Skip to content
Главная страница » The Etched Worlds of Maria Smolyaninova

The Etched Worlds of Maria Smolyaninova

And in the distance
A clear drawing
Of the forest’s blue treetops,
Like strokes traced on copper
With aqua fortis

Innokenty Annensky

The choice of an art form and specific technique is never accidental for any artist, even if it may seem that the circumstances arranged by fate play a major role. And yet, it is the individual creative temperament that controls Ariadne’s thread in this labyrinth of possibilities. This is what eventually leads each creator to choose the right tool with which to make his perception of the world, his thoughts, ideas, emotions, and feelings, real and visible to other people…

An engraver who does not participate in the art scene in other capacities is quite a rare phenomenon today — a dying breed, one might say. Many contemporary artists do not confine themselves to one art medium, and instead explore artistic practices. Choosing only one art language becomes a luxury, even an act of self-denial to some extent. It is a rather bold decision by Maria Smolyaninova to try to speak exclusively in such a traditional artistic medium as metal engraving in the context of such a boundless variety of form creation possibilities and new technologies.

According to Maria herself, she came to black and white graphic art (and to etching in particular) as a form of conscious self-restraint. The choice of etching as the only technique to convey her creative ideas defines her as a person of strict discipline, someone with high demands of herself. Not every artist is capable of this very slow engraving method, which includes several stages of purely technical preparation and significant time costs that are a result of the process itself. In fact, it is a kind of ceremony, sacred ritual, or witchcraft. And this is not exactly a metaphor, since indeed there is an element of unpredictability in the process of creating an etching, as the chemical etching process depends on many factors. It is impossible to predict with absolute certainty how deeply the stroke will be etched, how an etched spot will form, or what the tonal value will eventually turn out to be. There is always a possibility that it will be in many ways different from the original idea of the artist. The formula is usually rather precise, but there is always an element of chance, which can sometimes provide either a pleasant or a disappointing surprise. As Maria says, “sometimes the plate leads me, and I have to make a choice whether I follow it or act according to my own scenario”. At that juncture, it is not always easy to know who is right…

The art of etching requires from the artist not only technical skill but, perhaps more importantly, the ability to think structurally, to highlight the foundation, the core. And this is its similarity to Maria’s inner striving towards revealing the constructive essence of objects and spaces. Of course, it is not a final goal in itself, but a means to an end, through which the idea of harmony, interconnectedness, and the complementarity of everything in the universe is transmitted. Her main genre is landscape: natural, urban, and industrial. She particularly enjoys the juxtaposition of architecture and nature, their interaction and antagonism, dialog and rivalry. Maria’s landscapes are almost always deserted. Man is somewhere behind the scenes. Usually his presence is indicated only by some man-made object (architecture, wagons, rails, a road, a bench, a stack, a plowed field…).

The technical asceticism of black and white etching is deceptive. It holds great potential. With the help of a stroke, an etched spot, and a different depth of tone, you can make compositions in completely different styles. Maria masterfully owns the entire arsenal of etching techniques — etching itself, dry needle, aquatint, open etching — and can use these techniques in any combination. This craftsmanship allows her to use an extensive range of imagery. She is constantly searching, always improving and developing her plastic language. It might be more accurate to say that she is trying different styles. Almost every series of her works has a shared, special character. There is no signature style or feature that makes Maria’s work easily recognizable as hers. This is a deliberate choice. Maria is purposefully trying to “forget herself” by embarking on a new cycle. This is in order to leave behind the methods and images that she has already explored. It is not as easy as it might seem. Try to change your handwriting, your voice, or your walk, and then make it so natural that it doesn’t look fake or like a parody. Changing plastic language for an artist is similar to this — a long, laborious process.

According to Maria, any subject demands an artistic approach of its own. Her graphic series often come to life as a result of her travels. Understanding a different culture, aesthetics, lifestyle, and world of sensory input requires a special kind of plastic language. For instance, it is difficult for her to talk about St. Petersburg and Georgia in the same way. These places have completely different intonations: each has its own sound. This is a special ability to listen to, hear, and feel the genius loci (the spirit of the place, the genius of the place), and not only to hear this melody, but also to reproduce it. Just as a composer determines which musical instrument will be used in which piece, Maria

selects of the set of plastic and compositional means individually for each topic, which are not repeated in other series.

It should be noted that the theme of music and the juxtaposition of musical and pictorial harmony is often present in Smolyaninova’s work. The series dedicated to St. Petersburg is called The Music of St. Petersburg. In some compositions of this cycle notes are inscribed in the musical scales formed by electrical wires. Their presence is so organic and natural that the eye does not immediately see them. In general, the entire series is distinguished by its strict geometricism, clear lines, and sharp contrasts of color – all somewhat in opposition to the classical harmony and cold aristocracy of the northern capital.

Maria portrays Moscow in a completely different plastic language in the series Moscow Ragtime. Velvety textures, warm light from round lanterns, the glare of the sun, and soft outlines of objects, houses, trees… The play of light and shadow gives not rigor but a certain playfulness and carelessness to a captured moment, with ragtime in the background.

The two series dedicated to Georgia and Crimea are also executed in an individual manner, born from the artist’s impressions of her visit to these places.

Winter Crimea is static. It seems to be frozen, having fallen into anabiosis in anticipation of warmth. Maria gathers this cold and reserved image from a construction set of planes and lines. Summery Georgia, on the other hand, is depicted with garrulous strokes, spots, swirls, and fussy hatching. This new plastic language is completely organic to both the theme and the artist herself. The figurative articulation is clear and conspicuously conveys the author’s mental images to the viewer, but occasionally the excessive emotion leads to a certain verbosity and visual chaos. However, without this experience, it would have been impossible to move towards that crystal clear graphic language that Maria used in the series Eternal Landscape. An artist who does not speak the language of the story takes on a much more difficult task. And to tell it in your own figurative language in order to convey your feelings and your vision to others is not the easiest thing to do. It is through experience, through trial and error, that a unified, true intonation is found. This is the tuning mechanism for choosing the necessary optics for the next step.

My first encounter with the art of Maria Smolyaninova took place at the Triennial of Graphics in Novosibirsk in 2021, where I was invited to be a member of the jury. Maria submitted three sheets from the series Eternal Landscape, created by her in 2020-2021. They brought her victory in the category “Traditional printed graphics technologies”. This series has become a definite milestone, signifying the artist’s transition to a new level of imaginative consciousness. A particularly strong impression was made by The Hay, which, in my opinion, is the artist’s most significant work to date. Maria has managed to create an artistic image of incredible lyrical power and philosophical content with extremely scant visual means, minimal color, and concise composition.

This series marks the artist’s movement towards non-objective generalizations. However, in these sheets, clear proportions of figurativeness and abstraction are preserved. She has reached a level of conditionality that makes the visible world and ordinary objects into a formula of sensation and emotion. It is difficult to predict whether Maria will cross this line. I think that analytical art is too cold and rational for her soul and artistic temperament. And she will continue to be inspired by and work with images of the objective world in their usual material form.

The theme of the road runs through the work of Maria Smolyaninova as a very definite counterpoint. In relatively early works depicting wagons, trains, and railway tracks, there are allusions to the harsh style of the 1960s, which is characterized by brutal railway romanticism. Nevertheless, this association is more of a plot-based or stylistic one, with a more detached philosophical view that does not address problems on the social level. There is rather an existential subtext here. Trains, rails, and wires are powerful, multidimensional images. Movement, journey, and path are symbols of the transition from one state to another, as the next stage of evolution, growth, and future discoveries. At the same time, it is an image of restlessness, homelessness, and flight. From the point of view of visual imagery, the railroad, with all its attributes, is an inexhaustible source of aesthetic inspiration for Maria, who sees in the intersection of rails and wires an encrypted text, hieroglyphs, messages… the tangle of which can be unwound endlessly. In her etchings from the 2010s, it is the beauty of the graphic formula that comes to the fore, pure admiration for the harmony and elegance of the romanticized industrial landscape.

The most recent works by Maria Smolyaninova are connected with the theme of the sea, water, and the coast as the line of contact between two elements: earth and water. Over and over again, she explores the clash of opposites: firmness and fluidity, wild nature and the man-made world, in their unity and constant struggle. There is no detached contemplation in this series. It is filled with a tense premonition of bad weather. This is both a sneaking suspicion and a memory. It is a continuation of the eternal landscape, but no longer in its static state. Tiny houses and lonely fragile human figures at the junction of heaven, water, and earth create the true scale of the ratio of natural and human strength, and this comparison is not in our favor. This landscape existed before us, and it will exist after us. Maria invites us to reflect on what “existing” means for each of us. The last etching presented in the catalog bears a very symbolic, meditative name — The Place of Premonition… To be continued.

Without a doubt, Maria Smolyaninova has already occupied her niche in the history of Russian printmaking. She has most certainly defined herself as a mature, accomplished master, with a unique, individual artistic manner and rich creative potential, one sure to undergo many more stages of evolution.

Ekaterina Klimova

Head of the Department of Engraving of the 18th-21st Centuries.
The State Russian Museum