisingly, however, the impetus for this painting was not an effort to create a critical depiction of authoritative, gatekeeping institutions, through which the author progressed in her youth and where she spent days and weeks drawing classic busts or live models.
Alice Nikitinová returns to the high school in which she studied, rid of the need to connect it with the academic rigor which Ukrainian education is known for. Since the Renaissance, the teaching of classic drawing, which consisted of copying the works of instructors, imitating old masters, preparing anatomical studies, and working with a live model, has been a backbone of the arts school curriculum. The Czechoslovak, Soviet, and Ukrainian policy of socialist education after 1945 was oriented primarily towards realistic and naturalistic tendencies of the 19th century. Starting in the 1960s, Western academies gradually began reducing this shared basis of the visual arts in reaction to the rise of Neo-avantgarde movements. Contemporary works of art and theory began transforming teaching methods and entire school programs. Anti-art, high-concept art, or any daily activity presented as art doesn’t require drawing, and neither does photography, video or forms which include language and text. In the Czech
context, drawing as a basis of arts education declined later, in the 1990s. It disappeared from schools in conjunction with the post-1989 liberalization of the arts scene, which is now based in a pluralism of approaches and considers this “shared basis” as a historical throwback to a bygone era.
Dissatisfaction with the loss of a once shared basis for the visual arts, which would be communally cultivated, may lead us to a revision of our view of modern art, to its partial or utter rejection (see Mikhail Lifshitz’s The Crisis of Ugliness), or to a renewed celebration of the “shared,” through the formation of drawing and painting groups in the studio or outside, which deny both the bourgeois idea of the artist’s solitude at work and the condition of the spectator’s uninterrupted, solitary contemplation of the artist’s work. These are shared pillars which Alice Nikitinová may have in common with the Radical Realists, who understood the basis of realism as a political critique of the social hegemony.
It seems, however, that Alice Nikitová does not situate this shared basis (the training and mastering of academic drawing and painting) nostalgically in the past, nor does she repeat and improve on an academic pattern from the past. Rather, she tests how an, at times imperfect, academic basis which she has mastered, creates a vehicle for creating (shared) work with her son, in art therapy, while illustrating children’s books, with students in art classes, with friends and colleagues outside or while painting with others in the studio, within the conditions of today’s ateliers. If this basis is presented as “mastery,” it creates barriers between those who have learned it, those who are still learning it, and those who aren’t talented and will never attain it. Nikitinová therefore uses it in an anti-masterful way. In a simplified manner, she shows those who co-create it: the painter, teacher, student, the canvas on a stand, and the live model or classical bust.
In the cycle Art Education (Výtvarná výuka, 2019–2021), the artist draws back the curtain in real time to show what is happening inside a school building full of art students. She captures the appearance of drawing classes in contemporary schools. The images from the contemporary class are conspicuously evocative of Baroque engravings. The art student stands with his (or today also her or their) back or profile to the spectator and looks over the canvas stand at the classical bust which he, she or they are copying. This “holy” trinity of art forms the skeleton of several of Nikitinová’s paintings. It also appears on all the canvases of the GMU’s depository which the artist decided to place in dialogue with her own work as part of her exhibition. On two of them (by Jaroslav Paur and Petr Dillinger) we see a woman – architect or woman – portraitist before her canvas at work. The fact that the shared basis of arts education is cultivated on communal grounds is shown in Painting School (Malířská škola) by Ludvík Kuba, who vividly captured a group of painters in a studio.
In several paintings, Nikitinová also focuses on the students’ academic progress in drawing and painting courses. She gave herself a fairly ironic task – to deliver a condensed, painterly abbreviation of the painting attempts of art students. The drawing as the once-central object in academies has now shifted to the periphery of the art curriculum – to high schools and so-called preparatory schools which overlap with the first year of academic training. In Nikitinová’s paintings, the shared basis circles back, because she places the act of drawing at the center as a theme of her paintings which thematize the creation of a realistic depiction in relation to the model. Here, we return to the archetypal relationship between the artist’s perception, the depicted object, and its representation. It is not presented, however, as an illustration of a philosophical problem or concept but simply as education in progress.
The dichotomy between subject and technique has been the main target, attacked from various angles, of the critique of academic drawing and painting. According to the director of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius, the emergence of engaged art, including works which are socially critical, or subconscious (surreal) art, did not justify the stagnation of painting within the narrow confines of reproduction, which it had been relegated to in old-fashioned, specialization-segregated, schools. In his view, non-avantgarde painting lost its ability to participate in the construction of the shared basis of society along with other artistic disciplines, among which he emphasizes architecture. The “simplification” which Alice Nikitinová works towards also contains echoes of these avantgarde debates about form, composition, and color.
As has been intimated, the teaching of drawing in preparatory schools in the epoch of rising individualism can be viewed as a kind of physical performance of communality, a collective process whose actors stage a shared ritual of representational art in a time when it has long outlived its central aesthetic function. It is a process antithetical in many ways to the selfie. Unlike a click which lasts a fraction of a second, learning how to draw is almost unbearably slow in the context of our time. It takes years to learn and a single drawing or painting can take weeks to complete. In constructing faces, Nikitinová resorts to abbreviation and schematics and thus avoids any distinct features which form the identity of an individual. Such standardization belongs to the characteristic signs of historical realism, in which a hero, heroine, or situation is always regarded within a broad social framework as a representative of a certain social archetype, class, or conflict.
At first glance, Nikitinová’s series of paintings showing shop windows and magazine covers (2019–2021) drifts away from the theme of depicting the ritual of creation of representational art. In it, the artist freely rearranges images from memory that grabbed her attention on walks. She arranges yellow balls against the black background of a children’s theater. Floating inflatable animals by Libuše Niklová drift in the air. We see the gray winner’s podium on the top of which huddle several hands with painted nails. Alice Nikitinová connects the shop window with the theater stage, by adding steps leading to them or draping the background in black. The heroes and heroines performing here are goods. Rather than a perfect representation of each object, the author is taken with their arrangement, in which the goods seem to compete, on a scale from randomness to deliberate placement, for the attention of passersby. If a shop window can be a theatrical performance frozen in time, then the passerby can be transformed into a spectator. If we search for the etymology of the word “exhibition,” we will arrive at the Latin exhibitio, which was a term for the arrangement of goods in markets in the Middle Ages. This connection reached new levels of prominence in the second half of the 19th century where, thanks to industrialization, shops underwent a transformation. Their hallways (created, as W. Benjamin explains, from arcades) became indoor promenades, meeting places, spaces of self-presentation, and of evaluating others. To a public which until then had not been used to paying attention to art, these “images” in shop windows may have served as a creative impetus, and a democratically-accessible entry into the kind of seeing offered by art.