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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Unreproductibility of Art
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

“Return of the Prodigal Son”

ack in Soviet times we, art students and art lovers used to study the world of art through reproductions. Not in our wildest dreams could we imagine going to Paris, Rome or Barcelona, say, on our own or through a tourist agency, let alone having dollars, or writing for a foreign magazine, such as Passport. That would have been bordering on crime. A trip abroad could only happen through one’s work and one was sure to be watched carefully by the notorious and ubiquitous three-letter agencies

However, things changed and the Soviet Union fell. (We would have more readily believed in the end of the world rather than the end of the communist state, even as recently as 1986). Although the cloak-and-dagger brigade are as eagle-eyed now as they ever have been for the past twenty years, I’ve been able to travel round the world, at first through private invitations and then on my own.

Apart from the other surprises that the West had in store for me, I was shocked by its galleries. And not only by the sheer size of these places, but also by the professionalism of their display. But most of all by the originals themselves. One of my first encounters with original western art was the Royal Collection in Buckingham Palace in London in 1989. I was astounded by Rembrandt van Rijn, especially his painting “Agatha Bas” (1641), also known as “Lady of the Fan”. I had seen it in reproductions many a time! But there and then I realized for the first time in my life that art is unreproductible.

There she was right in front of me, emerging out of nowhere, out of nonexistence, against a deep black background with her wistful enigmatic face, her skin seeming to breathe, her thin fair hair almost translucent, the fabric of her garments heavy and so clear in relief, and so realistic that you felt you could touch the material or weigh it in your palm. The lace seemed to be coming out of the canvas like pop-art, and the fan was so realistic that I wanted to hold it.

That was not art but life itself reaching out to me across the centuries, and I stood in front of it dumbfound, in rapture and unable to move. I’ve seen Rembrandt’s original canvases in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, “Return of the Prodigal Son” (1669), for example. But never before had the impression been so strong.

I stayed in England for two months, in London and Cambridge, and never missed an opportunity to visit a gallery. I visited the National Gallery fourteen times and the Fitzwilliam Museum about five or six times. On my last day in London I went to the Tate Gallery hoping to see my favorite William Blake, and was very excited. I thought: if he is so great in reproductions what are the originals going to look like?

You can’t imagine my utter disappointment when I saw the originals in their perfect glass frames. They were exactly the same as the reproductions in my book at home, and almost the same size. So the original Blake did not tell me more than the reproductions. Coming back to Moscow I picked up a book of Blake and saw the same pictures that I had seen at the Tate, the excellently displayed works of Blake in electrically-lit glass cases. There was nothing behind them. All the artistic, metaphysical and spiritual information was there, in the reproductions in a book.

But Rembrandt was different!

Musée d’Orsay

This August I was traveling around Andalusia in Spain and, of course, I stopped in Malaga, the capital of Andalusia. Apart from the breath-taking Cathedral of Malaga and its Fortress, La Alcazaba, there are some fine art museums, including two collections of Picasso, at Casa Picasso (the Picasso Birthplace Museum, located in Malaga Town Hall), and at Museo Picasso.

I did not have a lot of time and was not really sure I wanted to see Picasso. I knew him by his blue and pink period, represented at the Pushkin Museum. I’ve seen some of his work in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and, of course, I’ve seen quite a number of reproductions. To be honest, I did not think much of him. I actually thought he was mocking mankind a little bit when drawing his precious doodles, which cost a lot of money, especially at the end of his life. But since Muse Picasso was not far from the Malaga Catherdal I decided to go there. That visit made me come back to Malaga the second time to go to see the Casa Picasso.

His art was a revelation to me. This genius of the 20th century mastered all the schools of art, from realistic to abstract, and invented his own style. He broke all the rules, but turned rule-breaking into a tradition in its own right. As his family put it, Picasso spent his life “learning to paint like a child.”

The portrait of his first wife, the Russian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova, was done in a realistic manner. It’s called “Olga Khokhlova Wearing Mantilla” (Barcelona, Autumn 1917, oil on canvas). Actually the head-wear of that sophisticated woman was not really a mantilla, but rather a tablecloth that Picasso found in the hotel room where the couple was staying at that time.

Secondly, the painting strikes you as surprisingly conventional. Every detail is done with meticulous care and craftsmanship: the folds of the soft white shoulder piece pinned by a brooch, the mantilla-tablecloth, and the intelligent, beautiful face of a young woman, tight-lipped, showing a glimmer of bitterness, so characteristic of a lofty, refined soul unfit for crude, down-to-earth reality. And although this portrait evinces a shock from the viewer – is this really Picasso!? – here as well as in his other works Pablo reveals his famous quality: “snatching pieces of the world around him and turning them into something entirely his own.” Seeing these works in real life made all the difference for me.

Olga Khokhlova

Another portrait that struck me was “Woman with Raised Arms” (1936, oil, charcoal and sand on canvas). The expressivity of this painting is beyond art. I saw the irritated woman with raised arms, long nails, her nostrils puffed up, spilling out her anger and indignation at the man (because such anger and indignation could only be addressed to a man, her own man), her frenzy making one of her eyes go almost up to the forehead. The whole composition is nothing but a circle made up of the furiousness of the enraged woman.

Picasso proved to be not only a painting genius, but also a masterful graphic artist. He also achieved a high level of skill in many techniques, from dry-point to lino-cut. He used mythological and Biblical subjects as well as his direct impressions of life, starting with women and ending up with bulls and corrida de toros. While I was still in the museum, I guessed that his innovative but masterly graphics might be better reproduced than his oils. But still I could not look at a single album or postcard in the museum shop. The images were flat, inexpressive, toneless. I averted my eyes and quickly went out into the street. I wanted to preserve the impressions gained from seeing the originals.

When I left Casa Picassso realizing that Picasso played a crucial role in the whole epic of modern art, I saw a monument to the artist. It was erected at the Plaza de la Merced, across from the statue of a Spanish General (what’s his name? I forgot it the minute I saw it). Unlike the General (proud of himself and standing), Picasso’s monument (he is shown old, tired and seated) has no indication who the subject is. Yet the very place is associated with the famous artist. I asked an elderly Spanish couple if they could take a picture of me – Picasso and me – since I had discovered the greatest master for myself and, “snatching that piece of the world, made it my own.” Without the original art, would there have been anything worth snatching?

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