Mikhail Vrubel, “Moses”

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Russian Modernism and Byzantine Iconography – another false dichotomy

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A recurrent pattern in the history of ideas is a dominant narrative creating dichotomies that, at the time, did not exist. I have blogged about these before – false tension between the Christian and classical worlds in the time of Boethius Victor Watts debunked , or dichotomies between religion and science, much trumpeted by some commentators but which can often be contrasted with the beliefs of working scientists.

From the evergreen Eastern Christian Books blog of Adam deVille, news of a book which looks at another false dichotomy of a dominant historical narrative:

In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counter-narrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin — Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

Adam deVille is good at pointing out the falseness of many oppositions conjured up by ignorance of history. He is especially strong on the pernicious influence of Christians failing to understand, or even try to understand, Marx and Freud.

Beshoff’s Chip Shop Founder was Last Survivor of Potemkin Mutiny

From his 1987 New York Times obituary:

Ivan Beshoff, the last survivor of the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin, a harbinger of the Russian Revolution, died Sunday, his family said today. His birth certificate said he was 102 years old, but he contended he was 104.

Born near the Black Sea port of Odessa, Mr. Beshoff abandoned chemistry studies and joined the navy, serving in the engine room of the Potemkin.

The mutiny over poor food was the first mass expression of discontent in Czar Nicholas II’s military and later came to be seen as a prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The mutineers killed the captain and several officers. The entire Black Sea fleet was ordered to suppress the rebellion, but crews refused to fire on the battleship, and it sailed for 11 days before surrendering.

Mr. Beshoff had said he fled through Turkey to London, where he met Lenin. He settled in Ireland in 1913, saying he had tired of the sea.

Mr. Beshoff worked for a Soviet oil distribution company and was twice arrested as a Soviet spy, but became a beloved figure in the Irish community.

After World War II, he opened a fish and chips shop in Dublin. His sons opened branches elsewhere in the city.

Weirdly (to my mind) Beshoff’s don’t mention this on their website… although we do have this historical tidbit:

Grandfather Ivan Beshoff came to Ireland from Russia in 1913 and lived to 104 years. His father lived to 108 and his grandfather to 115 – enough said about the goodness of fish.

The sound of night – from R Murray Schafer’s “Soundscapes”

“In the special darkness of the northern winter, where life was centered in small pools of candlelight, beyond which shadows draped and flickered mysteriously, the mind explored the dark side of nature. The underworld creatures of northern mythology are always nocturnal. By candlelight the powers of sight are sharply reduced; the ear is supersensitized and the air stands poised to beat with the subtle vibrations of a strange tale or of ethereal music. …

Romanticism begins at twilight—and ends with electricity. By the era of electricity, the last romanticists had folded their wings. Music dismissed the nocturne and the Nachtstuck, and from the Impressionist salons of 1870 onward, painting emerged into twenty-four-hour daylight.

We will not expect to find striking confessions concerning the sounds of candles or torches among the ancients any more than we find elaborate descriptions among moderns of the 50- or 60-cycle hum; for although both sounds are inescapably there, they are keynotes; and, as I am taking repeated trouble to explain, keynotes are rarely listened to consciously by those who live among them, for they are the ground over which the figure of signals becomes conspicuous.

Keynote sounds are, however, noticed when they change, and when they disappear altogether, they may even be remembered with affection. Thus I recall the vivid impression made on me when I first went to Vienna in 1956 and heard the whispering gas lights on the suburban streets; or, on another occasion, the huge hiss of the Coleman lamps in the unelectrified bazaars of the Middle East—which, in the late evening, quite overpowered the bubbling of the waterpipes. Similarly, in a reverse manner, when the heroine in Doctor Zhivago first arrived in Moscow after having spent her childhood in the Urals, she was “deafened by the gaudy window displays and glaring lights, as if they too emitted sounds of their own, like the bells and the wheels.” In the country, night had been accompanied by “the faint crackling of the wax candles” (Turgenev’s phrase), and she was immediately struck by the change.

Another example: in his diary of 1919, amidst painterly thoughts, Paul Klee paused to listen when, in his Schwabing apartment, “the asthmatic gas lamp was replaced by a glaring, hissing and spitting carbide lamp.””

I Taught Myself To Live Simply – Anna Akhmatova

I taught myself to live simply and wisely,
to look at the sky and pray to God,
and to wander long before evening
to tire my superfluous worries.
When the burdocks rustle in the ravine
and the yellow-red rowanberry cluster droops
I compose happy verses
about life’s decay, decay and beauty.
I come back. The fluffy cat
licks my palm, purrs so sweetly
and the fire flares bright
on the saw-mill turret by the lake.
Only the cry of a stork landing on the roof
occasionally breaks the silence.

If you knock on my door
I may not even hear.

Daniel Kalder on Cold War Armageddon

Children of the 1980s recall the pervasive atmosphere of imminent nuclear devastation which we somehow survived. Not unlike Daniel Kalder with the naval base warning siren, I found that the sound of jet engines could trigger a cascade of apocalyptic anxieties. We read – in the various worthy books for serious children in the library – that the world could be destroyed over and over again by the US and USSR’s arsenals each considered alone.

From Daniel Kalder’s text to accompany the “Lost Territories” exhibit:

Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War are privileged to have known, in acute form, the terror of the real and imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. It was a peculiar psychological state, and one for which I feel a curious and inexplicable nostalgia: that awareness that at any time the entire human race could be wiped out at the flick of a switch.

For children, of course, the terror was even more profound, as it was so much harder for us to understand why we all might suddenly die by fire. I lived near a naval base in Scotland and the regular tests of the 8-minute warning siren, an eerie wailing audible as I played in my garden, instilled in me a cold panic: Am I really going to burn?

By contrast, today’s most prevalent doomsday scenario- climate change- unfolds slowly, and offers us an escape route so long as we switch to renewable sources of energy and eat more organic carrots. In its sense of imminence, nuclear Armageddon was closer to the terror of the Last Days as felt by the early Christians, but far more capricious, and infinitely more hopeless. A sublime ultra-violence from the sky would kill us all, and whatever unlucky remnant did survive would succumb to slow death by radiation poisoning.

And what exactly was it we were fighting over? Coke vs. Pepsi? Whose skyscrapers were the tallest? Something about noble proletarians and top hat-wearing villains? That, I think. Like Manichaeism, which once reached from the streets of Rome to the endless steppes of Asia it’s all gone, although moth-eaten copies of the sacred texts can still be found. Pick one up, however, and the threat we lived under makes even less sense. I mean, have you read The State and Revolution?