Painting's often referred to as on its deathbed – as is Russian cultural output in general by those pessimistic enough about the impact of Putin. But many committed individuals are fighting for creativity's healthy survival in Russia, as I found when I paid a visit to Saint Petersburg at the end of March for the first Erarta Motion Pictures Festival of short films about painting. Held by the Erarta museum of contemporary art, Russia's largest private gallery, it was devised (as artistic director Denis Rubin told me) as an innovative way to get locals into art, as well as a platform for fresh filmmaking from Russia and further afield.
Screened in Erarta's hulking Soviet classicist building, the competition films spanned animation, fiction and documentary. I was on a jury (headed by Faust director Alexander Sokurov - a strong supporter of the gallery) that awarded stand-out Estonian animated short Breakfast on the Grass by Mihkel Reha and Erik Alunurm - a tongue-in-cheek take on Eduard Manet's famed masterwork and on the effort required to create. Reeling about a paint-splattered woodland, four sozzled figures, bottles clinking in shopping bags, grab trees for support or face-plant to the distorted strains of Ravel's Bolero, as they try to replicate the painter's visual tableau. Other notable shorts included Looking at the Dead, a take on Don DeLillo's Baader-Meinhof and departure into conventional shooting by found-footage maestro Jean-Gabriel Periot; and German duo Wolf & Ritterscamp's animation Arts + Crafts Spectacular #2, a riotous take on the art-world featuring the voices of Yoko Ono and Bruce LaBruce.
The lasting influence of revered director Tarkovsky haunted several Russian submissions - from Giora Baranov's Shrovetide, a modern-day ode to the famed Brueghel painting that's on the space-station wall in Soviet-era classic Solaris, to Gauguin: Man Who Makes Human Beings, a mystically hazy, atmospheric take on the painter's life by Evgeniy Krylov and Nikolay Gorobets, which won the documentary award. Anna Artemieva's fable-like animation Once upon a Time There was a Mom and Two Highways from Alexandr Markov and Nick Teplov, a doc on Leningrad counter-culture figure Boris Koshelokhov, both showed imaginative flair.
Two side-bars programmed by Barcelona-based curator Xavi Garcia Puerto added to the main competition. One looked at how filmmaking has rescued the landscape - a once-favoured painting topic - from the wastebasket of kitsch, using new technologies to manipulate nature. The stand-out here was Romanian filmmaker Mihai Grecu's digitally rendered short We'll Become Oil, which sees a barren landscape ominously dramatised. Eight helicopters move like giant circling insects, their blades in flickering spirals, toward imminent collision; billowing, black pillars of smoke from burning oil carpet the screen. Deft sound design and vertiginous camera-work underpin a brilliantly calibrated atmosphere of catastrophe. It's a totalising aesthetic that offers a spectacle as thrilling as it is terrifying - its terrible, menacing beauty hinting at humanity's fatal attraction to power, militancy and destruction.
Another highlight was charmingly absurdist Can not be anything against the Wind from artist collective Flatform, based between Milan and Berlin, which manipulates landscape planes to move before our eyes in ways that underscore their nature as artificial representations. Peppered through Garcia Puerto's other programme on the impulse to draw or paint as a means to depict life werehighly amusing segments from Dustin Grella's project Animation Hotline, which saw him set up a voicemail service enabling people to leave messages - which he then animated daily.
I also curated a side-bar programme: shorts from Icelandic artists who'd tried their hand at filmmaking which included a rare screening of demented '60s mash-up Grimaces by Iceland's most renowned painter Erró. From a generation of more outward-looking creators, he was heavily influenced by the pop art he encountered in New York. The film shows the faces of more than a hundred artists, gallery owners and critics - including Duchamp, Man Ray, and Andy Warhol - making faces into the camera.
At the festival closing I caught up with legendary Russian avant-garde punk-rockers and performance artists N.O.M. They've been around now for nearly two decades, having formed in then-Leningrad in 1987, satirically taking their name (which in Russian stands for The Informal Youth Association) from Communist party-speak used to order and neutralise the perceived threat of youth committees deemed 'informal". Keeping up their rep for absurdist surrealism, joyous satire and just plain troublemaking ("Whatever you do, don't drink vodka with them!" I was warned), the collective had a current exhibition on at Erarta. Member Nikolai Kopeikin treated me to a guided tour of the eclectic mentalism, ranging from trinkets emblazoned with esoteric wartime symbolism to a painting of Putin in a tracksuit surrounded by hovering extra-terrestrials to an abstract black circle Kopeikin told me was a depiction of Moscow ("Because there's nothing there!" he laughed). This onslaught of dynamic, good-humoured weirdness left me in no doubt that the will to creative expression and subversion is very much alive and kicking in Russia.