Throughout Robert Dandarov’s paintings lingers a continuous, poetic processing of people’s darker yet delicate inner sphere by means of mythology, symbolism, playfulness, and art history. The heavy burden his paintings seem to bear is, with a sense of humour, passed on to the viewer who needs a chair to unpack the many layers Dandarov has hidden within the rhythm of his works. Similar to an ominous movie, his paintings carry an unbearable suspense, like a chronicle of a ghastly occurrence foretold, albeit with a whimsical undertone. Image upon image, this artist’s surfaces tell us stories without a timeline, bringing history and fairytales to our present day through his sophisticated understanding of metaphors and symbols.
There’s a heaviness to this artist’s foundation. Dandarov grew up in former Yugoslavia during the ‘60s and ‘70s. These turbulent times have left a mark on the artist and, consequently, on his imagery. He describes Macedonia, his roots, as ‘a country of blood and poetry, great landscapes and monasteries, and strange people’. Uncoincidentally, we could say the same about his work, which he, contrarily, sees as his refuge. In this sense, he agrees with Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) that art is a suspension of the pain of living. But Dandarov approaches gloom with a kind understanding. To him, pain is not bad or wrong, but solely a different side of joy. We have no option but to handle the cards we were dealt carefully while counting on solace.
And so, Dandarov reflects his inner poetry through painting. The artist sees life as a mystery we can only speculate on. The surreal elements in his work allude to that point of view, though they are not to be interpreted as merely surreal, but rather as the artist’s outlook on life. ‘Nothing is more surreal than the reality around us’, he says. Our existence is nothing but a dream. It is one of the reasons so many symbols sneak into his work, like the blue stripe in Europa (2023) that brings in the sea. Or the crosses in Mickey in the Bardo (2021) and Spring in Suburbia (2021) that take us back to an important part of Dandarov’s Byzantine background. This type of personal symbolism points out the wholeness of things; within the absurd, everything is situated in the same plane. And contemporary art can only be by the grace of art history.
References to painterly tradition hold an important role in Dandarov’s work. Dutch Interior (2023) takes after The Lacemaker (1669–1670) by Johannes Vermeer. We see a woman—a friend of the artist—lacing up meat, or rather a carcass, in a very similar pose and lighting as Vermeer’s painting. Vermeer lived during turbulent, boisterous times where the Eighty Years’ War had hardly dissolved, and he had twelve kids running around his studio—nothing of which is noticeable when looking at his tranquil work. ‘Art was also his refuge—those rooms, those lights. So I painted the meat to point out that, surrounding this beautiful light, he was painting within total blackness and noise. It is about how only art can protect you from the machine outside’, Dandarov explains. The meat resembling that in works by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) also ties this composition into the everyday struggle of our contemporary times.
Like Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), Dandarov leans towards a more muted palette. Here, too, he is looking for poetry. His hues don’t scream, but they disclose all the more. Rather than telling a linear story, Dandarov wants to convey emotion. The colours remind us of old, patinated pictures, but his characters are strikingly contemporary. They could be your neighbour or cousin. Clearly referencing mythology via his works’ titles, it is notable that who he paints are obviously present-day people, like in Europa (2023) or Narcissus (2023). The artist employs mythology as a lubricant to bring up current emotions and themes. For Dandarov, mythology continues to this day: ‘Mythology is fundamental to our souls. We’ve grown our roots from it.’
It looks as if the titles reveal what the painting is trying to convey, as is the case in Venus and Mars (2023). But more than telling the story of how Venus cheated on her husband, Vulcan, with Mars, there’s an overlay of meanings that lend this mythological drama a connection with history that’s much younger. The presence of Vulcan, the god of blacksmiths and miners, is expressed through stylised hammers on the wall, which allows the viewer to expand the meaning of the symbols. The portrait of Mars is based on a sculpture done by Arno Breker (1900-1991), one of Hitler’s favourite sculptors. With this composition, Dandarov uses the narrative of adultery to weld together several strings of war references. Venus remains faceless, because the artist feels it’s impossible to represent real beauty: ‘You’d be burned in a second.’ Sometimes you don’t need a face or even a body, because, for Dandarov, everything is symbolic.
Dandarov underlines that, quoting Jean Gannet, ‘a work of art should exalt only those truths that aren’t demonstrable, those we cannot carry to their ultimate conclusions without negating both them and ourselves; let them live by virtue to the song to which they become and to which they are part.’ While being the artist’s poetical and symbolic lighting rod for anguish, Dandarov’s art tells a truth that cannot be shown. ‘That’s how I feel: I let you listen to the songs of the work. Talking about art is only speculation, who even knows what is really real?’
Yasmin Van ’tveld, Uitstalling Art Gallery, 2023