MOSCOW — Under lockdown, the banal melds with the sublime.
A sausage becomes a rose. A tangerine, a sunflower. And when your teenage son doesn’t clean his room, just this once, the chaos can evoke Kandinsky.
Isolated from the physical world, people sheltering in place under coronavirus lockdowns are seeking new depths of connection online. Many have a lot of time on their hands, or children to entertain. And amid the bleakness of the pandemic, some report a surge in creativity.
Perhaps this helps explain why a nearly month-old Facebook group where people post their lo-fi recreations of famous paintings now has more than 540,000 members. It was started in Moscow by a project manager at a tech company and its predominant language is Russian, but more than one-third of its members live outside Russia.
They have been posting their work at a clip of more than 1,000 items a day, each time attaching their own photo alongside an image of the original art. They have corralled family members, pets and household items to channel the iconic and, as the Munchs and Kahlos pile up, so do the obscure — a flexible air-conditioning duct; a collage of plastic forks; a ring of strung-together, almost-spent toilet paper rolls.
“The empty streets no longer feel like reality,” said the group’s 38-year-old creator, Katerina Brudnaya-Chelyadinova, describing her changed perception of life. “Reality now is our house, and the internet.”
The group’s name, Izoizolyacia, combines the Russian words for “visual arts” and “isolation.”
After discovering the group, Julia Vasilenko, a piano teacher in New Haven, Conn., didn’t just set out to recreate a painting’s visual detail; she wanted to give it new meaning.
A blue latex glove reminds the viewer of the present day. Her son lurks in the shadows.
“A grandiose, objectively occurring disaster,” Kandinsky said of this painting, is “similar to the hymn of a new creation.” Nodding to the coronavirus, Ms. Vasilenko quoted the words in her Facebook post and said she and her family “joined with Kandinsky’s optimism.”
In Riga, Latvia, scrolling through Pinterest, Daria Grigorieva struck upon a darker theme in the haunting painting by Vasily Vereshchagin of a pile of skulls on a battlefield, called “The Apotheosis of War.”
The 37-year-old Ms. Grigorieva, who grew up in St. Petersburg, recalled the moment she came across the painting and noticed the skulls. “I cried out loud: ‘These are pelmeni!’” — referring to a kind of Russian dumpling.
A wedding decorator with no weddings to decorate, she was already building up a collection of her own artwork recreations, which she called izolyashki — a nonsense word derived from the word for isolation.
To recreate the Vereshchagin painting, she piled some dumplings from her freezer on a table in front of blue wallpaper and posted the picture to the group, titling her work “The Pelmeniosis of Isolation.”
Thirty minutes later, a commenter informed her: “Many associate this specifically with pelmeni.” A screenshot arrived of another pile of frozen dumplings.
Searching the Facebook group’s archives reveals that people have recreated the Vereshchagin painting at least 34 times this month, representing the skulls with materials as diverse as wine corks, potatoes, popcorn, trash bags, eggshells and chicken bones.
Ms. Brudnaya-Chelyadinova said she and her friends started recreating artworks last month as a distraction from the dour news. On March 30, they created the Facebook group to collect their work and allowed others to join. That was same day Moscow’s lockdown kicked in, banning even solitary walks unless with a pet and within 100 yards of home.
But in terms of Facebook followers, at least, Ms. Brudnaya-Chelyadinova’s audience is the most engaged.
There have already been more than 32,000 posts in the group, she said, each viewed before publication by her or one of about 15 friends to make sure they don’t violate any of the group’s extensive rules, including no Photoshop, no criticism, no pictures taken away from the home.
Depictions of politicians are discouraged, perhaps one reason the group’s following cuts across geopolitical fault lines. Statistics compiled by Facebook and shared by Ms. Brudnaya-Chelyadinova show that while around 200,000 group members give Russia as their home, the country with the second-most members — more than 80,000 — is Ukraine. Another 41,000 are in the United States.
“This is a place without politics,” Lidiia Petrova, a 26-year-old motion graphic designer in Kyiv, said of the group. She wrapped herself in a bedsheet to act out Frederic Leighton’s “Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus.”
Assel Adambayeva, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, quit her accounting job in February to start her own company, only to have the plan derailed by the pandemic. She posed in blue as Picasso’s “Absinthe Drinker.” She said people from the former Soviet Union were used to finding meaning in art during hard times.
“We’ve been in crisis my whole life,” said Ms. Adambayeva, who is 44. “You have to distinguish yourself somehow.”
In Israel, Michael Lobzovsky, who works in logistics and emigrated from Ukraine 20 years ago, sees the group both as a chance to “tickle one’s ego” and to stay in touch with the Russian-speaking world. Plus, Mr. Lobzovsky, who is 51, has a secret weapon at his home outside Jerusalem: Gorynych, his pet python.
In his latest effort, Mr. Lobzovsky swings a soup ladle at Gorynych à la Pollaiolo’s “Hercules and the Hydra.” Unlike Hercules, out of respect for Facebook’s community rules, Mr. Lobzovsky is wearing pants.
Ambar Barrera, who is 31, works for a local news website in Puebla, Mexico, and has no idea how she came across the Izoizolyacia group.
But on the same day that she edited the latest bleak article about the rising number of coronavirus cases in her region, she set up a remote-controlled camera, piled a red dress and blanket and stuffed animals on an upside-down stool, climbed into bed, balanced the stool on her thighs, placed a corner of the dress in her mouth, and clicked the shutter. This was her favorite painting, “Without Hope” by Frida Kahlo.
“I don’t speak your language but I want to share this with you,” she wrote. “Watching what you are sharing here was an inspiration!”
Back in Connecticut, Ms. Vasilenko, who is 35 and moved from Moscow in 2016, said the pandemic has forced her — and coaxed her — to try new things. Beyond channeling Kandinsky in the disorder of her son’s room, she is now giving her piano lessons online and making plans to offer video courses on musical theory.
“It’s like you finally have the right to occupy yourself with nonsense, and no one will criticize you for it,” Ms. Vasilenko said. “It used to be you had to clean your room. Now you don’t have to.”