Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Painters and Artists

Plaque Honoring Alexei Savrasov, Moscow

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Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897) created some of the most haunting paintings ever made of Russian landscapes. He was a founding member of the Wanderers, which, for a time, unified many of the greatest 19th century Russian artists, and he was a famed pedagogue at what was originally known as the College of Painting and Sculpting in Moscow. It is now known as the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpting and Architecture, and is run by Ilya Glazunov, one of many controversial figures who have pushed their way to the top of the fine arts in Russia in recent decades. That’s a topic for another time, however. Today I’m interested in Savrasov.
Savrasov was born into a merchant family in Moscow and, when he began exhibiting a talent for art as a young man, his father tried to discourage his interest in painting. Fortunately for us, the young man remained true to himself. In 1844, at the age of 14, he entered the school you see here (it looked somewhat different at the time, although my understanding is that it hasn’t changed terribly). It wasn’t long before the young man’s paintings were catching the eye of his elders, even if today you can read that some of his earliest works were “uneven.” But the fact of the matter is that Savrasov’s innate ability to express the soul of nature was obvious to all, even if it was appreciated to lesser or greater degrees depending upon the painting. He graduated from the College in 1854 and two of his paintings, including View of the Surroundings of Oranienbaum, were included in an exhibit at the College. View is a spectacular piece, an entire universe of natural details crammed tastefully and forcefully into a single image. As one might expect of a young artist (he was just 24 at the time), there are lovely touches of optimism and lightness – the sun streaming through young leaves; the sunlight falling on an old, aged rock, illuminating it as if it has enjoyed a rebirth; light, white, fluffy clouds in a blue sky; a carefree sailboat skipping over the waves in the background; an apparently curious individual in the distance following the “events” of the painting; bright colors preparing to burst out in the coming days or weeks… These are all things one can say with certainty about this painting. But when you know the full sum of Savrasov’s work over a lifetime, you also see here the beginnings of what would become a personal style – elements of fear, foreboding, and death.
See in the left foreground the tree cut dead. See, in the upper left-hand corner, the white, fluffy clouds beginning to darken. Note in the right foreground the almost impenetrable black gloom on our side of the lichen-covered rocks. And as for the bits and pieces of red that I suggested above might be a sign of impending flowers in bloom – we can read that another way. In fact, if we know Savrasov’s later work, we see signs of alarm in these bits of red.
Later in his life, time and time again, Savrasov would paint landscapes as if the world were in conflagration, either already in full burning flame, or on the verge of exploding. Consider his paintings Evening or Sunset – they are washed in a bloody red in the not-too-distant background that bodes nothing good. Furthermore, the bloody, fiery red is almost always mixed with a daunting darkness in which details can barely – if at all – be made out. The more I peruse the work of Savrasov, the more I think he was one of the great painters of impending doom.

People are rarely of interest to Savrasov. The vast majority of his pictures either lack people at all, or offer such tiny little figures that their only function appears to be to demonstrate how insignificant an individual is against the fiery, gloaming onslaught of nature. He occasionally painted graves in the wilderness, giving them a prominence that he almost never gave a living human figure. He has a lovely painting of a shipwreck, in which everyone surely is going down in the deep.
He has a painting called Landscape with Rainbow. You see a title like that and you have lovely, lyrical thoughts of happiness. But then you actually look at the painting and you are taken aback. The almost colorless rainbow peters out in mid-picture, wasted and useless. It hangs ominously over a dead and dying bog. There appears to be some bright sunlight way off in the distance, but hovering over this patch of light is a black, black cloud.
Savrasov’s most famous painting – it is even depicted in the background, so to speak, of the memorial plaque that hangs on the wall of the Academy of Painting – is called The Rooks Have Arrived. And, again, we are witness to an eerie, unsettling image that makes us want to look over our shoulder to see what calamity is gaining on us from behind. It is a beautiful painting, like so many of his works are, but it is clearly the beauty of danger, catastrophe and even horror.
You can read all kinds of nonsense about Savrasov. His student, the famed landscape painter Isaak Levitan, did him a great disfavor, in my opinion, but saying, “Lyricism in landscape paintings, and an endless love for his native earth, appeared with Savrasov…” Thanks to Levitan, one can read over and over again about Savrasov’s “love” either for his “native earth,” or for his “motherland.”
Yes, he loved the earth and the land that give rise to his sensibilities, but it was no “lyrical,” sappy love. This was the love of a man who felt pain and fear for the land around him. The Russia that he painted is a dangerous, threatening place. It is dark and ready to explode. It is drowning and dying even as it gives off spectacular flashes of beauty and power.
Another opinion you can read is that Savrasov was the author of two or three great paintings, but that the rest of his work is sloppy and unrealized. Ba-lo-ney! Google his paintings. Look at them long and hard. You can’t help but be moved, I would think. They are too strong, too brave, too powerful to leave one indifferent.
Apparently Savrasov suffered from alcoholism increasingly after 1870 and he ended up dying destitute. I’ve seen a few comments on the net that seem to use that information as proof that he should be considered an artist of lesser significance. I think all that means is that, yes, the darkness we see in his paintings was something he knew intimately. It takes nothing away from him; it only confirms that he “knew his song well.”
The plaque pictured above hangs on the rotunda wall of the building at Myasnitskaya Ulitsa 21, today the Russian Academy of Painting, etc. It was unveiled in 1980, and is the work of sculptor Oleg Kiryukhin.

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Vasily Gilbert plaque, Tula

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It was getting late in Tula in October and the sun was not providing a lot of light. That, combined with the still-blue sky and the blue building I was photographing, gave a wonderful blue hue to all the pictures I took of this building in which the artist Vasily Gilbert once plied his art. I had just finished photographing a neighboring building that had something to do with Leo Tolstoy – one that was on my list – when I happened upon this one at 49 Gogolevskaya Street – which was not. I had never heard of Vasily Gilbert and, if you’re not from Tula, you may not have either. He is not mentioned in John Milner’s massive A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, and the cookie cutter bios on the Russian net suggest his work is not held in collections far beyond Tula. These biographical accounts also bury the fact that Gilbert was murdered in the Purges of 1938 at the very end of the bios, adding no explanation or elaboration. We’ll get to that in a moment. The only English reference I find to him is in the ArtHive website, which provides a translation of the basic circulating Russian text.
Gilbert was born in the city of Samara in 1874. His father was an Englishman, surely named Thomas since Gilbert’s patronymic in Russian is Foma. Thomas immigrated to Russia in 1860, for reasons I have not discerned. In any case, he apparently had some artistic talent, because he gave drawing and painting lessons to all his sons when they were young of age. In 1894 Gilbert began studies at the Moscow College of Portraiture, Sculpture and Architecture where he was fortunate enough to study at least some under the tutelage of Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, two of the finest Russian painters of that time. It’s hard to tell how much he actually worked with them, but it is a recorded fact that he did his graduate project with another artist, Alexander Stepanov, described by Milner as a “painter of landscape and animal subjects” who was “known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers.”
Gilbert moved to Tula in 1904 and remained there until his death in 1938. He apparently made the move to take up a position teaching art in three different schools, including a local boys’ gymnasium. He also taught at a trade school and the famous local arms factory. According to an online Tula library, “The students immediately fell in love with their new teacher, an incredibly gentle man with a friendly manner of teaching. The artist taught students to see nature, to understand the subtlest shades of its moods, to apply light, soft tones in their painting.”
In addition to the landscapes and animal portraiture that Gilbert created, he spent a good deal of time illustrating texts for some of Russia’s top publishers. He drew and painted illustrations for the popular periodical Nature and Hunting, and illustrated the poetry of Alexei Koltsov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy for the famed Moscow publisher Ivan Sytin.
Gilbert lived in Tula during the last six years of Tolstoy’s life. I do not find any proof that they met or knew each other, although it is a fact that Gilbert would often take his students on Sunday excursions to Tolstoy’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana to paint and draw the landscapes there. I don’t know whether these trips were taken before or after Tolstoy’s death.

The same online library mentioned above has a fairly concise description of Gilbert’s place in Tula’s artistic life and I might as well just let their text speak for itself:
Gilbert took an active part in the life of the Tula Arts and Crafts College, where he taught artistic casting, forging from metal, and where he gave lessons evenings and Sundays for anyone who wished to attend. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist made a trip to Arkhangelsk and Solovki, whence he brought many watercolors depicting the harsh, poetic nature and architecture of the North. Gilbert’s Mooses, painted in 1910 and exhibited at the Tula Museum of Fine Arts, is done in the best traditions of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century. Gilbert took the revolution to heart and worked hard for the new government. He wrote slogans, posters and panels, and decorated public houses and clubs.”
Gilbert occupied a visible place in Tula’s cultural life for the first four decades of the 20th century. Whenever there was an art exhibit, it seemed he was a participant. Whenever a new school or new classes were opened, it seemed he was there to help and participate. His illustrations were frequently published in local magazines and journals. He appears to have been a truly popular and genuinely beloved figure in the city. That online biography ends with these words: “Gilbert’s works are held in Tula museums and private collections, and when you study them, you see a figure of an outstanding, intelligent, kind person, a talented painter whose whole life and work placed him in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists.
I’m not entirely sure what an achievement it was to be “placed in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists,” but we’ll skip over that for the time being in order to come quickly to two sentences in the bio that kill me: “His last personal exhibition opened in 1936. Soon he was arrested and in 1938 he was shot near Tula in the Nikolskoye forest.”
What?! What happened to all the “love” and “respect” and “adoration” that the city lavished on Vasily Gilbert?
The Russian Nekropole website has only the barest of information. His date of execution is given as April 7, 1938. The sentence is listed as VMN (ВМН in Russian), which means literally, “highest degree of punishment,” usually translated into English as “capital punishment,” and, in actual fact, meaning that Gilbert was shot.
Another site, Open List,  repeats this basic information, adding only that Gilbert is buried in the Tesnitsky forest.
I spent more than the usual time surfing the net to find more details, if not an explanation, about Gilbert’s demise. Every one of the deaths in the purges was unbearably heinous. Gilbert’s is no less so and it makes me want to have answers. If anyone knows more, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

Yelena Kiselyova plaque, Voronezh

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Here is another of those wonderful moments when, as the Russians say, I will liquidate my ignorance – right here and right now. Before your very eyes. I may not liquidate much of it, but it will be sufficient to share a wonderful discovery with you.
I had no idea who Yelena Kiselyova was. When I was in Voronezh some time ago I photographed all kinds of plaques, inscriptions and monuments, often not knowing what I was encountering. The idea was that I could always come back and catch up later – as I am doing now. One small, rather unimpressive plaque which I came upon in the shadows of Komissarzhevskaya Street meant nothing to me whatsoever. I didn’t even bother to note that the actual address of the building was 32 Revolution Prospect, where over 100 years ago Voronezh’s Mariinsky gymnasium, an affiliate, I guess we could say, of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, was located. Among many others, the young Kiselyova studied the art of painting and drawing here from 1892 to 1896. This is precisely what the plaque declares: “The artist (1878-1974) Yelena Kiselyova studied here at the Mariinskaya gymnasium from 1892 to 1896.”
Yelena Kiselyova lived a long, eventful life. She was born in Voronezh in 1878 and she died in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1974 at the age of 95. Her father was Andrei Kisleyov, a famous mathematician to whose textbook several generations of Russians learned their numbers. After leaving Voronezh she began studying under none less than the great Ilya Repin at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1900. Those who knew Repin well said that Kiselyova was one of Repin’s favorite pupils. By 1903 Kiselyova joined with another artist, Yevgenia Milashevskaya, to create a so-called dioramic painting entitled Peter I’s Assembly for the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Four years later she created the painting The Brides: Pentecost which was considered sufficient to grant her not only the official title of artist, but also to give her a stipend to go abroad and continue her studies in Paris. She was, according to one source, the first Russian woman to receive such an honor.
Not everyone was happy with what Kiselyova brought back with her from her travels. According to one detailed article about the artist, “She encountered the new trends and tendencies in painting of the early twentieth century, and when she returned to the Academy, she offered to the Council of academics a painting she had made in France, Parisian Cafe, as a sketch for her thesis. The work was not approved and received the following commentary – ‘while abroad, the young artist, instead of studying real works of art, began imitating screamers and blotters who only seek in some way to draw attention to themselves.‘”
Stung by the criticism, Kiselyova headed back to Paris where she lived from 1908 to 1910 (studying under Eugene Carriere and Rodolphe Julian) and then traveled in Italy in 1911. She participated in various exhibits, including Munich in 1909 and Rome in 1911.
In 1910 Kiselyova became the first woman admitted to the Society of Architects and Artists in St. Petersburg.
Kiselyova was, first and foremost, a painter of portraits. And what portraits she painted! One blogger posted 14 of her paintings, each one more delicious than the next. I am hardly alone in being mad about her Marusya (1913) where she lets colors run wild without ever letting them get out of control. But she is also a master of muted color and shading when she so chooses. When you come upon an artist this strong, with such a clear and powerful command of her art, you really are left wondering what it is you have been doing with your life. Maybe, as Randy Newman put it so bluntly in another context,  you’ve been doing it wrong.

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Kiselyova  waited out the Revolution in Odessa from 1917-1919 and then, in February 1920, when the Red Army began to draw near, she headed for Yugoslavia with her second husband, Anton Bilimovich, who received a job teaching at Belgrade University. They both took Yugoslavian citizenship in 1926. (Yugoslavia was then officially known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.) She exhibited her work in Belgrade from time to time, often at exhibitions of Russian emigre artists, but it would appear that painting interested Kiselyova less and less as the years went on.
Kiselyova had given birth to her only child, a son Arseny in 1917. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and was eventually released, a very sick man, in 1944. Kiselyova painted his portrait, Portrait of a Son on his Death Bed, after which Arseny died and Kiselyova apparently never painted again.
Voronezh, to its credit, did not let her memory die. In 1969 the city mounted a retrospective of 50 of her works in honor of her 90th birthday. It should be pointed out that 1969, following the crushed Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, could not have been an easy time to honor a native artist who had abandoned the Soviet Union nearly 50 years ago and had lived all that time in emigration – even if it was within the so-called Soviet bloc.
The plaque commemorating the years when Kiseylova studied art in Voronezh was unveiled October 11, 2006. They could easily have found a more accessible place to put it, but let’s be thankful for what we have. Were it not for this little piece of bronze, I surely would never have learned about Yelena Kiselyova.

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Mikhail Nesterov plaque, Moscow

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Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) seems to have belonged to two different eras entirely. He was a major painter before the 19th century had run out. His paintings were being acquired by the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) as early as the 1880s. And yet he lived until the early 1940s, well into the Soviet period. (He even won a Stalin Prize a year before he died, while two years before that, in 1938, he was arrested and held for two weeks before being released, while his son-in-law was shot and his daughter was sent to the labor camps.) If you love Russian mysticism and the Russian fairy-tale style (not only in fairy tales, but in mainstream culture as well), Nesterov is for you. I am a huge fan. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary collection of original Nesterovs just a few blocks from where I live. He provided the paintings and decorative art for the Marfo-Mariinskaya Convent whose address these days is 34 Bolshaya Ordynka Street. I stop by and admire his work there whenever I happen to be walking by, and at some point I’ll get around to making a post out of what I have seen. If you have never encountered Nesterov, you can get a crash course thanks to Google, which has collected a lot of his stuff in one place (with some other artists thrown in for no reason). Some might see similarities to the work of the pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They share a certain reverence for the world, a religiousness that might have pagan undertones, and a love of rich, deep colors. As a rule, before the Revolution Nesterov painted genre scenes, often with religious implications. After the Revolution he tended to paint more portraits, although they were as full of spirituality as anything he had painted before.
Although Nesterov was born in the far-flung city of Ufa, just west of the Southern Urals, he lived much of his adult life in Moscow. He traveled a lot, including Kiev and European capitals, but, still, Moscow was his primary home. He lived in the building pictured here – 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane – from 1920 until his death in 1942.

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Sivtsev-Vrazhek, on which Nesterov’s former home stands, is surely one of Moscow’s most culturally rich streets. It is connected with dozens and dozens of writers, artists, novels and such, from Leo Tolstoy to Mikhail Bulgakov, from The Master and Margarita to War and Peace. The name of the street is a combination of Sivets or Sivka, the name of a small river that used to run through this region of Moscow, and the word vrazhka, coming from the word ovrag, which means ravine. Nesterov lived at 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in an imposing building erected in 1906 by architect Grigory Oltarzhevsky. It looks like a home made especially for an artist, with its white columns, fanned window over the entrance and its bay windows here and there. As you can see in the final photo below, the building now stands in the shadows of the Russian Foreign Ministry, one of Moscow’s so-called “wedding cake” Stalinist buildings. The shadow cast by that building is long and heavy. It is an alien growth in this otherwise beautiful old neighborhood. It reminds me a little of the stills from Godzilla, with the Japanese monster towering over a modern metropolis. I’m not being facetious and I’m not trying to be metaphorical. I mean this all quite directly. Look again at that photo below and you will see how a wonderful old yellow, one-story building, probably from the late 18th century, fairly cowers in the shadow of the Ministry Monstrosity. Oh, I shouldn’t have allowed myself that last word…
“I avoided depicting the so-called great passions,” Nesterov reportedly said. “I preferred our quiet landscapes, an individual living a [rich] inner life. Here is a little Russian river; there a church. Everything is in its place, familiar, beloved. Ah, how I always loved our pitiful, senseless and great motherland!”

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Sergei Ivanov plaque, Moscow

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If you read this blog you have seen this building already. It came up awhile back when I wrote about the exquisite Soviet prose writer Yury Kazakov, who lived here. But this building at 30/3 Arbat was also home much earlier to the painter Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov. I provide Ivanov’s patronymic because there are numerous artists named Ivanov and even two or three others with the first name of Sergei. We’re talking about the Sergei Ivanov who was born in 1864 and died in 1910. He was a member of the influential and ever-popular group of artists called the Peredvizhniki, or the Wanderers or Itinerants, along with Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Surikov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Kramskoi, Valentin Serov, Isaak Levitan, Viktor Vasnetsov and other great landscape and narrative painters. He was always something of an upstart politically and socially, and it’s perhaps not surprising that he ended up quitting the prestigious Academy of Arts in Petersburg before finishing his education because, in part, he didn’t like the way the place was run. Ivanov was one of the founders of the Union of Russian Artists.
Different sources provide different titles for Ivanov’s first painting, but it’s clear he made an impact from the very beginning of his artistic career. One source, Russian painting, declares that Ivanov’s first canvas was “On the Road. The Death of a Migrant” (1889) and that it brought the artist immediate fame. Indeed it is a powerful piece showing a family in the middle of nowhere left destitute by the unexpected death of the head of the household. Russian Wikipedia goes back to 1883 and the painting “The Blind Ones” for the beginning. This is probably closer to the truth, referring to an early student work, while the reference to “On the Road” is probably to Ivanov’s first “professional” work. I’ll leave the bean-sorting to the experts and just point out this – both of these paintings are clearly intended to make moral and social statements. The shorthand here is that Ivanov was not one to turn a blind eye to injustice and the difficulties of the world in order to live out his life in art comfortably. Not surprisingly, I think, this remained a part of the artist’s personal makeup throughout his entire life. He was a witness to, and a participant in, a massacre of Moscow students by the police during the failed revolution of 1905. According to the Famous Russian Artists site, he attended to wounded students in the building of Moscow University. (See below for more on this.) This led to him painting one of his most famous late works, “The Execution,” a grimly laconic piece showing two bodies lying in the snow against an urban background. Ivanov never showed this painting to anyone during his lifetime and it was first publicly exhibited only in 1917.

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Uncharacteristically, the plaque honoring Ivanov says nothing about when he lived at this address. A bit of research gives us answers, however. The rather pink building you see here was erected as an apartment house in 1904 and we have references to people visiting Ivanov here as early as 1905. A site called Akademik lists all of Ivanov’s addresses in Moscow – Khilkov Lane, Plyushchikha, Ostozhenka and Arbat. Considering that Arbat is the last of the addresses named, and considering that the building Ivanov lived in went up only in 1904 and that he died in 1910, I think we’re relatively safe to say he was resident here from 1904 to 1910.  (Also living here at the same time was the prominent sculptor Sergei Konenkov – I’ll have to do something on him another time.) One of the sources putting Ivanov in this building in 1905 is Moscow University Professor Vladimir Kostitsyn, a participant in revolutionary activities in the early 20th century, who recalled leaving the scene of battles and “setting out for the Arbat, where I hoped that the artist S.V. Ivanov, who often did us big favors, would help me find Pavel Ivanovich Pervukhin, a member of the Mobilization Committee…”
I draw this last quote from Lev Kolodny’s book The Backstreets of the Arbat, which is available to be read for free on the internet. Here is part of a paragraph on Ivanov taken from this book:
“The students delegated the safety of the buildings at Moscow University to the artist [Ivanov] on the day of Nikolai Bauman’s funeral [i.e., late October- JF]. Ivanov was an eye-witness to the execution of young people returning from a political demonstration. As bullets whizzed around him, he transported the wounded to the university’s auditorium. We, his heirs, can see what that must have looked like in Ivanov’s paintings devoted to the First Russian Revolution. One is called ‘Auditorium of Moscow University, Transformed into a Hospital on the Night of October 20-21, another… is ‘The Execution.’

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Yevgeny Lanseré plaque, Moscow

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There is no honest way for me to start this little excursus about Yevgeny Lanceré (1875-1946) other than to quote a whole paragraph from Wikipedia (I keep Wiki’s rather funky spellings as well as their links):
“Lanceray was born in Pavlovsk, Russia, a suburb of Saint Petersburg.  He came from a prominent Russian artistic family. His father, Eugeny Alexandrovich Lanceray, was a sculptor. His grandfather Nicholas Benois, and his uncle Leon Benois, were celebrated architects. Another uncle, Alexandre Benois, was a respected artist, art critic, historian and preservationist. His great-grandfather was the Venetian-born Russian composer Catterino Cavos. Lanceray’s siblings were also heirs to this artistic tradition. His sister, Zinaida Serebriakova, was a painter, while his brother Nikolai was an architect. His cousin, Nadia Benois, was the mother of Peter Ustinov.”
Talk about genes.
I had never heard of Lanceré until I happened upon this plaque on the corners of Bobrov and Milyutinsky Lanes.  But the great Benois family, the great Zinaida Serebryakova, Peter Ustinov, for God’s sake…
So I did what I have often done before making other posts on this blog – I did a bit of armchair research. And, as I might say if I were writing this in Russian, I liquidated a bit of my own ignorance. I say only “a bit” because it turns out my ignorance in this case was embarrassingly prodigious.
Lanceré was associated with some of the most important people and movements in Russian art of his time. He exhibited and published with the famous World of Art group, he published his work in the Golden Fleece journal, and Sergei Daighilev included his work in at least one of this exhibitions in Paris (1906). As John Milner tells us in his wonderful A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, Lanceré created the poster for Diaghilev’s Exhibition of Historical Russian Portraits (1905).
The artist clearly had a severe case of wanderlust. Throughout his life he traveled to, and lived in, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Dagestan, Tbilisi, Petrograd and Ust-Krestishche near Pskov, to name a few of the places. After moving to Moscow in 1934 he created decorations for the Kazan Railway Station and the Moskva Hotel. I can’t help but wonder what happened to this latter work (he did paintings for the hotel’s restaurant) when the Moscow authorities barbarically reduced the entire hotel to rubble a decade or so ago in order to rebuild it from scratch. That was another of those horrible decisions of then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to “renew” Moscow by ripping down the old and then putting back up cookie-cutter imitation replacements.
Again, because I know nothing myself and am leaning entirely on the knowledge of others, allow me to quote this pithy description of Lanceré’s work pulled from a Russian Academic internet encyclopedia: “Lanceré’s talent was diverse, he created vignettes, letter fonts, architectural sketches, illustrations for fairy tales and plays, decorative panneaux and caricatures. His historical paintings were awash with a love for old Russia and exhibited a profound feeling for the era…”

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The building in which Lanceré lived from 1934 to his death in 1946 is not particularly striking, although it’s massive. It has had an interesting history. Construction was begun on it in 1917, just before the Revolution began. For that reason, construction was stopped while Russia figured out where it would go next. In the meantime, the unfinished building served as a hiding place for revolutionaries who famously attacked the post and telegraph office a block or two away. The building was completed only after the Russian Civil War concluded in roughly 1922. (I’m pulling this information from the fabulous mos.ru site about the history of Moscow buildings.) While living here the artist was primarily occupied with plans to create works in the so-called monumental style, although, we are told, very little of what he planned was actually completed. The panneaux at the Kazan Station are considered to be an example of what the artist was capable of, had he been able to do more. I don’t know whether Lanceré ran into problems for political reasons or not, but it is a fact that he lived in this building, which has since taken on his name as the Lanceré home, during the height of the Purges and the entire Second World War, not an easy time to put it mildly. He did win a Stalin Prize in 1943, for what it’s worth.
Today Lanceré’s grandson Yevgeny Lanceré, a contemporary artist, lives in the building. Immediately below is a shot of a former store or cafe entrance on the building’s western side that bears witness to the fact that it is associated with artists. Someone, perhaps leaning on Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” painting of a pipe, has scribbled into the whitewash the teasing words, “This is not a cafe. This is not a store window. This is not a door.”

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Vasily Kandinsky house, Moscow

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When I lived in Leningrad way-way-way back I had a personal relationship with architecture. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the Mojave Desert where most of my personal relationships were with lizards, tarantulas and cacti, and, when I ended up in a big city for the fist time in my life, I naturally had to find substitutes. Whatever the case may be, I truly learned to love buildings in Leningrad. The best of them have spirit and they can communicate.
Take this place I came upon today. I was out doing a bit of hunting with my camera, knowing in advance I would be shooting a few places, but also hoping I would find more than I had bargained for. And here it was – my surprise of the day – the Vasily Kandinsky building. How cool is that? The great abstractionist painter – posters of whose paintings, along with those of Chagall, graced my apartment walls as far back as the mid 1970s – lived here from 1915 to 1921.
The neighborhood is a good one, the Khamovniki region of Moscow. Leo Tolstoy had owned an estate just down the road a bit until 1901. As you can see from the photo immediately below, Kandinsky’s home was one of those imposing Moscow houses that went up in the last years before the Revolution. In fact, the whole place belonged to Kandinsky. More than that, Kandinsky is the one who had it built. According to Yelena Khorvatova’s blog, Kandinsky bought the land in 1913 with the purpose of erecting what in Russian is called an “income house,” or, as we would put in English, an apartment house. Kandinsky had lived in Germany since 1896 and upon returning home to Russia he presumably wanted to ensure he had some source of steady income. Fashions in painting come and go; people always need some place to live… He wasn’t thinking much at that moment about the fact that an as-yet unknown, unimagined and unimaginable government would come into being in just a couple of years and that one of the first things it would do would be to abolish private ownership of real estate…

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The entrance to the Kandinsky house is on what today is called Burdenko Street, but which was called Dolgy, or Long, Lane at the time the  structure was erected. That’s the street you see on the left immediately above. The address from that side of the building is No. 8. For the record, the address on this side of corner is No. 1 3rd Neopalimovsky Lane.
Kandinsky and his wife Anna, according to Anna herself, had a beautiful view of the Kremlin from their windows and the artist created at least two paintings of that view – “Zubovskaya Square and “Smolensky Boulevard.” You can see them, as well as a great photo of the building shortly after it was built, on Khorvatova’s blog. According to another site devoted to taking walks in Moscow, Kandinsky once wrote about Moscow in general: “Moscow – duality, complexity, extreme mobility, the clash and confusion of various external elements… Moscow is my artistic tuning fork.”
Unfortunately, this subtly attractive building is now rather lost in the chaos of Moscow’s urban clash and confusion. If you stand right up close to it, right there where Kandinsky would have walked as he entered and exited his “income house,” right there against the walls, inside of which he and his renters lived, you get a wonderful vibe. You sense the early 20th century, you have a feel for something that could inspire someone of Kandinsky’s ilk. But the further you step back from it, the more the subtle messages are lost in the hum and drum of modern Moscow. Khamovniki in general is a neighborhood in transition. It’s a fabulous district, filled with history. But the Soviet era did major damage to it. And the Putin era is now running roughshod over it, too, albeit with somewhat more attractive buildings. The Kandinsky house is doing the best it can to hold the fort, so to speak. To keep the neighborhood from wrack and ruin. But it is a tough job. It currently is surrounded by monstrous banks and government buildings that would suck the air out of any neighborhood. These days the place rather sticks out like a healthy thumb on a hand of broken fingers.

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