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It must have been someone’s bad joke to erect a monument to Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) in front of the apartment complex at 30 Prechistenka Street in Moscow. Oh, sure, there are the weighty reasons that the Russian Academy of Arts is located across the way, and that Surikov, one of the great historical painters in the Russian canon, lends his name to one of the institutes run by the Academy – the Surikov State Academic Institute of Art. But rarely in my ongoing searches for public reminders of Russia’s artistic prowess have I come upon anything quite so incongruous, so lacking in aesthetic sense, so downright wrong. The abominable building behind the Surikov monument is what a gaping hole is to a boat hull, a broken wing to an airplane, square wheels to an automobile, a sleep mask on a master snooker player. That is, in the presence of the former, the latter simply cannot do its job.
I have always carried a serious grudge against Soviet era architects. They were the true enemies of the people, the traitors and saboteurs of their time. Like few others, bad, unconscionable architects poisoned every day, minute and second of those who were fated to live in the Soviet Union. You cannot proliferate such public hideousness without leaving a mark, and the only mark you can leave is a scar. Look at the scar on the face of Moscow that looms ominously behind Surikov here. There is nothing the great artist can do to counteract it. It swallows him like a beast run amok.
The sculptor Mikhail Pereyaslavets did everything in his power to keep his Surikov free of its surroundings. I think he only made it worse. He (or someone working with him on this project) cleared out as much space as possible around the monument. There are small groves of trees, and wide-open spaces of sidewalk and benches that seem to create a positively-charged negative space around the statue. But nothing can compete with that monstrosity ominously rising up behind it all. No matter what angle you take to approach it, it is competing with the apartment house, and it is losing the competition. Sure, you can stand right under the thing and get comparisons of the painter’s beard and lapels with the infinite white sky behind them. Or you can walk around the back and ignore that horrid building altogether. But you do realize, don’t you, that in this case you are taking photos of the great man’s butt?
A technical word or two. The sculptor’s signature on the back of the bronze likeness comes with a date of 2000. However, a usually reliable website about Moscow’s tourist attractions tells us it was unveiled in 2003. I can’t reconcile the discrepancy, nor will I worry that fact. Pick up the gauntlet and let me know what you find, should you take the search for truth and knowledge further than I. The bronze sculpture (2.6 meters/8.5 feet in height) stands on a marble pedestal (1.84 meters/6 feet in height). In imagining his sculpture, Pereyaslavets apparently leaned on a description of Surikov once made by the poet Maximilian Voloshin: “Surikov was of moderate height, solid, strong, broad-shouldered and youthful despite the fact he was nearly 70 years old… His appearance was simple, with national features, though not those of a peasant. You could sense in him a fine, strong tempering. He was built as they are in the North, like a cossack…”
Surikov bequeathed to us dramatic, moving historical canvasses. So strong are the images he created, that millions of Russians (and foreigners, too) probably know several key elements of Russian history primarily through paintings he made – The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1887-81), The Boyar’s Wife Morozova (1881-87), The Taking of the Snow Village (1890-91), Suvorov’s Crossing of the Alps (1895-99), Stepan Razin (1900?). You can’t take your eyes off these paintings. I have attended three-hour theater performances that don’t have half, one-quarter, of the action and nuance that these paintings do.
Take the portrait of Stepan Razin. It’s essentially a portrait, but where a usual portraitist would have cut out all but the most important central figure, Surikov crams in all kinds of stuff going on around him. Razin, the infamous rebel, is unhappily ensconced in a small boat making its way across a lake or river. Every one of his men (there are nine that we see) is experiencing his own drama – someone may be angry, another tired, another bored, another sleepy, another amused… Razin, as the center of attention (not among his men, but for us as viewers of the painting), is puffed up, and full of arrogant thoughts about himself (it only came to me now that there is a bit of Donald Trump in him). We see that he commands power of a sort, just as we see that he doesn’t trust it, nor does he trust it will last long. (Pardon me, that last phrase was very unprofessional, wishful thinking on my part – although I’ll stand by what it declares!)
But it is in paintings like The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, The Boyar’s Wife Morozova and Suvorov’s Crossing of the Alps that Surikov’s genius is expressed to the fullest. They capture in stunning detail man’s battle against man, as well as man’s battle against God. In the case of the fantastically famous and popular image of Feodosia Morozova, you have the important addition of the eternal battle of a powerful Russian woman pitted against the entire world around her – man, state and God included. (As my wife left the house today she asked what I was doing and I said I was writing about Surikov. She immediately quipped: “I am Countess Morozova. You know that, don’t you?” “Yes,” I replied, as nonchalantly as I could.)
In short, one would be justified in suggesting that Surikov did not merely illustrate or “record” historical events in his greatest paintings, he actually helped create them as events of historical value. We know these instances in Russian history precisely as Surikov understood and described them to us in oils. Who but a few were there to see Suvorov and his army cross the Alps? Certainly no one we can appeal to today. But think “Suvorov” and “Alps” and you cannot help but think “Surikov.”
All of which brings us back to that damn Soviet apartment building on Prechistenka Street. What a travesty! Look how easily a bad architect took the mountain that is Surikov and turned him into the molehill that is this monument in Moscow.