15 October 2020
08 October 2020
Her friends described her in capacious terms, shy but warm, intellectually fearless but often overwhelmed by the difficulties of relationships with men. Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) used her dreams of a better world to write books that inspired some of the best minds of her time and after. A product of a world now gone, she has much to offer still.
During her lifetime the South African Schreiner was revered for he feminism, her pacifism, and her humanitarianism, then overlooked or ignored by subsequent male historians. One of the keenest intellectual thinkers of her time, it was finally through the efforts of fellow South Afrikaner Doris Lessing that Schreiner's work returned to print where it is now widely available once again.
Olive Emily Albertina Schreiner was the ninth of twelve children born to a missionary couple who had emigrated from England. Her name was given to commemorate three brothers who had died before she was born, a circumstance that may have complicated her feelings about female sexuality. She grew up with little formal education and so the influence of a dreamy, pious father and a sensitive, strong-willed mother converged in Olive to produce a radical political thinker.
It was during an adolescence spent wandering the vast, solitary karroo (plains) of South Africa that Olive had her first bout of the asthma that would plague her for most of her life, dictating where she could live and how long she was able to stay in one place. It might have been her mother's constant attention to the family's health in a hostile climate that marked the beginning of Olive's life long fascination with medicine.
In 1880 , having saved up enough money, Schreiner travelled to travel to England where she enrolled in nursing school. Unable to complete the training because of illness, she turned to writing. Three years later she published The Story of An African Farm, a bildungsroman and one of the earliest feminist novels. Lyndall, Waldo, and Em are appealing and memorable characters and Schreiner writes with deep affection for the African land
It was after the success of the novel in 1883 that Schreiner met Havelock Ellis, a psychologist whose controversial writings on human sexuality were compatible with her ideas on the subjection of women. The two embarked on a close yet complicated friendship. One anecdote will serve to illustrate how dangerous it could be for a woman to venture into controversial territory; because men were seen coming and going from her flat, Schreiner was arrested on suspicion of prostitution.
As a result of forward-thinking on an array of issues, Schreiner was proclaimed the equal of Cecil Rhodes, a towering presence in African political life. That a pacifist was compared to a white male colonialist was bizarre but also a tribute to Schreiner's intellectual grasp. No subject intimidated her, from agnosticism to socialism. Schreiner identified with the plight of Africans, Jews, and Indians in South Africa rather than the white settlers from whom she had come. For Schreiner, opposition to all forms of slavery and the championing of women's rights were inseparable.
Schreiner on the evolution of women's position in society was a seminal influence on modern feminism. She saw industrial society eroding women's productive functions, reducing them to parasites without useful work or honor. She predicted, accurately, that as mechanical labor replaced human labor and living standards improved, women's sexual role would be linked less to childbearing and concentrated on the sexual aspect. In effect, woman would become a prostitute. Her conclusion causes as much uneasiness today as when she first stated it.
Dream Life and Real Life, a collection of short stories and fables, was published in 1893, ten years after the success of The Story of An African Farm, originally published under the pseudonym of Ralph Iron. In one story, Schreiner depicts life in a bush town and the effects isolation has on human relationships. There are only two women in the town - one who has always lived there and been accustomed to be the center of male attention and another whose visit disrupts this order by her presence. The men cast the women as rivals, vying for the visitor's attention and debating which on is the prettier. Then at a dance given in the visitor's honor, she gives a rose to the other woman, a gesture of kindness with lasting emotional reverberations. Schreiner, whose style owes much to the King James Bible which she loved greatly, writes,"When my faith on woman grows dim, and it seeems that for want of love and magnanimity she can play no part in any future heaven; then the secnt of that smal withered thing comes back: - spring cannot fail us."
Image: after a drawing by the Brothers Grimm, Dornroschen (Sleeping Beauty), circa 1840, colored lithograph, BPK, Berlin.
28 September 2020
"In Rio de Janeiro
they go at midnight
to welcome the new year.
Fresh in white garments
bearing white candles
they assemble by the sea.
To toss old year's errors
griefs and mistakes
into the accepting waves.
Begin again afresh and new
when the year turns to become
green again and young."
- from "To Become Green Again" by Lorna Goodison, Kingston, Jamaica
Janaina is a goddess whose origins are in the Yoruba religion of West Africa. The Yoruba people believe in Ashe, the energy that animates all living things and unites the human with the divine. In Goloborotko's rendering she takes the form of a mermaid wearing a star crown and surrounded by clam shells, a latter-day Botticelli Venus, perhaps. Clasped in her right hand is a shell fan and in her left she holds a sword. A goddess of both beauty and power.
Brought over to the Caribbean and South America by slaves, Janaina has been represented as a sea spirit celebrated at various times of the year in different places. For example, in Rio de Janeiro people dress all in white and gather on the beach to welcome the New Year, setting off fireworks and throwing white flowers and other offerings into the sea in the hope that Janaina grant their wishes for the coming year. Some offerings are even sent to sea in tiny wooden boats.
Sheila Golobortko is a Brazilian artist who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and she is also the founder and director of the Goloborotko Studio in Brooklyn, where she makes prints and conducts print-making workshops.
Image: Sheila Golobborotko - Janaina, 1992, color viscosity, intaglio and colored ink on lightly textures wove paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
22 September 2020
"I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it." - Nancy Spero
Spero believed that archetypes, exemplified in the goddesses of mythology, reverberate through our contemporary lives. In 1969 when women were fed up with the assumptopn of male superiority by men in artists' coalitions, they broke away to form W.A.R. (Woman Artists in Revolution) Nancy Spero was there. The feminist movement of the 1970s inspired Spero to explore female sexuality, suffering, and heroism. Her celebrations of life from the ancient world to the present re-figured the representation of women in art. Spero's task was nothing less than writing women back into history through art.
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, wildlife, and nature, making her the most venerated goddess of rural people. As the protector of young girls, she represented chastity. Artemis was also a Maenad, a female follower of Dionysius, god of wine and drunkenness. Maenads could be recognized by their animal-skin clothing and by their frenzied, demented dancing.
Spero borrowed her Artemis from a 5th century BCE kylix, a decorated drinking cup. She holds an animal in her left hand and in her right she grasps a thyrsus, a tall walking stick or staff, traditionally made of fennel and garlanded with ivy. The earliest surviving image of Artemis is an archaic Greek Potnia Theron ("Queen of the Beasts") We can easily imagine such an image on a wall, perhaps an antique fresco, so it comes as no surprise that Spero would begin making works that scroll off the paper onto the wall.
"Dear Lucy, The enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be crushed. Love, Nancy" - a letter from Nancy Spero to Lucy Lippard
"Dear Nancy, the enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be upended by envy." - Martha Rosler to Nancy Spero
"I suppose I felt doomed to be an artist ear;y on, because of the way I drew all over the margins of my textbook." - Nancy Spero
Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was an American artist known for confronting injustices in her work, believing "the personal and the political are indistinguishable." She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and after graduating in 1949, she trained for five years in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at Atelier Andre Lhote, already focused on painting the human form. After returning stateside, Spero married fellow artist Leon Golub; the two would collaborate throughout their careers and shared a commitment to new expressions of human forms. In the 1960s, Spero changed her medium from canvas to paper. Spero was a founding member of A.I.R.,(Artists in Residence), the first cooperative women's gallery in SoHo.
Image: Nancy Spero - Artemis, 1989, hand-printing and hand-printed collage on paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.
11 September 2020
"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them" - Fred Wilson
I. An installation artist who shakes up traditional museum presentations, an archaeologist who digs into museum archives to uncover previously untold stories, Fred Wilson is an artist with a mission. To call him a conceptual artist barely scratches the surface of his work. When Wilson speaks of remembrance he intends to remind viewers that museums collect in order to recollect. Wilson is, in his own description, "African, Native American, European, and Amerindian."
Fred Wilson's SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not at the Hood Museum in 2008 asked the question: what does it mean to be viewed from the outside by those who impose their interpretation rather than extend understanding? In the photograph above we see busts on pedestals, originally created for an anthropological exhibit at the 1904 St' Louis World's Fair. At the time, it was called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - an overtly expansionist declaration of intent. A prominent and popular display was "The University of Man." It included temporary villages of peoples from around the world, along with life-cast models of the inhabitants that were taken and shared among scientists of the day as an encyclopedia of racial "types"
These are the busts that Wilson renamed, shrouding the derogatory labels with cloths (Onondaga, Sioux, Kongo Bakuba, Pygmy, Negrito, Tagalog, etc.) in heavy cloth. His captions honor their individual humanity: "I have a family, " "Somebody knows me - but not you," "The ancestors remember me." When I think about this transformation I recall the unease I experience looking at figures painted by Paul Gauguin during his years in Tahiti. There is no glimmer of feeling, no sense that the models were open to him or that he even recognized the chasm between artist and subject.
The figure at right in the photograph above, Ota Benga (1883-1916), was a 23 year old member of the Mbuti people from the Congo who was purchased from slave traders by American missionary Samuel Verner to inhabit the anthropology exhibit at the 1904 exposition. Later Benga was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an orangutan. A committee from the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference protested his treatment and eventually Benga was transferred to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. But Benga wanted to go home to Africa so depressed and stymied by the outbreak of WWI, he committed suicide.
II. Daniel Webster's position is an outsize one in relation to Dartmouth College where the exhibition SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not! took place. Founded in 1769 as a college to educate Native Americans, Dartmouth soon moved away from that ideal. In the meantime the school had founded a museum known as Dartmouth College Museum in 1772, making what would eventually be renamed the Hood Museum once of the oldest in the nation.
Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the son of a farmer, graduated from Dartmouth in 1801 and enjoyed a long career as a lawyer, statesman, and orator. When Webster won a major case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 that guaranteed the right of the college to remain private and free of government interference, its museum became a repository of for all sorts of Webster memorabilia. But then in 1850, while sieving as U.S. Secretary of State, Webster brokered the Missouri Compromise, that extended the reach of slavery into the western territories. Fred Wilson made multiple uses of paintings and artifacts to construct his alternative narrative of the museum's collection with regard to Webster's legacy. His touch is deft, surgically precise. He shows rather than tells; like a prestidigitator, he can make visible what has been hidden in plain sight.
Fred Wilson channels Peale's showmanship in his allusions to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Robert Leroy Ripley's was a self-taught artists who received an honorary degree from Dartmouth in 1939, prompting him to donate items from his Odditorium to its museum. Ripley made his audience decide the truth of his visual displays, weighing the scale in his day was the "scientific' concept of the "primitive" as a human category.
III. At the time of the publication of The Voices of Silence in 1965, a famous photograph of Andre Malraux appeared in Paris Match, the author stands over an array of images spread out around him on the floor. Its title was "Museum Without Walls." He believed this demonstrated the unity of human experience, a belief congenial to the cosmopolitan European white male. Malraux, dissatisfied with the museum's dependence on portable objects, lamented that "Napoleon's victories did not enable him the bring the Sistine to the Louvre." Of course, some have argued that, for instance, the Elgin Marbles, were never intended to be portable and yet they were removed from Greece and now reside (contentiously) in the British Museum. In contrast to Malraux, Fred Wilson was photographed lying on the floor among pictures of Daniel Webster, not the figure of Olympian detachment but one immersed in a contentious history.
Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx (1954), attended Music & Art High School, and received a BFA in Fie Art from SUNY Purchase. To support himself at college Wilson worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum. Wilson's first major installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society, placed unlikely objects together to reveal overlooked viewpoints on the colonization, slavery, and abolition in the state. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and in 2008 he became a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
For further reading:
Fred Wilson: SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD: Believe It Or Not! by Barbara Thompson, et al, Hanover, University Press of New England: 2006.
Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus, Santa Monica, RAM Publications: 2011
1. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of life casts, 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.
2. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of "The Immortal Daniel Webster", 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.
3. Francisco Goya - "They May Be Of Another Race" from The Disasters of War, circa 1810-1820, etching, drypoint, burnisher on wove paper, National Museum of Western Arts, Tokyo.
03 September 2020
"I realized that if, subsequently, I encouraged Seraphine de Senlis, it was not for the primitive or surrealist character of he paintings but because she belonged to the great immortals who go beyond the framework of a movement or a school." - Wilhelm Uhde
Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) lived a life permeated by sadness while painting images filled with joy and beauty.. Despite innumerable hardships, she taught herself to paint, finding inspiration in her Catholic faith. Seraphine mixed her own colors, mixing Ripolin, the first commercially available enamel paint, and whitewash. When finances allowed, she switched to using varnish. Her first paintings were made on wood in 1906 and usually have a matte appearance. Remarkably, this completely self-taught artist left works that present few conservation issues. She began each painting by engraving her signature with a knife.
Paintings by Seraphine Louis are in the collections of the Musee Maillol in Paris and the Charlotte-Zander Museum in Bonningheim, Germany. There is a gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Parris where her works are displayed alongside those of Henri Rousseau, challenging the modernistic dogma that belittles such art as exotic or primitive.
25 August 2020
This is a place that erases visual history with glee. Did the fires and earthquakes give white settlers the idea or did they come with erasure in mind? Chidlaw's precisely located paintings are a historian's gold mine of post-war architecture, so the paintings of Nell Brooker Mayhew (1875-1940) captured the Spanish missionary style.
Saffron's World is something altogether different, like one of my other favorite Chidlaw paintings Air Dancer (the dancer of the title is a trapeze artist). "The Story of My Golden Life," a poem by Pamela Davis imagines the quirky interior monologue of Saffron, the goldfish, who confides flirtatiously, "I try to lift a fin to wave my prettiest when he walks/ through the door."
"Everything went so fast. Once I was going nowhere
in a dime store aquarium of a dozen common fish
and he chose me - lifted in a metal scoop, held high
plopped in a bag of water shut with a quick twist."
Here at last that elusive paradise is getting closer.
1. Patricia Chidlaw - Paradise Motel, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
2. Patricia Chidlaw - Mr. Lucky, 2017, oil on linen, Sulliivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.
3, Patricia Chidlaw - Abandoned Water Park -Tune Up, 2018, oil on Canvas, private collection
4. Patricia Chidlaw - Saffron's World, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
20 August 2020
"Every day I go to earn my bread
In the exchange where lies are marketed,
Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.
It's Hell, It's Heaven: the amount you earn
Determines whether you play the harp or burn."
- from Hollywood Elegies by Bertold Brecht,
translated by Adam Kirsch in Poetry Magazine, 2011.
Money problems put a strain on his marriage; in 1937 his wife moved back to Germany with their two children. He also made etchings in the styles of Rembrandt and Whistler; however he sold only two works during his lifetime and there were no public exhibitions, either. Kaye eventually returned to Dresden in 1966, where he died in 1974. Only after his death did Kaye's works attract attention and then enter public collections.
Otis Kaye would be better known today if, he had been the subject of a book by arts journalist Lawrence Weschler. In 1999 Weschler published Boggs; A Comedy of Values about the career of J.S.G. Boggs who, like Kaye, drew pictures of money that he used as performance art pieces. Again, like Kaye, Boggs was the subject of prosecutions - on three continents. The authorities were not amused.
Image: Otis Kaye - The Heart of the Matter, 1963, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
16 August 2020
In five minutes with a painting by Bridget Riley, you will begin to see it move, relationships will appear and dissolve before your eyes. Riley's art is classified as Op Art but it is also participatory art. She intends her works as experiences rather than simply static images. The longer you look the more can see the colors reacting to one another. Riley has said when she began painting she wanted to do something with light reflected on water as the Impressionists had done, but by other means.
The British Bridget Riley (b. 1931) spent an extended time traveling in the 1980s. Her sojourn in Egypt inspired a series of paintings she called "Egyptian Stripes." They contain colors Riley saw in tomb paintings, the Nile River (hence Cool Edge), and the vernacular architecture. Still abstract, yet different in effect from the hard edged black and white paintings that brought her to public attention in the London of the 1960s, more recent works present more subtle interactions.
A retrospective exhibition held last year at London's Hayward Gallery began with paintings the young Riley made to analyze how Georges Seurat's pointillism worked. Riley paints the way the eye sees, moving across shapes and colors. She has always played with the relationship of intensity and tonality (light and dark) of color. For all her intentional experiments based on the physiology of the eye's workings, color is the beating heart of Riley's art.
Image: Bridget Riley - Cool Edge, 1982, oil on linen, private collection.
09 August 2020
03 August 2020
27 July 2020
22 July 2020
17 July 2020
There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast.
Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
11 July 2020
Alma Schindler was a Viennese beauty and a budding composer when she fell in love with Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior, and a moody, authoritarian composer who made Alma give up her music in order to marry him. Marriage marooned eighteen year old Alma, stifled artistically and taken for granted by her husband; she turned to her male admirers (and there were always several to choose from) for consolation. This did not bode well for the future but Mahler died in 1911, leaving Alma to refashion her life.
Broncia Pinell was an established artist of thirty-three when she married Hugo Koller, a physician who had been introduced to her by the composer Hugo Wolf. Before their marriage Hugo had to withdraw from the Catholic church because marriages between Catholics and Jews were not permitted. There is some indication that Broncia converted to Catholicism, at least formally. After their marriage in 1891, Hugo, an avid art collector, promoted his wife's career. And it bears underlining that Broncia Koller-Pinell was an important Post-Expressionist artist, painting nudes at a time when it is was not considered proper subject matter for female artists. Indeed, female artists were barred from study at the Royal Academy until 1920. Her legacy erased after her death, even as late as 1980 she was described as "a housewife who painted."
That these two women whose lives overlapped yet differed in many significant ways ever became friends may have come about because of their children. Koller-Pinell painted several pictures of her daughter Silvia and also of Alma's daughter Anna. The Mahlers often visited the Kollers at their summer home in Oberwaltersdorf, 35 kilometers outside Vienna. The parrot pictured with Anna belonged to the Koller children.
Personae: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), Anna Mahler (1904-1988), Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), Rupert Koller (1896-1976), Silvia Koller (1899-1963)
1. Broncia Koller-Pinell - Self Portrait, circa 1920-1925, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
2. Broncia-Koller Pinell - Anna Mahler With A Parrot, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
06 July 2020
"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And therefore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among these green hills and blue mountains
almost feels an insult."
- excerpt from "The River's Secret" by Hendrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by John Irons
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward but understand it backward. When we consider the world that Vilhelm Hammershoi grew up in, the place and circumstance, an alternate way of looking at his paintings emerges. Those restrained, minimally appointed rooms may evoke thoughts of glossy decorating magazines in a contemporary viewer but that kind of projection merely makes it more difficult to experience the paintings as Hammershoi intended. What the artist intended has been the subject of speculation, his very reticence an irritant like a pebble in a shoe. Something of an enigma to his contemporaries, he remains so.
What distinguished Danish art of the 19th century was the influence of Golden Age Dutch painting filtered through the soft northern light of Scandinavia. Even today Danes look back on the period between 1849 and 1864 as their Golden Age, a time when Hans Christian Anderson and Christoffer Eckersberg created the stories and images that reflected a new modern cultural patrimony for a nation renewed. Into that world, Vilhelm Hammershoi was born in 1864, a year when bright ideals were crushed by the harsh realities of war and defeat. There followed a period of intense introspection among Danes. This unease of the spirit may be what we sense in Hammershoi's paintings, a feeling of the uncanny. Is this how the world looks after a great disillusionment?
Note: Hammershoi did not customarily give titles to his paintings so titles may differ depending on the interpreter.
1. Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900, oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
2. Interior with back view of a woman (Ida Hammershoi), circa 1903, oil on canvas Randers Kunstmuseum, Jutland.
3. Interior with the artist's wife and mother, oil on canvas.
4. unidentified photographer - Vilhelm Hammershoi's palette, courtesy of Royal Academy of Art, London.
30 June 2020
I. We see men and women standing on a shore, symbolically separated by a boat that seems to be taking on water. Drowning in the choppy, unpredictable waters of the Atlantic was a constant worry, especially to the families of the fishermen waiting at home on the Breton shore. Outsize gulls perch on the shoal at the upper left of the canvas, a nice touch to remind us that this painting aspires to something other than literal representation. In is a Fauvist gesture, Luigi Settanni has uncoupled color from its descriptive task, freeing it to express the painter's emotional reaction to his subject.
The tall white headdresses the women wear are traditional Breton coiffe. headdresses made of lace: Although differing in style from town to town, the caps signify the age and marital status of the wearer; the ones pictured here are called Bigouden, a tall cylinder of starched lace recognized throughout France. Dressed in the traditional costume and decorative apron, they are known as bigoudiennes. This tells us that we are in the vicinity of Pont l'Abbe near the Bay of Audierne on the south shore of Finistere. And although northwestern France has been settled for millennia, the Bigoudien is a relatively recent sartorial invention.
Port Manech on the coast of Brittany is part of Finistere, the westernmost Department of France that derives its name from the Latin Finis Terrae meaning end of the earth. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded on three sides by water, Finistere is remote in many ways. This is the area where the Breton language has survived most strongly; five per cent of the population speak Breton rather than French. The countryside is rugged, owing to its rocky soil.
II. In Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure (below) Settanni paints the ground blue, as if to remind the viewer that the sea dominates every corner of Breton life. This makes it appear as though the sea has jumped the stone wall to surround the houses. The figure of the woman reminds us that while the men were away on fishing expeditions, the women waited at home and watched the sea. Thickly applied strokes and daubs of paint lend richness to a scene that some dismiss as impoverished and lacking in interest.
III. I have not been able to unearth much information about Luigi Settanni (August 21, 1908-1984) other than that he was born in Italy and moved to the United States in his twenties. He enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School (now the University of the Arts) and went on to study at the Barnes Foundation in Merion from 1933-1941, where he became a protege of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. We can infer that Settanni did not have much money and that opportunities to study art could have drawn him to emigrate.
Settanni was able to visit Morocco in early 1935 on a Barnes scholarship. There are eleven paintings by Settanni in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, all made before 1940. On the evidence of the paintings, he spent considerable time in northern France, circa 1938-1939. Presumably, it was the outbreak of World War II brought him back to the States. His paintings, even those that portray life in the hard-bitten fishing villages of Brittany, are full of joie de vivre.
Luigi Settanni at the Barnes Foundation
1. Luigi Settani - Port-Manech, 1939, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
2. Luigi Settanni - Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure, 1939, oil on canvas, mounted on board, Barnes Foundation.
23 June 2020
"How much has been said and written about the White Nights. How they were hated by those who could not get used to them, and how passionately they were loved by others....." - Alexandre Benois
How the northernmost capitol city in the world, bathed in pale light when not shrouded in total winter darkness, became a city of light-worshiping artists is a story told in silver. From 1890 to 1920 St. Petersburg, Russia was the center of the Russian art world during a period that came to known as the Silver Age. It was also a time of tremendous social and political upheavals.
"Never has classical architecture had so much space to breathe." - Joseph Brodsky from "The Child of Civilization" in Poems and Essays.
St. Petersburg exists because Peter the Great wanted a better seaport than the one he had inherited from his predecessors. The site of a former Swedish fortress on the Baltic Sea was too attractive to pass up so, in 1703, a new city arose on infilled marshland, built by Russian peasants and Swedish prisoners. After Czar Alexabder II abolished serfdom in 1861, a new wave of peasants, thid time vollunarily, poured into the city in search of work. But marshland is an unhealthy place for people to live and the city was never built to support a large population. Without much of a middle class, St. Petersburg was majestic buildings surrounded by a sea of human misery. It remained the capitol of Russia until the Bolsheviks moved the government seat to Moscow in 1918. The city is home to the Hermitage Museum founded in 1764 and the second largest museum in the world.
St. Petersburg's majestic buildings cluster around the Neva River and a series of canals. Devastating fire. common in the 18th century, destroyed the city's wooden structures but from the ashes came enlightened urban planning, thanks to Russia's female monarchs, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Pink marble from nearby quarries in Finland was used to reinforce the canal embankments and ice cream colored stucco buildings cast a warm glow on the watery reflections of the gray northern light.
Bored by realism and enchanted by the artifice of western Symbolism, Russian artists of the 1890s were ready for the next new thing. That is how St. Petersburg became a magnet for artists not lucky enough to be have been born there. Sergei Prokofiev left Moscow to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he debuted the experimental composition Sarcasms in 1912. Another Muscovite, Alexander Scriabin made his debut as a pianist in the city, later proclaiming that his music heralded the coming of the apocalypse. The new had arrived.
Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) was the magazine that inspired a movement. Artists yearned to reclaim the formal and technical rigor that seemed lost in the laxity of late 19th century Russian art. Its members dubbed themselves the miriskusniki. They excelled in art forms that required extraordinary concentration. The founding members of the World of Art group included Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, and Konstantin Somov. Their philosophy was summed up by Benois as "not this, not that or the other in isolation, but everything together."
For Ostroumova, the impetus to study in Paris was partly practical. "My father has told us many times, that he will not be able to support us in the future, that he will give us a good education, and that we will have to earn our living." While Anna chose art, her sister Sonia chose chemistry. From 1900 until the October Revolution Anna traveled frequently around Europe. At home she participated in the Community of St. Eugenia, a group that funded the building of hospitals, trained nurses, and sheltered the poor. It was disbanded by the Communist Part in 1920 on the ground that charity was no longer needed in a workers' state.
From 1918 to 1922 Ostroumova-Lebedeva taught at the Institute of Photography and, after 1934, at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. In the meantime, Benois had become a curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum; while there he published a monograph on Ostroumova-Lebedva's work. But Benois left definitively for Paris in 1927. Ostroumova-Lebedeva lived through the 872 day Siege of Leningrad during World War II, continuing to record the life of her beloved city. Her images of boys fishing near a warship or bridges under construction reveal her interest in photography. Sadly, she became blind soon after her wartime ordeal, possibly due to its severe deprivations. She died on May 5, 1955.
Read about The Other St. Petersburg
Images: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, State Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, except as noted
2. View of the Neva River and the Stock Exchange from the Trinity Bridge, 1912
3. The Ekatarina Canal, 1910
4. St. Petersburg Chain Bridge, 1903
5. Filipp Maliavin - Portrait of Anna Ostroumova, 1896, oil on canvas
6. Leningrad Fishing Boys, 1942