“That’s not Mayakovsky!” you say. And you’re right. It’s not. But that is the Nutcracker Himself right there across from Not-Mayakovsky. And despite the fact that it was a German – E.T.A. Hoffmann to be exact – who first imagined the nutcracker as a character, where would the Nutcracker be without the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky? And when you have been outside of Russia for nearly a month, as I have, and you see a hard chiseled face with a bit of a futuristic look in his eyes, you just might be fooled for an instant into thinking that this stoney bust I found at the Madison Square Garden Cafe in Laguna, CA, was of Vladimir Mayakovsky. I didn’t cling to that mistaken belief very long. My wife ridiculed me hard enough and quick enough to take care of that. But even by the time I left the cafe after a fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict I still thought this bust could easily be mistaken for some other Soviet Realist hero, say, one of the characters out of Alexander Fadeyev’s famous novel The Young Guard. If you want to test my hypothesis you can compare this bust to some of the sculptures of Fadeyev and his characters, about whom I wrote in this space a couple of months ago.
But in Laguna, CA, you don’t have to settle for fake Mayakovskys or oversized Nutcrackers if your Russian culture fix is getting thin. Later on the same day that I photographed “Mayakovsky” I ran across something more substantial as my wife and I passed by the Fingerhut Gallery on Coast Highway. I looked up through a window into the second floor where I saw some beautiful paintings by the Moscow painter Sergei Smirnov (1953-2006). I’ll admit I did not know Smirnov or his paintings, but what we discovered in Laguna makes me wish I had. He had a beautiful, subtle stroke that allowed him to paint women’s portraits with a touch of the Russian icon in them as well as a whiff of Eastern mystery. I went up to the second floor to look at the paintings you see here as well as several others, and I learned that Smirnov’s last two paintings were created on commission from Mr. Fingerhut himself, who was a big fan and patron. As I was told, Smirnov always left a newly-finished painting to dry two days before he would go back and put on the final touches. The night he completed his last two paintings in 2006, he signed them and set them aside to finish in two days. The next day he reportedly enjoyed a big meal with his family and lay down to sleep happily. He never awoke, and those two paintings he made for Fingerhut were his last. If anyone is interested, there are numerous signed and numbered prints of Smirnov’s works still on sale at the Fingerhut Gallery, as well as a rare sculpture that has a price tag of $15,000. The top price that a Smirnov painting grabbed at the Fingerhut Gallery, I am told, was around $65,000.
This was an interesting enough discovery for me, but there was still another surprise waiting for me on the second floor of that gallery – a trio of signed, colored Marc Chagall illustrations on biblical themes. In all, today wasn’t a bad day for Russian culture in my life. From a fake Mayakovsky to three real Chagalls, all just a few steps from each other on California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
This all reminds me of a phrase one of my favorite aunts once uttered as we walked through the verdant Connecticut woods one summer day about two decades ago. Flowers were blooming and underbrush was thick beneath spreading canopies of trees laden with leaves. My Aunt Jen, who is now 103 I might add, looked down at the ground and happened to find a flower that she didn’t expect at that time of year and she uttered a phrase I have quoted whenever possible ever since: “That nature,” Aunt Jen exclaimed, “it just pops up everywhere!” Doesn’t it? It’s just like Russian culture in my life.