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.

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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?

Yet you came, and were not turned away: Epiphany / Theophany

It is Epiphany, or Theophany in Eastern Christendom. Water features strongly in this liturgy; it is the occasion of the Great Blessing Of The Waters. This video, seven years old, is visually and aurally pretty stunning in its depiction of this ceremony in Alaska (in a quite interesting environmentalist context of renewed interest in the Trump presidency):

The Great Blessing of Water in Bristol Bay from Renewable Resources Foundation on Vimeo.

I’d like to share extracts from a few thought-provoking Theophany posts by Adam deVille at Eastern Christian Books.

From 2012:

On Theophany, I am put in mind of a passage about this loveliest of feasts from Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny and deeply moving historical novel, Helena, which he regarded as his greatest work, and was, according to his finest biographer Douglas Lane Patey, the only of his books he cared to have read aloud:

Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too find room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were no lower in the eyes of the Holy Family than the ox or the ass…. For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.

Thus spoke the richest and most powerful woman in the ancient world, the Dowager Empress Helena, about the Magi and their wealthy if superfluous gifts (in a passage, Patey tells us, which Waugh wrote in the 1950s to offend socialist sentiment in Britain under what he alternately called the “Atlee terror” and the “grey lice” of the Labour government, an “occupying power”).

This year:

Today, the ancient and wonderful feast of the Theophany (about which see Nick Denysenko’s book here), will often see many Eastern Christians carving crosses out of ice near newly blessed bodies of water, and then hurling wooden hand crosses into those waters to make of them an offering back to their Creator. This seems a quintessentially Christian ritual, but how was it handled in the Muslim world, where so many Eastern Christians lived and live?

I count it a success in my courses on Eastern Christian encounters with Islam when my students come to appreciate how often the boundaries were more blurred than they realize, or are often thought to be today. I tell them that they should leave the course recognizing that questions of identity, historically situated, are far messier than many thought, and that borrowings of, or at least attendance at, ritual practices of the “other’s” community, happened more than we might realize.

Examples of this include some Muslims venerating Christian relics and praying in Christian shrines, and Christians attending Muslim village festivals, some evidence of which is to be found in such fascinating works as I noted here.

Last year (this is the post on Nick Denysenko’s book mentioned in the first paragraph):

On this lovely festival of the Lord’s appearing and his baptism in the Jordan by John, I refer you once more to the landmark scholarly work of my friend Nicholas Denysenko, whom I interviewed here about his book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Ashgate, 2012), 237pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
This book examines the historical development of the blessing of waters and its theology in the East, with an emphasis on the Byzantine tradition. Exploring how Eastern Christians have sought these waters as a source of healing, purification, and communion with God, Denysenko unpacks their euchology and ritual context. The history and theology of the blessing of waters on Epiphany is informative for contemporary theologians, historians, pastors and students. Offering important insights into how Christians renew Baptism in receiving the blessed waters, this book also proposes new perspectives for theologizing Christian stewardship of ecology in the modern era based on a patristic liturgical synthesis. Denysenko presents an alternative framework for understanding the activity of the Trinity, enabling readers to encounter a vision of how participants encounter God in and after ritual.

The interview with Denysenko mentioned above is here

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine

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I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.

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But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!

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