For a demon, he is beautiful. Framed by unnaturally large flowers at a golden dawn or dusk, he looks wistful. Perhaps mournful. Does he have a flower in his hair? In spite of his clearly delineated muscles, his sitting position is not a powerful one. He looks as if he has been bested by something; is he regrouping, resting? Plotting? Or does he have nothing left to do?
The green tint of his skin, his thick neck, and his long, steep jawbone seem to be suggestions of otherworldliness. But the emotion on his face is human. The beauty of his form is a human beauty. Nothing about him, neither himself nor his environment, hints at evil. He is not a jarring presence in the landscape; the color of his skin and the color of the sky are combined in the big flowers. He's a part of the world we see him in. It is a colorful, vibrant, living world. A warm wind blows his hair back, perhaps shifting the flowers beside him. But he is still.
He's the most precisely-painted thing in a collage-like setting, as if he's a real person sitting in front of a mosaic. The light on his body is painted smoothly, showing the specifics right down to the joints of his fingers. Different from the flowers that look assembled from scraps of paper, and different from the pixellated blur of the sky. Care has been taken with this demon, and he is weighted with cares himself. He seems elevated, sitting on a mountaintop, and yet there is a heaviness to him, an indelicacy to the scene, that is anything but carefree.
It was only after encountering Seated Demon and feeling inspired to write about its artist, the Russian Mikhail Vrubel, that I made a personal connection. This whole time I have been writing about similar themes: abyss, lifeless voids, monsters we can’t quite understand. The pattern was not deliberate, rather just me writing what was on my mind. The analysis of that I will save for my therapist. The sudden tracking of this pattern, however, helped me empathize with Vrubel.
For a decade this demon seemed to be all the artist could think about. He sketched the demon, he sculpted it, and he painted it. In his masterpiece, at the apex of his obsession, he shows the demon sitting in the sunset contemplating ultimate loss.
There is something so attractive about Russian culture. The country itself is one of Western familiarity and Siberian forest mystery. European culture laps up on St. Petersburg’s boggy edges in the west of the country. Its influence pushes in from the shores, as it does now on every continent of this earth. But as it advances it meets a different force coming from the east. It is a certain mentality that emerges from the dark woods, where dense pine canopies blot out the sun. No matter how much an outsider studies Russian history, this mentality can’t be fully comprehended; can’t be made tangible. At least I have had no luck in the pursuit.
Spend an hour reading a Tolstoy novel and you will encounter a character saying “ah, but what is to be done?” In the West, in the United States, this would be a call to action. “Ok, what’s our plan?” In Russia it is a rhetorical question. It is a phrase of acceptance. It says “yes, that is how it is, to be sure, but we can’t change that, so let’s move on.”
For straight with venom of damnation
That kiss corroded to her heart,
And all the midnight echoes start
With a wild shriek of consternation--
A shriek that told a tale heartbreaking
Where love and agony blended,
From youth a passionate leave taking,
And that young life in terror ended.