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12 November 2018

Signed by the artist: the free and honest life of Oscar Rabin

On 8 November 2018, the exhibition ‘Two Ways’ presenting Oscar Rabin and Tatyana Lysak-Polischuk opened at the Florence branch of the St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, named after Ilya Repin. From the news, we also learned that the 90-year old Oscar Rabin had died one day earlier in a Florence hospital.

Image 1- Painted life
Arkadii Nedelʹ, Oskar Rabin: narisovannaia zhiznʹ (‘Oscar Rabin: the life that has been painted’; Moscow, 2012) YF.2013.a.116

Rabin was born in Moscow to a family of doctors. Both of his parents had died before Oscar reached adulthood, so the teenager had to learn to provide for himself. Sometimes living in slums and earning money by hard manual and unskilled labour, Rabin kept studying fine art first at the art studio led by poet, composer and artist Evgenii Kropivnitskii and later at higher education institutions in Riga and Moscow. Although Rabin’s talent was recognised by his teachers and peers, he was soon expelled from the course, when started deviating from socialist realism. Having married Kropivnitskii’s daughter Valentina, who developed into an original artist in her own right, Oscar was also close to his first teacher and shared his ideological and artistic views. In the late 1950s, several young nonconformist artists formed the so called Lianozovo group with Kropivnitskii and his family, including Valentina, Oscar and his son Lev (1922-1994) at the heart of it.

Image 1a - Lianozovo
‘Lianozovo Kingdom’, reproduced in Oscar Rabine (St Petersburg, 2007) LD.31.b.4101

Fresh and naive pictures by Rabin were the first manifestations of Soviet pop-art.

Dustbin-Helicopters
Works of 1958. Reproduced in Oscar Rabine (2007)

In the 1960s, Rabin managed to earn his living by illustrating small books of poetry, but soon foreign art critics and collectors took interest in his works, which brought him financial benefit and international fame, but at the same time unwelcome and intrusive attention of the Soviet authorities. The first time Rabin’s pictures were exhibited abroad was in London in 1964. This show was followed by his first personal exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery. At the same time, at home his paintings were criticised for being ‘depressive’, ‘squalid’, ‘repulsive’ and ‘lacking positive socialist message’. After Rabin took part in the famous Bulldozer Exhibition, he was forced to leave the Soviet Union and from 1977 lived in Paris. In June 1978 his Soviet citizenship was revoked, which was a common practice exercised by the KGB toward dissidents. Passports and visas are re-occurring motives of Rabin’s pictures, telling the story of an individual and the country, which does not accept her most talented sons and daughters, only because they wanted to be free and honest.

Image 3 - Passport
‘Passport N 2’. Reproduced in Oscar Rabine (2007)

Free and honest, Rabin was all his life. After the collapse of the USSR, Rabin’s art was also mistreated as being too political and formal and only in the 21st century were his works given full acceptance in Russia. During his life, Rabin had nearly 30 personal exhibitions and his pictures are held in big state and private collections. In the British Library, we have catalogues of Rabin’s major exhibitions and books about him, which can be found in our online catalogue, including several copies signed by the artist himself just in 2016.

Image 4a

Image 4
Cover and signed title-page from Oscar Rabine (2007)

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading and illustrations:

Interviews with and article about Oscar Rabin illustrated by his works:

https://www.izbrannoe.com/news/iskusstvo/oskar-rabin-ya-za-elitarnost-v-iskusstve/
https://loveread.ec/read_book.php?id=70741&p=40
https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/144324

Poems by Evgenii Kropivnitskii: https://oloosson.com/yy/kropiv/kropiv.htm

Evgenii Kropivnitskii, Pechalʹno ulybnutʹsia...: (stikhi i proza) ([Paris], 1977) X.908/83734

EvgeniÄ­ KropivnitskiÄ­, ZemnoÄ­ uiut: izbrannye stikhi (Moscow, 1989) YA.1992.a.21972

EvgeniÄ­ KropivnitskiÄ­, Izbrannoe : 736 stikhotvoreniÄ­ + drugie materialy, [predislovie IU.B. Orlitskogo; sostavlenie i kommentariÄ­ I.A. Akhmetʹeva] (Moscow, 2004) YF.2005.a.21248

09 November 2018

The gentle giant of Russian literature: Ivan Turgenev

The life and career of one of the greatest 19th-century Russian novelists sprang – quite literally – from small beginnings. Born on 9 November 1818 and baptized Ivan, the middle son of Sergei Turgenev, a cavalry officer, and his wife Varvara was notable as a child for his diminutive stature; only his unusually large head indicated that he would develop both physically and intellectually into one of the giants of his age.

Young Turgenev X902-218
Turgenev as a young man, from Jules Mourier, Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé (St Petersburg, 1899) X.902/218.

Despite a wealthy and privileged upbringing on the family estate at Spasskoe in the province of Orel’, the three young brothers did not enjoy an idyllic childhood. Varvara Petrovna adopted a harsh approach to their upbringing, employing strict tutors and inflicting severe beatings on her sons with her own hands. Turgenev later claimed that he had not one happy memory of his early years, and on one occasion packed a bundle and tried to run away, only to be persuaded to return by his German tutor. His father was well known as a womanizer, and Turgenev’s complex relationship with his mother, his parents’ unhappy marriage and his teenage infatuation with his father’s young mistress Zinaida, reflected in his novel First Love, permanently affected his own ability to form relationships and ensured that he never married.

Spasskoe X.902-218
Turgenev’s house at Spasskoe, from Ivan Serguéiévitch Tourguéneff à Spasskoé

However, there were other sources of warmth and attention at Spasskoe: the kindness which Ivan received from the gamekeepers, who taught him the habits of wildfowl and how to handle a gun, and from his father’s valet Fyodor Lobanov, from whom he learnt to read and write Russian, inspired him with a love of nature, respect for the Russian peasant and hatred of serfdom. This contrasted with the influence of German idealism which he assimilated when, in 1827, the family moved to Moscow for the sake of the boys’ education. He had already begun to write verse which soon assumed the colours of the Russian ‘pseudo-sublime’ school, and while studying at the universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin, travelling through Italy and Switzerland, and forging friendships with Nikolai Stankevich and Alexander Herzen in the 1830s and 1840s, he followed one false trail after another.

Steeped in the ancient classics, he aspired to a professorship and plunged into the philosophy of Hegel, had an affair (with his mother’s approval) with the wife of the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, rambled through the Alps in a state of Byronic melancholy, and only returned to Russia in 1841. Two years earlier the family mansion had burnt down, apparently following an attempt by a peasant to fumigate an ailing cow. At Spasskoe he started a relationship with a seamstress employed by his mother, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Pelagia, renamed Pauline when, aged ten, she was sent to France to be raised with the children of another of Turgenev’s loves, the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia

Zapiski okhotnika RF.2007.a.1
Cover of an edition of Zapiski okhotnika 
(A Sportsman’s Sketches; Leipzig, 1876)  RF.2007.a.1

The return to the Russian countryside bore fruit of another kind in the form of A Sportsman’s Sketches (Moscow, 1852; C.114.n.15.), a collection of short stories which reflect Turgenev’s profound knowledge of the landscape and of the wildlife and people who inhabited it. Throughout his work there runs a deep dichotomy between the traditional ways of the remote Russian provinces and the impact of Western ideas brought back by those who had travelled abroad. Despite the urbane cosmopolitan manners which Turgenev – fluent in French, German and English – had acquired in Europe, his writings frequently display a marked ambivalence and sense of conflict, embodied most memorably in Fathers and Sons (Moscow, 1862; 12590.h.25) where it is paralleled by the bewildered incomprehension with which old Kirsanov greets the ideas of his revolutionary son and the latter’s friend Yevgeny Bazarov which gave the world the term ‘nihilism’.

Turgenev and friends
Turgenev (seated, second from left) with other Russian authors of the day. Photograph by Sergei Livitsky, reproduced in Emile Haumant, Ivan Tourgénieff: la vie et l’oeuvre (Paris, 1906) 010790.de.56

Turgenev had touched on this conflict in two earlier novels, Home of the Gentry (Moscow, 1859; 12591.dd.31.) and On the Eve (1862), both of which portray the intrusion of Western modernism into communities bound by the habits and conventions of rural life and morality and raise political issues which aroused profound disquiet in the stiflingly conservative atmosphere of Nicholas I’s empire. His friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and ‘metaphysical entanglement’ with the latter’s sister Tatiana played their part in the development of characters such as the young Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov in On the Eve, and it is difficult to overestimate the alarm which Turgenev’s writings excited in government circles. He was not merely a consummate stylist and chronicler of quaint peasant ways and the beauties of the countryside; ‘le doux géant’, as his friend Edmond de Goncourt nicknamed him, was no hectoring advocate of revolt but influenced his readers by far more subtle means. His exquisite portrayal of character makes his revolutionary figures far more persuasive and convincing than any amount of tub-thumping oratory, and in the 1860s, the decade which saw the assassination of Alexander II, the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ who freed the serfs, Turgenev was regarded with growing nervousness. A friend of Flaubert, Zola and George Sand, widely translated into English and other Western languages, and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, he moved between two worlds with an ease which made him suspect as a dangerous political influence back in Russia.


465px-Turgenev_by_Repin_1879
Portrait of Turgenev by Ilya Repin, 1879 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The circumstances of his death aptly illustrate this; like Heinrich Heine, he spent the last months of his life, in 1883, in an agonizing ‘mattress tomb’ in Paris, immobilized by a spinal tumour, but gave directions that his body should be brought back to Russia for interment close to the grave of his friend, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. Ernest Renan was one of those who delivered an oration at a brief ceremony at the Gare de l’Est before the coffin began its long journey. Conversely, the Russian Ministry of the Interior clamped down on all unofficial information about the funeral on 9 October; workers’ organizations were forbidden to identify themselves on the wreaths, and a gathering at which Tolstoy was to have paid tribute to his friend (and rival) was cancelled by government decree. The contrast between ceremonies in East and West was a telling comment on the very different kinds of esteem in which Turgenev was held in the two worlds which he inhabited with equal aplomb.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

06 November 2018

‘Umbra Vitae’: Expressionism in Word and Image

The tragic early death of the German writer Georg Heym in a skating accident in 1912 silenced one of the most original and exciting voices in early 20th-century German letters. Heym wrote plays and short stories but is best known as a poet. His first collection of poems, Der ewige Tag (‘The Eternal Day’) appeared in 1911; his second, Umbra Vitae (‘Shadows of Life’) was published posthumously in the year of his death.

Heym Portrait
Georg Heym as a student, ca. 1908. Reprodueced in Nina Schneoder, Am Ufer des blauen Tags: Georg Heym: sein Leben und Werk in Bildern und Selbstzeugnissen (Glinde, 2000). YA.2002.a.24146

The poems use powerful and sometimes apocalyptic images. In ‘Der Krieg’, for example, war is personified as a demonic figure, unleashing first silent fear then forces of increasing violence and chaos. A number pf poems take the city as a theme, often conveying the sense of a city and its buildings as kind of living entity which can trap or threaten its inhabitants. Heym also examines the fears and doubts of human condition, particularly in ‘Die Irren’ (‘The Mad’), a cycle of poems which depict madness both from without and within.

But Heym can also be elegaic and romantic in poems such as ‘Träumerei in Hellblau’ (‘Reverie in Light Blue’) with its gentle evocation of dreams and a dissolving landscape, or ‘Deine Wimpern, die langen’ (‘Your lashes, long’), a tender love-poem haunted by shades of death.

Colour also plays an important role in the poems, particularly the colour red and contrasts between light and dark. Heym’s use of colour imagery often has an almost synaesthetic feel, with phrases such as ‘darkness rustles’, ‘seven-coloured torment’, or ‘autumn light / on the shore of the blue day’. He found inspiration in the paintings of artists such as van Gogh and Goya, and in his diary he recorded his own desire to be a visual artist and his frustration at his inability to give shape to his ‘imaginations’ in visual form.


Heym Furor 3An attempt by Heym to draw one of his ‘imaginations’ of madness. In the text above he laments that â€˜Heaven denied me a gift for drawing’ and explains that he has long had an image of a madman in his minds eye. Reproduced in Am Ufer des blauen Tags.

However, in 1924, a new edition of Umbra Vitae appeared, designed and illustrated by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which succeeded brilliantly in giving visual form to Heym’s work.

Heym Front cover

Heym Back cover
Front and back covers of Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae: nachgelassene Gedichte, mit 47 Originalholzschnitten von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. (Munich, 1924). C.107.dg.15

Heym and Kirchner never met, although after Heym’s death Kirchner and his fellow-artists of the group ‘Die Brücke’ became associated with the literary circle ‘Der Neue Club’ to which Heym had belonged. Kirchner acquired a copy of Umbra Vitae shortly after publication and clearly felt an affinity with Heym’s verse since he soon began drawing pictures to accompany the poems in the blank spaces on the pages. Knowing of this, a mutual acquaintance of Kirchner and the publisher Kurt Wolff, suggested in 1922 that Wolff should commission Kirchner to illustrate a new edition of Umbra Vitae.

Heym front endpapers
Heym back endpapers
Front and back endpapers (above) and illustrated title-page (below) from Umbra Vitae

Heym Title 2

Kirchner not only illustrated the poems, but designed the whole book, with its vividly-coloured covers and endpapers, and black-and white illustrations, all using woodcuts, a popular form among the ‘Brücke’ artists. The illustrations range from small vignettes to an entire woodcut poem.

Heym Alle Landschaften (Träumerei)
The poem â€˜Träumerei in Hellblau’ (here without the title) illustrated by Kirchner as a full-page woodcut.

Kirchner described his woodcuts as being ‘like the accompanying melody to a song’. Some directly illustrate images or ideas from a poem, others reflect its mood. Some are almost abstract, others realistic. The poems and images complement each other in a way that is again almost synaesthetic, reflecting the concept of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where different artistic genres come together.

Heym Krieg

Like the poems themselves, the illustrations can sometimes appear deceptively simple, for example the vignette for ‘Der Krieg’ (above) where the war-demon’s face appears within what at first sight seems to be an explosion of fire. Some are full of detail, others sparer, such that  for ‘Die Städte’ (‘The Cities’, below) which also recalls Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets.

Heym Städte

It is particularly interesting to note that the central figure in Kirchner’s illustration for ‘Die Irren’ (below) bears some similarity to Heym’s own attempts to draw his long-imagined picture of madness. Kirchner could not have known this, but it demonstrates the close affinity between his own and Heym’s imaginative worlds.

Heym Irren 2

It is this affinity, as well as the beauty of Heym’s verse and Kirchner’s woodcuts, which makes this such a masterpiece of book art, and perhaps the finest articulation of German Expressionism in word and image.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

 References/Further Reading:

Georg Heym, Der ewige Tag (Leipzig, 1911)

Georg Heym, Umbra Vitae [1st edition] (Leipzig, 1912) X.989/89081.

Georg Heym, Der Dieb: ein Novellenbuch (Leipzig, 1912) X.908/84086. English translation by Susan Bennett, The Thief (London, 1994) Nov.1994/433

Georg Heym, Poems, translated and with an introduction by Antony Hasler (London, 2004) YC.2005.a.2280

Patrick Bridgwater, Poet of Expressionist Berlin: the Life and Work of Georg Heym (London, 1991) YC.1991.b.6980

Nina Schneider, Georg Heym 1887-1912: eine Ausstellung der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg (Berlin, 1988) YA.1991.b.3805