After the COVID-19 outbreak sent the world into lockdown this spring, Katerina Brudnaya-Chelyadinova, a project manager at a large Russian internet provider, took a photo of her husband, Dmitry.
Wearing a straw hat and blue shirt, beard tinted orange with watercolor paints, Dmitry looked like Vincent Van Gogh in his legendary self-portrait from 1887. Brudnaya-Chelyadinova posted the picture on Facebook and invited her friends to likewise recreate masterpieces by great artists using only materials they had lying around the house.
Unexpectedly, Brudnaya-Chelyadinova’s post resonated far beyond her circle of friends. Many Russians stuck at home began to send her their photos imitating great works of art. Within days, the flood of images from people desperate for a diversion from the pandemic blues became too great to handle. And so, Brudnaya-Chelyadinova created a Facebook group and invited moderators to help her with the influx. In less than a month, the group had more than half a million people from around the globe, and boasts 600,000 members today.
Though it wasn’t the first time such an idea had been raised in the pandemic era — the Getty Museum launched an online “flash mob” encouraging people to cosplay their favorite paintings in early March — it was Russian users who were able to turn the mildly successful initiative into a viral sensation.
Today the group, whose name translates into “Art Isolation” in English, has drawn the attention of news media, artists, and critics, offering a glimpse at life under lockdown.
“After our group gained hundreds of thousands of fans, we were incredibly cheered up,” Brudnaya-Chelyadinova told The Times of Israel. “Me, my husband, my friends who helped moderate the group, no longer had time to think about coronavirus or how to spend our time. Now all our thoughts are focused on the group. I think this new hobby saved us from the emotional trauma that could have developed due to the isolation.”
Israeli art critic and historian Natalie Nesher Aman believes that a solid number of the thousands of images posted to the group may well be regarded as works of art in their own right.
“There is a significance to these images in the ability to reproduce a masterpiece from other materials, preserving its essence,” explained Nesher Aman, who also co-owns an art gallery in Tel Aviv. “For example, there were amazing shots by Israeli artist Galina Bleikh, who imitated famous ancient statues with her 90-year-old mother. If you look at these photos, you will understand that these are indisputable artworks.”
Bleikh was born in St. Petersburg, and has lived and worked in Jerusalem since 1993. She has had solo exhibitions around the world, including in New York, London, Paris, Israel, St. Petersburg, and Kyoto, Japan. In 2019, Bleikh was recognized by the Yotzrim Art Foundation for her project “Pop Leaders,” which she co-produced with Elena Serebryakova.
There is a significance to these images in the ability to reproduce a masterpiece from other materials, preserving its essence
“When I first saw the pictures posted in the group, I understood it was kind of a challenge for me as an artist,” Bleikh told The Times of Israel. “In the beginning, my mother and I submitted a reproduction of Voltaire [by 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon], and felt the thrill. We laughed to tears when we were filming. I want to say, ‘Thanks, Lord, for letting me be born in the internet age!”
Laocoon is the seventh composition that Bleikh made for Art Isolation with her mother.
“We planned to make a work based on this sculpture for a long time. The only thing that stopped me was that I am terribly afraid of snakes. To create this picture, we used tights stuffed with twisted bedsheets, and the snakes started looking like living creatures,” Bleikh said.
According to Bleikh, Laocoon is an attempt to rethink an ancient drama: “My mom said that she perceives the plot of the battle with snakes as a symbol of the fight against the pandemic, but, unlike the Greek tragedy, today everything should end with the victory of humans.”
Nesher Aman said that over the last 50 years, the imitation of famous artworks has become an important medium in and of itself. Many artists rose to popularity this way, she said, such as Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz, who recreated the Mona Lisa out of peanut butter and jelly.
“In such a parody of great canvases, we could see an appeal to classical art under new conditions, an important moment of distancing and critical thinking,” Nesher Aman said.
Such interaction with great art is an attempt to escape into a fantasy world
According to the art critic, the Art Isolation group is fascinating both sociologically and psychologically.
“In difficult times, when we do not understand what will happen to us and our finances tomorrow, such interaction with great art is an attempt to escape into a fantasy world. We integrate ourselves into the world of art and thereby become part of these masterpieces,” Nesher Aman said.
To integrate themselves into the visual world, project participants used a variety of improvised tools with astonishing ingenuity. Julia Ohotnikova, a theater actress from the Russian city of Yoshkar-Ola, had to turn her house upside down to recreate Raphael’s Conestabile Madonna.
“My husband and I pulled out the mattress from our double bed and pinned up a background landscape made out of a bedsheet, a shirt, a tablecloth, and some sticks,” she said.
“To look like Madonna, I put on a blue cloak. The hood was slipping off my hair all the time, so we put a folded t-shirt underneath it. After that, I found a suitable size book and stuck my smartphone to it with a rubber band, so our youngest son Misha could watch the cartoon ‘Masha and the Bear’ and sit quietly in my arms for three minutes,” the actress said.
While the technical reproduction of the canvases certainly matters, it takes two main ingredients to get broad recognition: unlimited imagination and a sense of humor.
“With a sense of humor, we are immune to any viruses,” said Michael Lobzovsky, who created a pandemic-themed repdocution of Mark Chagall’s iconic “The Promenade,” receiving thousands of likes from Facebook users.
According to Lobzovsky, a Ukrainian expat who moved to Israel 20 years ago, participation in the project is an opportunity to receive some moral support and connect with people.
“I like the group because of its openness,” agreed Vladimir Shcherban, the director and co-founder of HUNCHtheatre in London, who created a stunningly accurate reproduction of Caravaggio’s Narcissus.
“Everyone can demonstrate their understanding of art. It gives me the feeling of a vivid carnival. As a theater director, I was shocked by the inventiveness and ingenuity of some images,” he said.
For Shcherban, the hobby, which was born of the lockdown, became a unique journey in time and space, from the paintings of Caravaggio to the works of contemporary artists.
“The uniqueness of Art Isolation is that it brought together hundreds of thousands of people in a single creative impulse and became a platform for meeting the best artists around the world,” he said.
Group members aren’t only interested in the classics, but seem to have an appreciation for modern art, as well.
Another Shcherban recreation was “My Family” by Elena Revenko, an artist and graphic designer who moved to Israel from Belarus in 1990 and graduated from Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy.
“The project is wonderful because it aims at the positive feelings in people who are stuck at home,” Revenko said.
“The communication, creativity, and humor of the project help to stop people from plunging into depression. And it managed to draw people’s attention to art even more than museums. For a small amount of time, we saw a huge number of different artists and styles,” said the Tel Aviv-based artist.
For many members of the group, the recreation of masterpieces was more than just a bit of online fun. The forum became a virtual art textbook helping to understand the inner world of an artist, to see the beauty and uniqueness of each person, and get people involved in the miracle of inspiration.
“Do you know what really impressed me in this work?” said Olga De, a psychologist from Rotterdam, Netherlands, who replicated Van Gogh’s famous painting “Gordina de Groot.” “When I am preparing for a photoshoot, I become Van Gogh a little for 30 minutes, trying to analyze his work and his mastery. This discovery has taken my breath away.”