Macau-based artist Konstantin Bessmertny, originally from Russia, shares how a 16th-century German painting titled “Legend of Saint Eustace. Burglary” profoundly influenced his artistic journey. This piece, which resides in the Primorye State Art Gallery in Vladivostok, Russia, captures the ransacking of the home of a second-century Roman general and Christian martyr, reflecting a time when he was exiled after converting to Christianity.
Bessmertny’s connection with the painting began during his art, restoration, and painting technology studies. He recounts the rigorous, traditional training he underwent, a lineage of teaching that traces back to the era of Catherine the Great and even further to the Italian Renaissance. His education focused on restoring antique works, a meticulous process involving recreating art pieces with historical accuracy. This included learning to prepare the wood, apply primers, and build up the painting using tempera and multiple color layers.
The painting, part of a collection once owned by the family of novelist Vladimir Nabokov, came to Bessmertny’s attention during the Soviet era. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, much of the private art collections were nationalized and distributed to museums, shifting the focus to social realism in the Soviet Union. This piece, however, provided a stark contrast with its rich narrative and historical depth.
While the saint’s story itself might be less known, Bessmertny was drawn to the painting’s depiction of a burglary at a wealthy person’s home. He found that the scene, set centuries ago, still resonates with contemporary interpretations and meanings. This realization sparked a transformation in his approach to art, leading him to blend the old masters’ style with modern subjects.
In his works, Bessmertny infuses narratives and details that subtly alter a painting’s meaning. He often includes unexpected elements in seemingly serene scenes, such as a small, out-of-place object that shifts the entire narrative. This approach stems from his desire to engage with an intelligent audience, offering a respite from what he perceives as the low intellectual level of much contemporary art.
Bessmertny’s advice to aspiring artists is to enrich their knowledge base beyond painting. He emphasizes the importance of reading, watching movies, and studying history, asserting that an artist should also be a philosopher, possessing something meaningful to say.