Literary scholar John Maynard and artist Dmitry Borshch in conversation on art

Russian American Cultural Center of New York
Feb 27, 2014 12:14AM

Scholar of English literature John Maynard, PhD, is the author of Browning's Youth (Harvard University Press, 1976), Charlotte Bronte and Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 1984), Victorian Discourses on Sexuality and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Browning Re-Viewed (Peter Lang, 1998), Literary Intention, Literary Interpretation, and Readers (Broadview Press, 2009), and other works.

Here are 4 questions and answers from his conversation with Dmitry Borshch:

One more on theme: "The Good Arab?" seems to me both a stereotype and an attempt to rethink a stereotype.  Do you know which, or what else, you had in mind?

"The Good Arab?" was drawn earlier than "Waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah", "Bush-Maliki News Conference. Baghdad, December 2008", and "Odalisque in Red Satin Pantaloons (after Matisse)", all of which in 2012 were exhibited at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Институт востоковедения Российской Академии Наук) in Moscow.  The Institute's director, Vitaly Naumkin, assured me that when he calls these works examples of New Orientalism, he is not denigrating me as Edward Said denigrated Gérôme and other orientalists, whom he accused of sympathizing with or aiding various colonialist projects.  I was grateful for that assurance.  One may regard Jean-Léon Gérôme's orientalism (and some other artist's occidentalism) as a species of exoticism.  If an artist is not drawn to the exotic, dryness kills his art.  New Orientalism has overcome exotization of Arabs and other peoples of the Orient.  I have never exoticized or stereotyped anyone -- that would artificially limit my depictions -- so the question of stereotyping appears to me irrelevant.

Your style has an exceptional maturity; we know many a very good artist by their ability to create works that speak of their creators very clearly.  I think I would recognize one of your drawings anywhere.  Did you build a style in some conscious way?  I am especially struck by, if I may, the Russian doll quality of some of your works: that is, we have a major image but all the parts, with their wonderful lines, create other images, arabesques or apparent subjects, themselves?  Do you think of this as a picture that fights against its parts, a coherent nest of meanings, merely a decorative style?

I have always avoided mere decoration, unlike Matisse, and coherence is central to my efforts as a draughtsman.  No style can exist without it.  Style-building, or development of style, entails making coherent one’s natural preferences.  Teachers should ask those students who are interested in building their own styles, "Do you prefer quill pens and sepia ink or colored pencils, hatching, cross-hatching or stippling [I have no preference today but in my early drawings preferred not to cross-hatch], toned watercolor paper or white illustration boards?"  They should quickly add, "When these questions and many other ones are answered, cohere your answers into a lucid, unfragmented approach to whatever interests you: painting, medical illustration, architectural drawing..."

Your lines are so decisive: do you draw an overall sketch and then work up the detail, or is the detail simply the way you build up the whole?  Do you develop many drafts or go right to the final version?

After the initial tiny sketch I make as detailed a drawing as I can and gradually reduce the number of details until clarity and pictorial balance -- which you understood as decisiveness -- are attained.  This gradual process usually lasts five drafts.

Let's talk influence: you write about Chagall who obviously shares your ethnicity (and he did become something of an American in his reception).  Yet his technique seems very different: did you work through him in your development?  Do you shadow his work in its themes?

No, I have never been attracted to his style or themes: he often depicted shtetl life, I try to depict contemporary subjects.  But Chagall's art and Jewishness are inseparable, Robert Hughes once called him "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century".   If someone calls me that, which is doubtful, I would be pleased.

Russian American Cultural Center of New York
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