Tag Archives: Maximilian Voloshin

A school for art and artists, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn8177 dscn8175

Today this building at Prechistenka 32 in Moscow  houses two children’s schools – one for music (the left half, if you stand facing the facade) and the other for fine art (the right half). Surely there are many well-known contemporary artists and performers who have emerged from these premises. I don’t know any of them. What I can say is that when this was the Polivanov Gymnasium (high school) from 1868 to 1917,  it counted among its students at various times the future philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), and the future poets Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) and Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932). I know that because of a small plaque that hangs on the wall under the eaves of the left side of the structure. That in itself is enough to send us looking for stories that may lay hidden here.
There are, however, two other reasons that make this place special in the history of Russian culture. In the mid-1990s a small hall in the left wing served as the stage for two very important theater productions. The first, transpiring in 1993, was the performance of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky, staged by and starring the matinee idol Oleg Menshikov, and produced by the brand new Bogis agency. Bogis (the name has nothing to do with “God – Bog,” but is an acronym of the two women who founded the agency – Galina BOGolyubova and Larisa ISaeva) would become a leader in quality, non-state funded theater in the coming years. The second was Olga Mukhina’s Tanya-Tanya, directed by Pyotr Fomenko in early 1996 for the new, as-yet homeless, Fomenko Studio.
Tanya-Tanya was a landmark in Russian drama and theater. This was a time when no critic, journalist, director, actor or any wo/man on the street would ever have dared to think that a new play was of any interest to anyone. It was the mantra of the age; silly and ignorant, but all-powerful. Tanya-Tanya, however, blew a hole in that wall of darkness. Almost everyone suddenly loved a new play. The Fomenko Studio, already popular with hip, young audiences in Moscow, was raised several notches higher in the pecking order of the capitol’s top theaters, Fomenko himself – a well-known director in his 60s who suddenly could do no wrong – was splashed with more of the gold dust that would soon turn him into a living legend. Mukhina was celebrated as the first and greatest playwright of modernity. The young actors in the Fomenko company, already minor stars, fit Mukhina’s restless, charmingly aimless young characters so perfectly and so convincingly that their own canonization as great performers of their time was advanced several more steps.
The famed notion of “New Russian Drama” would not come about for another five or six years. But when it did, it and its proponents had Mukhina and Tanya-Tanya to thank for the interest it accrued. After the success of Tanya-Tanya, other playwrights and new plays began making inroads into the public consciousness. Directors who had scorned them began seeking them out. Actors who had not wanted to perform in them began asking for them. Audiences suddenly seemed to realize what a bore it was to do nothing but watch plays in which you knew in advance every turn of the night’s coming action, and they began clambering for new plays. This led to a ground swell that came together as the tsunami now known as Russia’s new drama.
The first droplet of that ground swell took place right here in this building. The rather modest door you see immediately below is what separated our past from our future on those cold January/February nights when Tanya-Tanya opened.

dscn8180 dscn8181 dscn8179 dscn8188

One detail needs to be added to this story, a true one that has become obscured by mythology over time. Nowadays, everyone speaks without blinking about Fomenko’s brilliant production of Tanya-Tanya. In fact, it was staged by Andrei Prikhodko, one of Fomenko’s students, who played the lead role of Okhlobystin. Prikhodko’s staging was set to open in mid-January, but at the last minute invitations were canceled. We later learned that Fomenko had attended a dress rehearsal, was not pleased, and moved in to take over the entire project himself. When the show actually did open approximately two weeks later, the programs still listed Prikhodko as director, but with Fomenko’s name looming over it as producing director. Other than those on the inside, no one now will ever know the extent to which Fomenko changed Prikhodko’s work, but in coming years Prikhodko’s name would disappear from the production’s credits. Prikhodko now pursues an active theater career in Ukraine. A TV version of Tanya-Tanya, filmed in 2001, may be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
In fact, the historical performances of Tanya-Tanya were preceded by a similar event – the mounting of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky in February 1993. Although only three years separated these two productions, they occurred in vastly different worlds. Nijinsky appeared in the era of a deep-freeze in terms of playwriting. Critics and audiences may have felt safe praising the cast of this unusual play, which split Nijinsky into two characters; they may have loved the story; they were willing to be excited by the spectacle; but they were not ready to admit that a writer, a lowly, unknown writer, could have had anything to do with that.
I will never forget my astonishment as I watched review after review come out praising Menshikov and his partner Alexander Feklistov, raving about the fascinating tale, welcoming the appearance of a non-state production company (that was very new at the time), but unloading vitriol on the “hapless” writer who “had no idea how to write a play” and was “saved” by the brilliant production team. Because of Menshikov’s fame and popularity, this show was written up in every print source Moscow had to offer (and that was a huge amount of sources in 1993), and all but two eviscerated – or entirely ignored – Burykin. Curiously, both of these dissenters were apparently freedom-loving individuals, for one was named Yury Fridshtein, the other, John Freedman.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the appearance of Tanya-Tanya in this building on Prechistenka Street came about thanks to N. Nijinsky. You see, the Nijinsky team tried out several famous directors during the rehearsal period. One was Pyotr Fomenko, with whom Menshikov had worked in a famous production of Caligula in 1990. But whatever clicked that time did not click again during the preparations of Nijinsky. Fomenko, like the other famed names, was sent packing and Menshikov ended up taking directing credits. But surely Fomenko remembered this unorthodox performance space – usually used by children’s orchestras – when it came time to open Tanya-Tanya.
You can see bits and pieces of N. Nijinsky on YouTube in numbered fragments. Begin here with No. 1.

dscn8174 dscn8190 dscn8184 dscn8187 dscn8178

 

 

Vasily Surikov monument, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn8195 dscn8206

It  must have been someone’s bad joke to erect a monument to Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) in front of the apartment complex at 30 Prechistenka Street in Moscow. Oh, sure, there are the weighty reasons that the Russian Academy of Arts is located across the way, and that Surikov, one of the great historical painters in the Russian canon, lends his name to one of the institutes run by the Academy – the Surikov State Academic Institute of Art. But rarely in my ongoing searches for public reminders of Russia’s artistic prowess have I come upon anything quite so incongruous, so lacking in aesthetic sense, so downright wrong. The abominable building behind the Surikov monument is what a gaping hole is to a boat hull, a broken wing to an airplane, square wheels to an automobile, a sleep mask on a master snooker player. That is, in the presence of the former, the latter simply cannot do its job.
I have always carried a serious grudge against Soviet era architects. They were the true enemies of the people, the traitors and saboteurs of their time. Like few others, bad, unconscionable architects poisoned every day, minute and second of those who were fated to live in the Soviet Union. You cannot proliferate such public hideousness without leaving a mark, and the only mark you can leave is a scar. Look at the scar on the face of Moscow that looms ominously behind Surikov here. There is nothing the great artist can do to counteract it. It swallows him like a beast run amok.
The sculptor Mikhail Pereyaslavets did everything in his power to keep his Surikov free of its surroundings. I think he only made it worse. He (or someone working with him on this project) cleared out as much space as possible around the monument. There are small groves of trees, and wide-open spaces of sidewalk and benches that seem to create a positively-charged negative space around the statue. But nothing can compete with that monstrosity ominously rising up behind it all. No matter what angle you take to approach it, it is competing with the apartment house, and it is losing the competition. Sure, you can stand right under the thing and get comparisons of the painter’s beard and lapels with the infinite white sky behind them. Or you can walk around the back and ignore that horrid building altogether. But you do realize, don’t you, that in this case you are taking photos of the great man’s butt?
A technical word or two. The sculptor’s signature on the back of the bronze likeness comes with a date of 2000. However, a usually reliable website about Moscow’s tourist attractions tells us it was unveiled in 2003. I can’t reconcile the discrepancy, nor will I worry that  fact. Pick up the gauntlet and let me know what you find, should you take the search for truth and knowledge further than I. The bronze sculpture (2.6 meters/8.5 feet in height) stands on a marble pedestal  (1.84 meters/6 feet in height). In imagining his sculpture, Pereyaslavets apparently leaned on a description of Surikov once made by the poet Maximilian Voloshin: “Surikov was of moderate height, solid, strong, broad-shouldered and youthful despite the fact he was nearly 70 years old… His appearance was simple, with national features, though not those of a peasant. You could sense in him a fine, strong tempering. He was built as they are in the North, like a cossack…”

dscn8199 dscn8207 dscn8196 dscn8193

Surikov bequeathed to us dramatic, moving historical canvasses. So strong are the images he created, that millions of Russians (and foreigners, too) probably know several key elements of Russian history primarily through paintings he made – The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1887-81), The Boyar’s Wife Morozova (1881-87), The Taking of the Snow Village (1890-91), Suvorov’s Crossing of the Alps (1895-99), Stepan Razin (1900?). You can’t take your eyes off these paintings. I have attended three-hour theater performances that don’t have half, one-quarter, of the action and nuance that these paintings do.
Take the portrait of Stepan Razin. It’s essentially a portrait, but where a usual portraitist would have cut out all but the most important central figure, Surikov crams in all kinds of stuff going on around him. Razin, the infamous rebel, is unhappily ensconced in a small boat making its way across a lake or river. Every one of his men (there are nine that we see) is experiencing his own drama – someone may be angry, another tired, another bored, another sleepy, another amused… Razin, as the center of attention (not among his men, but for us as viewers of the painting), is puffed up, and full of arrogant thoughts about himself (it only came to me now that there is a bit of Donald Trump in him). We see that he commands power of a sort, just as we see that he doesn’t trust it, nor does he trust it will last long. (Pardon me, that last phrase was very unprofessional, wishful thinking on my part – although I’ll stand by what it declares!)
But it is in paintings like The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, The Boyar’s Wife Morozova and Suvorov’s Crossing of the Alps that Surikov’s genius is expressed to the fullest. They capture in stunning detail man’s battle against man, as well as man’s battle against God. In the case of the fantastically famous and popular image of Feodosia Morozova, you have the important addition of the eternal battle of a powerful Russian woman pitted against the entire world around her – man, state and God included. (As my wife left the house today she asked what I was doing and I said I was writing about Surikov. She immediately quipped: “I am Countess Morozova. You know that, don’t you?” “Yes,” I replied, as nonchalantly as I could.)
In short, one would be justified in suggesting that Surikov did not merely illustrate or “record” historical events in his greatest paintings, he actually helped create them as events of historical value. We know these instances in Russian history precisely as Surikov understood and described them to us in oils. Who but a few were there to see Suvorov and his army cross the Alps? Certainly no one we can appeal to today. But think “Suvorov” and “Alps” and you cannot help but think “Surikov.”
All of which brings us back to that damn Soviet apartment building on Prechistenka Street. What a travesty! Look how easily a bad architect took the mountain that is Surikov and turned him into the molehill that is this monument in Moscow.

dscn8194 dscn8209 dscn8204 dscn8202

 

Knave of Diamonds exhibit site, Moscow

Click photos to enlarge.

IMG_5019.jpg2 IMG_5025.jpg2

I’m struggling through a bit of confusion again today. It’s in the air. Believe me. At a certain point you really begin to sympathize with John Lennon, who famously sang, “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.” I am currently swimming in what isn’t known. And as a result I’ve been having a hell of a time getting this post up, although I will finish today come hell or high water. But it is a fact of my life that the internet simply does not want to give me reliable information about the Russian group of artists known as the Knave of Diamonds, or the Jack of Diamonds. The art encyclopedias I own do not provide convincing information either. So I’m letting this one fly half-baked. (WordPress insists on labeling the publish date of this post as April 18, which is the day I started writing it. All my attempts to change it to April 21, when I actually completed it, are in vain. So I’m really not friends with the internet today.)
One thing that is known is that the building I present today is, in some way, connected with the Knave of Diamonds. Whether this is the site of the group’s first exhibit or a later exhibit, I simply have not determined. However, let me first present a bit of background.
The first Knave of Diamonds exhibit, wherever it was located, took place from December 1910 to January 1911 and it was a huge event, an explosive cultural statement. It presented to the world the then-strange, neo-primitivist, geometrical, color-saturated works of 53 artists, some of whom went on to become major names in history. They included Natalya Goncharova, Vasily Kandinsky, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Mikhail Larionov, Aristarkh Lentulov, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Falk, Alexandra Ekster, Natan Altman, and the Burlyuk brothers David and Vladimir. For those of you who think we need mass movements or popular support to change the world, consider this: One source tells me that the first exhibit, which had such an effect on Russian art, was visited by approximately 200 people. That’s 100 folks plus the moms and dads of each artist. (Although, in the unknowing spirit of the day, I have also seen claims that there were many visitors at the exhibit. Is 200 “many”? Are these sources talking about the same thing, or is this another case of warring information?)
In any case, one of those visitors was the great poet Maximilian Voloshin, who left behind a detailed review of the exhibit in the April 1911 issue of Russian Artistic Chronicle.  Here is a bit of what he wrote:

“… They did their best to infuriate the visitor’s eye. In the first room they hung the extremely thorny and geometrically angular compositions of Takke and Falk. In the central hall we came upon Mashkov’s  huge canvas, as if a statement, depicting himself nude with magnificent muscles and Pyotr Konchalovsky in a warrior’s costume….
The Knave of Diamonds’ method of hanging the paintings (canvases are almost exclusively large format and in a very narrow frames) is governed by the rule of hanging them as closely together as possible, in four rows – one above the other, at different levels, and mixing paintings that do not mix well, and positioning them in a way that each picture negates the next.
The human eye is the most conservative and intolerant of all the creatures that inhabit the human body. It is naturally inclined to resent anything new, anything dissimilar. Great care is required in order for the eye to catch new impressions, in order to enrich it with new experience. For a human being is intelligent, though slow to perceive . The Knaves neglected all these methods, demonstrating their extreme youth, levity and carelessness.”

IMG_5023.jpg2 IMG_5022.jpg2 IMG_5028.jpg2

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of this stately structure erected by architect Adolf Erikhson just around the corner from Pushkin Square at 32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. I went out and photographed it because I ran across an interesting website devoted to the work of Pyotr Konchalovsky that stated in a timeline that the first Knave of Diamonds exhibit took place right here. Here is the line directly from the site: “10 December 1910 – 16 January 1911 – participates in the Knave of Diamonds exhibit, organized by M.F. Larionov in the Levisson [sic! it’s actually Levinson] House (32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka) in Moscow.” As I worked on this, I found another source also claiming this as the site of the first exhibit. But there’s a catch. This other site repeats the Konchalovsky site’s typographical error in the spelling of the name of the building’s owner as Levisson rather than Levinson. That’s a good indication that these guys just grabbed info from the Konchalovsky site without checking it. The fact is that more sites claim that the first exhibit took place at 11 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. Here is one of them here. (But then these are also the guys who claim there were a lot of visitors at the exhibit, whereas Russian Wikipedia puts the number at 200… Who and what are you going to believe?) Furthermore, I came upon a site that names the building pictured in this post as the site of the second exhibit which took place in 1914. I finally began to realize why many sites simply write that the first exhibit took place “on Bolshaya Dmitrovka,” but don’t provide the actual number of the building. Because nobody is entirely sure what happened where when.
As a skit on my family’s old comedy record spoofing John Kennedy used to say, Let me say this about that: Having done some armchair research I feel safe in making the claim that this building is bound up in the history of the Knave of Diamonds group. It was, at one point or another, the site of at least one of the association’s public showings. Which one, I don’t know.  If anybody out there does know, I would love to hear from you.

IMG_5031.jpg2 IMG_5034.jpg2 IMG_5030.jpg2