Category Archives: Painters’ and Artists’ Homes

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.

 

 

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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Leonid Pasternak home, Oxford UK

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Everybody kept telling me, “it’s on the Crescent, but I don’t know exactly where.” That wasn’t doing me any good. I had no idea what a crescent was, at least in the local lexicon. It obviously meant something very specific. I only had two days to find it – and, in fact, I didn’t even have close to two days. I had a few hours spread out over a few days. I was busy at a conference that was running pretty much all the time I was in Oxford. I could only get away in the morning and, briefly, at meal breaks. But I wasn’t having any luck. I had a host of friends and colleagues telling me, “Oh, yeah, it’s right around here somewhere. You’ve been walking by it on your way to Wolfson. You’ve seen the Park Town sign?” Yes, I had seen the Park Town sign. I just saw it 20 minutes ago. “Well, it’s right there somewhere.”
“Somewhere” wasn’t good enough for me. I needed a photo. I needed a couple. I needed them to be specific and right. You can’t post a photo of just any old thing and say, “this is somewhere near what I’m talking about.” You need to know. And time was running out. In less than 24 hours I had a flight back to Moscow. In five minutes the next conference session would begin and then I’d be busy well into the dark night and my quest would be in vain. But sometimes little miracles happen.
What I am talking about is the apartment at 20 Park Town in Oxford where Leonid Pasternak lived for years and died in 1945. Leonid was Boris’s father. Everybody knows Boris because of Doctor Zhivago, in the English-speaking world anyway. They should probably know him for his poetry, because he was a great poet long before he wrote a novel that would win him the Nobel Prize. But that’s being rather picky. Especially when poetry translates about as well as a mud pie. This, by the way, is a word of warning to all you ambitious poets out there – write a novel, too, before you’re done. It’ll make it easier for people to find your poems.
But I was in search of Leonid, not Boris. Leonid was a marvelous painter, impressionistic in his often slightly blurred, dimly-colored images. But his drawings, I suspect, are what really set him apart as a major artist of his time. In his drawings he somehow maintains his impressionistic gaze while also bringing a paradoxical clarity to whatever his subject may be. Moreover, his drawings, especially, preserve for us a living glance at some of the great figures of his time – he drew portraits of Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. That is to say nothing of the enormous series of portraits and paintings he did of Boris from his childhood into his adult years. Many of these works, incidentally, are still held, and occasionally exhibited, at the Pasternak residence in Park Town.

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I was not giving up, although there was every reason to do so. I simply had no time left, and there was no reason to think that, in 25 minutes’ time, I would be running around outside Pasternak’s apartment, photographing it from various angles. But, again, it was my friend, the translator Oliver Ready, who tossed out some last-minute information that gave me flickering hope that I might yet solve this self-imposed riddle. Now I needed the internet to check it, and, sure enough, sitting right in my line of sight was Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire, a translator of Olga Mukhina’s play Tanya-Tanya, whom I had just met. She was sitting with her computer open, dabbling around online. I raced to her, we plugged the new information in and – voila! – up came the address, 20 Park Town, Leonid Pasternak. I grabbed my coat and away I ran. I hated to miss the beginning of a panel devoted to Noah Birksted-Breen’s production of a documentary play called Grandchildren: The Second Act by Mikhail Kaluzhsky and Alexandra Polivanova, but there was no stopping me now. I trotted through the drizzling rain back to Park Town and took a couple of shots of the street sign. That was just in case I still couldn’t find the place I was looking for. I peered in at every address on every house, waiting to see that number 20 I was looking for. I was still a long way off. And then the street took a brief jog to the left and, once again – voila! – there it was! Now I knew what they all meant by “the crescent.” There stood a handsome pair of two long buildings that wrap in a curve around a small park between them. The addresses on one side are all odd numbers, the addresses on the opposite side are all even – and there was number 20, not quite in the middle of the building on my right. I had to play hooky to find it, but as anybody, anywhere knows, that only made my success all the sweeter.
Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) was born Yitzhok-Leib Pasternak in Odessa. In that kind of thrashing way that seems to suit artists, he studied medicine and then law before dropping both of them in favor of art. His first exhibited painting was purchased by none other than the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) and he was quickly accepted into a prestigious circle of major painters, including Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and others. He married the promising pianist Rosa Kaufman in 1889 and the young couple welcomed their first child Boris the following year. (See my blogs on the Tretyakov Gallery and on Boris Pasternak’s birthplace on this blogsite.) Pasternak went to Germany in 1921 for an eye operation but chose not to return to Russia. Anticipating danger in Berlin, Pasternak traveled to England in 1938, ending up at this address of 20 Park Town that I had to scramble so to find in such a short period of time.

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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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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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Anna Golubkina home, Moscow

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It’s curious what it takes sometimes to learn something. I essentially knew nothing about the sculptor Anna Golubkina until a friend of my wife began working on a film that was/is to be set in the Golubkina house museum in Moscow. Then I started hearing fascinating stories after every call Oksana’s friend would make to her to discuss what they were going to do. Golubkina (1864-1927) is considered the first important Russian woman to do sculpture. Her work puts her among the first rank of all Russian sculptors. I was particularly fascinated to learn that she had studied with Rodin. She replaced Camille Claudel as his assistant in 1897 and remained with him for about three years. According to Wikipedia, Rodin “requested her work on the hands and legs of his sculptures.” I think I’m amazed as anything by the fact that Golubkina is another of those relatively frequent Russian natural talents. Growing up in a strictly religious home, she was not sent to school, but was taught the basic elements of literacy at home. When a  local art teacher in her home town near Ryazan suggested she study art in Moscow, she was already at the ripe age of 25. And then comes another of those marvelous moments you just have to love. Again, I’ll let Wikipedia take over for me: “In 1889 she took entrance exams for Otto Gunst’s Classes for Elegant Arts, an architecture school. Having no formal education, she failed some exams; but an examiner, sculptor Sergey Volnukhin, challenged other examiners to name a sculptor able to produce anything like her ‘Praying old woman.’ He convinced them not only to admit Anna, but to waive her tuition as well.” One Russian biography describes Golubkina as being headstrong, unsure of her own powers, prideful to the point of being arrogant, and quite modest.  What a wonderful combination for an artist!

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Moscow Art Theater junkies know Golubkina’s work whether they realize it or not. It is her sculpture, “The Wave,” that hangs over the entrance to the theater’s small stage. She did several sculptural portraits of  major writers, including Andrei Bely, Alexei Remizov, Alexei Tolstoy and Lev Tolstoy. Golubkina met the latter Tolstoy in 1903 and, as was her wont, she gave him some straight talk, telling him outright that she did not share many of his views. So forceful was she in her manner that when she came back to see the great writer, his wife Sofya Andreyevna  told her that Lev Nikolayevich was sick and could not receive visitors. Many years later, in 1926, when she was creating her famous bust of Tolstoy, she said, “Tolstoy is like the sea. But he has eyes like a hounded wolf.” Golubkina left an unfinished wooden sculpture of the poet Alexander Blok when she died in 1927. In that same year her Moscow apartment on Bolshoi Levshinsky Pereulok (Lane) was turned into a “museum house,” setting a precedent for many such museums that subsequently appeared in the Soviet era. In the photo below you can see the balcony extending from the back side of Golubkina’s apartment. It is said she would come out here and chat with many of her writer friends who lived in the next building over. Golubkina suffered from severe rheumatism for much of her adult life and it often interfered with her work. Most often she is considered an impressionist or a modernist. She always considered herself a student of Rodin. She was sympathetic to the Revolution when it took place, although relatively early on she began to refuse to collaborate with the government in protest against its executions of “enemies.”

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