Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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DSCN9327I had no idea that this place at 4/5 Plotnikov Lane existed. I had never seen nor heard anything about it. Consider, then, my amazement and excitement when I happened to be walking around the Arbat area a couple of weeks ago and I came upon this  – a marvelous home featuring a myriad of mildly erotic bas reliefs of none less than Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Mild as they may be, they are clearly erotic in nature, and, yes, as I said, they involve the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and, perhaps, Ivan Turgenev, in various suggestive poses with each other or with seemingly faceless others…
It goes without saying that my ignorance is not shared by all. There is plenty on the internet about this structure that is one of several in Moscow called a “Broido home.” Like the one in question here, these were designed by the prominent architect Nikolai Zherikov for the jurist and businessman German Broido. Zherikov, supported by the evidently wealthy Broido, erected several memorable art moderne buildings around the city. Although the main structure of this five-story apartment house (an “income house” in Russian) is not particularly outstanding, the decorations interspersed among the second-floor windows are. It was built in 1907.
A bit of mystery swirls around the bas relief sculptures. Some sources declare the creator is unknown. Others say he is suspected to be Lev Sinaev-Bernshtein, while still others state unequivocally that the works belong to him. I am convinced by the arguments that posit Sinaev-Bernshtein as the author, so I, too, will take that stance.
A few words about the artist before getting to the art. Indeed, Sinaev-Bernshtein specialized in sculptures and bas reliefs of famous cultural figures, and he spent time with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana in the first decade of the 1900s. He was commissioned to create a commemorative medallion of Tolstoy in 1911, a year after the great writer died. Born in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1867, Sinaev-Bernshtein died in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis in the Drancy internment camp near Paris. The Nazis destroyed one of his last works, Youth and Old Age, on which he had worked the last 10 years of his life. He lived primarily in Paris from 1881 on, although he did come to Russia to visit and work from time to time.
Bear with me today. There are a lot of photos below and more text than usual. There was no other way to do this place justice.

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I first did a double take upon seeing that familiar bob cut hairdo on a forlorn figure staring at two lovers over the clumsy inconvenience of a drain pipe. I squinted and moved in closer, and, sure enough, realized I was staring at a pretty good likeness of Nikolai Gogol. (See photo immediately above.) Gogol, his right hand awkwardly inactive at his side, stares at the embracing couple as if trying to figure out what in hell are they doing? Gogol’s sexuality, or his lack of it, has long been the subject of discussion. My acquaintance Simon Karlinsky, the great Russian literature scholar from Berkeley, wrote a book suggesting that Gogol was gay, and I don’t know if anyone has ever successfully refuted that. Or whether it needs refuting. Gogol here does look like an outsider in the feast of heterosexual love going on around him. I wish the figure immediately behind him in the photo above had not literally lost its head. It might give us a few more clues. Gogol here, like Tolstoy and Pushkin elsewhere, is repeated in the same basic pose, no matter what the surroundings. Look, for example, at the photo immediately below. You’ll see Gogol jammed uncomfortably into others’ embraces again, the same limp right arm, the same frozen distance in his eyes. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in tandem with Tolstoy, ever the somewhat distracted and uncomfortable object of the big man’s clearly aggressive attentions. Tolstoy is also repeated in the same basic pose elsewhere in the sculptural ensembles, but, depending on the context, you actually see somewhat different stories unfold.
Tolstoy-Pushkin is a delight to behold. I’ve put up several photos that show the combination from various angles. The great author of War and Peace goes after the great author of Eugene Onegin with gusto and passion. Is that a manuscript Tolstoy is holding, or is it a rocket in his pocket? I think it’s the former, although in a different setting, when the object of attention is not Pushkin, you will see that it looks more phallic than bookish. Tolstoy’s fierce eyes and bold pose, in one case, virtually push Pushkin up against the wall. (See the second photo below.) Tolstoy – and this makes great sense – seems to be smelling Pushkin. Don’t you just know that Tolstoy would have wanted to know everything there is to know about the man who created the language he wrote in! The novelist’s left foot steps in boldly on the poet, giving him no way out of this weird encounter. Tolstoy is everything Tolstoy is – adamant, forceful, overbearing, and damned ready to get to the bottom of things. Pushkin, as would be proper for the founder of the contemporary Russian language and the poetry that is written in it, is almost oblivious. He’s clearly backed up in an awkward position, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. His gaze is smooth and unperturbed. He’s fixed his eyes on something distant, something intriguing – perhaps the perfect iamb? We don’t even know if that right hand is being used to ward Tolstoy off – I rather think not. I think Tolstoy just trapped Pushkin’s arm where it was. Perhaps Pushkin was getting ready to pose for a statue and he had grabbed his lapel. And here comes Tolstoy, all animal, all brain, all body, all curious, and he’s going to pin that damn Pushkin down, once and for all! I stood on the street below these marvelous figures and laughed out loud. How could you not? Tolstoy going after Pushkin, all business, all body! I love it.

DSCN9315 DSCN9320 DSCN9324 DSCN9325 DSCN9296 DSCN9299Gogol, as I have noted, looks almost virtually the same no matter what configuration the artist puts him in. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in the steamy encounter with Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is given a second encounter, one that looks a little more sinister. (See the third and fourth photos below.) Here Tolstoy is not only paired with a young woman, there is a third figure intruding on the tryst. This individual looks rather like an avenging angel, an angel with an attitude, an angel who does not like what he sees. (I’m assuming that arch over his head is a halo; if it’s not, then my premise falls apart. But I’ll stick with the halo variation.) The muscles in the angel’s left arm are clenched; he is tense. Do his fingers form a fist or are they just beginning to clench into a fist? I see real condemnation in his visage and his stance.
Tolstoy, of course, was famous for his dalliances with peasant women. One might even say he had a compulsion for the women who belonged to him. In his writings he often described men like himself going to “women like that” and it was always a heady intoxication followed by shame and self-loathing. Tolstoy’s attraction to women created enormous problems for his wife Sofya and for himself. One can’t help but think of this as you peruse this trio of figures. Whereas the put-upon Pushkin virtually paid Tolstoy no mind, this young woman, under the old man’s press, appears to be quite ill at ease. She’s been given the same basic pose as Pushkin, but the different circumstances give the whole image a different feel. She is truly trapped. Tolstoy here doesn’t want to know what makes her tick, he’s not sniffing out an ancestor and competitor in the literary game, he quite simply wants this woman. Even the “manuscript” that he holds in his left hand looks much more like a phallus pushing its way up under the writer’s robe as he guides it with his hand.
This one image, more than any of the others, pushes the whole lot over the line from light, humorous eroticism into unabashed, unflinching eroticism – though not without humor.
It is said that Sinaev-Bernshtein’s friezes were originally commissioned by Ivan Tsvetaev (the poet Marina Tsvetaev’s father) for the building in which he planned to open his new Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street in the center of Moscow. The idea, apparently, was to depict the great Russian writers, accompanied by muses, on a procession to see Apollo. According to the story, however, Tsvetaev declined to accept the work when it was completed. It was deemed too risqué, if not downright shocking. So as not to waste good work, the figures were put to use, cut up and moved around, on this building. Over the years the house and the bas reliefs have been dubbed with various names including “the caricature house” and “the house with the naked writers” (although there are no naked figures to be seen). The rumor that this was once a bordello and the sculptures show supposed famous clients is nothing but an urban legend. More reliable – and intriguing to think about – is that this likeness of Tolstoy is apparently the first and only sculptural likeness of the writer created when he was still alive. Tolstoy died three years after this building was erected; Pushkin died in 1837 (70 years before), Gogol in 1852 (55 years before).

DSCN9294 DSCN9314 DSCN9313 DSCN9312 DSCN9322 DSCN9323A few sources suggest that Ivan Turgenev is also depicted among the revelers and onlookers here. I did not see him on my own when I discovered the building (Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy are obvious), and even after going back over my photos, I continue to have doubts that Turgenev is pictured here. However, since most everything is in the eye of the beholder, I offer a couple of shots that may – I say, may – show a young Turgenev in the embraces of a young woman. Look at the final photo below. Is Turgenev the second figure from the right? (He would be the one on the extreme left in the penultimate photo, just parts of his head and right hand visible on the corner behind the female figure/muse.) Something about the hair, the mouth and the eyes here are reminiscent of some images we have of Turgenev early on in his life. Take a gander at this drawing, for instance. Our bas relief lacks the beard and mustache, to be sure, but some of the other details intrigue, even if they don’t convince entirely. Is this the same figure who stands between Gogol and a woman in the photo immediately above? I don’t know. They look different to me, although the overall composition – minus Gogol – is quite similar.
In short, Turgenev remains a question mark here, but everything else about this place gets exclamation points. I am terribly torn between potential favorites – the fierce Tolstoy backing the oblivious Pushkin into a corner, or the somewhat clueless Gogol trying to squeeze into threesomes without quite figuring out how to do it. Whatever the case, unless someone comes up with some money to save these unique bas reliefs soon, they’ll be long gone and we’ll only have these photos to remind us that they ever existed at all. This building is included on the list of protected architectural sites in Moscow, although, as one can see, nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the rot. Is it possible that this place makes the authorities too uncomfortable and they are simply waiting for it to self-destruct? You bet it is. And what a shame it will be to lose this wonderful, unexpected treasure.

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