This is one of a group of nine works in Tate’s collection from Forward, a multi-part project conceived by Russian artist Eric Bulatov in 2015 and executed in 2016. In its entirety Forward included Bulatov’s first monumental sculpture, four large-scale paintings, twenty preparatory drawings and three scaled models, all titled Forward (‘Vpered’ in the original Russian). Tate’s group comprises a scale-model of the sculpture, two paintings measuring three metres square each and six drawings. All the works were executed in 2016 at the Foundry, an artists’ residency programme in Gascony, France. The paintings were made by the artist’s studio assistants under his supervision and based on his detailed drawings. The project was conceived following Bulatov’s visit to the decommissioned foundry that was about to be converted into an exhibition space. He viewed the derelict space as a metaphor for the current socio-political state of Russian and European life in general. Bulatov came up with a single word – ‘forward’ – to encapsulate the aspirations of his generation and its subsequent state of disillusionment with reality. For the first time in his creative practice, he expanded his textual compositions, based on the interplay between the meaning and the environment of illusory painterly space, to include three-dimensional composition.
Bulatov is known for his word paintings, which are a metaphor for the political and aesthetic conflicts that had greatly impacted him and his contemporaries (Margarita Tupitsyn, Erik Bulatov, Moscow 2014, p.45). He began to include text in his works as three-dimensional forms in 1989, at a key stage in his own life, as well as in the life of his country and of the entire Eastern Block, this being the year in which the Berlin Wall fell and just before Bulatov emigrated to the West.
The compositions of the two Forward paintings are based on Bulatov’s characteristic style of juxtaposing textual components against backgrounds based on landscape motifs, albeit stylised. Both works are executed in three bold, flat colours – black, red and white. In one, black angular letters spelling the Russian word for ‘forward’ gradually increase in size from the bottom corners of the canvas to the top centre of the composition, forming a triangle, so that they appear to project towards the viewer. Behind, white stripes against a red ‘sky’ suggest the beams of the sun or moon. This effect is reversed in the other painting, where white letters appear to recede from the edges of the canvas to a central point in the distance where they pierce the centre of a red sun that rises over the black horizon.
In a statement on the imagery of the paintings, the artist commented, ‘The word “forward” featured in all paintings [from the series] is obviously a statement, a slogan, calling for dynamic movement towards one’s glorious future which is symbolised in the paintings by the stylised rising sun. Each time, the word “forward” is featured twice, bound in opposite directions. So, we perceive “Forward-Backwards” rather than “Forward-Forward”. Thus, we haven’t advanced a bit.’ (Erik Bulatov, All is not so bad, unpublished manuscript, 16 October 2016.)
The six drawings in Tate’s collection reflect the artist’s signature approach, in which he develops the complete structure of a pictorial composition through a series of drawings before the final drawing is meticulously transferred onto the painting through a grid pencilled on the surface of the canvas. Five of them show variations of the painted composition where the Russian word for ‘forward’ is featured either projecting toward or receding away from the surface of the image. The sixth drawing relates to the circular scale model, which itself helps to grasp the compositional complexity of the structure of the monumental sculpture. Its circular composition is formed from twenty-four elements, each a three-dimensional Cyrillic letter painted scarlet red on the inside and black on the sides and the back. The letters form the Russian word ‘vpered’ (forward), repeated four times with twenty-three upright letters and one displayed on its back as if collapsed. The model represents the artist’s idea for the large-scale installation, where the viewer would approach the work from the outside faced with indecipherable three-dimensional black forms. The letters are installed close together, with a larger gap between the words presenting an opening through which the viewer can enter the structure. From the inside, the elements would be perceived as almost flat – becoming, in effect, a circular, three-dimensional word painting.
Bulatov has explained:
The conflict between the meaning of the text and the reality is accentuated through the real space around us, not the illusory space of a picture plane observed from the distance … The negation of the declared slogan ‘Forward’ is achieved through viewer’s own dynamic movement within the circular space which has no end … The red flat facets of the letters form an impenetrable red surface closing up on the viewer. This flat surface in a way compresses the space surrounding us in order to become its constructive core, and thus takes up the role of painterly plane. The circular motion, implied by the space would have been endless would it not be for the collapsed letter ‘R’… Our art object is, in effect a picture whose space was constructed rather than painted.
Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge (eds.), Nonconformist Art: The Soviet Experience, 1956–1986, New York 1995.
Matthias Arndt (ed.) Erik Bulatov. Catalogue Raisonne in two Volumes. Volume I: Paintings 1952–2011, Cologne 2012.
Erik Bulatov, I live – I see, exhibition catalogue, Manezh, Moscow 2014.
October 2016; updated January 2018
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