Category Archives: Monuments to Theater Artists

Maya Plisetskaya monument, Moscow

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I will begin this little journey by grumbling. But this time, instead of grumbling at what I’m writing about, I’ll grumble at those who have grumbled at what I’m writing about. In short I think Viktor Mitroshin’s new monument to Maya Plisetskaya on Plisetskaya Square in Moscow is wonderful. I have read all kinds of nonsense about what is wrong with this statue, located between houses 6 and 12 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. It captures the great ballerina during a single, expressive moment in her famous performance of Carmen. I love that choice already. The obvious (read: cliched) choice would have been to put her in a classical tutu and picture her dancing Swan Lake or The Dying Swan. Then she would have looked like all other ballerinas on all their bronze and marble stands all over the world. But in choosing Carmen, Mitroshin emphasized not only Plisetskaya’s physical prowess, grace and beauty, he put a big exclamation point after character! Plistetskaya was a spit-fire right down to the end of her life in 2015 when she died at the age of 89. And she looks it here. This is a woman that’s going to mess with you. Whether you can handle it or not.
Maya Plisetskaya was born November 20, 1925, in Moscow. She died May 2, 2015, in Munich. She had lived in Germany most of the time since the Perestroika era. In fact, she spent several years growing up in Germany (1932-36), where her father worked, first as the head of a Soviet mining company, and then as the General Consul of the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1937 and shot in 1938; her mother Rakhila Messerer, a silent film actress, was arrested and exiled in 1938. To keep the state from sending Maya to an orphanage for children of enemies of the state, her aunt Sulamif Messerer, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre, adopted Maya. The influence of a tight, artistic family would surely have exerted itself on the young girl even without this development, but now the imprint of Sulamif’s profession clearly had every reason to be felt. In fact, Maya debuted as a dancer when she was around 15 or 16. It occurred while she and her family were in the city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg today) from 1941 to 1942 during evacuation from Moscow due to the war.  She joined the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater in 1943 and soon was dancing solo parts and taking on the role of prima ballerina.
Hers was an enormous, rich, eventful life, and I won’t even try to dig into that. Suffice it to say that some five years after her retirement from the Bolshoi (at age 65! – absolutely unheard of for a dancer), none less than Maurice Bejart created a show especially for her – Ave Maya – for her 70th birthday. The following year she danced The Dying Swan in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York.

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I saw Plisetskaya dance in Boston in – I believe it would have been 1987 or 1988. I was (and am) no ballet expert, but during a short stint in Washington, D.C., I frequently saw performances by Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov and others, so I had a certain grounding for good dance. I remember sitting in the hall at the old Opera House in downtown Boston and thinking that she was doing little more than moving gracefully around the stage – but with what extraordinary grace! The main piece in which she danced that night was in a ballet adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog,” with music written especially for Plisetskaya by her husband Rodion Shchedrin. I just dug into the net and found a clip of that very performance (not the Boston performance, of course, but of Lapdog). And there she is again, “not dancing,” but performing with astonishing grace, precision and feeling. Give the video a look.
The last time I saw her dance was at a concert on Red Square. It was 1992, at the first Red Square Invites! festival where she performed The Dying Swan. Oksana and I had great seats – fourth row – because I was covering the event for The Moscow Times. Here is a video of what we saw that night. Again, I must say it – what astonishing grace, elegance and precision. This is not anywhere even close to the norm for a dancer of her age. It is virtually unprecedented. Four years later – without me in attendance – she danced that part for the last time in her career.
Several years later I wrote a play and Plisetskaya emerged immediately as an inspiration. The play begins as a mother talks to her daughter about Plisetskaya and it ends as the daughter, alone, remembers her mother talking about Plisetskaya.
Plisetskaya is in no way, shape or form to blame for the fact that I could not stop myself from pointlessly adding still one more play to the world’s endless oceans of plays, but she, for, me, was a tuning fork throughout the writing of Dancing, Not Dead. Enough of that. I allow myself that little bit not to insert myself in this story, but to indicate the power of the effect Plisetskaya had on me.
A few words on the photos and the monument. If you look closely you may see something that looks like defects in the photos – blobs or streaks of white. That is just the way a fairly heavy snowfall was captured by my camera. As for the monument itself – look at those gorgeous arms, hands, legs. Look at the sassy sway of the dress. Look at the dark, hard eyes and the tight, determined mouth. Look at the sway of the back. Look at that crazy flower on her head. Look at how all of it strains upward into the sky. I’m telling you, the whole thing is beautiful.
If I’m going to grumble a bit, I might suggest that the sculptor didn’t spend enough time thinking about the base on which his fabulous Plisetskaya dances. It’s very clunky, a big rock half-hidden by a bronze drape. I give it a minus, but I give such huge pluses to everything else it just doesn’t matter in the end. I also, as a parting comment, want to say that I love the muted colors. First of all, they don’t try to compete with the gorgeous mural that stands beside the monument (I’ll write about that another time), nor do they try to conjure up the fiery red and midnight black that were Plisetskaya’s costume in Carmen. As for Carmen, I won’t bother to link to videos. Just go to YouTube and search “Plisetskaya Carmen.” You won’t get anything done for the next hour or so.

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Karandash the Clown monument, Moscow

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Not a good day to sit down and write. I’m doing this for the wrong reason. My apologies to the great Soviet clown Karandash, or, Karan d’Ash (given name Mikhail Rumyantsev) for dragging him into a battle that has absolutely nothing to do with him. But today, on the day that my native nation elected a so-called clown and showman (small letters) to be its leader for the next four years, I can only write about a genuine Clown and Showman.
Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901 – 1983) was born in St. Petersburg and began his young adult life as an artist drawing and painting posters for theaters and then the circus. But it was Moscow and the still very new art form of cinema that would change Rumyantsev’s life. Let me turn this pivotal moment over to a source that has put it as well and succinctly as possible:
In 1925 Rumyantsev moved to Moscow where he began drawing posters for the film industry. But 1926 was the year that changed the young artist’s life when he saw up-close Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Like them, Rumyantsev resolved to become an actor. After taking lessons in stage movement in 1926, he entered a school for the circus arts in a class that educated eccentric acrobats. By 1930 he successfully graduated from the circus school and began working as a circus artist.”
In his earliest years Rumyantsev imitated Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp but pretty much gave that up after a few years. Whether by instinct or by good advice, he quickly realized that imitation was not the proper road to real success. He began working as a clown in Leningrad in 1935. It was at this time he came up with his own persona and the pseudonym by which he would be known for the rest of his life – Karan d’Ash, or, Karandash (which means “pencil” in Russian). He then jumped to the Moscow Circus the following year, in 1936. This was the moment when the last stroke of his stage character came together – in addition to his ill-fitting, over-sized suit, his cane and his frumpy hat, Karan d’Ash added a little fox terrier to his act. The Karan d’Ash character was a clumsy, good-natured, star-crossed, half-unaware bumbler who constantly got into trouble no matter what he did. There are quite a few videos of him on the internet. If you’re interested you can begin with this one of him stumbling around in a park and work from there.
Karan d’Ash was not only a wildly popular performer (he starred in several short films and he and his dog were the subject of an animated film), he was a true artist and a renowned teacher. Other great clowns served under his tutelage, including the equally great Yury Nikulin. It is said that his demeanor outside of the ring resembled his dopey, endearingly silly stage image in virtually no way at all. He was sharp as a tack, a stickler for detail (as every comedian and every circus artist must be) and a severe task master for anyone working for him and his act. These, of course, are traits that separate a Clown from a clown.

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The small statue pictured here of the diminutive Rumyantsev-Karandash stands outside the building where he once lived and where the headquarters for the Union of Circus Performers is located today. The address is 12 Yefremov St., Building 2, not far from the Frunzenskaya metro stop. The statue was created by Vyacheslav Dolgov and was unveiled in 2008. I can’t say the location suits the work well. The cheap facade, obviously slapped on an older building in some recent time, has a fake quality that clashes with the attempt to paint a loving portrait of the beloved Clown. Small in size – in order to maintain a certain realism, I presume (Rumyantsev stood all of 4 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall) – the statue is almost lost against the backdrop of the crass red doors of the Circus Union, a pedestrian railing and a potted plant. The tiles on which the sculpture stands are the exact same tedious ones that were put in all over Moscow en masse in one fell swoop a few years ago by a construction company belonging to the wife of the then-Moscow mayor. Gee, wonder how her company got that order? Just lucky, I guess.
Speaking of luck, the right thumb of this statue of Karan D’Ash is said by tradition to be good luck if you rub it. As you can see in the last photo in the block above, a lot of people figure nothing can be lost by trying the old rub-that-finger thing. Had I thought of it in time, prior to the latest American presidential election, I would have gone and rubbed that thumb madly as if it were a magic lantern. I would have rubbed it until the skin came off my palms. It’s too late now.
Many have called the American President-elect a clown. I beg to differ. A Clown is a higher calling. A Clown like Karan d’Ash is a national treasure, a great artist who does his people proud. The soon-to-be American president elect is no Clown; he is an unthinking, insensitive, corrupt, lying, cheating individual who – at the very best – will give us all a bad name for a very long time. Would that this were the least damage we and our friends and loved ones will suffer. I have done what I could to salvage the epithet of Clown for today. My repeated apologies to Karan d’Ash for dragging him into this. But I suggest everyone beware of the buffoon who soon plans to masquerade as the President of the United States.

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Voronezh

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I have hesitated to post these photos for some time. Every time I look at them in my archive, I lean my head to one side, hold it there a minute, then pass by. These were the first photos I took in Voronezh when I was in that very cool city about a year ago. The monument to beloved actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) is located just a stone’s throw from the Voronezh Chamber Theater where my wife Oksana and I were staying on a short working visit. We went out to have breakfast at one of the few cafes open early Sunday morning and happened upon Vysotsky. I shot him on an empty stomach, could that be part of the problem?
In fact, I am hardly the first person to have questions about this statue created by Maxim Dikunov and unveiled Sept. 9, 2009 in front of the Physical Education Institute at 59 Karl Marx Street. Everywhere you run into snide comments that Vysotsky, who died of drink and did anything but lead a so-called “healthy life,” does not belong in front of this institution. There are more complaints that Vysotsky, apparently, was never in Voronezh. None of this bothers me in the least.
I am, however, of two minds about the sculpture itself. My first reaction was that it was kitsch, although an interesting bit of kitsch. It’s not down on the rather gross level with the Vysotsky-Marina Vlady statue in Yekaterinburg. And if you think about the Moscow statue that stands at the corner of Strastnoi Boulevard and Petrovka, you begin to realize that there seems to be a problem in Russia with depicting one of its most popular heroes of the last half-century.
I don’t like the slickness of this likeness in Voronezh. It’s too shiny and buffed and glossy. It’s almost as if the sculptor never really bothered to listen to Vysotsky’s voice, or watch clips of him move on stage at the Taganka Theater. I’m confused about the facial expression. I can’t quite decide if he’s suffering from hemorrhoids or if he’s just hiding some secret from us.  The turned-around chair shouldn’t be a problem (in art you can do whatever you can get away with), but in the context – the gloss, the grin, the weird left hand, the guitar wielded more as Peter Townshend might than Vysotsky (for whom the guitar most of the time was just a prop on which he plunked out of tune) – this whole ensemble has an uncomfortable look. As I walked around, and as I look at the pictures I brought home with me, I find myself wriggling my shoulders and hips and elbows trying to shake out a sensation of awkwardness.
But there is a test that all sculptures and monuments have to pass (or not): the test of “do you want to go back and look?” And, I must say, during my three days in Voronezh, I came back here several times. I even photographed it a second time, wondering if I might find some new angles (I didn’t). And as I walked past it each time, I sensed the human quality of the statue. I might bicker with it as an image, but its ability to reach me on a personal, human level was undeniable. I get that same feeling when I look at the photos here, no matter how much I want to gripe about them.

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Meanwhile, the sculpture is passing a pretty interesting test over at Trip Advisor. Random people go on there and comment on the monument. As of this writing, twenty-one people have expressed their opinion. And wouldn’t you know – most are in favor of it. Maybe there’s some supportive trolling going on, but I can’t know that. I just see things like, “a very worthy piece of work”; “The reaction of locals was complex – after all Vysotsky was never in Voronezh – but the sculpture is interesting”; “I’ve seen monuments to Vysotsky in Rostov, Volzhsky and Sochi, but I thought the one in Voronezh was the best”; “Excellent work by the sculptor!” and so on.
Among the negative responses one catches my eye because part of me feels the same thing: “This sculpture scares you off more than it  makes a positive impression.”
As for the topic of whether Vysotsky was ever in Voronezh, there are rumors that he hung out at someone’s private party there in the 1960s. There is also talk that he once gave a closed concert for approximately 100 spectators at the city’s Green Theater near Dynamo Park. In any case, that is what one website tells us as it tries to find five things that attach the memory of Vysotsky to Voronezh. Another connection is the fact that a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s poems/lyrics circulated in August 1980 before an official publication of his work was ever printed. We can also add that a group at the Voronezh State Pedagogical University has hosted an annual “Vysotskiana” conference ever since 1988. Oh, yes, and there is a tiny street, hardly more than a couple of blocks, that is named after Vysotsky on the east side of town across the Voronezh Reservoir.
The upshot, of course, is that the connections are thin, indeed. Although, what does that mean? I saw a very cool statue of Shakespeare in Budapest, and what the hell, other than influence, connects the Bard to Budapest? Of course, that’s the point: Vysotsky’s influence on his and all later generations, all over Russia and the Soviet Union, was huge. Ergo: there is every reason for the folks in Voronezh to want to honor him. As to whether this particular monument is fully successful in doing that, let’s leave that question open for the time being.

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Anna Pavlova statue, London

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This may be one of the curioser monuments I have written about. I use Alice’s diction because this statue honoring the great Russian-born ballerina Anna Pavlova, rather like Alice, disappeared for many a year before making its return in 2006.
Why Pavlova and why the Victoria?
Well, it’s a rather long story that begins around 1832 when a hotel and tavern were built on this spot. It was turned into the Royal Standard Music Hall in 1850 which was then demolished and rebuilt a couple of times. We are interested in the year 1911 when the new owner Alfred Butt engaged the architect Frank Matcham  to build the fabulous new Victoria Palace Theatre here for the princely sum of ₤12,000. In honor of Pavlova, whose first London performances were produced by Butt, the impresario erected a gilded statue on a pedestal atop the theatre’s cupola. Pavlova, who began her career in St. Petersburg and danced a short while with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Europe, left Russia and settled in England in 1912. Thereafter she traveled the world tirelessly, bringing truly great ballet to places that had never seen it, including Australia and South America. She often performed in concert-like revues, the likes of which would have been popular at Butt’s Victoria Palace.
If several websites are to be trusted, Pavlova so hated the idea of the statue on top of the theatre that she refused ever to look at it. So did it offend her superstitious nature that she insisted on closing the curtains in her cab whenever she would pass by.
Really? Not just one little peek? One little drawback of the curtains, just once?
The original statue, created, as far as I can determine, by the architect Matcham, stood atop the theatre for 28 years. It was still there even as Pavlova, who was born in 1881, died of pleurisy while on tour in The Hague in 1931.  She was three weeks short of her 50th birthday at the time. The story is that doctors said she would not survive without an operation, but they added that she would never dance again should she agree to surgery. Famously, she told her doctor, “If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead.” And die she did, shortly thereafter.
When World War II began in 1939, fears of what might happen to the statue during a bombing raid caused it to be removed from the top of the Victoria Palace Theatre – and it was promptly lost. Or, at least, it was by the end of the war. I rather like a comment on one web page devoted to the statue: “It is not known whether it is in someone’s garden or was turned to wartime military use, such as bullets.” The latter sounds more probable, but the former is more intriguing.
The Victoria stood forlorn, without its gilded decoration for 63 years, when, in 2006, the sculptor Hary Franchetti was commissioned to create a replica of the original. He did so based on a photo or photos of the original.

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As for Anna not wanting to see the statue, in fact, she would have had a hard time catching even a passing glimpse of herself. You can see from the longer shots here that the statue is anything but readily visible. What you see first are rays of sun glinting off of it as you approach from the direction of Buckingham Palace. It’s only when you approach the building, and when you train a zoom lens on the golden object up there, that you really begin to see the statue.
This entire area, not only the space where many theatres have stood, seems to have a tradition of reconstruction, and that is surely being honored these days. Everything around Victoria Station (for the Victoria Palace stands directly across from the great railway station) is an utter and total mess at present. You can’t get anywhere without detouring four or five times. Long tunnels of construction pathways guard your head and body as you meander through mazes of cross-paths. Cranes, construction sites and scaffolding tower over your head at every step. Signs with arrows pointing every which-way make it fairly certain that you have no idea where to go to get anywhere. The theatre itself is blocked off by construction and I never did figure out how to approach it. It is up and working, however, so some people are figuring that out. It is the home to Billy Elliot the Musical, and has been since 2005.
The Pavlova statue is frustrating, though intriguing. The reality is that you really cannot see it. Not in any detail, anyway. Even if all the construction were to disappear overnight, you would still be very, very far away, no matter how close you come to the theatre. It is said that the statue is approximately twice life size. For one, like me, who wandered around peering up at the statue from various angles for at least a half an hour, that comes as astonishing news. One thinks of the statue as a tiny, toy-like thing. Sure, you understand it’s not a toy way up there, but I was not the least prepared to hear that it is twice life size.
As any source that knows its dance can tell you, the statue depicts Pavlova in a classical tutu while standing in the arabesque position.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about that:
In dance (particularly ballet), arabesque (French: [aʁabɛsk]; literally, ‘in Arabic fashion’) is a body position in which a dancer stands on one leg (the supporting leg) with the other leg (the working leg) turned out and extended behind the body, with both legs held straight. In classical ballet, an arabesque can be executed with the supporting leg en pointe or demi pointe or with foot flat on the floor.”
If you wish see the statue for yourself, the official address is: Victoria Palace, Victoria Street, London, SW1E 5EA. Or just find Victoria Station, turn around in the other direction and look up. That is assuming they haven’t erected a new skyscraper since I was there.

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Yevgeny Vakhtangov statue, Moscow

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These days students coming and going at the Vakhtangov Theater’s Shchukin Theater Institute at 10 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane in Moscow’s Arbat region pass under the gaze of the spiritual founder of their institution. That has been true since October 13, 2014, when a small crowd gathered in the school’s courtyard to attend the unveiling of a new statue honoring Yevgeny Vakhtangov, one of the great directors of the pre- and post-revolutionary period in Russia. I am sad to say the ranking official that day was Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, an odious, anti-culture figure, whom Russia will spend years, if not decades attempting to forget. Mark my word. But he was not the only person there that day, thank goodness, so we can also point out the presence of the great Konstantin Raikin, Alexander Shirvindt, Vasily Lanovoi and other first-rank actors who graduated from Shchuka, as the institute is referred to colloquially.
Speaking to the crowd, Raikin declared, “In the very difficult conditions of a totalitarian regime, Yevgeny Vakhtangov coined a phrase, ‘fantastic realism.’ With his inclination for exaggeration, for theatrical poetry, he, nonetheless, was able to preserve the world ‘realism,’ which was required as a kind of password for what was permissible.”
Actually, Raikin pushed it a bit, because Vakhtangov (1883-1922) was dead before the restriction of cultural activity became Soviet policy. Raikin is, hereby, to be entirely exonerated, however, for I have little doubt he was less interested in historical veracity than in poking Medinsky in the ribs for this clueless bureaucrat’s often oppressive actions. Interestingly, Medinsky’s most notorious action to date, the destruction of Timofei Kulyabin’s much-admired production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, had not yet been foisted on us at this moment. That was to come just a month later.
This statue, which stands a good eight-to-ten feet tall (including the pedestal), is interesting for its sense of smallness, even petiteness. Sculptor Alexei Ignatov made Vakhtangov bigger than life, but gives us a full sense of Vakhtangov’s delicate build.
Ignatov also spoke at the unveiling and here is what he had to say, according to the same report, from which I already quoted on the Vakhtangov Theater website: “This monument has a very interesting fate. At first we thought we would erect it as a home statue, but then it became evident it was a people’s statue, and that it wouldn’t be possible to hide from people.”
Now, frankly, I haven’t the vaguest notion what Ignatov is talking about. Maybe you had to be there. Ignatov is identified in all the reports of the unveiling as a “young sculptor” who graduated from the Grekov Studio of Military Artists. I had no idea such a place existed, but you might keep that in mind when you read the penultimate sentence in this post…

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Vakhtangov’s fame is rather astonishing, considering his extremely short career. He died at the age of 29, having staged just a handful of productions. But his reputation as a brilliant pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and the huge influence of the shows he did stage, placed him in the pantheon of Russia’s greatest theater artists. He is always mentioned right along with the other great names of the age – Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. Vakhtangov began collaborating closely with Stanislavsky in 1911; he then was working methodically (initiates will get the pun) on his acting system. Vakhtangov was one of several young actors who functioned as guinea pigs for the great man’s research. He worked in, and helped to found, the Art Theater’s 1st and 3rd Studios. As an actor he particularly shone in the famous production of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth at the 1st Studio.  He also worked at many other theaters and clubs and cabarets around Moscow, including the Jewish Habima Studio, attracting the attention and respect of many important Russian cultural figures, including Alexander Blok and Maxim Gorky. His most famous productions included Maeterlinck’s The Miracle of St. Anthony (first version 1917, second version 1921), Ibsen’s  Romersholm (1918), Strindberg’s Erik XIV (1921), Ansky’s The Dybbuk (1922) and Gozzi’s Princess Turandot (1922). The production of Turandot was, and remains, a cornerstone of what officially became the Vakhtangov Theater, when the 3rd Studio was renamed for the deceased director in 1926. Turandot, featuring its umpteenth cast, and having gone through numerous recalibrations over the years, is still to be found in the theater’s active repertoire.
The last day of rehearsals of Turandot was the last day Vakhtangov set foot in a theater. His stomach ulcers had advanced to such a degree that he was wracked with pain. For details I offer parts of an interesting account on a site called Ask Alyona. Biography:
“Vakhtangov hurried to complete his production, working day and night. The last day of rehearsals was Feb. 24, 1922. He was in very bad shape. He sat in a fur coat, his head wrapped in a wet towel. At four a.m. the lighting had been set and Yevgeny Bagrationovich shouted out: ‘The whole performance, from beginning to end!’
After the rehearsal, he was taken home in a carriage. He never came back to the theater. […] Turandot was shown to Stanislavsky and the Art Theater team on Feb. 27. […] ‘In the 23 years of the Art Theater’s existence,’ Stanislavsky said, addressing the company, ‘we have had few such accomplishments. You have discovered what many theaters have sought so long in vain.’ [Vakhtangov’s] health took a turn for the worse on May 24. He no longer recognized family members, became disoriented because of the morphine, and imagined himself a military commander… Vakhtangov died on Monday, May 29, 1922, at 10 a.m.”

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Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky monument, Moscow

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Unless you’re “reading” this monument in Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Hebrew or Yiddish, the first man you see here is Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. It appears to be a bit of an effort to up the director and playwright’s status. Everybody knows Konstantin Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater; not everybody knows that he did it with Nemirovich-Danchenko, a slightly older man who wrote a lot of workmanlike, traditional plays that were pretty much forgotten once they appeared at the end of the 19th century. Stanislavsky is the star, the “author” of “The System,” the great innovator and modernizer of theater in the 20th century, the discoverer of Anton Chekhov’s genius as a playwright. It’s pretty hard to overestimate Stanislavsky’s place in history. He kind of wears a halo. I think it’s fitting that in the photo immediately below it’s Nemirovich-Danchenko who has something like a halo hovering over his head, thanks to the latest snowfall shortly before I took these pictures. Still, in the description of the monument, the names chiseled in stone below the likenesses, the historical hierarchy is maintained. The letters proclaim simply: “To Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko.” Stanislavsky is back out in front.
There are all kinds of reasons to give oneself over to cynicism and satire with anyone as famous and mythical as the founders of the Art Theater. There is the legend of their not speaking to one another over the last couple of decades of their “collaboration.” Mikhail Bulgakov lampooned that beautifully in his Theatrical Novel, often known in British English as Black Snow. There are the stories of Stanislavsky later in his life being caught by people entering his office as he played on the floor under the table and muttered to himself as he continued to search for new keys to the acting profession. There is the reality that the books which made Stanislavsky’s reputation in the West only partly corresponded to what he really wrote in his Russian originals. My colleague Sharon Carnicke wrote a great book about that called Stanislavsky in Focus.
So, yes, there’s plenty to laugh at and to be confused by in the story of the work these two men did. But, hey, what have you done for world history lately? There may be a lot of nonsense, confusion and misinformation out there because of the Moscow Art Theater. But it has long been the theater of the world. It is ground zero for the dramatic art. It is to dramatic theater what La Scala is to opera. The place. I have seen famous, would-be famous and rank amateur actors, directors and writers from all over the world stand with seeming lockjaw before the walls of the Art Theater. Brain freeze. My God, is this really the place? Am I really here?
And for all of that it was not until the fall of 2014 that somebody in Moscow saw fit to unveil a monument to the two men who dreamed the Moscow Art Theater up and then brought it to fruition, sacrificing their friendship to do so.
According to the website of the Russky Mir Foundation, the monument was created by Alexei Morozov and unveiled Sept. 3, 2014: “Alexei Morozov worked on the monument in Italy for two years. The statuary group was cast in bronze in the city of Pietrasanta, the world capital of bronze casting. The pedestal was created in Verona using the most modern technologies in the field of multi-axis stone processing.”

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Ah yes, justice done. For a moment, anyway. I was at home the day the unveiling took place and the tongues began to wag almost instantly on the internet. Why do the two founders of the Art Theater stand with their backs turned to: 1) the theater itself (photo immediately above), 2) to Anton Chekhov (photo immediately below), who now looks terribly forlorn as if he has been shunted off into a dark corner to do penance. There was talk about the way Morozov made the pedestal lower beneath Stanislavsky so that he could make Nemirovich-Danchenko stand slightly higher than his more famous comrade. There were questions about just about everything one can question – taste, veracity, intent and timing. Within hours of the monument being unveiled it seemed to be that the chatty internet sphere had already chewed the statue up and spat it out.
Most of that is gerbil talk, of course. But I must admit that when I first came upon the statue I was underwhelmed, too. I wanted to be able to talk back to the naysayers, but I found myself circling the sculpture looking for something to hang onto and not quite finding it. It’s big, I’ll give it that. You can see that by comparing it to people walking by in these photos. But the two men – great men, let’s wipe off the sarcasm for a moment – look quite generic. I see no character in Stanislavsky – I see a certain justifiable resemblance. Nemirovich looks a little more interesting, perhaps, but then I say that and look at him again and I realize he looks like a Roman senator and that can’t be right.
From behind, at least at night, the ensemble is swallowed by the harsh glare of capitalistic, technologically-advanced Moscow. As big and important as these two men are for Russian culture, they drown in illuminated pixels and chaotic traffic when seen from behind.
I’ve written about plenty of great monuments on this blog that were ridiculed when unveiled and later recognized to be masterpieces. Who knows, maybe that will happen here, too, in time. As yet, however, it hasn’t.

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Moscow

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Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.

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I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.

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