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Friday, 30 March 2012

Solomon Mikhoels and Yiddish Theatre and Cinema in the early Soviet period and a note on the Roma cultural renaissance.

Solomon Mikhoels

One of the most unusual films I remembered watching at Moscow's Muzei Kino- before it was shut down by gutless bureaucrats and Nikita Mikhalkov- was the yiddish-language film Возвращение Нейтана Беккера 'The return of Nathan Becker', made in 1932 at the behest of Belarus Film studios. One of the only yiddish language films made in the Soviet Union this was to be only part of a long history of Jewish cinema in the Soviet Union whose story has been recounted by Miron Chernenko in his volume entitled Red Star- Yellow Star Красная звезда - желтая звезда (кинематографическая история еврейства в России). No clips of the film seem to be available on Youtube but I did find this extraordinary clip of Mikhoels playing King Lear at the Jewish State Theatre in 1935. Mikhoels was to be killed off in a staged motor accident in 1948 (given his phenomenal popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad a show trial would have been too risky for Stalin) whereas the script writer Peretz Markish (father to the Russian language Israeli author David Markish) was subjected to a show trial along with a number of Jewish intellectuals and exceuted along with them on what was to become as the Night of the Murdered Poets.  In English the extraordinary tale of Yiddish cinema in the Soviet Union is told in J. Hoberman's short essay 'A face to the shtetl: Soviet Yiddish Cinema, 1924-1936' (published in 'Inside the Film Factory'). A film on Jewish Theatre in the Soviet Union called 'Balancing Acts' has been made (a short clip of which is available on youtube /watch?v=KF1ZOvMi18k ). This article from Haaretz also talks about David Markish's relation to his father and to Isaac Babel

The Soviet 1920s didn't signal only the flowering of Yiddish language art but was also the location of a brief renaissance in Roma culture- a story which has been barely told. I was made aware of this fact one day on a car journey from Bratislava to Brno by one of the Czech Republics foremost scholars of Roma culture, the late Milena Hübschmannová, who told me of the extraordinary Soviet writer of Czech roma origin, Alexandr Germano and the flourishing renaissance of roma culture in the Soviet Union of the pre-Stalin period. The Romen theatre, founded in 1931, is still running today and in fact the first major musical-dramatic performance was Жизнь на колёсах (Life on Wheels)- based on a play by Germano. A brief history of this theatre is given in its wikipedia entrance

Vertov and Early Soviet animation

From the Russian Film Blog I discovered this little gem of an animated film by Dziga Vertov (here is the link to this post By the way for any Russian/Soviet киноманы (film buffs) I'd strongly recommend the blog as it is much more regular in posting than I am and offers a whole host of subtitled clips of recent and sometimes historical films. Knowing of Vertov's contempt for fiction I was quite astounded at this ten minute clip. It seems though that Vertov was at the very heart of the process of initiating Soviet animated film. Another two films Случай в Токио (An Incident in Tokio) and Юморески (Humoresque) are recorded as being directed by Vertov. The rather basic techniques used in the 'Kultkino' studies in 1924-1925 were soon superseded. For some notes in Russian on this early period here is a link with further information:

Telemaco Signorini and Russian Art

In a previous post I noted the similarities between a painting by Telemaco Signorini and one of the great classics of Russian art: Ilya Repin’s ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’. A visit to the Tretiakovskaya Gallery a few months ago on Krymsky Val suggested that the link between Telemaco Signorini and Russian art was more than simply hypothetical. Although the great Russian artist is better known for his works on historical and religious or biblical motifs, the time spent in Italy clearly shows how Ghe was influenced by the macchaioli movement and, in particular, by Telemaco Signorini. He spent a number of summers in the Gulf of Poets near La Spezia which was to influence not only Shelley and Byron but also D.H.Lawrence and Mario Soldati. Many of Ghe’s landscapes of San Terenzo or Carrara bear the unmistakeable stamp of the macchaiolo technqiue of Signorini or Cabianco. One more link in the chain of mutual Italian-Russian influences. And one more indicator that Liguria and Tuscany are the most ‘Russian’ of Italian regions. The great Mordovian sculptor Stepan Erzia who I blogged about yesterday would also spend time in Italy precisely in this Ligurian-Tuscan borderland so rich in artistic and literary history.  Other names linking Russia to Liguria include those of Marina Tsvetaeva, Tchaikovsky, and Vrubel. An early twentieth century writer from the La Spezia region who has written some fascinating pages on the Cinque Terre and Lunigiana Ettore Cozzani also had many links to late 19th century Russian exiles living in Liguria.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Art in Provincial Russia (1) An errant Mordovian: Stepan Erzia

The Sculptor Stepan Erzia.

A trip to Saransk in September 2001 was the first time I would hear of Stepan Erzia, a sculptor from a Mordovian tribe who would spend most of his life outside of Russia living for over two decades in Argentina and also spending years in France and Italy. A further exhibition in Moscow later in the same year meant that for the first time I could see a selection of his sculptures. (In Saransk as far as I remember the museum was closed for reconstruction). It is only now that I have decided to return to the city and visit the museum which holds the largest collection of his works. A whole floor of the museum is devoted to Erzia’s sculptures and the chance to see some like his sculpture of Moses is undoubtedly a rewarding experience. While it is stated that the Museum holds two hundred of his works, less than a hundred were on display. Many of these were those produced in Argentina with new materials such as the quebracho and algarrobo and yet it was well before this period that Erzia made a name for himself.

Erzia would become Mordovia’s most rooted and yet most cosmopolitan and universal of artists owing much to his extraordinarily errant life story. His birth in a small Mordovian village – Bayevo- to a family of peasants in pre-revolutionary Russia meant that his development as artist was no simple one. In fact his professional education would only begin at the age of 26. Nonetheless, his assimilation of this training was very rapid. His revolutionary sympathies with the 1905 revolution would lead him to emigrate to western Europe in 1907  due to the repressive climate of the aftermath of the revolution. His trip to Italy and then France would lead him to absorb all the influences of classical Italian sculpture as well as more contemporary European sculpture. He would visit the studio of Rodin in Paris and be influenced by the tragic images of this sculptor as well as the bright expression of images (a greater influence than the exuberance of Italian impressionists). A return to Italy in 1914 would lead to his mastering of marble (given his presence in the marble capital of Massa Carrara). Amidst his works created in Italy were the figure of St John the Baptist created for the cathedral in la Spezia and a figure of a Priest. A friend of his, an inspector of museums, Ugo Nebbia, would write a novel based on the life of Erzia in Italy entitled ‘Il Viandante’ (The Wanderer).

Erzia would return to Russia in 1914 at the eve of World War One and although he planned a rapid return to Western Europe (leaving his sculptures in European studios) he was not to return for over a decade. His marble sculptures in the latter period of the 1910s allude to the influence that symbolism was to have in this period of his career (‘Repose’ in 1915 and his monumental ‘Dream’ (1919) were the two most notable examples of this influence). Post-revolutionary times would show him active both pedagogically and in the erection of public and monumental sculpture in Yekaterinburg, Baku and Batumi. Influenced by the work of Sergey Konenkov he would change from using marble to wood- this search for a new style would become evident in his time in the Caucasus and a certain modernist influence is perceivable in his work ‘Flying’ – the influence of Vrubel’s ‘Demon’ is detectable in this work.   

His exhaustion of the revolutionary theme was becoming palpable and an invitation to Paris on the behest of Lunacharsky would evidently lead him on to a new odyssey which would mark his mature years. Due to the difficulties of travelling within Europe Erzia would arrive in Argentina via Montevideo and then spend two and a half decades working with quebracho and algarrobo (two types of wood) to model some of the most impressive of his sculptures. The hardness, the wide range of hues and the expressiveness of quebracho would especially lend itself to Erzia’s sculptures and the expressive contrast between the polished and the unpolished in these works are central to his unique place in contemporary sculpture. The contrast in style between the male (more expressive and indicative of a sense of abandon and hopelessness) and female (more full of grace and perfection) portraits is an especially significant indicant of his work. His models of different national types are another important feature of this period. His return to a Mordovian theme reflected in some ways a sense of homesickness. 

His return to the Soviet Union in 1950 would be a return marked with both initial neglect and it was only after Stalin’s death that an exhibition of his works would be staged in a showroom on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow. This exhibition in 1954 would be one of the first artistic signs of the post-Stalinist thaw. However his final years were a mixed time in which he live in a country which he barely recognised. He died in 1959 (according to one legend he died after tripping onto the statue of his head of Lenin hitting his own head against the head of the leader of the world’s proletariat). He was buried in Saransk.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Tonino Guerra 1910 - 2012

The death of Tonino Guerra has been felt most in two countries- the two countries between which Tonino Guerra acted like a bridge. If the squalid rapport between Putin and Berlusconi in politics was an affront to both peoples the symbol of a real common cultural link was exemplified by Guerra. In an interview Guerra called himself an Italo-Russian and, if the reaction to his death is anything to go by Russians seemed to treasure Guerra even more than Italians did. I've often blogged on Italians in Russian (Soviet) cinema whether it is about Pietro Marcello's film on Peleshian and his views on Russian film, or about other Italians such as Gino de Marchi , Italian adaptations of Russian classics as well as the earlier relations between Italian and Soviet film history and the fascinating story of Francesco Misiano (the Italian who brought the Battleship Potemkin to Berlin in a suitcase and who played a major part in the formation of Mezhrabpom film studios)

Tonino Guerra's link with Russian and Soviet cinema as well as Russian culture as a whole was simply enormous and in fact the warmest tributes to Guerra have from Russia. If Guerra was to write over 100 film scripts of some of the most significant films in post-war European cinema working with Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Rosi, Petri,the Taviani brothers and many others in Italy as well as Theo Anghelopous very few of these European titans are now living. it is only in Russia where many of his closest colleagues are still alive. Although he will always be remembered for his collaboration of Tarkovsky in Nostalgia, he has  also worked with Andrei Khrzhanovsky who flew to Italy to be with him during his last days Krrzhanovsky called Tonino Guerra someone who should be compared with the titans of the Renaissance - he was not merely a scriptwriter of many great films but also a great artist, sculptor, a poet and a philosopher. He spoke of his extraordinary human qualities as did Naum Kleiman (another close friend of Tonoino Guerra) who was to compare Guerra with an angel bringing forth light and being able to transmit the joy of life so that it would stay with one for the rest of one's life. Other close friends of Tonino included Iurii Norstein and Iurri Liubimov who would stage Guerra's play Мед (Honey) at the Taganka theatre. In recent years Moscow Dom Nashchokina presented Guerra's artistic works to the Moscow public.

I remember hearing Roman Balayan in a talk about Sergei Paradjanov describe a visit by Guerra (who joined the campaign for Paradjanov's release from jail when imprisoned) to his house. Guerra ended up shouting from  balcony that Sergei was a genius (he had told Paradjanov this who replied that he already knew but that his neigbours in Yerevan needed to know this). Tonino Guerra was also to recount how while crossing the road in Rome in the early 1960s he was to be nearly run over by a car. He uttered a loud blasphemous phrase to the car's occupants only to quickly find that out of the window of the car popped Pope John 23rd's head who proceeded to bless Guerra with a smile and the sign of the cross (the blasphemy- by the way- could be considered more offensive than that uttered by Pussy Riot at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour last month but Vsevolod Chaplin is no John 23rd and nor have there been any successors in the Vatican to match the humanity of this Pope either). Another tale has been told about how Guerra scared away a secret policeman in incognito after a walk with Tarkovsky in the snow. Guerra's offer to the policeman to come up and drink something in that cold weather terrified the kgbeshnik so much that the agent was to flee the scene in terror!

Guerra's contribution to European cinema and culture is one of these things that will only be apparent in decades to come. Russians because of the vicinity of Guerra to their culture have managed to appreciate the real cultural force of this true poet and renaissance man and in Russia he has always been a truly popular figure. In years to come his name will stand out as perhaps one of the greatest scriptwriters of late 20th century but also as an artist, sculptor, playwright and poet of similar stature. His poetry has been translated into Russian by none other than Bella Akhmadulina. Other names close to Tonino Guerra and one artist and cinematographer with a similar outlook on life is the extraordinary artist and close friend of Tonino Guerra, Shavkat Abdusalamov.

Here is one of Andrey Khrzhanovsky's films made from the script of Tonino Guerra - 'The Lion with a Grey Beard'  

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Some thoughts on Pussy Riot (A polemical introduction)

Having intended to write my next post on Sokurov's 'Faust' in the past weeks there has been little else on the culture front than the 'Pussy Riot' scandal here in Russia. Even though this subject is not a cinematic one it is impossible to ignore it. Impossible because religion has been encroaching on cultural life in Russia to such a disturbing extent that it has affected and poisoned all areas of culture including film. An earlier post of mine noted the increasing number and tendentiousness of religiously based films in recent Russian cinema and the 'religious plague' as I called it then seems only to have increased in pace. The Khotinenko's, Mikhalkov's and Burlayev's are only the most visible representatives of this trend first identified by Frederick Jameson in a footnote on his splendid article on Soviet Magic Realism in 1988. The link between autocracy, Orthodoxy and nationalism has also been exemplified in the appalling 'Admiral' a few years ago.

The signs that Orthodoxy was going to launch a frontal assault on cultural diversity and attempt to impose a quasi-totalitarian grip on the arts have steadily grown more evident. The scandalous persecution of the Sakharov Centre, art curators as well as humanist or secularist artists and the accompanying hooliganism of fanatical Orthodox thugs was most evident during the 'Beware Religion' (Осторожно, религия!) exhibition in 2003 ( along with evidence that the state was actively supporting these trends): this was surely one of the the first and most worrying signals of this threat. 2012, however, has seen this assault threatening to blow up to ever more absurd proportions. The Mikhalkov scandals in the Union of Cinematographers as well as the attempt to force feed the contemporary Russian viewer with his national Orthodox re-reading of World War Two have been two more (among many) examples of this national-patriotic-religious tendency in the arts. However it has only been this year that the assault by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church and assorted nationalists and black one hundred мракобесие has become blindingly obvious to all and sundry. The story surrounding the takeover of the weekly newspaper/journal Культура (the voicepiece of the Russian intellighentsia which had always given one of the most detailed and knowledgeable accounts of trends in all the arts) and its 'conversion' into a ranting rag in which its editor - previously Mikhalkov's ranter-in-chief  in the newspaper Izvestia, Elena Yampolskaya - can rave, harangue and spew her poisonous diatribes against all the enemies of Orthodoxy.

With this journal under their belt, the Orthodox Black Hundred claque have felt it possible to move on to new territory. Diatribes, rants and harangues are not enough- the acquisition of the voice of the dwindling intelligentsia is such a small catch compared to the opportunity they decided to grab with both hands after the irreverent performance of one of the more radical art groups - the masked and anonymous feminist punk outfit 'Pussy Riot' - at Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. An initially quiet church reaction was revved up into hysteria by such church autocrats such as Vsevolod Chaplin and in turn they instigated more hysteria in the media and in society.

The polemics over the detention of band member's, the calls for leniency amongst more reasonable members of the Orthodox Church, the increasingly fanatic stance taken by Chaplin leading him to assert that holy shrines have more value than human life, and the violence of many orthodox national-patriots against pickets in solidarity with Pussy Riot- a violence given an endorsement by those in the Church like Chaplin who, in the face of the absurd seven-year sentence that alleged members of the group have been threatened with, complains that if the state will not punish blasphemy the 'people' will. By 'the people' he appears to mean his band of thugs and hooligans- all these facts have been at the centre of attention here in Russia in the past month.

While all this, of course, is mainly straight polemics it is nonetheless the wider context from which Pussy Riot and groups like 'Voina' have sprung and have tried to resist in their own inimitable way. Their reaction has been, in many instances, radical and, given the context, militant. It is surely difficult to judge them in purely artistic terms because of this context. They deserve, I believe, all the solidarity that they can get - facing a seven year jail sentence, a hysterical campaign in the state-run press and being threatened with losing the custody of their children is the kind of vile atmosphere that militant secular humanists and fighters for 'unpopular causes' such as feminism and LGBT rights are increasingly forced to face. Their two month arrest before the actual trial contrasts nauseously with the house arrest given to police officers who violated a prisoner to death with a champagne bottle in the city of Kazan. The downplaying of real violence or ,rather, the emphasis on offense, blasphemy and sacrilege so as to justify the downgrading of human life and the incursion of religious fanaticism into culture has been to me the most worrying aspect of the past few months. In another blog, however, I hope to continue the argument regarding Pussy Riot linking it to other manifestations of artistic dissidence and dissonant trends reacting against clerical Orthodoxy or more openly anti-clerical manifestations. Here for now ends this polemical introduction to the subject. My next post hopefully will be of a more historical character. For now I'll leave readers with Vysotsky's Моя цыганская and his prescient words: 

В церкви - смрад и полумрак,
дьяки курят ладан...
Нет, и в церкви все не так,
все не так, как надо!

In the church; stench and gloom,
Preachers burning incense.
No! Even in church everything's wrong,
Not as it should be.