April 07, 2004


At the end of William Vollman’s discourse on the ‘Defence of Class’ as a justification for violence, in volume II of Rising Up and Rising Down, he presents us with a novelistic interlude entitled ‘The Countess and the Clay Eater’ which sketches the fortunes of a pair of conjectural characters through the Russian Revolution. We are asked to ‘consider the case of a hypothetical Russian countess, a cultured woman, talented on the piano, who dabbles in watercolors’, a charitable soul we might say, or, less kindly, a bit of a bleeding-heart, who in any case takes a concerned interest in the welfare of the peasants on her estate. One day she encounters a frail child who, through poverty and hunger, has been reduced to chewing on a lump of bluish clay. She gives the boy two kopeks. The Revolution reverses their fortunes. The boy is fed and educated, becomes an ardent Party-member, a shock-worker, an exemplary Communist. The Countess, meanwhile, is gradually stripped of her possessions…

'A Bourgeoise Selling Her Jewellery, Petticoats and a Teddy-Bear', porcelain figure designed by Alisa Jakovlevna Brusketti-Mitrokhina, 1919.
See her on the streets of an unfriendly city, standing in her shabby coat, offering for sale her silver thimble, her dancing shoes […], and the medal which her husband received at a reception for the tsar. She needs to eat.

No more than a day or two after reading this, I browsed my way to the Russian Avant-Garde Gallery, a site tracing and illustrating several of the most important threads in early 20th-Century Russian art. Much of the art there, and many of the artists’ names were new to me. I was particularly interested by the section of the site devoted to Mass and Agit Art, where my eye was caught first by the figurine (left) of A Bourgeoise Selling Her Jewellery, Petticoats and a Teddy-Bear. I was struck by the likeness of this image with the one that Vollman describes, but, on reflection, I daresay that it was not uncommon in those years to see women and men of means so reduced: but to look at this woman commemorated thus in porcelain is somehow shocking, at least, it is to me. Perhaps, unlike Vollman’s notional Countess, this particular bourgeoise had been far from charitable, and had it coming to her: rich scum, your time has come, but even so, this seems to me a spiteful little work of art.

'International', painted porcelain figure designed by Natalya Jakovlevna Dan’ko-Alexeyenko, 1919.Less disturbing are the figurines sculpted by Natalya Dan‘ko: her post-revolutionary work is celebratory in tone, and glorifies The Red Sailor, The Partisan on the March, The Woman Sewing a Banner, and, in the piece called International, (left), a triumphant worker standing atop the terrestrial globe, a figure, perhaps, who may stand for the clay-eating boy made good of Vollman’s tale. Besides being a gifted artist, Dan‘ko was evidently a courageous woman:

[During] the Stalinist era, […] Dan‘ko was creating a series of bas-relief medallions of friends and colleagues from the intellectual and artistic circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg who had been caught in the cycle of betrayal, trials, and murders, and whom she wanted to commemorate, expecting that they would not survive this nightmare time. All of the medallions were hidden, for to be caught with them would mean that their creator would in turn be condemned. Natalya Dan'ko died of starvation in 1942 during the siege of Leningrad - source here.

'The Great Russian Poet Anna Akhmatova', painted porcelain figure designed by Natalya Jakovlevna Dan’ko-Alexeyenko, 1924.Of the several works of Dan‘ko’s illustrated at the Russian Avant-Garde site, one in particular stands out by dint of its unexpected elegance and its dubious political correctness, and that is the 1924 figurine of The Great Russian Poet Anna Akhmatova (left). Although a volume of Akhmatova’s verse had been reprinted the previous year, she was hardly a Party favourite, and, in 1925, ‘the Central Committee of the Party issued a specific instruction that none of her original work was to be published’, a ban not lifted until wartime. In the intervening years, then, Akhmatova was, in effect, as silent as the porcelain model made in her image… 1924 was the year she wrote these verses:

The Muse

All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command.
Whatever I cherish most—youth, freedom, glory—
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

And look! she comes … she tosses back her veil,
staring me down, serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?” She answers: “Yes.”

This translation is by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz, and is taken from this book. Click on the images above to see them enlarged.

Posted by misteraitch at April 7, 2004 10:37 AM | TrackBack