After posting photos of a monument to Dostoevsky a few days ago, it just didn’t seem right to follow up with anyone besides Leo Tolstoy. You have to give it to sculptor Alexei Portyanko – this one of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina is big. It is massive. It is so big they had to take fat chunks of granite and glue them together. Look at Tolstoy’s head in the top photo above – it’s stuck on there with glue. Look at the side of the monument – it’s a kind of building block approach to sculpture. Tolstoy’s head is gargantuan. The beard, like the hair and the back are unfinished. Tolstoy’s hands are huge. His gaze – his glaring stare – comes somewhere out of the deepest depths of the universe and shoots through you like a laser. Everything’s so big here it doesn’t all fit. Tolstoy is either in the process of returning into unformed granite, or emerging from it, I’m not sure which.
From a distance you seem able to get a grip on this sculpture. From a distance the features are familiar, your mind turns them into the Tolstoy you think you know. The closer you get, the more you lose your grip. It’s not that anything depicting Tolstoy here ever becomes unknown, but you realize you’re only privy to a part, to a surface.
I guess that means Portyanko’s sculpture works for me. I was actually trying to work myself up to a rejection. There’s something “too too” about it all. There are moments when you walk around this piece of rock and you think, “This guy’s going too far to say what we all know.”
But I will never forget what Kama Ginkas taught me about art and consumers of it. He was talking about theater spectators and their opinions. How he sees people walking out after attending one of his shows with clearly shaken visages and tears running down their cheeks, as they say to one another, “I don’t think that was a very successful show…”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” Ginkas says. “Everybody has an opinion. I look at their reactions. Their physiological reactions.”
You see, I could start picking away at Portyanko’s monument to Tolstoy: it’s too generic, it’s too obvious, it doesn’t go past the surface… And yet, there I am, walking around and around and snapping more and more pictures and increasingly feeling that something of the power, the unbridled, elemental force of this writer’s presence on our lives, is reaching me loud and clear.
If I tried to tell Portyanko why I don’t think his Tolstoy sculpture is a complete success, he could just say, “I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” and he would be right.
It’s another thing when you know that this sculptor also did huge monuments to Lenin all over the place. That’s a bit of a low blow on my part, because the Tolstoy monument is there to stand on its own. But I think that is what I’m talking about when I say something irritates me about this Tolstoy. It’s that Leninistic feel. It’s that sense of unequivocal Victory. With a capital V. It is the sense of the right of might. And these aspects do, indeed, hinder my ability to give myself fully to this work.
It becomes even more interesting when you consider that this monument, standing at the beginning of Devichye Pole, or Girl’s Field, on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street, replaced another in 1972. I wrote a little about that other, created by Sergei Merkurov, in a post on this site on Aug. 2. That one is very folksy, earthy, and human, even as it recognizes the scope of Tolstoy’s larger-than-life presence. The Merkurov sculpture, significantly smaller than Portyanko’s, stood in Devichye Pole from 1928 to 1972, when it was moved to the courtyard of the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka Street.
Ultimately I will probably always remain in a constant state of agitation about Portyanko’s monument. This I can say – I doubt I will ever put it in a category with the great Nikolai Andreev monument to Gogol, the weirdly powerful Alexander Rukavishnikov monument to Dostoevsky, or the brilliantly satirical Leonty Usov monument to Chekhov in Tomsk, all of which I’ve written about on this blog site. Still, this is an imposing work. If you want a sense of Tolstoy as a whole universe, this likeness of him provides that.
If you’re interested in more, there are nice Russian texts at a site suggesting walks around Moscow, and on a website library of posts about Russian sculptures.