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Monuments and statues are often a compromise. By which I mean to say that we, as consumers of them, end up making compromises in order to live with them. The ideal, of course, is the brilliant work that you not only embrace, but are thrilled to encounter. Something that continues to inspire you long after you have walked away from it. I would argue that Leonty Usov’s monument to Anton Chekhov in Tomsk is one of those – a model for what a genuine monument is all about. (Keep in mind that many wanted Usov’s head for what he did to Chekhov, but this is my space here, not theirs. If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, look to your left and click either on the name Leonty Usov or Anton Chekhov.) The absolute nadir is the monument that you just cannot bring yourself to look at . Or, one that is so banal that you really don’t care if you look at it or not – it really doesn’t exist in your line of sight. (I guess I’d put Yury Dines’s statue of Pushkin in that category – again, find Dines on this site to see what I mean.)
Today we’re dealing with something in between. Call it a victory (the word ‘triumph’ would be too strong) of compromise. This is a statue of Marina Tsvetaeva created by Nina Matveeva for a small square next to 9 Borisoglebsky Lane in the general Arbat region of Moscow. It was unveiled Oct. 8, 2007, on the 115th anniversary of the poet’s birth. It stands directly across from the home in which Tsevetaeva lived at 6 Borisoglebsky Lane from 1914 to 1922. That home is now the Tsvetaeva Museum, and is an active cultural center which hosts, poetry readings, art exhibits and concerts. More about that another time.
The truth of the matter is that you are most likely to be disappointed when you encounter this likeness of Tsvetaeva. It’s not bad or off-putting in any way – it just… it just has something missing. It’s a big enough work in a relatively small city space, but it has no sense of volume or presence. The little square itself is rather haphazardly done, leaving the impression that maybe someone will come along some day and improve the environs. Or maybe the sculpture will be buried in the context of a redesigned square. That could happen, too.
The image of the poet pining while lost in her private thoughts, half-defending herself from our gaze with both of her hands, seems dismayingly cliched. Tsvetaeva had plenty of reasons to give herself over to melancholy. But as a poet she was muscular, bold and inventive. The words ‘cliche’ and ‘Tsvetaeva’ cannot possibly be used in the same phrase unless it is one like this – one that proclaims the impossibility of those notions standing side by side. As interesting and as compelling as Tsvetaeva’s difficulties may have been – she ultimately committed suicide at the age of 49 in 1941 – it is her extraordinary writing that makes her one of the leading figures of Russian literature of any era.
I don’t see any hints of the extraordinary in this sculpture. You get the draped clothing (although this can be justified historically, there was a period when Tsvetaeva was partial to floor-length dresses), that allows the sculptor not to have to create any complex detail. You get the pillar that just happens to be standing there, thus justifying the awkward positions of the arms. But most importantly, I find no passion, no real point of view in this work. It feels like the sculptor didn’t really care. There’s no humor, there’s no irony, there’s no attachment, there’s no pain; there’s virtually nothing that suggests we ought to care about the person depicted here, or that the person sculpting her cared.
The sculpture has a mute, vague resemblance to Tsvetaeva’s face, although I see this rendition as more generic than well-sculpted. The hair seems to get it right, that kind of pageboy cut was a style Tsvetaeva came back to often enough. The hair, which is a prominent aspect of this sculpture, is sufficient to tell us this is Tsvetaeva, but it is hardly enough to make us fall in love with Matveeva’s work.
As I have said, the predominant feeling one has is disappointment. You experience joy the first moment you realize you have come upon Tsvetaeva, but your excitement is quickly deflated when you realize that no real encounter has taken place.