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Exactly two-hundred and seventeen years have passed since the day Alexander Pushkin (1799-1937) was born. It’s rather astonishing, really. So much time, so much change, so much water under the bridge. And Pushkin remains Pushkin. He remains the youthful image of perfection and the perfect image of youth, talent, humor, wisdom, agility of all kinds, honesty, trustworthiness, dignity and everything else that might accrue to this cluster of qualities. I think you would have difficulty finding one person in a thousand, one person in a million, who would suggest that I am exaggerating in any way.
I wrote a blog about the contemporary poet Sergei Gandlevsky a few days ago. Something that didn’t make it into what I wrote was a comment he made about Pushkin. Gandlevsky talked about being a difficult and contrary young man, bucking his parents and authority at every step. But, he added, Pushkin was revered in his home and he never questioned that reverence. Pushkin was worthy of that reverence, He was untouchable.
I have written things like this before, and I surely will write more. I am repetitive, but then Pushkin’s impact, his influence, his stature is eternal. It is virtually unchanging. I doubt there is anything new we can find out about Pushkin anymore. I have no idea how many books, articles, poems, essays, blogs, have been written about this poet. Millions, billions. He has been viewed from every possible angle. Every step of his life, his every move, his every word, his every thought – all of it has been examined, analyzed, dug up, re-framed, regurgitated and reconsidered. And Pushkin still comes out Pushkin – bright, light, airy, weighty and untouched. Alexander Pushkin represents all – I say all – of the reasons that compel one to love Russia, Russian literature, art, culture and history. He is at the center and at the source of that love which blesses and torments millions of us.
Today we look at a sculpture that has grown on me terrifically. It stands amid a huge chessboard of sculptures in the Muzeon open-air exhibit just behind the Moscow House of Artists/New Tretyakov Gallery. One might quibble with the way these sculptures are crammed in together, but there is also something about it that lends added meaning to each of the pieces.
At first you are so distracted that virtually nothing stands out when you come upon the large, square plot of land. Although the sculptures stand in orderly rows, you are subjected to an overwhelming sense of chaos and overload.
Right next to this image of Pushkin, called Forty Thousand Versts, and sculpted by Alexander Smirnov-Panfilov, there is a lovely sculpture of Pushkin crossing over a typical St. Petersburg bridge. The day I walked around taking pictures here I was immediately taken by it, and I fully expected it would be the first one I would write about. Smirnov-Panfilov’s gloomy take on Pushkin apparently riding in a cab somewhere (the striped mile-post, or, to be more precise, the verst-post, is part of the sculptural ensemble) as he and an unseen cabbie and horse cut through an apparent snowstorm, seemed a bit too weird, too unfinished and unclear. I shot them then walked away to photograph other objects before passing back by on my way out. But this time everything looked different. I still loved Pushkin going over the bridge, but by now this image of him fighting blindly through snow had put a hook in me. Now it began to attract me actively and I photographed it again, coming up with better shots and angles. I loved the way it fitted into its surroundings – primarily by not fitting in at all. Everything around it seemed to be incongruous – mothers, pregnant or otherwise, angels, priests, wise men and martyrs carrying their crosses. Pushkin is oblivious to it all. The storm that batters him relentlessly has robbed him of all ability to see, hear or feel anything but whatever thoughts exist in his own head.
Look at his eyes. There are none. Smirnov-Panfilov rendered Pushkin’s blizzard-induced blindness by removing his eyes entirely from his face. Look at the hard-set mouth, the strong nose, the strong posture of his shoulders with just his one visible right hand pulling his cloak tight to his chest against the wind and snow.
This is an incredibly insular, private Pushkin. We aren’t allowed into his world in any way. Everything here is external. We see nothing but outward appearances. We look at Pushkin here the way Plato’s men chained to the wall of a cave looked at shadows cast before them by free figures passing between them and a fire. They can only guess at the meaning of the shadows, and we can only guess what Pushkin might be experiencing here. In fact, we haven’t the vaguest idea.
But look what happens when you step back away from the ensemble and you perceive it at a distance. Look at the second photo below and a revelation occurs. Pushkin here looks beat, despondent, disconsolate. The verst-post towers over him, suggesting that the notion of achieving distance, of actually getting to his destination, of escaping this state of blind loneliness, is impossible. A similar impression is created in the first photo in the block above. Pushkin is dwarfed by the verst-post. He almost seems to bow before it in subjugation. And look at those wheels – they’re half buried in snow or mud or something equally inhibiting. How far is he really going to get?
Smirnov-Panfilov achieved a wonderful thing in this sculpture – he captured two almost diametrically opposed states in one single piece of art: Pushkin’s tenacity, his imperviousness to the storm raging about him, and, at the same time, his vulnerability before that very storm. If you give this statue enough time, you begin to realize it is not only an interesting, highly unorthodox view of Alexander Pushkin, but that it is a thematic piece that could easily have been titled Weathering the Storm. Perhaps you can’t beat the storm, but you can weather it.
It’s no wonder all of us keep coming back to Pushkin all the time. He is always ready, able and willing to make us think, and to find something of value in those thoughts. Happy 217th!