• Sophie Taylor

The Visual Harmony of Igor Smirnov Symbolic Realism in Practice

A kaleidoscope of colors and lines, the paintings of Igor Smirnov emanate a visual melodiousness. Drawing on the influences of geometry, psychology, and the fine arts, Smirnov creates joyful artworks that incite feelings of balance and pleasure through the power of optical harmony.

Figure 1. Lady with Guitar by Igor Smirnov. 2021. Copyright Igor Smirnov.


As the son of famous Russian landscape artist Vasili Smirnov, Igor Smirnov began creating at a young age, impacted by his artistic family roots. He attended the College of Fine Art in Russia, continuing on to earn a Master’s Degree in engineering and a PhD in clinical psychology. While on the surface these specialties might seem disparate, Smirnov united these academic interests in the visual, mathematical, and psychological through his development of a painting style called Symbolic Realism.


Figure 2. Sakura Blossom by Igor Smirnov. 2018. Copyright Igor Smirnov.


The scientific belief that certain hues and shapes can produce a therapeutic effect on a spectator informs Symbolic Realism. Any viewer of Smirnov’s work can sense viscerally the manner in which lines and color interact to produce a symbiotic push and pull between structure and freedom. Hue bends with Smirnov’s guiding linear structure while maintaining independence via its textured stroke; color moves unreservedly within the greater form and frame of, for example, a woman playing guitar (see Lady with Guitar) or bodies before Sakura trees (see Sakura Blossom). This dynamic give and take between careful composition and fluidity results in an overall sensation of equilibrium.


Figure 3. “My course is set for an uncharted sea”–Dante Alighieri by Igor Smirnov. Copyright Igor Smirnov.


Although Smirnov’s painting ideology requires deliberateness, his mixing of mediums evidence a playful approach to his creations. As seen in a work like My Course is Set for an Uncharted Sea, pastel meets paint in a cheerful explosion of pigment and texture. Such variation in surface quality provokes visual vibrations that bounce the eye around the painting, encouraging every corner to be examined, yet never overwhelming the viewer with a random cacophony of visual stimuli.


Figure 4. Mystical Breeze by Igor Smirnov. 2010. Copyright Igor Smirnov.


Smirnov nevertheless champions diversity within his painting. In a work like Mystical Breeze, Smirnov not only combines mediums, he also unites solid color with intricate pattern and melds purely abstract forms with recognizable shapes and subjects. A violin sits nestled behind a vase and a bird flits out from behind a mask of the human face, all atop a background of meandering lines that cannot be described as either three-dimensional or flat. In this way, Smirnov offers a wholeness within which animals, human forms, and abstract shapes fuse to present a blended piece, without a sense of hierarchy. This lack of formal ranking reinforces the feeling of balance that Smirnov’s creations evoke. And yet within this equilibrium, the movement, brightness, and surprise that Smirnov’s paintings maintain are utterly unselfconsciousness in their boldness.


This very boldness earned Smirnov a spot in the underground, or non-conformist, art scene in the former Soviet Union during the 1980s. The non-conformist scene included anything that expanded beyond Socialist Realism, the official art style of the Soviet Union at the time, which consisted of idealized realistic forms. Significantly, in 1987, Smirnov’s unique body of work captivated the US Deputy Secretary of State, John Whitehead, eventually earning Smirnov the opportunity to immigrate to the United States.


Figure 5. Lemon Tree by Igor Smirnov. 2020. Copyright Igor Smirnov.


Smirnov continued on to earn international recognition, exhibiting in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Russia. His monograph, Between the Moment and Eternity: Artwork of Igor Smirnov, was published in 2006.


Smirnov’s body of work presents to the public an opportunity for a collective sigh of relief. His paintings are bright and playful, joyous and affirming, balanced yet bold amidst the chaos of the world–whether that be the world of the Soviet Union during the 1980s or the world of today. As Smirnov once commented about painting, “I just need it. I have to do it on an everyday basis,” and we, his viewers, are grateful.


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