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Maria Smolyaninova’s Epiphanies

Every summer from 2012 to 2018, the Rostov Kremlin museum played host to exhibitions of graduation projects by students of the Surikov Moscow Art Institute. I have always been fascinated by the artistic aspirations of the next generation of young artists I encountered at those exhibitions.

The 2013 exhibition was held in the Red Chamber of the Rostov Kremlin. While looking at the works presented, most of which were quite masterful, but not outstandingly original, I suddenly noticed two etchings in the farthest, most disadvantageous corner of the exhibition. Looking at them, I said to myself: this is real art! This was especially true of the etching Chairs.

The artist who created the etchings that so struck me was Maria Smolyaninova.

After reviewing most of her work, I wrote the following in 2014:

“The author groups most of her works into special series or cycles reflecting her impressions of her hometown of Moscow, St. Petersburg, or her creative trips around Russia and other countries. The works are emphatically lyrical, as if Maria were openly confessing her love to the whole world.

The half-darkness of the night, morning or evening twilight, and light fog are motifs Maria loves. Everything is ghostly. Objects in Maria’s works are losing their everyday certainty and mundane essence. They are instead endowed with features of phenomena from that other world, one worthy of her tenderness.

Like all of us, Maria, of course, admires beautiful views and majestic architectural structures. But discovering and revealing something truly lyrical and poignantly touching in freight cars and the network of electric wires above them at some snow-covered railway station requires special poetic thinking and vision. These are the attributes inherent in the talent of Maria Smolyaninova. It is perhaps this refined lyricism that is the most valuable feature of her art.”

Now, in 2022, I understand that the above is only partially true. Among all the compositions created by Maria, there are a number of works that I would define as epiphanies, if we use the meaning given to the word by James Joyce.

In the novel Stephen Hero, Joyce gave a definition of epiphany in a dialog between Stephen and his friend Cranly:

“By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany. Cranly questioned the inscrutable dial of the Ballast Office with his no less inscrutable countenance:

— Yes, said Stephen. I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany.

— What?

— Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.”

The last paragraph reveals the dual nature of epiphany. On the one hand it descends as if unexpectedly, while on the other the creator must prepare for it internally, adjust his spiritual eye in order not to miss it, to catch it: that moment when something completely ordinary suddenly becomes transformed and extraordinarily beautiful.

It seems to me that Maria Smolyaninova has a rare ability to capture these epiphanies and depict them in her works.

Alexander Melnik