Friday, 25 July 2014

Kazimir Malevich: prisoner, revolutionary, suspected spy … artist

At the heart of Kazimir Malevich's art is a statement so final that everything else orbits it. Emphatic, plain and declarative, his Black Square has a modest, expressionless presence. It seems like a last word. But what was it? An abstract icon? A tombstone for pictorial art? The portrait of an idea? Or a thing in itself? Perhaps not even Malevich knew.
What do you say when you have said the last word? One solution is to keep on saying it. Existing in several versions – the first was painted in 1914 or 15, the last in 1929 – Malevich's Black Square is both beginning and end. There's depth in the black. It seems to be as much volume as surface. It is simple, it is complicated, and Malevich said that it had been painted in a sort of "ecstatic fury", though each version seems calm and emphatic. The painting looks back at you, blankly, saying nothing, giving nothing away.
Or almost nothing. The Black Square was hung across the spot where walls and ceiling meet, like a Russian religious icon. It took the place of a signature in Malevich's last, figurative paintings. A black square was wedged between the headlamps of the truck that carried his coffin on a grey May morning in Leningrad in 1935. It appears again in a little drawing, seen in perspective, being borne flat on a stretcher like someone wounded. As well as black squares, there were black quadrilaterals and crosses, white-on-white squares, and an off-square red shape titled Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions). Red squares met black rhomboids, circles and wedges.
Malevich's art advances and retreats throughout his turbulent career, and now fills a suite of galleries at Tate Modern, complementing the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs that continues until September. Born in Kiev to Polish parents in 1879, Malevich lived through artistic and political revolution. He was embroiled in both. The opening rooms of this extensive retrospective show a bewildering set of influences: Russian folk art and dutiful 19th-century portraiture, Gauguin and Van Gogh, Monet and Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. All of whose work Malevich had seen as early as 1905, when he encountered two of the greatest collections of western avant-garde art in Russia, or indeed anywhere, belonging to Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
Symbolism and impressionism, cubism and futurism – all found their way into Malevich's painting. But he was never playing catch-up, and he managed early on to effect a synthesis of these influences.
Here is a church, seen through bare trees, the whole painting in bleached snow-light and thin yellow sun, the paint heavily flecked and crusted (I imagine the crunchy sound of boots on frozen snow); then a Gauguinesque self-portrait, the artist full-faced with an almost glowering concentration. And here, men in smocked shirts doing a lumbering dance as they polish a floor with lumps of pumice under their bare feet.
Malevich's echoes of Matisse, Picasso and the rest were combined with imagery depicting the lives of the Russian peasantry. His variants on cubism contained touches of realism: a collaged image of the Mona Lisa, and the head of a highly representational bearded middle-class man. They became filled with nonsense words; there was a meeting between a cow, a violin, a fish and a wooden spoon (like the spoon that poked out of his jacket pocket as though to announce his outre modernity).

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Moment of Faith - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is a monumental figure not only in Russia, a country that reveres writers, but in global literature as well. Born in Moscow in 1821 he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1837, after the death of his mother, and two years before the death of his father.
While the life of Dostoevsky could fill up volumes, much of the writer’s influence can be traced to the moment he thought he was going to die.

Dostoevsky was a rising figure in Russian literature in the 1840s. He had already published his first novel, “Poor Folk,” in 1846 and “The Double” that same year. It was around this time Dostoevsky started attending meetings of the Petrashevsky circle, a discussion group founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky that gathered to discuss the problems in Russian society through the lens of the expanding impact of civil liberties being granted in European countries.

While Dostoevsky was an infrequent visitor to the group, he was fervently against the institution of serfdom. Over time however, Dostoevsky distanced himself from the Petrashevsky group, considering them to be too apolitical. Regardless of his minimal contributions to the group’s discussions, he and numerous others were arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in April 1849.

A Commission of Inquiry was tasked with investigating the alleged revolutionary activities of the Petrashevsky circle but they found little to charge them with in their report submitted to Nicholas I. 28 in all were accused of some crimes and the fate of the accused, including Dostoevsky, was given to a Military-Civil court to further prosecute under military law. On Nov. 16, 1849, Dostoevsky and 14 others were sentenced to death.

In all, the charges against Dostoevsky that nearly resulted in his execution are a reflection of the unbending nature of the autocracy: reading aloud literary critic Vissarion Belinsky’s 1847 letter to Nikolai Gogol criticizing the writer for considering Russia’s social problems a result of the people’s moral failures, and failing to denounce a subversive work by another writer were two of the charges. Prosecutors also added another, stating that Dostoevsky had “taken part in deliberations about printing and distributing works against the government by means of a home lithograph.”

The Tsar was asked to show mercy on the prisoners because of their youth and lack of criminal intentions. Since Nicholas I enjoyed his position as the all-powerful yet merciful ruler, he agreed, reducing the sentences of the men charged. However, the Tsar wanted a point to be made and decided that rather than tell the men they had been granted leniency, they had to go through the terrifying ordeal of being prepared for execution before, at the last minute, being saved.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Lev Rubinstein: A Little Night Serenade

Lev Rubinstein is among Russia's most well-known contemporary writers and one of the founders of Moscow Conceptualism. He has been called a "Postmodern Chekhov." 

Nightingale, O my nightingale,
You perch beneath the branches' veil!

Like a ghost beneath branches' veil
He appears, the nightingale!

Nightingale, O my nightingale,
Where are you, in the branches' veil?

Amid the spreading leafy veil
Starts a song, my nightingale!

Behold again, the nightingale!
He hops amid the branches' veil!

Can you see him, amid branches' veil—
The herald of joy, O nightingale!

Tell us, O my nightingale
What you see in branches' veil!

Hark! Here next to branches' veil
The heart skips for nightingale!

Mischief-maker nightingale
Sings away in the shady veil!

From the secret shade of leaf-veils
He watches us, the nightingale!


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The final days of Osip Mandelstam

In October 1938 Osip Mandelstam sent his final letter to his brother, Alexander. The poet was being held in a transit camp near Vtoraya Rechka railroad station – in present-day Vladivostok – and seemed to sense that the end was near: “My health is very bad, I'm extremely exhausted and thin, almost unrecognizable, but I don't know whether there's any sense in sending clothes, food and money. You can try all the same, though. I'm very cold without proper clothes.” From the very start of Bolshevik rule, Mandelstam lived with the firm belief that he would be locked up sooner or later – at a minimum. He was strongly opposed to the official literature of the time, writing poetry that was extraordinary in its freedom. He detested imitation and censorship and made no effort whatsoever to pretend that he was loyal, even though this could have drastically improved life for him and his wife. For Mandelstam, compromising his beliefs in such a way was simply out of the question.

In November 1933, Mandelstam finally launched a stinging attack on Stalin himself in a poem that he recited to several friends and never committed to paper: “His unwieldy fingers are greasy like worms. / His words are as staunch as the weights made of lead. / Like roaches his whiskers lengthen in laugh. / And teasingly shine, his polished boot-flaps.” The writer Boris Pasternak was one of those friends Mandelstam chose to hear these lines. When the poet had finished speaking, Pasternak said: “What you just read … is not poetry, it is suicide. You didn’t read it to me, I didn’t hear it, and I beg you not to read this to anyone.” This advice fell on deaf ears, and Mandelstam was arrested for the first time in May 1934. News of the arrest was met with concern by a number of famous writers, including Pasternak, who received a notorious phone call from Stalin, of which there are more than 12 known versions. “He is your friend isn't he?” the party leader asked, referring to Mandelstam. Pasternak was flustered and didn't know how to respond. “But he’s a master, isn’t he? Is he a master of his art?” Stalin pressed on. “This does not matter,” Pasternak replied finally. “Why are we talking about Mandelstam and only Mandelstam? I've wanted to meet you for a long time and have a serious discussion.” “What about?” Stalin asked. “About life and death,” Pasternak answered. Stalin hung up without replying. Apparently Pasternak was so utterly terrified by Stalin's phone call that he was unable to petition him on his friend's behalf. However, Nikolai Bukharin, an old Bolshevik, did defend the poet, and it was thanks to his influence that Mandelstam's sentence was lessened. Mandelstam was exiled with his wife to Cherdyn. The poet was suffering from intense mental strain as a result of being held in prison and was admitted to hospital, where he tried to end his life by jumping out of a window. After this suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in Voronezh for three years, which ended in 1937 when he returned to Moscow for the last time.


Thursday, 3 July 2014

The final days of Russian writers: Sergey Esenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky

On Dec. 25, 1925, Sergei Esenin checked in to the Angleterre Hotel in St. Petersburg. He wouldn’t leave it alive. The writer was 30 and a disillusioned man, tired of life, women, poetry and his friends. He had become the enfant terrible of Bolshevik society: disorderly and rebellious but also talented, loved by the public, and loyal to the new authorities. Yet he had also become increasingly provocative in recent years; his 1921 work “Confessions of a Hooligan” had revealed another side to his personality: anguished and vulgar. His drinking was getting out of control, and the authorities were beginning to notice.

With his blonde, curly hair and light-colored eyes, Esenin looked like a typical big screen heartthrob – although his rude manners were at odds with his homely, boy next door looks. Despite this, the writer was an undoubted ladies man who had three failed marriages under his belt by the time he died. His most famous was with the contemporary American dancer Isadora Duncan – 17 years his senior at the age of 45. After their marriage, they set off on a year-long trip to Europe and the United States. To the delight of the international press, there was no shortage of fighting in public and violent outbursts by Esenin, who was always drunk. He found nothing of interest in the West – except the foxtrot – and no one seemed interested in his work there anyway. The couple split when they returned to Russia. In 1925, Esenin was married to one of Tolstoy’s granddaughters, Sophia, who forced him to check himself into hospital. Unfortunately, the therapy had no effect, and there seemed to be no hope for his depression and alcoholism. When he left the hospital, the writer withdrew all the money from his account and went on a drinking spree. Esenin ended up at the Angleterre Hotel after being forcibly removed from the writers’ bar, where he knocked over furniture, smashed glasses on the floor, and abused his fellow drinkers with claims that they were “arrivistes” and “mediocre.” He spent two days drinking vodka in his hotel room, before slashing his wrists on Dec. 27 and writing his last poem with his own blood: “Goodbye, my friend … / There's nothing new in dying now / Though living is no newer.” The following morning, Esenin was found hanging from the heating pipes on the ceiling.

What seems like an open and shut case of suicide may not be so simple. In the months leading up to his death the Soviet authorities had become increasingly concerned about the poet’s drunken debauchery. Criminal charges were brought against him and his friends because of their numerous brawls, and the Bolsheviks feared that Esenin could start to denounce the new government. Apparently there was even discussion of putting the poet under continual surveillance. This has led to unproven speculation that Esenin was assassinated by the secret police – a theory that is still hotly contested. Esenin was so famous that his death triggered a wave of copycat suicides. The communist authorities, who viewed Esenin’s poetry with suspicion for its individualism and “hooliganism,” reacted strongly, and his books were banned for many years after his death. Students who read his poems could be expelled from university, and distributing manuscript copies of his poems was punished with jail time.