Power and media
However, at the turn of the century, many had illusions that contemporary art could become the designer for a new political regime, giving its right-liberal content a progressive form. Alternative culture festivals supported by the Union of Right Forces on the eve of the 1999 Duma elections offered hope for an alliance with the state.
The most striking expression of these illusions might be the colossal painting Meeting of the Federal Assembly by Farid Bogdalov and Sergei Kalinin (2004). The huge canvas was a remake of Ilya Repin's Ceremonial Meeting of the State Council, painted a century earlier – only in place of the tsarist dignitaries there was the political elite of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term. However, unlike the case of Repin, the work wasn’t ordered by the state, which allowed the creators to maintain a certain ironic distance in relation to those portrayed.
Vrubel and Timofeeva were among the first pretenders for the role of court painters. As early as 1999 the image of Putin as “judo master” arose: Boris Yeltsin's sporty successor in a white judogi, coquettishly open on his chest, sat half-turned on the floor, looking intently at something behind him – with a cunning squint, something between Lenin and spy, on an impenetrable face. The work, circulated in two versions – one on a black background and one on a blue background (the latter was called The Ideal Lover) – looked on track to become the official presidential portrait and found high demand among career-oriented connoisseurs of beauty. The judo master was placed on the cover of the flip calendar “The Twelve Moods of the President” issued by Vrubel and Timofeeva at end-2001 in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Reminiscent of old physiognomic studies, the portrait gallery seemed to teach the loyal viewer to read the face of the head of state. The project gained the attention of both Putin supporters and critics: back in 2002, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung named Vrubel one of the creators of the emerging "Putin cult."
Besides Putinania, Vrubel and Timofeeva began to paint – of course, not from life but based on media-mediated images – politicians, oligarchs and show business stars, and by the mid-2000s they had practically monopolized the genre of political portraits. Exhibitions in the Federation Council and Duma, partners from Gazprom and the Office of the President, a project for the “revamped” NTV following the breakup of the so-called “unique journalist collective” – subsequently, the artists attributed their flirting with power to the fact that political art should be directly immersed in political life. Yet political life in those years was also marked by a much greater richness of color: a month and a half after the Beslan tragedy, Vrubel and Timofeeva arranged a charity auction and channeled all the proceeds toward the construction of an art school in Beslan – the auction was hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, then a popular TV presenter and now one of the most odious propagandists on TV.
The media success of their flirting with power led the artists to work more and more closely with Marat Gelman, a gallery owner, art curator and political strategist. On the one hand, the couple’s most unfortunate performances are associated with Gelman – for example, Vrubel and Timofeeva responded to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with a collage of dubious wit: a portrait painted from a photograph of the latter dying in a hospital ward accompanied by a phrase in the spirit of the well-known text picture of their friend Yuri Albert, “When I have a creative block, I lie on the couch all the time, I can't get up, I feel really bad.” On the other hand, Gelman acted as the producer for the couple’s best work, The Gospel Project (2008), in which Vrubel seemed to be summing up his 30 years as an artist.
The Gospel Project was based on the same principle as The Fraternal Kiss – in the inscription “My God, help me to survive this deadly love,” many heard biblical overtones, though there were no direct quotes from Scripture in the fresco on the Berlin Wall. This time, photographs found from news agencies or on the Internet were paired with verses from the canonical gospels, and those who are usually captured by World Press Photo – migrants, refugees, invaders, militants, football fans, protesters, police, drug addicts – were presented as the heroes of a single epic. The policeman dispersing the Dissenters' March looked like a Roman centurion, members of the Gopota_ru LiveJournal community like a crowd shouting “Crucify Him!”
The photographs with gospel captions were converted into “rapid-response” paintings: they were printed on huge vinyl canvases, such as are usually used for outdoor advertising, and painted over with acrylics. The technique was simple and effective: the momentary image took on a historical dimension – by increasing the size and adding words from Scripture, the artists forced the viewer to see real tragedy in shots from the news flow stream that have become commonplace.