Mayakovsky, Museum & More
V V Mayakovsky. 1893-1930. Poet, revolutionary, Futurist, Constructivist, propagandist, cartoonist. Suicide. Serial lover. Voyager.
Text and photos – Ross Hunter
A life in a paragraph
A normal upbringing (like most later-to-be revolutionaries) in Georgia (like You Know Who), socialist even before being expelled from school for not paying the fees. Radicalism, imprisonment, life on the move and renown as a poet followed. At 22 he met the first of the loves of his life, the wife of his publisher. Leading up to the war and the revolution, he was a prominent futurist and anti-war activist, somehow reconciling the inherent contradictions there. The titles of his best known works: ‘A slap in the Face of Public Taste’ and ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ give an idea. He was in Petrograd, at the Smolny Institute no less when The Revolution broke out, and he put his talent to the Bolsheviks’ service. He travelled widely, and combined poetry with practically inventing ‘agit-prop’ and the shop window propaganda poster (so-called ‘Rosta’ art) - deeply intellectual poetry and graphics for the masses. Stalin’s crackdown on artistic freedom was insufferable to the artists who had contributed to it, and after turning against the regime with biting satire – ‘The Bathhouse’ and ‘The Bed Bug’, he took his own life in 1930: ‘It is your turn to speak, Comrade Mauser’. Stalin’s eulogy to his importance finished his reputation off.
Killed himself because of Stalin.
Immortalised posthumously by Stalin. Where does one start?
If you need that question, don’t start – there is no finish.
One visiy to the Mayakosvky Museum tells all.
One visit is essential – go!
A hundred visits will still leave you confused. The antidote to dusty musty crusty pickled still life museums. No “museum feet” from teenagers – they love it from the outset. Ephemeral chaos welded in steel: anarchic utopianism, hope and despair in solid form. No need for right angles, nothing right or rightist. You will be left. Left astounded. Left confused. Left inspired.
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” - VVM
It is hidden round the side of Lubyanka, spitting distance of the Cheka-NKVD-KGB-FSB. Ha!
“Lenin - lived, Lenin – lives, Lenin - will live!” - VVM (after the Bible)
Mayakosky. Hopeless romantic. Aggressive revolutionary. Creator of agit-prop and Rosta window propaganda. Devoted futurist, the supreme antihistoricist. Supporter of Lenin, the great historical destinist. Total poet, only accessible to the cognoscenti; satirical cartoonist, the message of the new brilliantly available for the masses.
“the incident dissolved” the love boat smashed against reality. I’m through with life and [we] should absolve mutual hurts, grudges and anxieties. – last words, VVM
The Museum – “a tour round Mayakovsky’s brain” – Moscow Taxi
Understanding Mayakovsky is not easy. Enjoying the museum is. While Mayakovsky’s collaborators Rodchenko and Popova enjoy a spectacular exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, why not have a slice of the action back home in Moscow? The museum is in strikingly constructivist style – eschewing such bourgeois fripperies as vertical and horizontal, or even rooms and walls – it is a maze of steel framed avenues and dark corners.
Fittingly, access to the Museum requires turning one’s back on the Lubyanka prison/HQ, and sidestepping though an anarchic bookshop, whence the amazing tilted entrance beckons. The subterranean cloakroom sets the scene, with its dozen twisted chairs to represent absent poetical friends, disappeared or casualties of the revolution. You are then led to the top floor, and descend through Mayakovsky’s live in a gradual, disbalancing spiral. Key episodes of his life are presented in different tableaux, some conventional as in his working study, some soaring flights of fancy, as for example the skeletal aeroplane, with our hero as the engine.
Images of Lenin are for conversing with – seemingly the only way to have a reasonable chat with the Leader. Given Mayakovsky’s loud and brusque style, a discourse Lenin must have been a noisy affair. Every Russian speaker will tell you that translating Mayakovsky is impossible as Pushkin, and it must be understood in the original. If so, this constrains the meaning of the museum, but there is still more than enough to excite and entertain – and trouble and question.
Contradictions and aspirations: Mayakovsky was a flamboyant character. He gave his life to the revolution, twice. Was it worth it? He did well from the original revolution, lionised and allowed to travel, and love, freely, a luxury hardly afforded less equal equals. Death at 37 by his own hand, not in a camp or prison allows him cult status.
Do I like him? Do I agree with him? Does it matter? Do you?
If you have understood this article – you have missed the point. Construct your own Mayakovsky.
For a more conventional Mayakovsky, see his statue strutting with stone jaw outside, and inside the Metro station bearing his name. That is by a margin the finest station on the system – railway architecture a guarantee of a poet’s immortality. His very conventional grave, with headstone, is a Novodiveichy.