Valery Katsuba: RUSSIAN ROMANTIC REALISM. Shanghai Center of Photography, 12.07-29.08.2021

Russian Romantic Realism: Valery Katsuba  俄罗斯浪漫现实主义:瓦列里·胜叶


Shanghai Center of Photography, 12 06. — 29.08. 2021


“Valery Katsuba is a master of aesthetics, and he describes the human body with the precision and elegance of Praxiteles; but within each of those beautiful bodies, he finds a beating heart.” 

Andrew Solomon


As the writer Andrew Solomon notes, Valery Katsuba does something marvelous in his elegantly arranged figure compositions. This thing, once spoken of the aura that any great work of art should possess, is the magic that draws us to Katsuba’s pictures. And, however we choose to describe it, in his photographs this “aura” exerts a very immediate effect on our senses. It is exactly for reasons of those beautiful bodies, which dominate the frames with their powerful physical presence, that Katsuba’s visual language has ready appeal for all who encounter his pictures. It speaks of a very human desire, the yearning within us for a perfection that we know we will never attain for ourselves. At least, not in the usual flow of a mundane life.

At times, as in the example of Air Flight Moscow Luzhniki (2010), or Air Flight: Birds (2011), the bodies appear as if cut out of a real-time/real-world space, in part because Katsuba captures them mid-air. In the first group, the bodies of Moscow aerial gymnasts, or trapeze artistes, are shown suspended mid-way through the soaring arabesques of their flight with only blue sky behind them. In the second, taken using black-and-white, the backdrop is the interior covering of a circus tent, which equally obfuscates our reading of the space vis-à-vis the performer’s daring flying high, high above the ground.

“Circus aerialists and acrobats, they are favorites from my youth,” Katsuba says. “In a sense, to me, these projects are a dream come true. I aspire to go (up) there, where everything is light, beautiful and clear.” As indeed the photographs make the world appear to be. These minimalist frames lead us to the almost singular purpose of marveling at the majesty of the human form, its extraordinary reach, elegant curves and disciplined energy.

There are reasons of experience and chance that inspired Katsuba to focus on what he terms “phiscultura”, or physical culture. First, there is the usual formative experiences accrued to childhood which he notes above. A broader interest in the visualization of sporting bodies was prompted later by discoveries of vast collections of photographs on the subject that Katsuba uncovered in the late 1990s whilst working in the Central State Archive of Film, Photo- and Phonographic Documents of St Petersburg (StPGAKFFD). This came before he had conceived of embarking upon his own career as a photographic artist, but was already producing large-scale photo shoots for other photographers. The discoveries uncovered in StPGAKFFD were without doubt a huge inspiration for the development of Katsuba’s personal photographic style. Both experiences take their place within the wider context of his upbringing, the world of the Soviet Union, in which he was nurtured to adulthood.

What sparks the immediacy of Katsuba’s photographic expression is the striking, often unexpected combination of bodies and environs. In the grand tableaux he conceived for a series featuring gymnasts and ballerinas in juxtaposition with various iconic works of art, the elegance of the figures is accentuated by the drama of their surroundings; stage-like settings that we recognize as the once-common eighteenth and nineteenth-century majesty of grand museum halls or similar architecturally ornate spaces. We marvel once again as we read the beauty the photographs parade, the tension between perfection and power that reverberates across the picture plane.

Yet, at the same time you feel something more subtle at work in these deftly constructed pictures. You walk away aware that the thoughts prickling your brain as to the message and meaning we might read into the photographs are much more nuanced in the effect they project. The subtitles are less readily identifiable, or so reductive as the “body beautiful” surface. Consistent with the means by which we extract the maximum insight into each experience that accrues to life, these discreet elements rely upon our individual powers of imagination to discern. And, I suspect, to our grasp of modern history vis-à-vis what we know of the contemporary era in which the photographer Katsuba, born in the Republic of Belarussia in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s and coming of age during Perestroika (1980s), came to choose both his subject and the all-important twenty-first century moments of the shutter click.

One obvious example might be the style and scale of the architectural spaces Katsuba chooses for his settings like those in the museum or grand academies of art. History shows us that similar structures are to be found the length and breadth of Europe, in an abundance of buildings that evolved through time from one grand civilization to the next, from the Greeks to the Romans to the French, from Renaissance to Baroque to Gothic, each new era and locale accumulating forms, borrowing designs, and mixing-and-matching and enriching structures as time rolled forward. The majority of such palatial buildings were conceived as symbols of national prowess, the heights of a nation’s scientific engineering, or the magnitude of the wealth that accrued to its industry and trade, both fields being requisite if a nation hoped to project its aesthetic sophistication as the cherry atop its geo-political standing. And, as something to be emulated by all. Naturally the majority succeeded in these aims for these edifices remain revered through to a present in which they are almost inalienable emblems of national character. A century ago in Russia such palaces, as occupied by the White Russian aristocracy, became the very symbols of social decay, of a self-contained elite disconnected from a poor, lower class mass of workers struggling to sustain an existence. The response was revolution: a seismic shift deftly evoked in a scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film October: Ten Days that Shocked the World, which shows a glittering crystal chandelier gently swaying in the cavernous hall of a vacated palace in St Petersburg, its former occupants having fled the uprising of the masses against them and all they stood for. Today, many of these former palaces are public spaces, enjoyed by all, despite being enmeshed in an increasingly complex net of contentious historical narratives.

Katsuba finds a great deal of inspiration in the shifting manifestations of aesthetic expression through time and history.


“I have always been interested by the relative constancy of landscapes- whether natural or architectural -and the human fates, faces and historical eras that go through them. I am interested in how, through time, our plasticity, our views, our body shape changes- or whether these things change at all.” 


In numerous of Katsuba’s series, his points of reference in the format and composition of a photograph are very specific and precisely conceived. This is perhaps most direct in a wide-ranging series titled The Model: Classic and Contemporary (2008-2019), which takes a cue from the century-old studio practice of drawing from a model in the life room. Here, gymnasts and sports people mirror the poses of classical bodies, in juxtaposition with actual works of art. The presence of the human body in art as an object of sensory delight and as a bearer of meaning can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who enjoyed the male body as if it were a sculptural object. Katsuba mimics most directly in those of his photographs taken in museums.

In the case of the several photographs from a series titled “100 Years On”, Katsuba’s specific trigger came from a single image in the photo archive which showed an early art academy in action.


“In the late 1990’s, when I was working in the archive, I happened to see a photograph of a life-drawing class in Professor Makovsky’s studio taken in 1914 at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts by Karl Bulla. [Ed. Bulla is variously described as the first great Russian photographer, and the father of Russian reportage photography]. The photo captured my imagination and I asked to make a copy. Even before that I was intrigued by the Academy itself. I remember returning from the Mariinsky Theater after its performances and every time wanting to select a route that would take me to Zamyatina Lane, which would lead me to Neva Embankment, which opened the view onto the Academy…  It majestically rose before my eyes and excited me by thoughts of what may be behind its walls.”


From time to time, Katsuba was granted permission to make photographs in the Academy, just as he was doing in the Mariinsky Theater. On one occasion, “combining the objects of my desire when I photographed the Mariinsky Theater’s prima ballerina, Oksana Skorik, in the Academy museum.”


“But neither photographing athletes, nor ballerinas gave me complete satisfaction, and the Bulla photo would not leave my imagination. I felt that I was missing an essential element of what suffused the air of the Academy; the energy of creation, the silence of labor in which artworks are born and take on their final forms.

“Fifteen years passed since I printed out that academic photo, and then by accident, I bumped into Semyon Mikhailovsky [art historian, and rector of the Academy in St Petersburg]. That meeting became the beginning of the project “100 Years On”. Exactly one hundred years after Karl Bulla took his photo, I found myself with the opportunity to make photographs within the Academy studios, and to include students, models and professors. The Academy has remained constant for over a century. It is a perfect setting for exploring questions of continuity and change, especially given that the space carries the memory of generations of artists and the captivating magic of creativity.”


The story of Russia’s art history follows a trajectory and timeline that similarly units most parts of Europe. A narrative that begins primarily from the diverse beginnings of the ancients across the globe and which lead to the civilizations of the Greeks, the Romans, and on through the shifting spotlights of different cultures at different points in time that bloomed and faded as artists reinvented the language of expression according to the times, weaving local exigences as and when they flourished. The early twentieth century was a moment in which a new wave of change was challenging the existing status quo. In Europe, the Moderns were coming into their own, evolving new notions brought forth by Courbet and Delacroix, Manet and Degas, and on into Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and the convulsive impact that the arrival of Picasso had.

French influences on Russian culture were especially strong, but by the time of the early twentieth-century moderns, Russian artists were doing some pretty amazing work themselves. Encouraged by a deal of intense exchange between artists in Paris and St Petersburg, they were striking out in dramatically new directions. Picasso became involved with a group of artists settled around St Petersburg, which included writers, poets, artists and performers, contributing designs to the creations of composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and ballet master Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). For example, the leading female artist Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) melded his influence with that from Russian folk arts in her paintings and specifically her costume and graphic designs for the Ballets Russes. Katsuba delves into this rich seam of Russian creative expression in various of those subtle nuances. He also pays his own homage to the legendary figure of Vaslav Nijinsky (1899-1950) in Decision 2011, recreates the unparalleled levitation upon which the fame of the extraordinary ballet dancer was early founded, as one of several images in a series he titled “Nijinsky and the Diamonds”.

Then, there is more recent Russian history. Katsuba’s photographs point us to the distinctive aesthetics of the Soviet Union. A specific prompt here, and extraordinary visual resource had also been discovered during his time in the archive was a massive volume of images of sportsmen and women, of “more than half a million images from the period 1860 to 1996”, which is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. Among these was the archive of the early twentieth-century photographer Karl Bulla – who took the 1914 photograph of the academy – and his sons. Although Bulla’s photographs capture athletic bodies in a pre-Soviet age, the distinctive concerns with male physique seem to have deep cultural roots, for the style finds force in the Soviet preferences for body culture. A perfection, discipline, mastery, and prowess that became an image wholly entwined with the soviet ideology, the determination of the body politik. The field of Olympic sports in the era of the Cold War was dominated by one after another astonishing Soviet or Eastern Bloc gymnast. They certainly mesmerized me as a small child: who didn’t want to fly like a Soviet Olga Korbut or Natalia Shaposhnikova? The muscular physique of the male body particularly exemplified a spirit commensurate with the new Utopia being built behind the iron curtain, which every now and then burst out to garner another slew of gold medals before retreating into the largely unknown massive training camps that lay behind it.

Katsuba’s images are clearly staged and, thus have a conscious aura of performative distance about them. Yet, are we drawn into the world he presents to us. It is, in part, the presence of that “beating heart”, which Solomon describes. Solomon is also the author of The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in the Age of Glasnost published in 1991 (Knopf, New York), for which he spent some time in the USSR in the late 1980s, where he saw beyond the gruff surface of the Russian “bear”. Katsuba points the way too, because even though it is obvious from motifs in the photos, like the figures’ expressions, the precision of their postures, and the calculated ornament of the settings that this world is unmistakably Russian, its aspirations, together with its indelible seam of romance-are ones all peoples share in common, no matter who we are or where we are from. As in all great Russian literature, this presence serves to posit delicate questions as to the nature of change between differences eras of time. Human emotion is the very core of our existence.


“Oh, how one wishes sometimes to escape from the meaningless dullness of human eloquence, from all those sublime phrases, to take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate, or in the wordlessness of long, grinding labor, of sound sleep, of true music, or of a human understanding rendered speechless by emotion!” 

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago


As if moved to pay homage to Russia’s extraordinary literary tradition, Katsuba created a number of seemingly narrative frames, which shift the setting to nature, to the land, in the countryside or simply covered with snow. Far Away from Home, 2004-2011, uses such tropes to convey the romance of melancholy, or as if richly-colored memories tinted with nostalgia. In his Russian Olympic Project for the Winter Games in Turin, 2006, Katsuba takes as models Olympic sportsmen and women, photographed in the rural towns or villages that are their native places. The compositions conjure scenes remembered from his own youth, thus contrasting then with the now of a modern gaze and sensibility.


“I ask my heroes to stop, and they stop in front of the camera as if in the infinity of time and space, exposing their greatness, beauty and fragility. That is how I wish to remember them and to talk about them. I photograph them like this, assuming that an artistic photograph will capture the elusiveness and the emotions it aroused in me. At least, I do everything I can to preserve them.”


Similarly, «The Seasons» (2000-2005), which includes a group titled “My Friends”, captures the informal gatherings of Katuba’s friends and family in the countryside near their dacha retreats over a period of years. The pictures proffer a vision of Bohemian life bristling with harmony, and creativity. These individuals remind us of great poets, writers, artists, and performers, sensitive souls whose integrity and idealism remains intact, untouched by the world of materialism, the desires that consumerism spits out, manufactures inevitably. The expressions of Katuba’s friends speak of the world at the start of the new millennium, a time when fear of uncertain tomorrows appeared to be becoming a thing of the past.

Today, we feel our world-that being both the specific nation where we were born, and the wider global one we all inhabit to some degree or another -to be on the cusp of a seismic socio-economic and cultural shift (I write this as a European who has spent more than half her life in the East, thus looking at both worlds within and from without). Of what specific nature we cannot yet say. That is for future historians to reveal and, not least, artists who are at their best exploring cultural phenomenon through richly timeless means in the manner that Katsuba does through photography. At this moment in the grand river of time, seen through the prism of a world of social change catalyzed by the global phenomenon that was (is) the 2020 pandemic, the posturing of the figures in his photographs, their often introspective gaze, seem to point as much forward to the self-reliance upon which we will necessarily depend as they direct our gaze back to the past.




Karen Smith




Somewhere there is a simple life and a world,
Transparent, warm and joyful. . .
There at evening a neighbor talks with a girl
Across the fence, and only the bees can hear
This most tender murmuring of all.

But we live ceremoniously and with difficulty
And we observe the rites of our bitter meetings,
When suddenly the reckless wind
Breaks off a sentence just begun —

But not for anything would we exchange this splendid
Granite city of fame and calamity,
The wide rivers of glistening ice,
The sunless, gloomy gardens,
And, barely audible, the Muse’s voice.

                              Anna Akhmatova














一些经历和机会激励了卡苏巴,从而使他专注于他所说的“Phiscultura”,或形体文化(physical culture)。首先是上文提到的他童年时期惯常的经验。上世纪90年代末,卡苏巴在位于圣彼得堡的中央国家电影、照片和录音文件档案馆工作期间发现了大量关于这一主题的照片收藏,从而他对运动中身体的形象化产生了更广泛的兴趣。尽管当时他已在辅助摄影师制景拍摄作品,他还未成为一个独立摄影艺术家。在克兰斯诺戈尔斯克发现的这些照片收藏无疑对卡苏巴个人风格的发展有着巨大的启发。这两段经历都发生在他青少年到成年的大背景——苏联。











  “20世纪90年代末,当我在档案馆工作时,我碰巧看到1914年卡尔·布拉(Karl Bulla)在圣彼得堡列宾美术学院马科夫斯基教授工作室里拍摄的一张人体绘画课的照片。(作者:布拉被誉为第一位俄罗斯摄影大师,也是俄罗斯报道摄影之父)。这张照片激发了我的想象,我要求复印一份。在那之前,我就对学院本身很感兴趣。我记得马林斯基剧院表演结束后,我每次回家途中都想选择一条能带我到扎米亚蒂娜巷的路,它引我到涅瓦河堤岸,在那就能看到列宾美术学院的景色……它雄伟地出现在我的眼前,当我想到在这高墙之后的种种,我就很兴奋。”


就像他在马林斯基剧院一样,卡苏巴有时也获准在学院拍摄照片。有一次,“我在学院美术馆拍摄了马林斯基剧院的首席芭蕾舞女演员奥克萨娜·斯科里克(Oksana Skorik),这次拍摄结合了我想拍的各种对象。”






法国文化对俄罗斯的影响尤其强烈,不过到了二十世纪初,俄罗斯艺术家们也创作出了自己的杰出作品。受巴黎和圣彼得堡艺术家之间大量交流的鼓舞,他们朝着崭新的方向发展。毕加索和一群在居住在圣彼得堡周围的艺术家们有了交流,这个小团体中有作家、诗人、艺术家和表演者。他为作曲家伊戈尔·斯塔文斯基(Igor Stavinsky(1882-1971))和芭蕾舞大师Diaghilev(1872-1929)的作品提供了设计。 例如,著名的女画家纳塔利娅·贡恰洛娃(Natalia Goncharova(1881-1962)在绘画作品中受到了毕加索与俄罗斯民间艺术的影响,而这种融合尤其体现在她为俄罗斯芭蕾舞团所作的服装和平面设计中。卡苏巴深入研究了俄罗斯丰富的创意表达里的各种细微差别。他还通过《尼金斯基和钻石》系列中的多幅作品向传奇人物尼金斯基[1]致敬,其中的一副作品《决策》(2011)重现了使这位杰出的芭蕾舞演员年少成名的无与伦比的悬浮感

卡苏巴的作品中还指向了更近的俄罗斯历史。他的照片为我们展示了苏联独特的美学。他在档案馆工作期间,惊人的图像资源对他构成了一个明确的提示。他们发现了大量男女运动员的图像,“超过50万张照片拍摄于1860年至1996年期间[2],这一收藏的数量如此庞大,世上绝无仅有。这其中包括20世纪初摄影师卡尔·布拉的和他的儿子维克多的档案——前者在1914年拍摄了列宾美术学院的照片。虽然布拉的照片所拍摄的是前苏联时期的运动身形,但这种男性体格的独特关注似乎具有深厚的文化根源,因为在苏联人对身体文化的偏好中,这一结合了完美、纪律、控制力和高超技艺的形象和苏联的意识形态与身体政治决策完全交融。冷战时期的奥运会,一个又一个难以置信的苏联或东方集团国家的体操运动员主宰着赛场。当时还是小孩的我,他们当然让我着迷:  谁不想像苏联的奥尔加 · 科尔布特或娜塔莉亚 · 沙波什尼科娃那样飞行?男性身体的肌肉体格尤其体现了一种与铁幕后面正在建造的新乌托邦相称的精神。他们不时出现,狂揽金牌,之后又退回铁幕后那未知的巨大训练营中。

卡苏巴的照片是明显的摆拍因此照片中有意识地营造着一种表演舞台独具距离感的氛围。然而我们仍被他呈现给我们的世界所吸引所罗门描述的“跳动的心”,在一定程度上,是存在的。所罗门是1991年出版的《讽刺塔:开放时代的苏联艺术家》[3] 一书的作者,他为此在20世纪80年代末在苏联呆了一段时间,在那里观察到了俄罗斯»«性粗野外表之外的特性。卡苏巴也指出了这一点,因为,尽管从照片中的元素——例如人物的表情,精确的姿势以及环境里经过精心设计的装饰中可以明显看出这无疑是俄罗斯的世界,但这种渴望以及不可磨灭的浪漫气息是所有民族所共有的的,不管我们是谁,或是来自哪里。就像在所有伟大的俄罗斯文学中一样,它的存在对不同时代之间变化的本质提出了微妙的质询。人类的情感是我们存在的核心。






























—— 安娜·阿赫玛托娃



[1] 尼金斯基 Vaslav Nijinsky (1889~1950) 波兰血统的俄国芭蕾演员和编导。20世纪的芭蕾史上,素有“最伟大的男演员”之誉。

[2] Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, “Muscle Maryas”, 卫报,January 28, 2006

[3] The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in the Age of Glasnost, published by Knopf, New York, 1991

[4] 译文选自《须知简朴的生活总在某处》,《阿赫玛托娃诗选》,汪剑钊译, 人民文学出版社

© 2021 V. Katsuba
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