‘The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde: The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin’ by Natalia Murray

Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Punin

Nikolay Punin is not a name widely known in the West. His file has languished in the KGB archives since his death in 1953, and his grave in the Gulag where he died is marked only by a number”. So begins Natalia Murray’s account of Punin, one of the most prominent art-critics of the avant-garde in Russia. Punin was a leading figure who became Commissar of the Hermitage, lectured at the Academy of Arts, was the right hand of Commissar Lunacharsky and became head of the Petrograd branch of the Visual Arts Department of Narkompross. For over two decades Punin also worked as a prominent curator and art critic. From 1913 until 1938 he organized major exhibitions of Russian art and worked at the Russian Museum. This book makes clear the essential contribution that Punin made to artistic developments in Russia. Thus it seems astonishing that his life has remained untold until now. Yet Murray’s book is the first biography of this great figure in the cultural history of the Soviet Union.

The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde sets Punin within the context of nearly sixty years of Russian history. Through an examination of his life, Murray examines the Russian avant-garde and the fate of artists after the October Revolution. The book examines in detail the artistic trends and cultural policies which dominated Soviet art in the 1930-1950s. The first few chapters focus on Punin’s upbringing at Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg, and his early years up until the October Revolution. We hear about the formative influence of Byzantine art and Russian icons on his studies. We learn about the importance of foreign influences on Russian art such as French artists’ exhibitions and the foundation of the Russian Museum in which Punin played a major role. In addition, Murray tells us intimate details about Punin’s personal life such as his marriage and infidelity. One of the reasons, she explains, that Punin has remained such an obscure figure, over the last fifty years, is that his life has been overshadowed by that of his lover, the famous poet and writer Anna Akhmatova.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes and quotations from his writings. One fascinating chapter is devoted to how Punin became an art critic and his new approach to studies of art history. He wrote many articles including for Apollon, one of the most prestigious journals of art and literature in Russia at this time. However, unlike his contemporaries, Punin would add personal observations to his articles eschewing the traditional approach of dry academic papers. He was a gifted, if flowery, critic. Punin is quoted throughout and so we get a sense of his voice and power as a writer. To give us a sense of his ornate style, Murray quotes from the twenty five year old Punin, who wrote:

“Like a phoenix, Byzantium arose from the ashes of diverse and dying cultures, in order to rage in the Hippodrome for many centuries to come, and argue on the square about the divine nature of Jesus, and to revere in the atrium of St. Sophia… Byzantium feels to us like a huge inflamed wound, for which the lips of Hellenism are not gently enough, and the centuries of oblivion are not long enough, and now, agitated by its ambitions, drunk by the vinegar of pain, it is blazing towards us through her lethargic sleep, giving a horrible and wild odour of rotting flowers”.

The number of influential figures who feature in this biography demonstrate that Punin was at the heart of the intellectual and cultural life in Russia in the twentieth century. Punin knew Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lilya Brik, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Kazimir Malevich, amongst many others. The names read like an A to Z of the Russian literary and artistic avant-garde. Punin’s favourite group was the Knave of Diamonds who formed in 1911. He was the first Russian critic to support this new artistic movement, which included some of the most progressive Russian artists of the day, thus he also became acquainted with leading figures such as Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. As Murray makes clear, Punin became one of the most forward-looking art critics of his time. He was a passionate advocate for new developments in Russian art.

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