Details of paintings from the beautiful collection of the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia in Prague.
In the second chapter of The Red and the Black, describing the setting, the author himself, Stendhal, appears in the scene.
How often, thinking of Paris ballrooms I had forsaken the night before, have I stood with my chest pressed against those huge blocks of bluish-gray stone [the parapet of Verrièrs promenade] and gazed down into the valley of the Doubs!
This contemplative gazing pose I recognized from Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin:
Evgeny stood, with soul regretful,
and leant upon the granite shelf; [the parapet of Neva river]
he stood there, pensive and forgetful,
just as the Poet paints himself.
Although both Pushkin and Stendhal are seen as ‘Romantic Realists ahead of their time’, Pushkin here is clearly mocking the fashionable Byronism of his hero. The Red and the Black was published in 1830, Eugene Onegin – in serial form between 1825 and 1832. If I hadn’t noticed the similarity in the poses, I would never have thought to compare the dates.
It is, of course, the urban version of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer, painted in 1818.
Stendhal admired Lord Byron, Pushkin had read Childe Harold just before starting on Onegin. Vasily Zhukovsky, credited with introducing the Romantic Movement into Russia, patronized both Caspar David Friedrich and the young Pushkin.
By connecting the dots, I am trying here to understand my persistent irritation with Romanticism, and Caspar David Friedrich in particular. I don’t think he is technically a good painter, and I don’t have enough patience for such mystical melancholy. He is too much an illustration of one particular sentiment. Friedrich’s visual language became almost obligatory in contemporary photography. It is like an emoticon for spirituality, man and nature, contemplation – all things deep. Out of protest I make my own Friedrichs.
I can better empathise with this Kyoto monkey than with the Wanderer.
During my stay in Japan I tried to figure out the rules of Japanese picturemaking forced by Zen Buddhism – all that formal subtlety typical to Japanese photography.
To quote Ian Buruma, in Japan ‘No theatre, suffused with Zen Buddhism, co-exists with the violent extravagance of Kabuki’, which is more of a Shinto thing. If I follow that line of thought, than Araki and Daido Moryama are Shinto, Rinko Kawauchi is more Zen than Shinto, and Takeshi Kitano is more Shinto than Zen. I have a better grip on the idea of Zen Buddhism, but it seems I have Shinto taste picturewise. Nobody in Japan could really explain Shinto to me, but it has something to do with superstitions, ancestors and stories about gods that like to laugh and want to be entertained.
To practice, and again to protest against the rules of subtlety, I made a set of ‘Japanese postcards’. Mt.Fuji, which I have never seen because it was always covered by a cloud, is used here as a basic form.
I like: flexibility, ability to shift between the styles or over the borders of definitions; sensitivity that is not sentimental; wit without irony. Pushkin is all that.
Alas, not in this picture.
Please excuse my own use of definitions with such bluntness. Statements are handy, but they are never absolute.
I see myself as in a mirror
But this mirror flatters me.
(Pushkin’s comment on a portrait of him by O.Kiprensky, 1827)
Nabokov was emotional about the fact that Pushkin had died just before the development of daguerrotype. 1837 is both the year of Pushkin’s death and Daguerre’s invention. I share Nabokov’s sentiments.
Several months ago I came across a miracle on Facebook – ‘the only existing photo’ of Pushkin.
It is unmistakably the man himself. I don’t understand how that is possible, but I believe what I see. The Facebook comments are sceptical.
From 1824 to 1826 Pushkin was banned to Mikhaylovskoye, his mother’s estate, where he wrote the main chapters of Eugene Onegin. The scenery of Mikhaylovskoye is used as a backdrop for the novel.
I know the place quite well as I used to spend my summer vacations there – both of my parents worked as guides and were friends with the keeper of the Mikhaylovskoye Museum Reserve (as it is called now). Because it was ‘a reserve’ there were a lot of mushrooms and wild strawberries. I have learned to swim in the small river that Pushkin termed ‘this Hellespont’ referring to Byron’s swimming habits. Eugene Onegin I know by heart. It took me several years to learn the novel; my mother thought this exercise would develop my memory skills. I guess it helped.
So Pushkin, except being ‘the sun of Russian poetry’ and ‘our everything’, is also my imaginary friend. It is personal.
Here are paintings of Pushkin the Poet hanging around on Onegin’s bench (used by Tatiana and not Onegin in the novel):
Pushkin (and Onegin) had a crossed-armed statue of Napoleon. According to my mother (‘all his friends say’), standing cross-armed was Pushkin’s favourite pose. He was a rather short man and thought himself ugly.
Pushkin died at the age of 37. I am now 36. Thank god I live in the age of infantilism.