Friday, February 15, 2019

Aleksandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future

I've decided to delve into Russian art history to learn a little bit more aesthetic modernism.  Aleksandr Rodchenko's experimental career is probably the best to start.  Alexander Lavrentiev's compilation of Rodchenko's writings illustrates both the originality of Rodchenko and the richness of the art scene that predated the Revolution but came into its own after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Rodchenko reminds me of Miro, Picasso, or Warhol in the stylistic or conceptual creativity.  Leafing through this richly illustrated book demonstrates the extent to which Rodchenko (and his contemporaries) continued to innovate through his career.  Fortunately, Rodchenko was a gifted writer as well as artist, so he did a reasonably good job of explaining his work, or at least the general direction of his work. 

Without a detailed understanding of the various competing movements at work in the early Soviet era, I can only say that Rodchenko's writings reveal several basic concerns.  First, he wanted to be a relentless innovators and was prepared to overthrow most artistic conventions in search of a forward-facing aesthetic.  He was, in other words, un-apologetically modern. He was also willing to jettison anything that wasn't immediately useful. Second, he wanted to create help the proletarian class to participate in an aesthetic revolution. "The proletariat sat in cellars," he said, "took shelter like animals in ditches," and "had no time for beauty, for elegance."  Realizing that the proletariat had not previously had all that much time for art, he now urged artists to help the proletariat forge its own definition of beauty.  Third, Rodchenko wanted Russia to be a leader in world art.  As he stated:  "We, the Russian Columbuses of painting, are discoverers of new roads in art."  Here, one senses a slight paradox.  On the one hand, he was an enthusiast for a politics of international revolution, and asserted that "We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life." On the other hand, he was proud of Russia's decorative arts tradition and sensed that its local art scene could do more than any other nation's art scene to create definitions of art that were relevant to the future. He put the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe this way:  "The West, a market of art, was amazed by the decorative arts of Russia, and we of course forget about this and are still admiring Napoleon's hairdo and the house of Wilhelm." Fourth, Rodchenko wanted art to be an essential ingredient to almost every human endeavor.  He wanted art to be transform buildings, city plans, clothes, and every other aspect of human experience.  Every object deserved to be beautiful.  Every object deserved his artistic attention.  As he stated:  "I prefer to paint ordinary things in an extraordinary way rather than paint extraordinary things in an ordinary way."


Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Aleksandr Rodchenko's Experiments for the Future:  Diaries, Essays, Letters and Other Writings.


Down with art as a bright patch on the mediocre life of a propertied man... Down with art as a means to escape a life that isn't worth living.

...Our Russian nature is so boring, monotonous and gray...It's so sad and silent...What does Nature long for?
What is she forever thinking of?...

Nature has her own thoughts, her own sorrow...

A real Russian is also sad, he longs for something, and you'll never figure him out....

I will force people to die for objects, and objects to live.  I'll put people's souls into things, and objects will become souls....

Mama is seriously ill...I'm afraid for her.  She gives me money, after all. If she collapses, what will I do...

Russian critics, always snorting at Russian art, accusing it of imitating the West!
Look, Russia has given  birth to its own art, and its name--is non-objectivity!

The collapse of all "isms" in painting was the beginning of my ascent.

Objects died yesterday.  We live in an abstract spiritual creativity.

Work--is a pleasure.  Life--is torment.

It is usually said that my works in painting are not really works but experiments for some sort of future works or for future artists..

At the INKUK meeting, Professor Shmit said that in Russia there is not and never has been any visual art, only decoration.

He also said that the inventor is never a great scientist nor the great scientist an inventor, that to be an inventor you have to imagine images, i.e., you have to be a bit of an artist, but not a dreamer whose images are blurry and indistinct.

In the West everything is stuck as it was before the war, the same old Picasso and Matisse.  They all say they're looking to Russia with enormous hope, they'd trade places with us without a second thought...

In life, as well, we, humanity, are experiments for the future...

There is nothing eternal, everything is temporary.

The concepts of inviolable DOGMAS and classical CANONS are exploded by this issue, and the existence of ETERNAL BEAUTY in art is killed.



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbread Race

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Andrei Navrozov's The Gingerbreak Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free

If Moscow is the Hollywood of power, Vnukovo was Beverly Hills.

...there you could crawl through to his thicket of raspberry bushes, peacefully going wild in the totalitarian gloom.

Further down at No. 7, on the assumption of relative equality among the muses, lived the founder of the puppet theater, a Diaghilev of the inanimate. 

She was a distant relation of the original owner, a scientist who discovered the secret of immortality.  This secret was of great interest to the ruler of a vast and powerful country like ours, and he showered her with honors until his death from cerebral hemorrhage.

For the animals she cooked a kind of nightmare stew, although at times it resembled plain gruel, perhaps simply oatmeal porridge with lots of innocent water, which was sticky and therefore frightening to a child who had never been exposed to life in the raw. 

To compensate, he had a reproduction of the Picasso etching of Don Quixote tacked, upside down, to the wall above the television set, presumably in order order to say "Is this art?", or even "Is this Don Quixote?"....

He was, of course, a mass murderer...

Father would often stop to chat with him in Mayakovsky Street.  "I told Iosif Vissarionovich to grab hold of Yugoslavia," I remember once overhearing.

Father though photography vulgar and discouraged the practice...

I was struggling with Xenophon's Anabasis.  "Can the child read Greek?" asked the inspector.  "Only with a dictionary," the child interjected with crushing modesty....

...and other tribal rites that punctuate the sanctimonious ordeal of human existence.

In the land where their parents might have disappeared without a trace and their own children might still be forced to swallow shards of glass in a cellar, they feared thieves.

The principle of the family as a voluntary assembly of peers was upheld.

But on closer inspection, these freedoms were little more than latitudes...

The infinitely wise Zamyatin--who said that Russian literature had only one future--its past--returned and mocked England in The Islanders.

In the Russian idea of nobility, disdain and sadness are fused so that it is impossible to tell where one ends and other begins.

I do not mean that the Vnukovo ravine was my Galilee.  I merely note the essential clumsiness of all that is genuine, and what an evanescent thing is truth.

My nanny, who had firm instructions not to interfere with my personal life, did not object when I went on to tell the girls that performances began promptly at eight.

It was the only time in my life when I felt like a child.

It is equally obvious that if Flaubert had known all along what would become of Emma Bovary, she would not have outlived him.

In somewhat more modest terms, film is to the theater arts what sport is to the arts of war.

A writer explained why books were dear:  "Because books ought to be dear.  A book is not vodka, not a woman walking the street."

A poet, after all, cannot be expected to be understood by more than a few hundred contemporaries.

To occupy ourselves with the future of our earthly possessions would have been as incongruous as loading a funeral barge with an alarm clock and spare she horns.

Here in Vnukovo, apparently, bourgeois relaity was only a generation away from totalitarian artifice.

In the West, Prokofiev and Shostakovich would have let go, lost their moorings, put on the faceless modernism which is one of the masks of timeless banality.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Andrei Makine's The Life of an Unknown Man

Like Irene Nemirovsky before him, Andrei Makine is a talented, prolific, and Russian-raised French author.  Unlike Nemirovsky, Makine's novels almost always deal very directly with Russia or Russian nostalgia. Makine's The Life of an Unknown Soldier tells the story of a a minor expat Russian writer who gets dumped by a younger lover and makes the desperate decision to journey back to St. Petersburg in search of an old love.  The protagonist returns to St. Petersburg in the middle of its 300th anniversary. The writer is of course immediately confronted by the fact that the city has changed just as irrevocably as his former lover, who welcomes him, but seems little-inclined to think about the past.  This first part of the novel feels someone less interesting than Makine's other novels, including his prize-winning My Russian Summers.  While well-written, it lacks both the beauty and subtlety of Makine's best work.  It also feels somewhat cliche to see a returning exile to feel estranged in his home town.  Certainly George Orwell's Coming Up for Air does this brand of nostalgia much better. 

However, Makine being Makine, the novel becomes much more powerful after the protagonist begins to listen to the life story of an old man who is about to be evicted from his real estate agent and host's rapidly expanding millionaire's pad.  For the old man's biography includes much of Russia's twentieth century history. As it turns out, the old man survived the siege of Leningrad, the battles of Stalingrad and Kurst, the Gulag, Purges, and everyday communism. After completing the second half of The Life of an Unknown Soldier, one is tempted to credit Makine for making the first half of the novel banal on purpose.  Perhaps the contrast is meant to demonstrate the extent to which the power of nostalgia and the excitement of history overwhelm the reality of our present lives. In any event, Makine is a writer's writer, and exhibits an ability to describe hunger, war, and fear with incredible precision.  And so the book, as a whole, represents another of Makine's sophisticated tours of the space between Russia's past and present.

Below are a few quotes from the book:

"An exile's only country is his country's literature."  Who said that?

He would also quote Chekhov:  "In a short story cut the beginning and the end.  That's where most of the lies are told."

"Playboys take women out for drives in convertibles," Shutov thought with a smile.  "Destitute writers treat them to the Russian classics." 

On a boat just about to leave a Crimea put to the torch by the Revolution, the young Nabokov was playing chess. 

The aesthete, Nabokov, care more about an elegant metaphor than the land of his fathers.

"I'm not Russian, Lea. I'm Soviet. So you see I'm filthy, stupid, and vicious. Very different from all those Michel Strogoffs and Prince Myshkins the French are crazy about."

 "Listen, Shutov, I know she went back to Leningrad, well, Saint Petersburg.  She'd married a fellow who was in oil.  Yes, you get the picture.  And it didn't work out...No, not the oil.  The marriage."

"We've reached the stage of irony."  At first Russia copied these Western fashions, now they delight in pastiching them."


Michael Idov's Dressed Up for a Riot

Michael Idov's frenzied memoir of his life in Russia offers a suitably chaotic depiction of Putin era Russia.  As editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, and sometime novelist and film entrepreneur, Idov, who grew up in Russia but emigrated to America prior to college, is well-placed to tell us about Russia's vertiginous contemporary life. According to Idov, Russia has descended into full-fledged dictatorship.  The evidence Idov cites is not original.  It is common knowledge that Russia has taken over the Crimea, supported separatist forced in the Ukraine, passed homophobic legislation, granted the president control over leadership positions in the provinces, jailed political opponents, harassed protesters, centralized media coverage and put that media under government control, committed election fraud, encouraged the assassinations of political and journalistic opponents, sponsored systematic public misinformation campaigns, and so on.  But it's interesting to follow Idov's narrative to see how democratic practices can be eroded over time, one police or legal action at a time.  It's also interesting to read Idov's argument that Russia's problems are an increasingly global phenomenon.  For although Idov seems to think Russia's problems are not inherently Russian.  In other words, he seems to imply that almost any society could become a victim of insecurity, self-loathing, and superficiality. And indeed, America in the age of Trump does seem to mirror the worst aspects of Russia's elite political and popular culture in the Putin era.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Ekaterina Television Series

This first season of the Russian television, Ekaterina, tells the story of Catherine the Great's arrival in Russia, trials and tribulations under the rule of the aging Elizabeth, and seizure of power.  As a television show, the series is similar to The Tutors in its excitement, passionate love affairs, and political intrigues.  Its leading ladies (especially the actress playing Elizabeth) are excellent actors.  The theme sound is appropriately redolent of the Game of Thrones' soundtrack. As history, the series reminds us of that the awesome autocratic power of the post-Peter the Great Romanovs was somewhat tempered by Church authority and alternative claimants to the crown whose very existence could potentially inspire revolts.  The series also reminds us on the complex diplomatic affairs of eighteenth century Russia.  While capable of sending almost anyone to her dungeons, Elizabeth employed royal advisers, an expensive army, and a complex counter-espionage services to keep her royal prerogatives and her country's borders safe.  As importantly, Elizabeth understandably worried about her heir.  In fact, the dynastic succession was an almost overriding obsession for the empress. Who would follow her policies, continue the Romanov dynasty, or at least rule Russia competency after she died?  The film depicts Catherine as intelligent and, increasingly, politically savvy.  She learned Russian quickly and avoided political intrigue enough to stay alive.  On the other hand, the film also suggests that Catherine craved love, and really did love both Saltykov and Orlov.  In terms of its narrative power, the film does a wonderful job of depicting Peter III as a tragic hero.  Flawed in terms of intellect, judgement, and (after a bout of smallpox) appearance, and capable of great personal cruelty toward Catherine, the film's Peter III nevertheless emerges as a complex and often sympathetic person. Suffering mightily throughout Elizabeth's reign, the often childish Peter III somehow mustered enough courage to periodically defy his aunt.  He also demonstrated great musical talent, a capacity for love a woman of his own choosing, and some measure of courage when faced with a coup.  He also tried to assert bold new policies for Russia, although these policies (especially those related to Lutheranism and the war against Prussia) were admittedly naive insofar as they flew in the face of popular Russian opinion.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Andrei Makine's Brief Loves that Live Forever

Andrei Makine is a masterful prose stylist.  His Dreams of my Russian Summers was notable for lovely nostalgia and its beautiful if sometimes elliptical prose.  Brief Loves That Live Forever is also both concerned with nostalgia and exquisitely written.  Born in Siberia, but living in France and writing in French, Makine's greatest talent seems to be his ability to write very precisely about fairly vague (if nevertheless powerful) sensations, including love, longing, loss, bi-cultural understanding, and nostalgia. But Makine is also extremely adept at combining the personal with the political. In other words, he is able to describe how our personal lives are affected by the grand architecture of world-shattering events and global processes.  But he does so in a way that never crowds out the essential elements of bildungsromans.  In some ways, Makine could set his stories anywhere, but the Soviet leaders' megalomania sharpens the contrast between Big History and small (or personal) history, between revolution and everyday life, between Marxist philosophy and love, between politics and psychology, between great events and epiphanies. 

Makine 's Brief Loves That Live Forever is a biographical story set in the late-Soviet era of Brezhnev.  Sharply divided into various vignettes, the protagonist was raised as an orphan and ended up a dissident.  Orphan-hood seems to be the appropriate symbol for both late Soviet citizens, who often suffered the loss of family members to the Gulag or other totalitarian horrors, as well as post-Soviet citizens, who suffered the lost of their country, the Soviet Union, as well as an economic system, political creed, and way of life.  In the protagonist's memory, the October and May Day celebrations loom large.  So too do propaganda, parades, Soviet heroes, leaders' portraits, edifying stories about Lenin and Stalin, and Soviet symbols.  Makine mentions concrete facets of the Soviet experience, but dwells upon a generation's general feelings of disenchantment as young people in particular begin to realize that the Soviet dream of equality and cooperation is unrealistic if not outright ridiculous. It's an award place to be in.  The failed dream remains an important part of one's past.  The effect must be akin to finding out that Bill Cosby is a convicted mass rapist.  We are obliged to hold two different versions of the world in our hearts at the same time, both the Cosby Show's depiction of a world of racial equality, and the accusers' reality of malevolence and rape.  But of course post-Soviet citizens must deal with the two all-encompassing versions of the past. 


Some favorite quotes from the book:


The Party had just proclaimed that communism would arrive within the marvelously brief span of twenty years.

Official propaganda congealed these dream visions together into tangible, simplified language, common to the country's whole population.

...this dress rehearsal for the messianic society.

"Well, what can you say?..He was a submariner, her man.  And if they're lost at sea they don't get a grave, or a cross..."
The other one stopped scraping, leaned on the handle of her shovel, and sighed as well:  "Well, as for a cross, you know...Maybe it's better there's no grave. She'll get over it quicker..."

Everything was provided for in the ideal society:  enthusiastic work by the masses, incredible advances in science and technology, the conquest of space, taking man into unknown galaxies, material abundance and rational consumption, linked to radical changes of attitude.  Everything, absolutely everything!  Except...

Anyway he said she wasn't patriotic, you know.  He divorced her. 

The fatal mistake we make is looking for a paradise that endures.

This obsession with what lasts causes us to overlook many a fleeting paradise. 

We would laugh when a book on our study program struck as too stupid (one somewhat visionary author declared that the completion of a five-year plan within four years would speed up time throughout the universe.)

And while I so longed to believe in this fraternal world, I knew that when you passed through our city's suburbs at night it was better to have a switchblade in your pocket.

Totalitarianism, even in the mild form our generation knew, dreaded the spectacle of two beings embracing and escaping its control.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Quotes from the Education of Lev Navrozoc

Below are some favorite quotations from The Education of Lev Navrozov

Czechoslovakia, twelve years after Hungary.  The time in Russia is clocked by her western periphery.

The pre-1917 generation surviving into the thirties was as defenseless as an old strain of microbes against a new antibiotic. 

"Let us live.  Everyone is unhappy.  Before 1953 everyone was happy. Then it became safe to be unhappy, and everyone became unhappy."

"These are not quite freedoms.  Rather leniencies.

"So many people are innocent, historically.  They are happy. They live.  Tell them you live in the Golden Horde.  They will not even understand."

"For every paranoia there is a superparanoia."

There were no Sundays at that time because Sunday in Russian means Resurrection.  So there were days off instead...

"We could live anywhere I liked, he said.  Except of course, Russia, impossible to settle in, and we laughed at the horror of Russia.  He was a comic figure from a comic country."

Why is it that in only in retrospect that life looks like life, and when you are within it, you can notice it no more than you can a cloud when you are within that cloud? 

In 1921 capitalism, that worse evil on earth for the elimination of which almost anything had to be endured, was invited to save the country, and the worst evil on earth did save it...

"But then everything was the state."
The state.  Masterdom.  What a word in Russian:  the adjective has fifteen letters--the very word is leviathan, its scales dully glimmering as it uncoils its five crustaceous syllables.

With the chief of the organs of state security Beria it was different:  the whole organ was his harem. 

The friend was a phony.  But communism is so theatrical, contradictory, and deceptive that it is hard for a communist to detect phoniness in a friend.

Yet the retreat was over in 1928, the society began to be rewarded, supplied, and inspected from the center, and hence the farther off the center, the more pauperized, lawless, and savage life became.

Nikolay Nikolayevich was included to suicide.  I do not say he had a suicidal mania, because he might have thought that it was trying to live that was a mania. 

Living space has influenced all social relations, and there have been marriages of living space, living-space crimes, and struggles for inches of living space more fierce perhaps than for multi-billion fortunes, chains of casinos, or colonies promising gold, ivory and spaces.

"You not-yet-knifed bourjuy"

When grain was taken away from them entirely free, it was called procurement, grain-procurement, or grain-proc for short.

Now there were no bed sheets at all.  We slept on rustling desk paper, but everyone who enters a greater degree of unfreedom in an infinite series of degrees of unfreedom must realize at once that he is in a new life, and no comparison with his former life is possible.

Unheard-of luck it was,  because I was not born under Sagitarius, the archer--I was born under the organization of the country's first machine and tractor station on the shevchenko state farm, odessa region.

When Ulyanov-Lenin still lived in Smolny of Petrograd-Petersburg, he wanted to start the elevator there.  But no stupendous exertion of his dialectical intellect could start it.  Evidently to create a new society and a new man is easier than to start an elevator.

By virtue of his rank, Ulyanov-Lenin was the highest incarnation of self-sacrifice.

After 1917 the populace was his property. 

There were portraits of great Lenin everywhere, but was this enough considering the greatness of his modesty?

The county unit of fewer than a million deaths simply ceased to exist after 1917. 

Not to write, but just to say something which one was not authorized to say was now a crime.

Torture was mentioned officially quite sparingly, while shooting was a good, pleasant, romantic word...