March 2010

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with John E. Bowlt

When Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900 to 1920: Art, Life and Culture in Russia's Silver Age arrived at my door, I flipped through it and was instantly captivated. I sat on the floor in my hallway, pulled the book into my lap, and sat there for hours. It's physically beautiful, reproducing prints by Mikhail Larionov, Mikhail Brubel, Natan Altman, Zinaida Serebriakova, Natalia Goncharova, and -- a personal favorite of mine -- Leon Bakst. There are photographs of Russian society and intellectuals. An aged Tolstoy is here, as well as Diaghilev of the Ballet Russe with his dyed grey lock of hair, and countless others artists, architects, designers, dancers, poets, journalists are here, too.

What makes this book different from your typical art book is the writing. Bowlt is clear and concise -- he'd have to be, as Art, Life and Culture is a comprehensive topic to write on, and the two decades he chose to write about include a war, a revolution, and the anticipation of the apocalypse. He covers a lot of territory without making you feel like you're simply getting an overview. He also uncovers work and figures unknown to the West -- Russian culture is still mostly unexplored and foreign to the Western world.

I talked to Bowlt over the phone, me in Berlin, him in Southern California, where he teaches at USC. We discussed what the required recipe is for a social and artistic flourishing, why Russian art is still unexplored in the West, and the mystical origins of the Soviet space program.

What was it about this period in time in Moscow and St. Petersburg that allowed for such a creative output?

Several reasons, I think. The first reason I think is that many poets and painters and philosophers at the end of the 19th century in Russia realized that Russia was about to enter a new era. And that feeling was generated by the fact that many of these people associated the year 1900, like many in the West, with the end of the world, that there would be the apocalypse or some calamity or disaster. This would be a cleansing force and after that purification, Russia like a Phoenix would rise. This generated an energy, and a drive and a force that I think infected a lot of Russian society. A desperate wish, not only to reject the past but welcome this new Renaissance, this rebirth. The signs are on the one hand a rotting society and on the other, a new structure, morally speaking, philosophically speaking, artistically speaking, but also socially, economically speaking. These signs can be seen in so much poetry and art and music of the time. There's this sense of moving forward in spite of this imminent catastrophe. This created a certain pregnancy, an anticipation, a certain energy in the art and literature of that time.

Secondly, I think Russians around 1900 were realizing the world is becoming smaller, something we keep saying today. They didn't use the term "global village," but I think there was a sense that because of communications, railroads, telegraph, phonograph, telephone, that sort of thing, the world was becoming smaller and Russia was an increasingly organic part of a civilized community. Many Russians felt that the West, that meant of course Paris, England, to some extent Italy, Germany, and America, should find out about the values of Russian culture. That led to people like Diaghilev, for example, to think about exporting Russian art and Russian music, opera, and ballet, to the West, which of course he did with his ballet company (Ballet Russes) from 1909 to 1929. There's a certain internationalism going on in Russia around 1900.

The third thing, I suppose, which is actually quite manifest, was an appeal to religion, an appeal to the Orthodox church. A need for a new spirituality often materialized in the 19th century. I think Russia's renaissance from 1900 to 1917 or so is also driven by a renewed interest in the Russian church. Or at least, let's say, in religion and a search for spiritual values which opposed the materialist conception of the 19th century, which was capitalism, industrialization and in general cult of objects and commodification. All of these things came together to create an impulse of Russian modernism as they call it, the Russian Silver Age, just before the revolution.

The internationalism, and then post-Revolution there was a closing of the doors. What happened to the artists with the closing of the border and the closing down of the church in the age of communism? How were they affected after this period?

Of course it did have a tremendous effect in the end. I think it's wrong to think Russia was isolated immediately after 1917. Of course there was the Revolution in 1917, but until the early 1920s, Russia was fairly... open isn't the right word, but there was a lot of back and forth, especially among the intellectuals. There was a lot of temporary immigration -- many went to Berlin and Paris and then came back. There were exhibitions that were exported to the West that continued, and the magazines were in Russia, and there was a fairly intense cross-fertilization of ideas until the, oh, mid-1920s, things started to go wrong. This is driven by the fact that in 1917 was seen as an international revolution. It wasn't just a Russian happenstance, but the theory in Marx was that when the revolution came it was going to be universal. It might start in one place, it may start in Russia, but it would spread to Europe. Indeed, in 1918 you had the German revolution, in 1919, the Hungarian revolution. There was a sense among intellectuals and radicals that the revolution was happening worldwide, and so written culture and artistic culture should be interchanged. In other words, this is great, I suppose, if you believe that. What happened in the mid-1920s, Stalin ascended when Lenin died in 1924, and I think we can say that up until then, despite the horrors of the civil war and the starvation and the mass immigration and these terrible things, that it wasn't a dictatorship, and that didn't start until 1924 and the ascendancy of Stalin and the realization that there would not be a universal revolution. This led Stalin to talk about socialism in one country, which meant only in Russia. That led to the closing of the borders and so on.

As far as the arts and literature and culture in Russia, they flourished really in Russia until the mid-1920s, until the initial strictures that were enacted by the party apparatus. In other words, the avant garde continued to flourish, new ideas, new poetry, new paintings. Nobody went to jail for painting an abstract painting in the mid-1920s, but they might have gone to jail in the mid-1930s. Nobody was jailed for writing concrete poetry in the early 1920s, but they would have been in the mid-1930s. There was no real guideline until the mid-1920s until what proletarian Russian art form was supposed to be, so there was a certain plasticity, a certain freedom. You could experiment and offer your own interpretation because no one knew what they were talking about until the mid-1930s. The mid-1920s onward the party began to dictate what it required.

You seem to have a certain fondness for Leon Bakst, both in this book and others. I read that you're working on a translation of Bakst's writings, and I was just wondering what drew you to him as a figure, both in the theatre and in literature.

He is one of my heroes, and I like what he did because he was such a versatile figure. He was not only a very fine painter -- he did wonderful portraits and landscapes -- but he was a book designer, a fashion designer, he was very famous for his designs for the costumes and sets for the Russian ballet company, until 1924 when he died. It's now becoming manifest that he also was a very fine, elegant writer. He wrote about contemporary life, about ballet of course, about technology, about America, about film. He was also a creative writer, he wrote a novel. He wrote librettos for ballets and movies. He also wrote reviews and conducted interviews for newspapers and magazines. He was a very fine writer, a wordsmith I suppose we could say, as well as being a very fine designer and painter. I think he also interests me because... I'm not Jewish, but he was Jewish, and I was always fascinated by the role of the peripheral populations in Imperial Russia, and the Jews of course had a very tough time in Imperial Russia. I'm interested in the relationship of minority culture, his Jewish cultural background, to the Imperial Center. Then, his character. It's always impossible to recapitulate someone's character after the fact, we don't know him, we can't know. But I find him to a fascinating character, how he moved in society, how he was able to adjust to society in France, and how even though he's getting on in years he comes to America in 1922, I think it is, and he loves what he sees. He sees the future here. That's rare for someone who's beyond middle age, to wake up again. He's very much aware of... he's not only flying high meaning he's a celebrity, but he's also very much involved in the local art form. When he comes to the United States, one of the first things he talks about is Indian art. He says American students should look at their local Indian tribal art. He's a very open, mercurial, versatile figure. That reflects the best of the Russian Silver Age, which was so open in the end, so pervious to outside ideas. It wasn't nationalistic at all, which was great.

Your own personal interest in Russia in general?

It's a long, long story, and not really for a telephone conversation. But it started when I was about 10 years old, and I became fascinated with the Russian alphabet and remained with that. Like I tell my students, Russia is very much like a marsh, like a swamp, once you get in it, you can't get out. There's a magnetic pull. You enter this world of empire, and you're forever finding, discovering new forces, new elements, new avenues of discovery. Partly because Russian culture is still not well explored, not like, say, French culture, which is very well known in the Western world. Part of it is the language barrier -- Russian is a very complicated language. It's different. You have to learn that before you can understand the culture. I think maybe the fascination lies in the very subtle and complex combination of reality and fantasy. And by that I mean not only the wonderful creative gestures like the Russian ballet and the literature culture like Tolstoy, but even her scientists -- physics, mathematics, astrophysics -- are colored by the magical, the absurd, but the other. The other world. I find that combination so interesting.

Right, the space program was inspired by the idea that the souls of the dead were going to be coming back to the planet, is that correct?

Yes, exactly. The father of the Russian space program was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who way before the Revolution, in the 1880s, was thinking about rockets. And I think most historians agree that he was the first to come up with the idea of the multi-phase rocket. Around 1910, he began to think about atomic energy as a force that could be used for rockets. Anyway, the philosophical reason he began to think about rockets -- he was an inventor, an eccentric, he was a schoolteacher, a mathematician, but living in the provinces -- is because he had read, or he knew a philosopher called Fedorov who believed or argued that one day all people would be resurrected, they would all come back to earth. So Tsiolkovsky's question was, well, where are you going to put all of them? Because there's quite a lot of them. [Laughs] We'd have overcrowding. This drove him to think of rockets to take these people to outer space, to the planets, to populate space with all these people. [Laughs] Maybe he's right and one day it'll happen.

And you were involved in a project, the Amazons of the Avant Garde, an exhibition focusing on the under-appreciated female artists of the Russian avant garde. Were they unappreciated during their time as well, or have they simply fallen out of favor?

The latter. They were well known in their time, they were recognized as the equals of the men. There was no sense of rivalry. These women were indeed at the forefront. They were treated as equal partners. Without any particular political agenda. They felt themselves to be artists out there with their male colleagues, discovering new systems, abstract systems in their painting, their sculpture, their writing. They were indeed resonant names back then. Then they fell from grace for all sorts of reasons. The whole avant-garde fell from grace. They split up, some immigrated, they were getting older and some languished. It was forgotten, and then Western society which is always so hierarchical and like men decided that artists like Kandinsky were more important. Or at least more visible. It's only very recently that we've embarked upon a new appreciation of the women of the 1910s and 1920s. That's one reason why the Guggenheim tried to expose these amazing painters to Europe and America. It was a very exciting project. I think it probably has made more people aware of this great force in Russian culture. Not just in painting, but amazing poetesses of the time, and musicians. There was an entire prism of work.

Can you just tell me a little bit about what you're working on now?

I'm working on a show together with two other curators which is dedicated to this question of the strange relationship of Russian art of the 1910s and the 1920s and astrophysics, cosmonautics, that is space travel. Tsiolkovsky, who I mentioned, plays a role. We're showing paintings and space paraphernalia, rockets, Sputnik, it's that relationship that it's all about. We're doing it for a foundation in Spain, so it'll be in Spain beginning in June.