Tag Archives: Vera Mukhina

Lenin Library busts, Mosow

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_9726.jpg2IMG_9733.jpg2

 

These things can look rather like cemeteries or crematoriums or -what is not any better, really – bad facades of bad schools. I’m talking about long rows of busts on important public buildings attempting to honor great men. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than happy to honor great women. I hunt out opportunities to do that as often as possible in this space. But you don’t always have that opportunity in the real world when the topic is Russian literature, ca. 19th century. In the case at hand I deal with what I’m dealt – a whole bunch of men, many of them with beards.
The good thing about the east wall of the Lenin Library, located in Moscow at 5 Mokhovaya Street, is that it rises above the level of a crematorium. It’s a little surprising, perhaps, because the building itself is, in my opinion, a disaster. I don’t care if it is one of the few Constructivist-inspired buildings in Moscow to have been completed. It has a deathly gray pallor and its boxy, cinderblock construction almost looks like it’s ready to have urns of ashes slipped into each one.
But I’m letting sarcasm get the better of me today.
I’m actually writing this post because I love this wall. There is something exciting in having the opportunity to commune with a whole bunch of great and good writers all at one time. And, when it’s autumn, as it was when these pictures were taken, you have the added stroke of some beautiful, bright yellow fall leaves playing against the monotonous gray-bound background.
A few steps from left to right and back again and you can travel from Pushkin to Tolstoy, from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin to Ivan Turgenev. Each of them looks down upon you with a sense of purpose, that purpose that most of us, at least, have grown to expect from a Russian writer.
I did an interview last year with the Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin. I asked him about some of the difficulties of living in Russia and writing in Russian as his homeland was under attack from Russia. You can imagine the corner he is backed into – or maybe you can’t. Not many of us have been in his shoes. Anyway, at one point Maksym admitted that part of him is completely alienated from his environs and those surrounding him. And yet he declared that he is proud to be considered a member of the new Russian drama movement, because, he said, “it is honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”
You see, that’s what Russian literature has always been – at least when it is at its best. And when you look up at the faces on the Lenin Library wall, you sense that quite clearly. Principled writers with something to say gathered here in one place.

IMG_9734.jpg2IMG_9732.jpg2IMG_9737.jpg2

I am particularly grateful to the makers of this pantheon for including Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889, the first photo in the block below). I don’t know any place else in Moscow where one can go to pay respects to this wonderful, bitter, satirical writer. If there are any monuments or plaques in Moscow commemorating his life and work, I don’ t know of them. This makes some sense because Moscow did not play a large part in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s life. He did study for awhile as a boy at the Moscow School for the Nobility. But most of his adult life was spent either in St. Petersburg or in the provinces to which he was occasionally banished. Since I touched briefly on the topic of the sexes at the beginning here today, I think it’s worth pointing out that, while Saltykov-Shchedrin was in political exile in Vyatka in the late 1840s – he called these the years of his “Vyatka captivity” – he expressly wrote a history book for young women. He was appalled at the lack of education for girls and he wrote and published a series of lectures to counteract that.
“Captivity” and “exile” during the Tsarist years – Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written about this – were nothing compared to what occurred in the Soviet age and later. While in “captivity” Saltykov-Shchedrin continued to hold a government post and he ended up marrying the daughter of the local governor. Imagine Osip Mandelstam marrying a Soviet commissar’s daughter before being murdered in Siberia in 1938; or imagine one of the Pussy Riot members marrying the son of a local bigwig before being released. Still, Saltykov-Shchedrin’s experiences were galling enough to turn him into one of the most wickedly critical writers ever to wield a pen in Russia. He has never quite received his due abroad and even in Russia he still remains somehow almost too hot to handle. It’s good to see him here as a colleague among equals.
I haven’t been able to pin down who, exactly, are the sculptors who created the busts on the east wall. The best information I found was that a large group of artists was involved. They included Sergei Yevseyev, Matvei Manizer, Yelena Yanson-Manizer, Nadezhda Krandievskaya, Vsevolod Lishyov and Vera Mukhina.

IMG_9739.jpg2 IMG_9740.jpg2 IMG_9743.jpg2 IMG_9741.jpg2

 

 

Advertisements

Vera Mukhina statue, Moscow

IMG_7388.jpg2

This sculptural image of Vera Mukhina (1889-1953) is relatively small, which is an interesting thing. Mukhina was one of the most prominent and important of all the monumentalist sculptors. Many of her  works were huge. Easily her most famous is The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl, which has stood for decades at the entry to the Exhibit of National Achievements in Moscow. It was set up there after first being unveiled – with wild international success – at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The fascinating School of Life site has many unusual tidbits about Mukhina’s life and work and it points out that the sculpture, created in Moscow, weighed 75 tons and had to be cut into 65 segments transported on 28 train cars in order to get it to Paris. So famous is this sculpture I would say that for awhile it has worked against Mukhina’s reputation. The figure of a young man and a young woman marching forward in lock step as they hold a hammer and cycle on high is so ubiquitous and is so bound up in images of stagnant and hostile eras of Soviet history, that it has long been hard to appreciate the work on its own merits. It looks much more like a cliche than a great work of art today, at least until you stop and take the time to ponder it.
There is no doubt that Mukhina was tight, in some ways, with a state that saw and used monumentalism as a way to express and reinforce its superiority. Mukhina was the recipient of five Stalin Prizes in her career (1941, 1943, 1946, 1951, 1952). She was given prestigious commissions to create centrally-located, highly visible public art. According to her son, however, she never once created a bust or sculpture of leading Soviet politicians, although she was asked to many a time, and her husband, the prominent doctor Alexei Zamkov, was repeatedly harassed by the authorities in those moments when he wasn’t being spared or given unexpected opportunities. In short, the family walked a narrow line in a very difficult time. I wrote in late May about a monumental sculpture of Maxim Gorky that Mukhina was instrumental in completing shortly before her own death and 10 years after the death of the primary sculptor Ivan Shadr. When one digs into the details of Mukhina’s life one sees why she may have been compelled to help finish the image of Gorky – he was instrumental in obtaining permission for Mukhina and her husband to return to Moscow from exile in Voronezh. They had attempted to slip out of the country in the early-to-mid-1930s and were caught, detained and exiled.
Another of Mukhina’s most famous works is the monument to Pyotr Tchaikovsky which stands before the Moscow Conservatory. That was no easy commission, however. The original commission was made in 1940 but work was interrupted by the war. Only in 1945 did Mukhina present her first “draft” of the future monument. It, however, was rejected by the inspection board. A second variant was given the okay two years later, but it still took eight more years to get the official order to place the sculpture before the Conservatory. By the time of the unveiling in 1954, Mukhina had been dead for nearly a year.

IMG_7381.jpg2 IMG_7385.jpg2

The likeness of Mukhina stands on a tiny, nameless square more or less at the intersection of Prechistensky Lane and Prechistenka Street in the Arbat region. Sculpted by Mikhail Anikushin with the aid of architect Sergei Khadzhibaronov, it was unveiled in 1989 as part of the celebration of Mukhina’s centennial.
The piece reflects her reputation as a principled person with a difficult personality. I mention that latter bit only because you run across it a lot when reading about Mukhina. I don’t doubt it’s true, knowing what I know about her life, her work and the era that she inhabited. What I do doubt is that there is anything of value to be had in applying such epithets to her. That she was a strong person with a strong vision is already evident in the fact that she made sculptures weighing 75 tons. It’s also evident when you consider the tight-rope walk she and her husband had to walk in order to keep working and living. In other words, I report that bit of information that everyone else reports, but I encourage you to toss it out as useless.
Anikushin – perhaps – shows Mukhina wrapped in the same scarf and buffeted by the same wind as the young man in the sculpture of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl. It’s a nice little quote and it works especially well because, as I said, this sculpture is relatively small and, in no way, attempts to approximate Mukhina’s own work. Anikushin also did a nice job of imparting to Mukhina’s expression that strength we know she commanded, even if it might be a tad off-putting, while also giving her a very human, thoughtful gaze. There is, in other words, a subtle mix here of the public and private flowing back and forth into one another. There is something in that which captures the essence of at least one aspect of the Soviet experience.
Mukhina and her husband are buried in the hallowed – and prestigious – ground of the Novodevichy Monastery on the banks of the Moscow River. I love the words that are engraved on their headstone. Dr. Zamkov, who died in 1942,  is quoted as saying, “I did for people everything that I could.” When Vera herself was buried, her own words were added: “Me too.”

IMG_7383.jpg2 IMG_7386.jpg2

 

Maxim Gorky, Muzeon Park, Moscow

IMG_1891.jpg2

Maxim Gorky is a writer I have a hard time relating to. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of him as someone who turned a blind eye to the Red Terror was an enduring blow. Gorky did not see a lot of violence and perfidy, or he chose not to see them. Either way, he was too big a figure, too famous, too smart, too talented, too well-connected to allow himself such an egregious error. In his favor, I am being one-sided. He supported young talent and came to the defense of many who were in trouble. Surely he will always remain a paradoxical figure in Russian-Soviet literary history.

IMG_1900.jpg2 IMG_1895.jpg2

Gorky’s literature is another thing. He was held up during the Soviet period as a sort of Soviet Tolstoy and his stature as a cultural giant, though somewhat diminished, continues today. I’ve always found him to be a royal bore. It seems to me that he has all of Tolstoy’s pretensions to greatness, but none of the greatness. His most famous play The Lower Depths – still frequently staged today – strikes me as a pack of cliches about workers, intellectuals and lowlifes. His much better Summer Folk is, in fact, a rip-off of Chekhovian devices, but without the lightness or wit of Chekhov. His Ostrovsky-inspired family sagas – such as The Petty Bourgeoisie or  Vassa Zheleznova – can be very powerful in the hands of a good director. I’ve never been able to stick long with his novels, famous as some of them are – Mother, The Life of Klim Samgin and others.

IMG_1902.jpg2 IMG_1898.jpg2

The monument that now stands behind the House of Artists on Krymsky Val is one of hundreds of “abandoned” sculptures that make up the Muzeon Park, or, as it is sometimes known in English, the Fallen Monuments Park. Gorky stands here rather ignominiously stuck up against some trees not far from old statues of Joseph Stalin,  secret police chief No. 1 Felix Derzhinsky and other politicians whose reputations have suffered in recent years. Gorky, who used to stand in the plaza before the Belorussky Train Station, ended up here for a different reason. The plaza and everything around it was dug up in 2005 to begin reconstruction of roads and intersections in the area. Nine years later the construction is still going full force and Mr. Gorky – if there ever were any plans to return him to his proper place – still stands in the Muzeon Park. This monument, an impressive one no matter what you may think of the man or his writing, has a curious history. It was designed by sculptor Ivan Shadr in 1939, three years after Gorky’s death, but was not completed until 1951 (10 years after Shadr’s death) by sculptors Vera Mukhina and Nina Zelenskaya.

IMG_1893.jpg2

 

IMG_1892.jpg2