Monday, November 12, 2007

Made In China

The course I’m in now is not the first year of the academy. Instead it is an intensive year to prepare me for the battery of tests at the end of the year which will decide who enters the Academy. This prep course uses the same teachers as the regular school but is focused on honing basic skills and weeding out those who are not up to snuff. It also generates 100% of the funding for the school since it’s free for all Russians who are accepted. Before perestroika there were very few foreigners and the school was funded by the state. I have a feeling Putin will eventually reinstate this policy as much of his decision making is bringing Russia to the good/bad old days. The prep course is split into Russians and foreigners so I don’t spend my days will locals. Instead The Chinese monopolize the majority of my daily interactions. There are 3 or 4 sections with between 20 and 30 students in each. There are approximately 100 students in total in the prep course. There are maximum 20 spots available for these students in the regular school so you would think the competition would be very high and going in I thought the Chinese would be more advanced than me and more disciplined. There is a strong artistic connection between China and Russia and many of the teachers here go to Russian regularly to teach and to work on commissions. I assumed the Chinese would be well versed in the Russian Classical tradition, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Because they are the primary source of revenue they let anyone come into the foreign student prep course. The Russian prep course is far more competitive it I’ve been told. Here’s a description of the first day of school.

The first day we gathered in a room and I noticed more white faces than I anticipated. Of 30 students 6 weren’t Asian. The other 2 or 3 sections are entirely Asian with the vast majority from China many fewer from Taiwan and fewer still from Korea. The Koreans are the worst off. There is a Chinese translator and enough of the English speakers speak and understand enough Russian to translate for each other, but the Koreans must struggle with the little English they and the Russian teachers share and learn their Russian very quickly.

The Chinese don’t speak enough English for me to know any of them very well, but I’ve looked a lot at their drawing. I draw with them 2 hours a day in the same room 12 of us shared last summer. Now there are thirty. The teachers only get to each student about every 3 days because there are so many of us. In the regular school this also happens because despite the smaller class size the teachers come twice maybe 3 times a week. They look, give comments and the students are expected to work on what they’re told to do until the teacher returns to check on their progress. In our prep course we have two teachers. One is Vladimer Alexandravitch the drawing teacher I had the last two summers. He is a rotund man who works and speaks at a feverish pace carrying a handkerchief at all times to dry his bald sweating head. He can draw like a monster and I’ve seen him accomplish what I couldn’t do in 18 hours in a few minutes. He is He keeps an orderly studio and demands full attention scolding students for talking or listening to walkman or even drinking water while he’s there. He has a clear method and a stern effective teaching style that I take to well. He is something of a celebrity teacher here. He has Repin’s old studio as his own to work in and usually teaches 5th year students. This means he is in a consistent state of disappointment and frustration as he struggles to teach us the basic assumptions his normal students have had for probably 10 years already. He works hard though and tirelessly repeats himself, which has helped my Russian. When asked last summer how we Americans compared to his Russian students he said he had three kind of students: the kind you have to tell only once and they immediate do what he says, the kind who must be told over and over and over and still they just don’t seem to get it, and finally us.

He comes only every other day, sharing his teaching responsibilities with another drawing professor twice his age. This one has all white hair and a white mustache, slight of build and gentle in nature. When he first saw my drawing he said nothing for a long time and I expected him to take my pencil and simply show me what was wrong, but instead he told me everything has form even the clouds and that I had to keep this in mind when drawing and he left. I was a bit crest-fallen not because I wanted praise but because I wanted more precise direction. However I realized that I had been drawing tentatively anticipating the teachers castigating stare and hadn’t made enough decisions myself for him to correct. He was essentially telling me to be brave and find the volume in my drawing it was still less concrete than even a cloud.

It’s nice to have two teachers and generally they steer you to the same conclusions but occasionally they have completely different preferences and end up fighting with each other on your page. One tells me my compositions have the head too big and the next day the other teacher asks me why it’s so small.

There is a big range but they almost all share the same strengths and weaknesses just in varying degrees. They have the devil’s patience when it comes to shading and detail work, but they don’t consider the big picture much. The first few days we were sketching in order to create a good composition and the Chinese did it because they were told to, but almost none of them used it when beginning their real drawing. We are all drawing plaster casts of heads from famous sculptures and theirs were relatively haphazardly placed on the page and from different angles than their sketches. One kid was drawing his head way at the top of the page because he was tall and didn’t bother to raise the easel to the proper height. Like many he had a very heavy hand and drew very dark effectively equalizing all the shadow tones and flattening his drawing. I knew what was coming.
Anyway when he saw the results of this tall Chinese student’s drawing of Apollo’s plaster bust set in extremely heavy pencil and crowded into he top of the page I recognized the familiar roll of the eyes and deep sigh. after the flurry of “what the – is this?” type questions Vladimer Alexandravitch took the strange rubbery eraser they use here called formaplast and rubbed the whole thing out. He then redrew a sketch in a more appropriate compositional space on the page with proper lights and darks of the big forms. And so it went for many of them. They seemed to ignore much of the feedback they got and went right ahead in their comfort zone of tiny detail all done with the same intensity. In some ways I think they have more to unlearn than learn. Details are seductive and far easier to render than the whole form, but if they are in the wrong place or drawn without any tonal relationship to the whole drawing then the artist is wasting their time and this is the great challenge for us all: to avoid wasting time and do what we know we must do in the proper order from large to small. As the teacher often says when I too slather the eyes in a drawing with heavy soft 6b graphite, “In a house do you build the windows before the walls?” I meekly shake my head in agreement and hand over the formaplast wishing farewell to the last 6 hours or work.

In sculpture I have lucked out. There are only 6 of us and so we all get to see the teacher whenever he comes. He is excellent as are all the teachers. Hilariously blunt. Quotes include (translated loosely from the Russian and hand gestures I understand “She is a young woman [pointing to the motionless model] why did you make a babushka?” “Ah today you made a balloon sculpture with no edges and little air.” Then he makes a the sound of a balloon popping and the air hissing out of it as he points vigorously to the deflated sculpture. When first seeing Gabriella’s who tends toward harsh overly modeled features exaggerated in proportion and size,” Please more likeness to the delicate young woman in front of you and less of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Like many Russian men you can smell the testosterone in the room when he enters, but really he’s a fantastic sculpture and if not patient an honest and thorough teacher. Unlike the drawing class where the Chinese have some skills that are more refined than my own I’m being reminded only what not to do from my classmates in sculpture and I usually know what the teacher will tell them. Still he has such a solid sense of anatomy and such a sure hand, it’s a real pleasure to watch him repair our work.

The first day of drawing included the normal rush to find a good vantage point of the subject. I found a nice ¾ view with enough room to move back a few feet from my easel(a luxury in this packed room). Next to me is Zhi a very friendly Chinese kid with more English than most. He looks like a teenager to me with a fair bit of pubescent acne and long spars black hairs growing in strange configurations around his upper lip and jaw. He speaks Chinese, Russian, and English with the rhythm of a car with a bum starter, tripping over hard consonants and after multiple failed attempts finally sputtering out long phrases with little to no pauses between words. It doesn’t stop him though and he practices Russian with great determination. He is in my Russian class and I hear him often making a strange gargling sound, which confounded me until I realized he was practicing his rolling Russian R. The language is hard enough for English or French speakers, but the Chinese don’t have the same set of phonemes to work. I still have trouble distinguishing hard and soft “sh” sounds, but the Chinese can’t even distinguish between L/ R or B /T/ D sounds in Russian. It makes me appreciate how much steeper my climb towards fluency could be. Unfortunately Zhi also has many nervous ticks and we stand inches away from each other when drawing. If he’s not cracking his neck, or jerking his elbow sometimes quite close to my face, he is always making this uncontrollable sound. It’s a deep resonant guttural clearing of the throat followed by an even more intense snort. He has no control of it and practices this set of utterances at least 3 times a minute with no predictable rhythm. A little like Chinese water torture. However I’ve grown to like him. He is very sweet and works hard to keep peace between the fiery Sicilian French girl and the Chinese she finds disgusting. Also at some point the bald drawing teacher looked at Zhi’s impossibly black shading and just shook his head in disgust and moved on. Zhi waited and went to the teacher with such pleading eyes and innocently furrowed brow that when he said “P P Prease prease t t t terr me howicanmakeitbetter” the teacher who understood not a word took pity and went to work with the eraser.

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