Saturday, 24 September 2016

This poor man's marble - Joseph Brodsky

Most of us approach poems in translation as one is supposed to approach a captured animal - from the side, not headfirst. Warily, we move through a world of angles and oblique, pacific gestures. We calm the text, ease it out of its origins, and consume it at a distance. We are aware of how much we are missing in translation, and find ourselves trapped in paradox: on the one hand, we want a translation to be as faithful as possible; on the other, we want it to read well as an English poem in its own right, which thus might not be very faithful after all - a paradox caught by Borges's quip that Edward Fitzgerald's version of the Rubaiyat is clearly too good a poem to be a good translation.

In practice, when we lack, say, Russian, and read Mandelstam's poems in English, we convert them out of their poetic forms, and scan them as pieces of ornate prose. Instead of a voice, a music, an exact precision, we look for evidence of a literary mind, verbal refinement, intellectual compression, and so on. We tend to search for images (metaphors, similes, verbal pictures) rather than words and metres, because images carry over while words and metres change.

The problem is especially acute in the work of Joseph Brodsky, because this Russian poet, born in St Petersburg in 1940 but resident in America from 1973 until his death in 1996, became talented enough in English to translate his own work, and then wrote poems in his new tongue. Further, Brodsky insisted on faithful translations, "perhaps at the expense of their smoothness", as he once put it, and tried to carry into English the form and music of his Russian originals. And the problem seems acute, it should be said, because it is often hard to follow, and hence hard to judge, some of Brodsky's poems.

Brodsky is a great writer, once justly celebrated. But his eminence has suffered the usual decline of dead poets trying to breathe through the death-mask of translation. And there is no doubt that a number of passages in Brodsky seem clumsy, heavy-footed, clotted, with a peculiar insistence on awkward half-rhymes and - the bane of those (such as Nabokov) who become deeply proficient in a new language - crushing puns. A poem written in English in 1983, "Ex Voto", has the lines: "An aimless iceberg resents bad press: / it suffers a meltdown, and forms a brain." An iceberg melting into a brain is just about tolerable; but an iceberg resenting "bad press" (presumably a reference to the Titanic) has leapt out of surrealism into kitsch.

And it is not only the poems written in English. Several of Brodsky's earlier poems are almost ruined by translation. One reads, for instance, "Lithuanian Nocturne", written in Russian in 1974 and translated later into English by Brodsky himself, with amazement that a poet so obviously gifted, with such prodigalities of vision and hearing, could commit lines like "That's whence that mealy grain / of your cheeks" and follow them five lines later with the equally ugly (and more or less incomprehensible) "It is thence also its / upward spinoffs."

Lines like these have given rise, in some quarters, to whispers that Brodsky "isn't any good" - even in Russian. To his critics, Brodsky may seem a kind of poetic George Steiner, a windy versifier who just happened to have the bad fortune to be hostaged by world history, and who then became the great exiled, Nobelisable poet for the unpoetic readers of the New York Review of Books.

But take a poem such as "Plato Elaborated" (1977), and even in translation one sees abundant evidence of a rare mind, a fertile talent for metaphor, for exact detail, and for a philosophical or metaphysical playfulness. In that poem, Brodsky imagines an ideal city that has been invaded by history, like his beloved Petersburg. The ideal city would be peaceful and utopian. It would have, Brodsky writes, a river that juts out from under a bridge "like a hand from a sleeve", spreading its fingers towards the gulf "like Chopin, who never shook a fist at anyone as long as he lived". There would be an opera house, in which tenors sing arias to keep the Tyrant amused. The Tyrant would "applaud from his loge", but the poet from the back rows would hiss through clenched teeth: "You creep." This city would have a cafe "with a quite decent blancmange" where, if the poet should ask his colleague why we need the 20th century when we already have the 19th, "my colleague would stare fixedly at his fork or his knife".

And so this fine poem progresses, dropping from the happy caravan of itself these similes and images like treasure into sand. Brodsky is a highly metaphorical poet. His lines, like Mandelstam's, are a traffic of images, and at times this traffic can jam. (Brodsky thought a major difference between Russian and English poetry was that Russian verse insisted on sound before sense, while English verse insisted on reason and argument.)

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Andrey Voznesensky: Nostalgia for the Present-Real

I don't know about the others,
But I for one feel the most strict
nostalgia, not for the past but
nostalgia for the present moment.

As though a penitent seeking God,
but access is only to the ferryman—
just so I am pleading for access.

As though I've created something odd,
or perhaps not even I—but others.
I'll collapse in the meadow and sense
a nostalgia for the living grass.

No one will separate you and I.
But when I embrace you in my arms,
I embrace you with such longing,
as though I will be deprived.

The doors of my tool shed flung wide
open into the garden won't redeem 
my isolation. I long not for great art;
I am deprived of air for the present.

When I hear the selfish tirades
of a fallen, misguided comrade,
I seek not a likeness but the original,
and pine for him, for the real.

All's formed of plastic, even the pilgrim's
tattered rags. I'm bored of living in
a sketched draft. You and I will not exist
in the future but the little country church....

And when the idiotic mafia laughs
I tell them straight in their face:
"You were idiots—in the past.
In the present, understanding grows."

Black water splashing from the faucet.
Orange water, stale, splashes also,
Rusty water sprouts from the spout.
Wait long enough—the real comes out.

What's past is past. All for the best.
But when I taste, like mystery,
nostalgia for the real-present,
what eventuates, I can't catch it.

Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale and Dana Golin

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Valentin Serov and Leon Bakst. Seeking an ideal

Valentin Serov (1865-1911) appeared reserved, earnest, and sombre; Leon Bakst (1866-1924) was vibrant, unpredictable and a little funny - a dedicated dandy. What was it that brought together these two artists, so unlike one another? Why did their fondness for one another grow in the years after they met while publishing “Mir Iskusstva” (World of Art) magazine? The answer seems simple and complicated at the same time: deep down, they were looking for something indiscernibly similar. While their public personas were so different, both used them to protect their respective creative selves from the rude intrusions of outsiders. Both artists were successful and famous, each in his own unique way; both were chasing their dreams and looking for new paths and expressions, while remaining honest and true to themselves in their artistic pursuits.
Almost exactly the same age - Bakst was a year younger then Serov - they became friendly in the second half of the 1890s, when a new art magazine was conceived and published with the ambitious aim to "identify the demands of present-day art"1, "inspire the public and bring about the desired attitude towards the arts, with the broadest interpretation in mind..."2 it is noteworthy that the artists had similar ideas for the new exhibition association, which was, like the magazine, titled "Mir Iskusstva". in his description of the society's foundation, Alexandre Benois pointed out that in 1897 Sergei Diaghilev "failed to build a real society, which was Bakst's fault, and a little bit Serov's, too"3. Both Serov and Bakst insisted that it was unwise to formalize either the charter or membership in the first year of the society's existence, and that members simply had to join forces in organizing the exhibition; if the show proved successful, the formal association would follow.
Dmitry Filosofov, another founder of "Mir Iskusstva", wrote about that time in an essay, "Bakst and Serov": "I knew both artists well and was their friend at the very time of their rebellion, when they were fighting for a place in the sun and, to the best of their ability, stood in honest opposition to the backwater that was the Academy of Fine Arts and the pious, well-intentioned 'Peredvizhniki' [Wanderers] group, which had completely forgotten about artists' painterly goals."4 The quest for new creative expression often clashed with the need to make a living by taking on commissions and teaching assignments. Both Bakst and Serov recognized the importance of good training for a professional artist: it is worth noting that for a time both taught at Yelizaveta Zvantseva's private art studio (one in Moscow, the other in St. Petersburg), where the teaching process was different from the state-run institutions and somewhat resembled the art studios of Paris. Pavel Andreev, who attended Bakst's classes there, wrote: "Bakst believed that one is born an artist or a poet. Many students would struggle for a month, two or three, and then drop out. Bakst would not give them any praise; to him, anything they did was off the mark and out of place. it wasn't for nothing that he was a friend of Serov's, who was honest and truthful, both as an artist and individual; it wasn't for nothing either that the latter called him [Bakst] 'a genius instructor'."5
Throughout their respective careers both Serov and Bakst worked a great deal in portraiture. But even when working on such commissions they made every effort to stay true to themselves, to keep looking for a new style. There was good reason for Dmitry Sarabyanov's comment: "Russian modernist art is mostly centred around 'Mir iskusstva'."6 Serov's portraits of Maria Tsetlin and Princess Orlova7, Bakst's portraits of Zinaida Gippius and Alexandre Benois ("Dinner"8) are without doubt some of the best examples of Russian Modernism. it is noteworthy that it was Serov who gave support to Bakst when in 1903 his "Dinner" received such a mixed reception, even among the artist's friends. Dismayed, Bakst wrote to his fiancee9: "But I find myself in the middle of a scandal. You cannot even imagine how the press and the public pounced on my unfortunate 'Woman' with oranges! What horror! The rants are incredible; I am called a pornographic artist; 'Mir Iskusstva' has given me the nickname 'Russian Ropes' and the public is positively raging! Why? Ilya Ostroukhov said that I ruined the entire exhibition with this one work. Serov, on the contrary, says he likes it."10 Serov was among the few who recognized not only the success of Bakst's new painting, but also the significance of the lady's unusual pose, the harmony and interplay of the flowing, elaborate lines. In fact, Serov took much time and effort to find the right pose that would emphasize the very essence of his models, and to a certain extent, his later portrait of Princess Orlova continued on the same path. Sarabyanov placed both artists among the worldwide elite "artists of style" who"all together... make up the total style and fully express Modernism"11.
Serov was quick to recognize his friend's achievements, and Bakst's portrait of Vasily Rozanov12 came to the Tretyakov Gallery primarily due to Serov's efforts. As Bakst wrote to Rozanov: "The portrait's story is not that simple. Serov (he is one of the three members of the Tretyakov Gallery Committee) insisted that the portrait be purchased for the Moscow [gallery], but Pavel Tretyakov's daughter, who had the controlling two votes in Ostroukhov's absence, was against the acquisition. in spite of Benois' and Diaghilev's insistence, she would not agree. in any case, I am overjoyed that all the artists, who are the strictest judges, consider this work a remarkable portrait - it encourages me greatly."13
interestingly, Bakst, who was always looking for his own path in art, proceeded by trial and error, never really sure if he was heading in the right direction; he felt that the same impulse was present in Serov's art, too. The story of Serov's portrait of Yelizaveta Karzinkina14, which the artist sent to the Russian Art Exhibition organized by Diaghilev as part of the Paris 1906 Autumn Salon, is testament to that. Diaghilev decided not to show the portrait at the show. in his letter to Serov Bakst elaborated on what had happened and gave his own opinion: "The portrait's appearance was preceded by declarations by Sergei [Diaghilev] and all the artists (most importantly, the 'young' ones, the ones whose opinions scare us so much and whom we hold in too high an esteem) that it is your best and most 'innovative' portrait. However, as soon as it was exhibited, Shura [Alexandre Benois] began to complain that your painting was tacky, unworthy of a great artist and harmful to your reputation; he constantly insisted that the portrait be taken down. That was when I first saw it, and my impression was (and remains to this day) ambivalent. A very unpleasant rendering of the lips, hands, eyes; a stiff painting style. at the same time, a certain (obvious only to me) 'turning point' in your work, one that promises perfection in this area, the beginning (not yet taken to completion) of 'enamel', a desire to get rid of unnecessary 'nothings', and finally, the exceptional blue shawl. So I see this portrait as an unsuccessful attempt to break new and fascinating ground; since I know you to be stubborn and persistent, I am sure that after two or three portraits you will get where you want to be. I would love to share my thoughts with you on this subject, as 'house-painters' do, not artists, the 'noble' people! Try wearing a light blue or a red tie for a full year on end. No matter how much you like it, you would soon want to put on another one, whether purple, grey or speckled!"15 This is an interesting idea, to share thoughts not as "artists" but as craftsmen. What was Bakst talking about and why did he really make such an unusual suggestion to his friend? Unexpectedly, we find the answer in the memoirs of Stepan Yaremich: "The most amazing thing about Serov was his undisguised hostility, even with a touch of disgust, towards the professional artistic community, so smug and closed-off in its preoccupation with its insular interests."16
Naturally, it was not only their work as artists that Serov and Bakst had in common - it was also their worldview, their lifestyle, and even some personal traits. Throughout their lives, both were concerned with making a living and providing for their families - Serov had six children, and Bakst, as well as his own seven, supported his sister and her four children. Both were remarkably scrupulous in regard to their work and always gave it their best effort, even at the height of their fame. Both had exquisite taste and a "true nobility of vision"17. Bakst was finally more easy-going and tolerant, whereas Serov was uncompromising and unforgiving in his opinions. Serov "always said, 'I am a pagan,' but his paganism was not of the joyful kind,"18 while Bakst said openly: "I love life and joy and I am always more likely to smile then to frown."19 That aside, the two artists had much in common.
"Serov arrives tomorrow - I am so happy, as if my brother were coming to visit,"20 Bakst wrote to his fiancee early in 1903. The last "Mir Iskusstva" exhibition was opening in St. Petersburg; writing again to his fiancee Lyubov Gritsenko, Bakst summed up the participants' mood: "Our common misfortune brought us closer together, so now we all, i.e. Shura [Benois], Diaghil[ev], Serov, Filosof[ov] and I are even better friends than we have ever been!"21 In summer 1903 Bakst noticed that Serov's health had taken a turn for the worse: "Poor Serov, he is quite unwell, pale, coughing; his lungs are not right. Who would have thought? I feel so sorry for him."22 October brought catastrophic developments, and the artist's life hung in the balance, until an operation in November saved him. However, in summer 1903 no one could have predicted these developments. Serov left the city for Eno23 (a region of Finland), where he had a house by the sea, to build up his strength and rest with his family. He became ill there and reported to his friends: "Bakst had Russian pneumonia, and I ended up with a Roman-Finnish fever."24 Benois and Bakst visited him in the country while he was convalescing; Bakst wrote to his fiancee: "I am delighted with the trip, with their little estate, with this life by the sea and with the sweet, kind Olga Fyodorovna! The weather was unnatural, with exceedingly high wind; Benois and I got soaking wet on the way to the Serovs and then the wind dried us - and there we were sweating again on the beach! It was wonderful! We ate like we were four, fiddled around, took walks, and wandered by the seashore in this incredible wind, so vigorous and lovely. Serov is feeling better... Serov's children are very nice; sunburnt, they spend their days barefoot, splashing in the sea. Their life is simple and unpretentious, and I really like seeing Antosha among his peaceful family. I love the seashore! Besides, the sound of the waves is so pleasing to my ear - it awakens everything good, generous and earnest in me. Serov is painting an excellent scene from the life of Peter the Great. I wonder how this will work out. We had a wonderfully good time, and even the nervous, slightly timid Olga cheered up and ran around with us like a little girl."25 A photograph that Bakst took on this trip survives. Serov remained ill throughout the winter, but returned to Eno in the summer, where Bakst took another photograph of him. it was not easy - Serov intentionally distanced himself from everyone's infatuation with photography. Bakst's letter from their trip to Greece testifies to that: "Serov would not take a photograph of me - he is so stubborn he would not let me take one of him either!"26
In the summer of 1904, Serov stopped in St. Petersburg on the way to Eno and saw his friends, including Bakst, who was working on Diaghilev's portrait.27 Bakst wrote to his wife: "I spent all day with Serov today; he and I had breakfast at Diaghilev's; [Serov] is very sweet to me - he used to call me 'Lyova' before his illness, and now he says 'Lyovushka', which did not prevent him from drawing a caricature of me in my smock, painting Seryezha's [Diaghilev's] portrait. Serov got excited and also plans to paint Seryezha's portrait in the autumn. At four he left for Finland... Serov could not help himself and took a look at Seryezha's portrait when I was not there - he really liked it! Hurray!!!"28 Soon after that Serov painted a small, wonderful portrait of Diaghilev.29 Bakst continued his work with even more enthusiasm - Serov's positive opinion was especially valuable: an acknowledged judge of good taste, he was incapable of flattery. Filosofov wrote: "Always truthful, he never withheld his opinions. This was the reason he made many petty enemies. He was a 'proud', independent man."30 Those were exactly the qualities that Bakst was lacking. Once he confessed to his fiancee: "I fear vulgar people, Lyuba! Their touch, their cheap tastes and little ideals undeniably litter my horizon. it is dangerous and contagious, and for this reason I must always avoid vulgar people."31 That is why his friendship with Serov was crucial for the talented but weak-willed Bakst.
However, when it came to creative pursuits and his interest in art, Bakst could be surprisingly resolute. He was virtually obsessed with Ancient Greek culture and, having studied artefacts in Russian museums and all available publications, Bakst aspired to see his "promised land" with his own eyes. Surprisingly, Serov, who had the reputation of an incorrigible stay-at-home, joined him on this trip. The artist and art critic Stepan Yaremich wrote: "in this case, Bakst's influence was very important, because he was the one who stirred up Serov's dormant, deeply hidden penchant for antiquity. Long before their trip to Greece together Bakst dedicated himself almost entirely to the study of ancient art. He constantly talked and wrote about it, even gave lectures. He attached great importance to vase painting as a form of art that produced the most perfect lines, free of any superfluous details. Pursuit of such clean lines is clearly present in Serov's work, too, especially during the last years of his life. Naturally, the two artists created very different art as a result, but their aims were the same."32
Bakst began preparing for the trip to Greece in December 1906, and wrote to his wife about it: "And what about my wonderful plans to go to Greece and the Greek islands with you - where are they? I would love for them to come true!"33However, by the spring of 1907 it became clear that Lyubov Gritsenko-Bakst was pregnant and could not accompany her husband on the trip. At the same time Serov expressed an interest in going, as we know from Alexandre Benois' letter to him: "I hear you are planning to visit Hellas with Bakst."34 Both future travellers had exciting plans to work on their art; thus, not long before the trip Vasily Polenov engaged Serov in the design of the new Museum of Fine Art, which was just being built. In particular, Serov was to design the halls dedicated to the art of ancient Greece. Bakst was literally elated about the forthcoming trip - enthusiastically, he wrote to the poet Vyacheslav ivanov: "I am going. I have no clear thoughts, [it is all] confusion and trepidation in front of the 'real' Greece; I am lost! What will Greece say?!"35
The two friends left at the beginning of May. Their route took them through Kiev, Odessa and Constantinople to Athens, Delphi, Patras, Kandia, Olympia, Mycenae, and to the islands of Crete and Corfu. The trip was very eventful; the artists' letters (both wrote regularly to their wives) provide us with details. Serov, usually reserved, wrote upon arrival in Athens: "The Acropolis (the Kremlin of Athens) is something incredible to behold. There is no painting or photograph that [can] impart this amazing feeling of light and breeze, the close proximity of marble [sculptures] with the bay and winding hills in the background. A wondrous combination of high decorativeness, almost bordering on pathos, with cosiness - I am talking about something that was built by an ancient people (the Athenians.)"36 Bakst seconded that: "The sea was wonderful, like a mirror. I drew the outline of approaching Greece. Today [we saw] the Acropolis - utter delight. Serov says he feels like 'weeping and praying'. We made it there just before the evening; I cannot even describe it."37 The impression that the beauty of the place and unique museum artefacts made on Bakst and Serov differed according to their respective personalities. Serov's admiration was reserved, disguised by scepticism: "As a whole, as well as particular parts of it, I am satisfied with the trip. All places turned out quite unique and much more interesting then I had anticipated (this, however, may be due to my lack of imagination.)"38 Bakst, more emotional by nature, paints the picture with big brushstrokes: "The city of Kandia is perfectly 'oriental', with its bazaars, Turks, Greeks from Crete, negroes, olives, oranges, nuts, hides, mules, cafes, and mosques - just like Cairo, but smaller, of course. It is crowded and loud, and the sea breeze cools off the sun-drenched faces... By the evening the air is enchantingly warm and dry, the sky is black, full of stars, people are strolling everywhere; oriental singing, mournful and feisty, and quite florid, too; the sounds of zurnas [conical oboes] and guitars, dancing in front of the coffee drinkers. The Orient! Serov was dazed, all he wanted to do was sit there and look and listen!.."39 Bakst insisted on always carrying around a sophisticated camera, while Serov refused to be photographed and refused to photograph Bakst, to his friend's dismay. Both artists bought photographs of local attractions and rare objects from museums. Most importantly, both kept drawing: several albums with their sketches survive. 

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