Born in Moscow in 1966, Eugenie Vronskaya says that ‘from an early age I was exposed to the philosophy and technique of Russian Orthodox icons, which profoundly influenced my later career as an artist’. From 1981-83 she attended Moscow School of Art , and Moscow University of Art from 1983-89 (the latter then with still vital, robust roots in Vkhutemas, the state art and technical school – 1920-1930 – which had been an exploratory base for the Russian Constructivists, and where artists such as Kandinsky and Larionov exhibited). From 1991-93, she studied at London’s Royal College of Art, the first Russian student in its history. She married and moved to Scotland in the 90s, where she has two children.
In 1989, Vronskaya was invited to take part in an artists’ workshop in New York – where she met the British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro. He later said that undoubtedly ‘she has overcome all sorts of difficulties… I was struck at that time by her strength of purpose. Since then I have followed her work and seen it change and grow… She is an artist, she has the touch, the determination and the temperament.’
Of her 2013 oil self-portrait, she says that ‘it was triggered by the entirely visual impact of catching a reflection of myself in the mirror. It is beyond explicable logic how the combination of shapes, colour and movement – the colour tones in my face, say, against the colours of my purplish jumper – could excite something inside me – trigger me to paint so compulsively. The fact that the subject or object was so familiar yet seen utterly anew, helped make it necessary for me to paint.’
The artist’s slender form is held in high tension, as her right hand clutches a white handkerchief, her left arm reaching out of the picture frame apparently to wield a paintbrush – from which emanate the swiftly expressive brushstrokes. The face (at a slight tilt of introspective focus) is angular, even somewhat gaunt yet full-lipped and with large scrutinising eyes, like blue well pools. In an interview (Guardian; 24th May 2014), Vronskaya said, ‘I’ve lived in the [Scottish] Highlands for the past 15 years…. my Scottish bonnet is my signature look. I like wearing comfortable, good-quality clothes that are slightly different. It’s very embarrassing, but I wear my children’s old socks as wrist-warmers – they keep me warm.’
Underlying the self-figuration is a touching mix of incisive nervous alertness – symbolised by the clenched left hand – alongside evident graceful ease within her own skin (and ‘slightly different’ attire). The crumpled, almost fractured white handkerchief has an emblematic quality, conjuring up archetypal thoughts of a kind expressed by Virgil: sunt lachrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt*. The broad scarf around her neck adds a quite pastoral note – its swathes of illumined green recalling perhaps sudden sunlit valleys or fields; the low-key blue of the trousers or skirt has overtones of seas or lakes or rivers. Under the fierce yellows, oranges and reds of her hair, her complexion contains all the colours of the picture modulated with delicate fluency. The picture’s admixture of tones and colour appears ‘accidentally deliberate’ (her own expression).
She emphasises the iconic nature of this self-portrait – ‘confronting us with a central image or figure. In traditional icons, there is a gold background to represent the eternal world; I use white canvas perhaps to represent a space too on which the focal figure is placed.’ She is inspired by ‘the way old masters use organic pigments – layering one on top of the other – retaining translucency and, through over-layering, creating new colours’. In making such a work, individual identity is both celebrated and transcended: ‘you go through a process of eliminating all the stuff you accumulate or are influenced by – and distilling it through the act of painting, hopefully, into a portrait of pure essence.’
She says ‘I often start the day in the studio with some very fast self-portraits as a warm-up. My work is also very autobiographical and in an indirect way I always paint ‘self-portraits’. I guess it’s the nature of many artists – a need for self-scrutiny, self-reflection, we spend far too much time on our own confined in four white walls or walking through countryside.’ A 2011 self-portrait shows her in profile dressed in casual scarlet attire, a slim, strident figure against a diaphanously austere snowy backdrop. Sparing but vivid heightened notes of colours in her pictures may recall transporting effects attained by the iridescent palette of the Russian Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910).
In her late 2015 exhibition The Night Walker (John Martin Gallery, London), in two pictures there is a euphoniously abstracted back view of the artist in long flowing blue coat and wide-brimmed hat, alongside a neighbour’s old yet still lively horse, rambling vivaciously together through snowy moonlit woods in the Scottish Highlands. She and her equine companion seem to be fleeing quotidian care in a spirit of wild abandon.
Vronskaya’s edgy, ebullient still lifes of manifold objects in her studio, kitchen and bedroom owe something to the influence of Vermeer, Matisse and Philip Guston. She says, ‘Objects are a forest of small living energies, and when looked at, they look back.’
Vronskaya’s 2006 Iconostas project, consisting of 120 portrait sketches of a diverse range of local people and visiting actors, is on permanent display at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness.
* tears are universal and mortal things touch the human heart.