Catriona Kelly, Stephen Lovell, eds. Russian Literature, Modernism and the Visual Arts. New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 310 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-66191-1.
Reviewed by John D. Windhausen (Department of History, Saint Anselm College)
Published on H-Russia (May, 2001)
Marriages in Modern Russian Arts
Marriages in Modern Russian Arts
The editors, Catriona Kelly of New College, Oxford University and Stephen Lovell of St. John's College, Oxford University, have compiled an interesting set of ten essays plus an introductory discussion designed to demonstrate the collaboration among Russian artists of many genres during the Modernist era. The essays are divided into two parts, the first showing how the fine arts were reflected in literature, the second part demonstrating the variety of adaptations, collaborations, disputes and rapprochements among the literary, visual and performing arts. Together, the ten essays cover the century between the pre-modernism of Fedor Dostoevskii in the 1860s to the revival of Modernism in the immediate post-Stalin years. The concentration, however, is on the first two decades of the past century.
In the introductory essay called "Boundaries of the Spectacular," Kelly and Lovell describe the coming of age of the fine arts in Russian life, no longer considered an inferior enterprise as was the case earlier in the nineteenth century when painting was associated with religious traditions. It was especially "Mir iskusstva," the World of Art movement, that attracted the literary society and provided the mutual inspiration for the Modernist outlook. Artists, writers, and, later, performers were provoked to explore the ways in which each of the media could operate within the others. Consequently a fusion of perceptions emerged whereby the visual, verbal, and musical enhanced the new imaginations, whether it be the choice of illustrations by Natalia Goncharova or the application of "adventurist" typography so appealing to the "cubo-futurists," or the employment of banners by stage designers. The editors even demonstrate how the inevitable backlash contributed to the fertile developments when some literateurs tried to reassert the supremacy of "the word."
The lead essay by Konstantin Barsht, a philologist at the Russian State Herzen Institute in Saint Petersburg, is entitled "Defining the Face: Observations on Dostoevskii's Creative Processes." He demonstrates that although the visual aspects of Dostoevskii's text are in contrast to Tolstoy's, pictorial images (especially that of portraits) are very important to his analysis of character. His attraction to the old Russian spiritual visage (lik) and his intense scrutiny of individual personalities in the galleries that he visited, both help to understand his concept of heroes like Prince Myshkin. One's very soul can be observed in a face, he insisted.
Kelly's own "Painting and Autobiography: Anna Prismanova's Pesok and Anna Akhmatova's Epicheskie motivy" explores the use of visual imagery in the autobiographical writings of these two poets. Prismanova emigrated to France and wrote Pesok ("Sand") to evoke memories of her homeland along the Latvian shores. Both her subject matter and her person were less attractive than those of Akhmatova, and Kelly analyzes the relative importance of the visual in explaining their personalities and imagination. For example, the self-deprecating Prismanova, unlike Akhmatova, was able to see beauty in the conventional objects and scenes along the bleak Baltic shore, much like modernist painters were observing unusual aesthetic values in ordinary objects such as spoons, chairs, and clothing. Akhmatova, ever mindful of her own independent spirit, recalled in her Epicheskie motivy how she controlled the way in which her portrait was painted by Natan Al'tman in 1913.
In "Picture Windows: The Art of Andrei Sinyavskii," Jane Grayson notes that for Sinyavskii the modernist movement was no longer avant-garde but an expression of dissidence in the post-Stalin years. Yet Grayson, of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, shows how this writer was remarkably consistent in his forty-year literary career. He always appreciated the fine arts, and in his Golos iz khora ("A Voice from the Chorus"), he fought against the Stalinist insistence upon the utilitarian purpose of art. Throughout his writings this once imprisoned writer continually relied upon visual metaphors to carry his message as in his use of a Goya painting to recall the similitude between the ordeal of Pushkin facing a duel and that of his own trial following accusations by the KGB in the 1960s. The central importance of art is the main theme in his principal work entitled Spokoinoi nochi climaxed by Christian and pagan images of death and resurrection.
Alexander Zholkovsky's "Mikhail Zoshchenko's Shadow Operas" completes the first section of the book. Zholkovsky, from the University of Southern California, turns to theater to argue that Zoshchenko was less the satirist of the New Soviet Man than one whose characters reveal his obsession with his own alter-egos. The author's close analysis of the characters in Zoshchenko's plays reveal many theatrical subtexts that alternate between "aggressive- defensive dissimulation." Attention is focused upon two works: Monter ("The Electrician") and PVS. In the former, his identification with the electrician reveals both his fear of being humiliated by authorities and his penchant for anti-authoritarian outbursts which Zholkovsky traces to behavior in his childhood. In the latter the critic demonstrates Zoshchenko's attraction for the Don Juan character as another alter-ego.
The first essay in Part Two is by Barbara Henry of St. Antony's College, Oxford University. Entitled "Theatricality, Anti-theatricality and Cabarets in Russian Modernism" the author briefly discusses the traditional hostility to the theater by political authorities who feared its incitement to civic disorders. She traces the state-sponsored theater in Moscow and St. Petersburg since the time of Catherine II with its attendant restrictions and censorship. By the time that the Moscow Art Theater was established in 1898 the realist drama was scorned by modernists and symbolists and consequently a new kind of theater emerged on the cabaret stage. Highlighted by "The Crooked Mirror" cabaret of Nikolai Evreinov, the new theater used parody in accentuating the natural contests between writers and directors. Henry illustrates this rivalry by analyzing Evreinov's clever five-part parody of Gogol's Revizor as might be observed from five different fictitious directors.
Cynthia Marsh of the University of Nottingham in addressing set designs in her essay: "Design in Drama: Chekhov and Simov," turns from rivalry to collaboration in assessing the stage designs which V. A. Simov provided for Anton Chekhov's four most famous plays: Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and Cherry Orchard. The basic theme is how Simov made the text transparent by the use of spatial and visual forms. Despite the minimal information about their personal communication Chekhov's growing appreciation of design led him to anticipate what the designer might provide. Still, a natural tension developed so that Chekhov made more demands upon the artist in his last play by departing from the naturalism and verisimilitude which Simov had come to expect. Indeed, Chekhov's view of the "Cherry Orchard" was a parody that even extended to the set itself.
Robin Milner-Gulland, Emeritus Professor of the University of Sussex, writes the intriguing, "Khlebnikov's Eye" to highlight another theme of the Modernist era: namely cross-arts, whereby artists in one genre would engage in others. In the case of the writer Velimir Khlebnikov it was painting and drawing. Khlebnikov, who early saw that the new trends in modern painting could inspire similar changes in literature, spent many hours drawing, painting portraits of friends and even contributing visual propaganda during the civil war. Milner-Gulland, however, notes that "how" his attraction to painting affected Khlebnikov's own work has often been misunderstood. And so he boldly tackles this subject, showing, among other things, how the writer was fascinated with the visual pun or puzzle which he called "Rebus," frequently found in his texts; and how his attraction to "numbers" and hieroglyphics were employed to enhance his verbal message. Khlebnikov saw an affinity with Kazimir Malevich, another "numbers" man when they combined talents for the opera, Pobeda nad solntsem ("Victory over the Sun"), and with Vladimir Tatlin in their publication of Mirskontsa ("Worldbackwards"). Milner-Gulland even suggests that it was Khlebnikov who inspired the "Tatlin Tower." The painter's "eye" remained a common subject for his literary speculations.
The new art of cinema is the subject of Milena Michalski's essay entitled "Cinematic Literature and Literary Cinema: Olesha, Room, and the Search for a New Art Form." Michalski, from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, discusses the partnership between screen writer lurii Olesha and film director Abram Room. Olesha's script, although designed to stand independently, was also written for the screen and allowed Room "room" for his own creative energies while retaining the author's sense of irony and humor. Such collaboration was only part of the discussion since much also centered upon the role of politics in the arts. Hence the appearance of two versions of this film. Known mostly for his novel Envy, Olesha completed the film script for Strogii yunosta ("A Strict Youth") in 1934 and it was adapted for cinema two years later, perhaps the most dangerous years for Soviet artists. Room's product would not be shown for more than thirty years. Fully aware of the artistic demands of cinematic art, especially the light emanating from the camera, Olesha associated certain of his characters with specific shades of light. Hence the Communist heroes were introduced by bright sunlight. Yet critics emerged who still felt that the work failed the new canons of Socialist Realism. Nevertheless, the work was published. Room's work, on the other hand, was more severely criticized because he failed to correct the shortcomings in the text of Olesha and even weakened it more by strengthening the minimal symbolism inherent therein.
Andrew Wachtel of Northwestern University offers a unique view of an often analyzed subject in his "Meaningful Voids: Facelessness in Platonov and Malevich." The painter Kazimir Malevich and the writer Andrei Platonov (pseudonym of Andrei Klimentov) independently produced works that were analogous in spirit in the era just before the full implementation of Socialist Realism: 1928 to 1935. Both men were true believers, willing to curtail their independent spirits for the sake of the greater common good, or so they imagined. Both sought to depersonalize their subjects but in the process acquired only official mistrust. Malevich, for example, abandoned his much criticized Supremacist paintings and chose to celebrate the achievements of the proletarian masses by painting faceless figures whose personalities were to blend in with the working people. But this ideologically inspired technique was not employed by the officially sponsored artists and his works were criticized for suggesting anti-social lifelessness. Similar critiques were leveled at Platonov whose working-class characters were considered psychologically empty and joyless. Although other modern analysts see in these works by Malevich and Platonov only the affirmation of Communist ideals, Wachtel argues that both artists sensed, whether consciously or not, the hopelessness of the new Utopia.
The closing essay is by Pamela Chester of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, entitled "Painted Mirrors: Landscape and Self-representation in Women's Verbal and Visual Art." She examines the contrasting reception of women in the poetic arts for which there was a generous tradition, with that in the visual arts where, for a long time, women artists were marginalized at best. The essay is devoted to two Muscovite women: Marina Tsvetaeva and the painter Natalia Goncharova. Although they were raised in the Arbat district of Moscow, the two women never met until they had been in exile for many years in the West. The principal focus of Chester's narrative is on their representations of landscape in the broad sense, that is, both rural and urban.
The intentions of the editors and authors, as noted in the Introduction include the introduction of "less familiar artists" alongside the more well-known ones; the exploration of principles involved in such collaboration, adaptation and appropriation; and relationships between the Modernists and their Realist contemporaries on both ends of the time period. The work clearly succeeds. Even an occasional exaggeration helps to enlighten an argument as in Barsht's essay: "The Idiot and The Possessed cannot be understood without the Dresden gallery, the Uffizi, and the Sistine Chapel, just as A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov cannot be understood without a number of paintings by the Russian masters and exhibitions in the Academy of Arts, which the writer would not live without" (p. 33). If there is a general thesis of the book it is that the success of Modernism was due in part to that very collaboration among artists of different disciplines. Appropriately, thirty-three illustrations in eight of the ten essays are provided.
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John D. Windhausen. Review of Kelly, Catriona; Lovell, Stephen, eds., Russian Literature, Modernism and the Visual Arts.
H-Russia, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.