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Monday, 10 September 2012

Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom and a view of Moscow in the 1920s

In a Moscow which seems determined to wipe cinematic memory from itself - after the closure of Musei Kino in 2005, it is uncertain what exactly has happened to the Iluzion cinema (ремонт? - but then why so soon after it had been repaired a few years ago). Dom Khanzhankova has been turned into a restaurant. So it is now clear that the only place where one can see old Soviet films are in those few places which will show them on DVD in not very excellent conditions. The only reason one should go along to see these are often for the talks that accompany them. This Saturday there was an excellent talk in a small bookstore near Chistye Prudi named Читалка and a showing of the newly restored copy by the Toulouse and Bologna Cinemateques (alas yes on DVD) of Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky's film Папоросница от Моссельпрома (The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom, 1924).

Apart from this being one of the most enjoyable comedies of the Soviet silent era this film is a delight in many ways and, apart from telling us much about cinematic developments in the early 1920s equally allows us to retrace and recapture a lot of the lost Moscow that was later demolished in the Stalinist period and beyond. And it was this aspect which really shone in the talk given. Tens of cadres from the film were shown as images of places no longer there or transformed beyond recognition. For a cinephile perhaps the most fascinating shots were those of the Mezhrabpom-Rus studios shot both from the outside and the inside. Here is a still of the American businessman McBride driving past the studio in the film based near Верхняя Масловская (Verkhnyaya Maslovskaya Street):

The whole film, in fact, helps one to reconstruct a view of 1920s Moscow. This has been done in the excellent post in the Russian Progulkino blog here . The film itself was one of a number of Soviet films which were ordered as pure advertising - in this case for the Moscow state concern uniting various food suppliers and distributors. Others included Protazanov's Закройщик из Торжка (The Tailor from Torzhok, 1925) and Barnet's Девушка с Коробкой (The Girl with the Hat, 1927) which were both advertising films for the state lottery. The mystery of how advertising could produce such excellent films is, perhaps, an indication of the strange times of the Soviet 1920s. 

That Soviet advertising could employ no less a pen than that of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the art work of Aleksander Rodchenko means that it is a world well worth exploring. It was to be Mayakovsky's pen that coined the most famous advertising slogan for Mosselprom Нигде кроме, как в Моссельпроме (Nowhere else but in Mosselprom) and he would work for Mosselprom coining a whole host of advertising slogans from 1923-1925- they are available in Russian here

Rodchenko would work alongside Maykovsky in designing some of the advertising posters for Mosselprom such as this one hear which carries Mayakovsky's famous advertising slogan:
A collection of Soviet advertising posters (including some from Mosselprom) is available in this blog post here

The Mosselprom building still stands with the original advertising as a comparison between a Rodchenko photo and a contemporary photo demonstrates

Nearby was located the great Proletkult theatre located in the building known as the Osobniak Mamontova. Here is a still from the film passing by the Proletkult building and then a photo of how the building looks today

The youtube video of the film at the top is, unfortunately, not the fully restored version but a shorter version available previously.

Here is Rodchenko's photograph of an actual cigarette girl in Staraya Ploshchad:

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Igor Kvasha 1933-2012.

One of the founding members of the Современник (Sovremennik) theatre, Igor Kvasha was one of the symbols of a generation of actors who played a significant role not only in theatre but also in cinema as well as being in many ways the conscience of the shestidesiatniki (the sixties generation). Kvasha was one of the most active in terms of his willingness to stick his head out in terms of politically difficult subjects. As Lia Akhedzhakova notes in an interview with Novaya Gazeta Akhedzhakova on Kvasha, Kvasha was the first to sign letters in defence of jailed Soviet dissidents such as Sinyavsky and Daniel and at one point was refused exit after he had embraced the exiled writer Viktor Nekrasov in Paris and spent some hours in his company (word soon got round to the security services). Kvasha was also one of the hundred cultural and intellectual figures who recently signed a petition to release Pussy Riot. His civil engagement was clear, too, in his call last December of support for mass demonstrations against the political system Kvasha on Sakhraov demo

His acting career was synonymous with the Современник theatre where he remained from its foundation until his final days - the theatre being one of those symbolic spaces in the Soviet Union where one could find views that challenged the dominant view of things and the dominant ideology. In film he played in over 70 roles. He considered his own best role to be that of Stalin (who he played various times) in Под знаком Скорпиона (Under the Sign of Scorpio, 1995) about Gorky after the October revolution. In fact, Kvasha played Stalin in a number of productions and Kvasha through playing the role seemed to be searching for an understanding of as he put it Stalin's "psychology and how he could subjugate a whole country and with what methods and what he did to achieve this" (меня всегда интересовала эта психология и то, как он смог подчинить страну. Какими методами? И что же он сделал для этого?). Kvasha would always try to find out from people who knew or had met Stalin answers to these questions.

Kvasha also played in many very popular films such as Mark Zakharov's Тот самый Мюнхгаузен (That very Munchhausen, 1979) alongside the great Oleg Yankovsky and Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов (The man from the Capuccin Boulevard, 1987), the immensely popular Western parody based on the subject of the birth of cinema. He worked with such great directors as Elem Klimov and Sergei Yutkevich and with Andrej Wajda in the latter's production of Dostoyevsky's Бесы (The Possessed) at the Sovremennik Theatre. 

Alek Epstein's 'Art on the Barricades'

Alek D. Epstein's book/ album on Pussy Riot seems finally to have hit at least one or two of Moscow's more radical bookstores and I've finally had a chance to have a look. The story of how the album had its own difficult passage into actually being published has been briefly told in a blog in one of Russia's art magazines Art Khronika Apparently, three printing presses refused to print it and another to bind it, so it's nice to finally have the opportunity to hold the book in my hands. It even took some time before the book appeared in the bookshops (a bookseller a few weeks ago told me that there were some 'distribution problems', though of what order he didn't elucidate).

As an 'instant book' it obviously doesn't have the deep analysis of the Pussy Riot phenomenon that can only come after some time. Epstein is clearly what in sociology used to be called 'a participant observer' (he has close links with the actionist art groups from which Pussy Riot sprung and with two of the Pussy Riot members themselves). There is no doubt that he both wants the book to serve as a kind of homage to Pussy Riot as well as an act of solidarity in addition to offering some kind of historical context as well as a chronicle of recent events.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the section on the way religious symbolism has been used in art and his analysis of the actual 'Punk Prayer' that was sung at the Cathedral. The section on the symbolic use of the Madonna or Virgin Mary in art gives a few fascinating precursors to the lines calling for the Madonna to become a feminist and to 'chase out' Putin. He alludes to paintings such as that of Max Ernst's  Madonna spanking the child Jesus in front of three witnesses, as well as Edvard Munch's litograph of the Madonna with foetus and spermatozoa near the frame and more recent artworks by Giuseppe Veneziano with his Madonna of the Third Reich with an Adolf Hitler in the arms of an Aryan Madonna and Oleg Kulik's shahidka terrorist Madonna of 2005. This concept was to lead Israeli artists Galina Bleikh and Lilia Chak to a similar idea in their sensational Ferror (Female Terror) 2009 exhibition which was then cancelled due to protests from family victims of terror attacks.

Epstein also talks about the symbolic nature of some of the 'venues' of Pussy Riot performances - such as Lobnoye Mestoe (or the Place of Skulls) which was also the venue of the 1968 protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. 23 years later it was to be the site of Anatoly Osmolovsky's 1991 action inspired against the 'Moral Law' banning swearing in public places alongside his art group E.A.T. (Expropriation of Public Territories) as well as other more recent more politicized actions for the release of political prisoners. The Cathedral of Church the Saviour was also the venue for other actions in protest against church-state collaboration or religious fanaticism including some by Femen and Oleg Mavromatti (for which the latter was made effectively stateless after the Russian consulate refused to renew his passport telling him that he was on their international wanted list).

Another section of the album is devoted to the Autobus Exhibition in favour of Pussy Riot during the trial. As Epstein points out this was also historically based on the well-known Bulldozer Exhibition in the 1970s in which informal and underground artists displayed their work, an exhibition which was then to be bulldozed and its artists dispersed with water cannon in 1974. Furthermore he details the many actions and art festivals which were carried out in support of Pussy Riot up until the month of June including the Artists Walk and the collective letter of the intelligentsia who called for the members release.

However, what the book is perhaps to be most valued for are the reproductions of photographs and art work of these events and happenings and the numerous posters and internet artwork produced for the release of these three artists. The publisher of this book is Viktor Bondarenko and the art group 'Россия для Всех' (Russia for all).

An illustrative blogpost on The Madonna in Radical Art is on my other blog - here is the link Madonna-before-pussy-riot/