The Classical Death project is a series of textile collages representing fairly free interpretations of widely known classical paintings devoted to the theme of violent death. They include “THE SHOOTING ON PRINCIPE PIO MOUNTAIN” by Francisco de Goya, “THE DEATH OF CHATTERTON” by Henry Wallis, “DEATH OF A COMMISSAR” by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, “THE DEATH OF OPHELIA” by Eugène Delacroix, Titian’s “THE DEATH OF ACTAEON”, Ilya Repin’s “IVAN THE TERRIBLE AND HIS SON IVAN”, “THE DEATH OF MARAT” by Jacques-Louis David, “THE DEATH OF CLEOPATRA” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as “PRINCESS TARAKANOVA” by Konstantin Flavitsky and Perov’s “DROWNED WOMAN”.

Suicide, murder, and other forms of taking human life has always been an extremely popular theme in fine art the world over. From antiquity right up to the beginning of the 20th century, artists depicted death in an exclusively heroic and touching manner, making the killing of the heroes of their works both beautiful and instructive in the highest degree. Thus the act of violent death, shown in the example of historical and mythological characters, lost its horrible and ordinary sense and was transformed into an archetype. Characteristically, the rapture of this archetypal death produced an almost erotic ecstasy in the artists – countless Lucretias, Cleopatras, and Saint Sebastians, denuded beyond any reasonable measure, are agonizing in tense, seductive poses. Russian art at the end of the 19th century displays a more Puritanical approach. For example, Princess Tarakanova’s neckline could not compete with the frivolous outfit of Delacroix’s drowning Ophelia. And Perov’s drowning woman is actually fully clothed, while the bare foot that appeared in a sketch of the painting ended up covered by a boot.

I started doing textile collages in the mid-1980’s. Before that I made a lot of colored paper collages, gradually increasing the format. But large-format paper applications are very impractical. They are very difficult to store, transport and display. At some point I switched from paper to fabric. This gave me unprecedented freedom -- a huge exhibition could fit in a backpack and be hung up in an hour. I did have my doubts – during my years of study at the Muhin art school, I'd seen enough ugly fabric appliqués, carefully zigzag stitched with buffoons and scenes of Leningrad. The phrase "textile collage” coupled with the idea of "decorative art" made me nauseous. But since childhood I had been very fond of the different flags and banners hanging from the ceiling in the Naval and Artillery museums. The letters, numbers and symbols on them were sometimes arranged in the most paradoxical way. And I was won over by the fact that these flat objects did not hang on the wall, but in the air, which emphasized the free nature of the fabric. Another source of inspiration was the military maps with colored arrows, dashes, and other topographic heraldry.

The funny thing is that after many years at one of the exhibitions where my fabrics were on display, friends gave me postcards with flags of ASAFO military units of African Ghana. The resemblance was striking, although I had never seen these beautiful handmade banners before!
My first "rags" had an anti-bourgeois subtext – I took the first background fabric I came across (old duvet covers or mattress covers, calico for slogans) and used whatever glue was on hand to apply details cut out of old clothes. The general poverty and lack of suitable fabrics in local shops was noticeable. Naturally, the edges were not finished.

The concept changed significantly when our family bought a cottage in the Estonian town of Narva, where the famous Krenholm textile factory, once owned by Baron Stieglitz, was located. The factory had a store where you could buy sturdy and bright cotton fabrics, dirt cheap. I stored up kilometers of it. And so my fabrics became truly colorful.

Over the years I've improved my technique, but one thing has remained unchanged - most of my fabrics, one way or another, are related to the theme of the "touching and heroic”, and often the topic of death itself: "ABRAHAM’S SACRIFICE", "THE DEATH OF ICARUS", "SEDOV’S DOG", "DEATH OF THE GUARDIAN”, "DEATH of ABDULLAH", "EXPLOSION OF THE BATTLESHIP EMPRESS MARIA", "DEATH OF AN AVIATOR", "THE FEAT OF THE JAPANESE ACE SABURO SAKAI", and so on.

The paintings I’ve chosen to copy as part of the Classical Death project are a logical continuation of this story line. In my “copies” the compositional intent of the original is reduced to a laconic symbol, accompanied by a brief explanatory text. The sad and unappetizing fact of violent death is brightened by a healthy dose of irony and an optimistic color scheme.


Olga Florenskaya