Russian painters' gentle meditation on life and death


Five brilliant young artists from St Petersburg, showing still life watercolours at the Colnaghi gallery in Bond Street, London, are a rare cross-cultural experience. They carry a trompe-l'oeil accuracy of rendering to extraordinary heights, but turn their studies of unremarkable objects into gentle meditations on life and death - an update of the memento mori still life tradition.

The St Petersburg Group were all born in the 1960s and studied in the graphic arts department of the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. They work in closely related styles.

Yuri Ivanchenko is possibly the most remarkable; all his paintings show objects arranged against a wall of old wooden planks. In one, the innards of an old clock are scattered on a ledge which also props a worm-eaten self-portrait of the artist and a dead butterfly. In another the thorny stem of a rose grows through a sheep's skull.

"I want to express in the combination of ordinary things, the hidden harmony of their timeless nature, the struggle between life and death, the eternity of the moment and the immediacy of eternity," he says.

Sergei Archipov describes his work, such as a dead crab strung up against a white wall, as "a meditation on the inner nature of reality". Valera Esaulenko, who has given a single dried rose on a ledge a personalised presence, believes an artist should represent what he sees after "filtering it through the emotions which make up his inner life". Prices run from pounds 1,500 to pounds 11,500, and the exhibition runs until 17 June.

Russia does not have an exclusive claim on contemporary still life painting as is underlined by Michael Leonard's oil study Onions, Leeks and Garlic (pounds 6,500) in the window of Thomas Gibson's gallery on the other side of Bond Street.

Leonard, a British artist who is 62 this year, works in a highly finished style, but blurs outlines as if his objects were seen through a light mist. He quotes Braque in defence of his disciplined approach: "I love the rule that governs emotion."

The Russian control of watercolour washes can be equally matched by the British. Simon Palmer, 39, whose landscape watercolours at the John Martin Gallery in Albemarle Street closed last week, combines formalised landscape in the manner of Paul Nash with mysterious human dramas that echo Stanley Spencer. The watercolours were a hit with the public; 30 of the 41 paintings on show found buyers at prices between pounds 1,200 and pounds 2,700.

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