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Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art

 | 
Louise Hardiman
, 
Nicola Kozicharow

10. The Role of the ‘Red Commissar’ Nikolai Punin in the Rediscovery of Icons

Natalia Murray

Texte intégral

  • 1 ‘Red Commissar’ refers to Punin’s honorary position of People’s Commissar of the State Hermitage a (...)
  • 2 The principal literature on Punin as at the date of writing comprises the following: The Diaries o (...)

1Nikolai Punin (1888–1953) still remains an enigma both in Russia and the west, perceived by many as a ‘red commissar’, being the right hand of Anatoly Lunacharsky.1 Punin’s role in defining post-revolutionary art and his support for avant-garde artists (especially the Futurists) are much better known than his contribution to the rediscovery, study, and indeed preservation of Russian icons.2 This chapter examines the origins and impact of Punin’s interest in Russian icons, as well as his place among other Russian scholars who wrote about icons at the beginning of the twentieth century.

  • 3 Nikodim (or Nikodeme) Pavlovich Kondakov (1844–1925) was an art historian with special expertise i (...)

2In 1907, nineteen-year-old Punin entered the State University in St Petersburg. He studied law for one year, but soon gave up his pursuit of a political career and entered the historical-philological faculty. In St Petersburg State University, a history of art faculty had been officially founded as early as 1863, when, following a High Decree of Tsar Alexander II, the new faculty of Theory and History of Art was formed. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, history of art in Russia was still closely linked with archaeology and philology. The strictly chronological, so-called ‘iconographical’ method, created in Russia by Nikodim Kondakov for studying Byzantine art, was used for all research into the history of art.3 Thus, Old Russian icons and church relics were analysed strictly from a religious or archaeological perspective.

3Punin’s professor at the University, Dmitry Ainalov, was a specialist in Byzantine art. Like many of his contemporaries, Ainalov believed that art after the Renaissance was not worth studying. He marked Punin’s final paper, ‘Traces of antiquity in the landscapes of Giotto’ (Cherty antichnosti v peizazhakh Dzhotto), as “pretty satisfactory”, and commented that Punin should wait for the publication of Ainalov’s book on church wall paintings from Novgorod, in which he also wrote about Giotto and the Byzantine mosaic artists. For Ainalov, his own book seemed to define the height of perfection to which his loyal student had to strive. Paradoxically, it was from this same book that a new approach to the history of art began. Ainalov and his students would now add their own personal observations to the otherwise rather dry academic papers, thus making them more accessible to a wider audience. Through this more subjective approach, the history of art was stepping out of the realm of science into the uncultivated field of popular, although still elitist, culture.

  • 4 N. Punin, ‘K probleme Vizantiiskogo iskusstva’, Apollon, 3 (1913), 19, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issl (...)
  • 5 Ibid., p. 21. “мы слишком много смотрим на повседневную жизнь, чтобы понять великолепие граненого с (...)
  • 6 Ibid., p. 23. “мясник не продавал мяса без того, чтобы не высказать какого-нибудь довода, который о (...)

4In 1913, Punin started work in the department of Old Russian Art at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, which incorporated a Museum of Christian Relics (formerly part of the Imperial Academy of Arts) as its base. The recent purchase of the famous collection of Greek and Russian icons from Nikolai Likhachev had provided the Russian Museum with the largest collection of icons in Russia. That same year, Punin started writing articles and book reviews for the prestigious art journal Apollon. His first article was dedicated to the art of the Spiritual Mother of Russia, the Byzantine Empire. It was called ‘On the problem of Byzantine art’ and was full of metaphors and romantic reminiscences. He believed that Byzantine art was “the most artistic of all arts”, and that Constantinople was “the bath of oriental and Hellenistic traditions, in which Byzantine art was bathing, and a cradle, where the descendants of the previously mighty cultures were rocked to sleep”.4 These beautiful reminiscences were too picturesque for the dry academicians and too complicated and allegorical for the general public. But Punin was prepared, at least at the time, to be understood by a selective audience. He wrote in his article that the problem is that “we think about our everyday life too much to take time to understand the splendour of a cut sapphire.”5 He admired the people of ancient Byzantium, who could accept and feed this amazing culture for many centuries, and described Constantinople as a magical city where “the butcher would not sell a piece of meat without expressing his view on the greatness of the Virgin, which he had contemplated overnight, and where people would argue about the Holy Trinity, the birth and the holy nature of Jesus on the squares and in the shops”.6

10.1 Nikolai Punin, c. 1919. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.

10.2 Nikolai Punin with Russian Museum guard, 1914.
Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.

  • 7 For the catalogue, see: Vystavka drevnerusskogo iskusstva v Moskve, ustroennaia v 1913 v oznamenov (...)
  • 8 W. Weidle, Tri Rossii, quoted in Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova. Poet and Prophet (Los Angeles, CA (...)

5Between 1903 and 1904, the Trinity icon (fig. 1.3) by the legendary Russian artist, Andrei Rublev, had been cleaned for the first time. In 1913, the tercentenary year of the founding of the Romanov dynasty, an exhibition of newly restored icons called the Exhibition of Old Russian Art (Vystavka drevnerusskogo iskusstva) was held in Moscow.7 After looking to the west for two hundred years, Russians were turning to their own traditions and heritage. This was the Russian Renaissance – “an awareness of Russian consciousness, revitalisation in philosophy, the sciences, literature, music, painting, theatre. What these years lived by and what they gave to the spiritual world would never die”.8 As Jane Sharp has explained:

  • 9 Jane A. Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West: Natal′ ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant- (...)

The shift in orientation from West to East in the decade that followed the revolution and Russo-Japanese war betrays this generation’s different assumptions regarding the authority of Tsarist institutions. [Natalia] Goncharova and her colleagues were uniformly sensitive to their status as emissaries of Western culture, on the one hand, and as receptors for Western influence, on the other. They saw themselves not as serving the purpose of empire but as colonists subversively seeking to reverse the process of colonisation. To a large extent, their turn to the East was compensatory. Like the Slavophiles before them, the Muscovites sought to redefine an excessively Europeanized present and privileging Russia’s prior assimilation of Byzantine and Eurasian cultural traditions.9

  • 10 Pavel Muratov (1881–1950) was a Russian essayist, novelist, art historian, critic, and playwright. (...)
  • 11 See for example Nikolai Punin, ‘Vystavka drevnerusskogo iskusstva (ustroennaia Moskovskim arkheolo (...)

6The twentieth century opened a new chapter in the study of the history of art, and Punin became one of the first researchers to write in its pages. It was only to be expected that this should inspire Punin’s interest in and admiration of Old Russian icons. Along with Pavel Muratov and Nikolai Shchekotov, Punin became one of the first critics to reveal the unique aesthetic characteristics of Russian icons.10 In his articles he aimed to engage the reader with their spiritual qualities.11

7At the end of the nineteenth century there had also been a revival in collecting Russian icons, which in its turn encouraged a new wave of interest in this subject among artists and art critics. The discovery of a process which enabled restorers to remove darkened varnish and layers of soot from old icons revealed the most beautiful treasures. But the cleaning of these icons was not welcomed by everyone and soon became a highly controversial issue. The debate on icon cleaning brought Punin into conflict with the Latvian artist and art critic Voldemars Matvejs, who had argued against the intrusive restoration of icons. Matvejs believed that the restoration of old icons destroyed their texture (faktura); the old varnish and layers of soot that most were striving to get rid of, according to Matvejs, contributed to the mysterious appeal of old icons. He wrote:

  • 12 Voldemars Matvejs [Vladimir Markov], Printsipy tvorchestva v plasticheskikh iskusstvakh: faktura, (...)

Cleaned icons have a ragged appearance; they look as if they were made to look like western European paintings – as a result icons disappear. The dark St Georges come to mind – with such a special dark surface, such play of brown and golden tones and sheen, dressed in gold and silver, – which one will never find either in paintings by Rembrandt, nor Leonardo, nor Ribera.12

8Matvejs’s declaration of the superiority of Russian icons over European art had its roots in the nineteenth century. The voice of the Slavophiles, who already in the 1830s had opposed westernisers in defence of a messianic nationalism, found a strong wave of support among the artistic intelligentsia at the beginning of the twentieth century.

  • 13 Punin, Mir svetel liubov′ iu, Letter of 22 April 1913, p. 46. “[…] и уже, конечно, не забыть столь (...)

9While Punin disagreed with Matvejs about the importance of cleaning old icons, he agreed with him on the question of the superiority of Old Russian art. In a letter to his future wife, Anna Arens, written in 1913, Punin proclaimed that icon painting was such a mature form of art that in front of it, “the whole of European art (perhaps only with the exception of the Renaissance) – looks like toys”.13 The Exhibition of Old Russian Art had the most profound effect on him. He wrote to Arens:

  • 14 Ibid.“Если бы только кто-нибудь из петербуржцев знал, что за сокровища погребены в Москве и что та (...)

If only people in St Petersburg knew what kind of treasures are buried in Moscow and what an icon is. In just one Virgin Mary from the Novikov church, which I saw today, such spiritual energy is concentrated, that if one takes the souls of all the heroines from the novels by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Pushkin, as well as the souls of the sisters Arens and the souls of the deepest women – even this synthesis would not exceed in its strength and depth this one icon.14

  • 15 N. Punin, ‘Obzor novykh techenii v iskusstve Peterburga’, Russkoe Iskusstvo, 1 (1923), 17–28.

10Punin dedicated his articles written in 1914 to Russian icons, which for him represented much more than just great works of art. He perceived them as a revelation, and as the highest ideal for the newly emerging Russian avant-garde. In his article of 1923, ‘Review of new trends in the art of St Petersburg’, Punin concluded that “the influence of Russian icons on [Vladimir] Tatlin is undoubtedly greater than the influence of Cézanne or Picasso upon him”.15 As John Milner confirms in his book on Tatlin:

  • 16 John Milner, Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian Avant-Garde (New Haven, CT and London: Yale Universit (...)

For Tatlin, as for [Kazimir] Malevich and [Natalia] Goncharova, the icon provided a living and Russian alternative to Western traditions. Their search for a Russian identity could find spatial systems in the icon that were not imported. Furthermore, many icons were pictorially superb, their painters’control complete and their emphasis upon materials crucial.16

  • 17 Quoted in Antonina Izergina, ‘Kvartira N 5. Glava iz vospominanii’, Panorama iskusstv, 12 (1989), (...)
  • 18 Ibid., p. 193.

11Punin considered Tatlin to be “the only creative force capable of moving art out of the trenches of the old front line”. He believed that “Tatlin gave, through his representational matter, a new form to the world. New form – high relief – is opposite to the past, it went outside all the limits of painting, it is a cloud of arrows – into the future, without looking back”.17 When, in 1916, Tatlin arrived in St Petersburg from Moscow, Punin described the excitement of Tatlin’s visit by saying that they awaited him “as one awaits an event which could warrant expectations and move everything forward, as one awaits a leader”.18

12In 1914 Punin, by now an experienced clerk in the department of Old Russian Art, was promoted to become secretary of the Society for the Research of Old Russian Painting, and a member of the editing committee of the periodical Russian Icon (Russkaia ikona). Published six times a year, printed on lusciously thick paper, with thirty to thirty-five beautiful reproductions in each issue and a special font, this anthology of Russian icons was criticised by many contemporary critics for its focus on style and appearance rather than the quality of its contents. Thus, in his article dedicated to this periodical, Muratov wrote:

  • 19 Pavel Muratov, ‘Peterburgskaia russkaia ikona’, Sofiia, 4 (1914), quoted in P. Muratov, Drevneruss (...)

The editors would have been better off if they had only included beautifully reproduced illustrations, without filling the big pages with strange colourless text. Who needs articles, which look as if they were taken from unreadable archaeological books, even if they are printed on fine thick paper with red vignettes?19

  • 20 Ibid., p. 349.

13Muratov remarked that at least foreigners would be happy to look at this periodical, since, without being able to understand the text, they could appreciate the illustrations. However, the only article that Muratov considered worth reading in the first issue of Russian Icon was one by Punin on the icons in Likhachev’s collection. He admired the emotional angle from which Punin had written it, but criticised it for being too shallow, and for its inability to give a true understanding of the significance of this renowned collection.20

14In his article, Punin was only supposed to date and provide a brief description of the most remarkable icons from the Likhachev collection (which, by then, was in the permanent collection of the Russian Museum), but he could not avoid describing the Russian Orthodox spiritual aspect of the icons and their emotional impact on the viewer. Concentrating on Italian influences upon Russian icons, Punin once again stressed the importance of the Byzantine tradition in their development. He further described the historical and stylistic significance of these icons:

  • 21 N. Punin, ‘Zametki ob ikonakh v sobranii N. P. Likhacheva’, p. 23.

An icon – one cannot forget – is not only an example of a certain style, not only an example of the power of the wealth of colour, but a certain content (substance), a certain part of eternity, the fulfilment of another life and another spiritual realm, different from the tradition which fed our artistic experiences so far.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 47.

15Punin stressed that one must see the spiritual side of icons before their historical or aesthetic significance. He finished his opus by saying that “the full description of this collection is still awaiting its author, we have no doubt about it – someone more attentive and less passionate”.22

  • 23 N. Punin, ‘Ellinism i vostok v ikonopisi’, p. 181.

16Not able to resist the powerful appeal of Russian icons, Punin wrote another article for this periodical, dedicated to the private collections of icons that belonged to the wealthy merchants Ilia Ostroukhov and Pavel Riabushinsky. Once again, in this article Punin pointed out the progression of Russian art from that of Byzantium: “A complicated artistic phenomenon in its own right – Byzantine art – could not avoid lending its complexity to Russian icon painting”.23

  • 24 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo. Mastera russkogo iskusst (...)
  • 25 Ibid.
  • 26 N. Punin, Andrei Rublev (Petrograd: Apollon, 1916), p. 23.
  • 27 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo, p. 36.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 41. “подходит в одеянии обновленном, на котором византийско-европейское Возрождение выши (...)

17Punin’s most significant article on icons was written in 1915. It was dedicated to one of the most mysterious (and indeed canonised) Russian artists, Andrei Rublev.24 The article first appeared in Apollon, and a year later it was published as a separate booklet and became one of the first descriptions of the artistic style of this unique artist, as well as of the tradition from which it was born. Punin admired Rublev both as a unique artist and as a humble monk – “a tender and strong flower, which has grown from the rich and fertile soil of the Orthodox East”.25 He wrote that the significance of Rublev for Russian art is expressed in “the purity and security of the ancient traditions which fed his art, which he made stronger and which he carried on into the next centuries”.26 In the beginning of his article Punin stressed that Russia, bordered by both east and west, had become “an extraordinary full cup of spiritual forces”, for which the European and eastern traditions were equally important.27 Both Byzantium and Europe influenced the development of Russian icons and frescoes, and, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, Russian art had gained “a new dress, upon which Byzantine and European Renaissance have already embroidered their patterns – its tender, classically beautiful ornamental attire”.28

18Punin based his arguments about the style of Rublev’s work on his most significant icon – the Trinity. Inspired by the heavenly beauty of this icon he wrote that it was:

  • 29 Ibid.“[…] икона такой боговдохновенной красоты, что мы, как цветы к солнцу, возносим к ней свою ду (...)

an icon of such God-inspired beauty, that we, like flowers towards the sun, raise our soul to it and in the triviality of our deathly desires cannot reject the thirst for knowing, finding, calling the name, which distinguished a genius in this world, who was elevated to such lonely, such tenderly-beautiful and pure heights.29

19In his article Punin provided the most poetic description of Rublev’s Trinity:

  • 30 Ibid., p. 48.

No matter how long or how scrupulously one examines the icon of the Holy Trinity, its tender grace and inspired mystical energy do not stop exciting one’s imagination. One can analyse its style in detail and even describe its content, but even after such analysis, there is something unspoken left, which gives this icon inexhaustible charm. As if life itself keeps feeding these lines, these faces, and every new day is reflected in this icon with its new light, new grief of daily affairs, and new melancholy of its death.30

  • 31 N. Punin, Andrei Rublev (Petrograd: Apollon, 1916), pp. 19–20.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 33 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo, p. 48. “Искусство не род (...)

20Punin praised this unique icon as “a triumph of motionless contemplation, as if three souls, with equal plenitude of spirit and vision, came together to experience their humility and wisdom of life, full of suffering and sorrow”.31 Punin called Rublev “a genius, the light of the early period of our painting, a sun which dominated the horizon for at least hundred years […] a marvellous and delicate prophet of divine essences”.32 The article marked the end of Punin’s research into Russian icons, although his attempts to find the true roots of the Russian artistic tradition never ended. He concluded with the statement that: “Art is not born in one day, art needs life and it needs the past, art can never live without traditions. Where are our traditions?”33

  • 34 N. Punin, ‘Vstrecha ob iskusstve’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 5 (5 January 1919), 2.

21Already in 1915 Punin’s writing was preoccupied with the problems of contemporary art. After the October Revolution, Punin, now a furious fighter for futurism, proclaimed: “We want new life and new culture […]. We are the polar opposite of the whole old world. We came in order not to renew it, but to destroy it, in order to create our new world.”34 But did he truly believe in the necessity of destroying traditional art? At the same time that he signed this bold proclamation, Punin was still trying to support icon painters in a remote village in central Russia, Mstera, where the whole population had historically been involved in painting icons.

22After the Revolution, the sale and export of icons from villages in central Russia was banned, and many skilled artists lost their jobs. It was suggested that perhaps these artists could use their skills and techniques to paint wooden toys, but since other villages in different parts of Russia were already specialising in toy making, starting this industry in Mstera meant “stealing their bread”. Punin fought for their right to continue production of icons as works of art rather than subjects of a religious cult, arguing that there was no decree prohibiting the sale of icons.

  • 35 Anatoly Lunarcharsky, ‘A Spoonful of Antidote’ (Lozhka protivoiadiia), quoted in Wiktor Woroszylsk (...)
  • 36 Anatolii Lunarcharskii, ‘Vstrecha v dome Lassalia’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 5 (5 January 1919), p. 3.
  • 37 N. Punin, ‘Revolutsionnaia Mudrost ′’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 6 (12 January 1919), p. 2.
  • 38 Riza (Russian: риза, ‘robe’) or oklad (оклад, ‘covered’) is an icon cover, sometimes referred to a (...)

23In 1918, Lunacharsky appointed Punin as Head of the Visual Arts Department of the Petrograd People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) and as the Commissar of the Hermitage and Russian Museums. Lunarcharsky wrote in his article ‘A Spoonful of Antidote’: “Not for nothing does the fighting Futurist Punin sweat for all he is worth in order to save the traditions of icon painting in Mstera and is concerned about the prohibition of local authorities to export icons from Mstera […]”.35 At a meeting in the Lassal house, which took place in January 1919, and was dedicated to the relationship between old and new art, Lunacharsky pointed out that “not all old art is bourgeois and even if it is – not all of it is bad”.36 In his speech he stressed the participation of the working class in creating the eternal monuments in Egypt and Ancient Greece. But he also stated his belief that futurism is not the only alternative to the art of the past. Punin argued that “our aim is to revolutionise old art, which does not mean to make it futurist – it can be anything it wants to be, but it should be alive”.37 Already in 1919 the icon painting workshops in Mstera had been transformed into artistic workshops for workers, and the village factory, which was famous for producing rizas (or oklads) for icons, became a jewellery factory, which in Soviet times produced more than one million medals for the Second World War.38

  • 39 N. Punin, Tatlin. Protiv kubizma (St Petersburg: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1921), p. 28.
  • 40 N. Punin, ‘V Moskve (Pis ′ mo)’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 10 (9 February 1919), p. 2.
  • 41 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 23 October 1916, p. 103.

24Although he was unable to help to preserve icon painting in Mstera, Punin carried his faith in the importance of icons throughout his life. In his book Tatlin. Against Cubism, written in 1921, Punin proclaimed that Russian art, using its long tradition of a great feeling for materials, which comes from icon painting, was capable of making a great leap forward – beyond cubism itself.39 At the same time, in his article ‘In Moscow’, Punin wrote: “The novelty of Tatlin’s relief in comparison with the frescoes of Raphael lies only in the fact that the surface and texture and other elements are distilled by Tatlin to their essence; otherwise it is a continuous tradition. That is why we have nothing more to learn from Raphael” (fig. 10.3).40 Despite his admiration for Russian icons, Punin felt that “only in front of Tatlin’s reliefs one feels how insignificant the world is”.41

10.3 Vladimir Tatlin, Painterly Relief. Collation of Materials, 1914, iron, plaster, glass, asphalt. Whereabouts unknown. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.

25In September 1932, Punin was invited to give lectures at the Academy of Arts in his native Leningrad. Since by then any mention of Russian icons, or the avant-garde, was already prohibited, in his lectures Punin had to concentrate on Renaissance art, as well as Academic art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unwilling to accept these and other constraints of the increasingly brutal Soviet regime, Punin was arrested three times – in 1921, 1935, and 1949. Punin’s daughter Irina wrote that when he was arrested in 1935, her father kissed the icon before he was taken away. His common law civil wife and lover, the poet Anna Akhmatova, dedicated one section of one of her most famous poems, Requiem, to Punin’s arrest:

  • 42 A. Akhmatova, Requiem (1935), quoted in Emma Gerstein, Moscow Memoirs (London: TheHarvill Press, 2 (...)

They led you away at dawn
I followed you like a mourner,
In the dark front room the children were crying,
On your lips was the icon’s chill.
The deathly sweat on your brow… Unforgettable! –
I will be like the wives of the Streltsy,
Howling under the Kremlin towers.42

  • 43 Sergiev Posad was renamed ‘Zagorsk’ by the Soviet regime in 1930, after the death of the revolutio (...)
  • 44 OGPU (or GPU) – Unified State Political Administration (Ob″ edinennoe gosudarstvennoe politichesko (...)
  • 45 Quoted in Vitaly Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, trans. by J. Conquest (London: The Harv (...)
  • 46 Ibid.

26Punin’s major sin in the eyes of Soviet prosecutors was his unwillingness to accept and praise Soviet art, which was, after 1932, dominated by socialist realism. During the Second World War Punin was evacuated with the staff of the Academy of Arts, first to Samarkand, and then to Zagorsk monastery (formerly Sergiev Posad, where Rublev’s Trinity was created) (fig. 10.4).43 Historically this had been one of the main centres of the Russian Orthodox Church. But in the spring of 1928 the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU) began to build up a case against this spiritual centre, accusing it of counter-revolutionary activities.44 On 12 May 1928 a letter was published in the Workers’Newspaper (Rabochaia Gazeta). In it a certain A. Lyass wrote: “All kinds of ‘people of the past’ – but mainly Grand Dukes, ladies-in-waiting, priests, and monks – have built themselves a hive at the so-called Trinity St Sergey [monastery]. If formerly the Grand Dukes protected the priests, now the priests are protecting the Grand Dukes […]”.45 He concluded his letter by saying that “this hive of Black Hundreds must be destroyed”.46

  • 47 Ibid., p. 122.

27A week later, OGPU carried out an extensive raid on the monastery and arrested a large group of priests and lay members. It marked the beginning of an unofficial war against the Church. Among those arrested was the priest, writer, and a former professor of the Spiritual Academy at the Trinity Sergius Monastery, Pavel Florensky, who is often described today as the Russian Leonardo da Vinci. Florensky, who was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer, writer, and priest, was interrogated brutally by the Soviet secret police, kept in a cell in the Lubyanka, and then sent to the Solovki labour camp. Up to now there have been many legends about the end of his life, and even his children and grandchildren did not know for sure when and where he died. Only in the 1990s did the researcher Vitaly Shentalinsky find a narrow strip of paper in the KGB archives. On one side was typed “Florensky, Pavel Alexandrovich”; on the other, “To be shot, Florensky Pavel Alexandrovich”, and a tick marked with a thick red pencil.47

28Florensky, who was recently sanctified, was shot on 8 December 1937 in Solovki, which, ironically, was once a monastery in its own right. In one of his letters from Solovki he wrote:

  • 48 Ibid., p. 123.

The universe is so organised that only at the price of suffering and persecution can the world be given anything. The more selfless the gift, the harsher the persecution, and the more severe the suffering. That is the law of life, its fundamental axiom […]. Greatness must pay for its gift in blood […].48

  • 49 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 24 February 1944, p. 373. Punin was evacuated to Sama (...)
  • 50 Ibid., diary note of 7 March 1944, p. 377.

29By then, Punin had perhaps already started paying for his particular form of “greatness”, although he was at least still a free man. He longed for Samarkand, where he “did not feel the past so much”.49 But already in March 1944 he wrote in his diary that “there was something miraculous in the destiny that brought him to Zagorsk”.50

  • 51 Ibid., diary note of 26 February 1944, p. 375.

30Admiring icons and frescoes in this ancient centre of Russian Orthodoxy, Punin worried about the destiny of Soviet art. At the end of February 1944 Punin wrote in his diary: “I do not expect anything from life, but I do want to see good art”.51 In Soviet culture, dominated by socialist realism, Punin struggled to find this “good art”:

  • 52 Ibid.

Our today’s ‘realism’ (if I can use this term at all) – is like the rags of a completely worn out dress. It stinks of decomposition and mould.
Soviet Realism, like a defeated army, should tear itself away from reality, and then we will see.
It should stop groaning, and start suffering instead;
It should stop holding on, and start walking;
It should stop being enthusiastic, and start being content.
Perhaps, most importantly it should be quiet, like Chekrygin’s drawings or even quieter, calmer and more confident. Completely silent!52

10.4 Nikolai Punin. c. 1940. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.

  • 53 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 8 April 1944, p. 380.

31Was it the silence of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, which Punin had praised in 1915, for which he was now longing? In April 1944 he wrote in his diary that it is important to understand the true aim of art: “In our contemporary art, so-called realism has become the goal; method has been elevated to the level of a principle and has substituted for the goal itself. Nothing, except the death of art, could come from it. Make good art using any means you like, but just make good art.”53

32After Punin was arrested for the last time in 1949, condemned for refusing to cease lecturing on twentieth-century art and its links with Russian icons, he was sent to the Gulag for ten years. He spent the last years of his life in a camp beyond the Arctic Circle, in the Abez settlement. But, even there, in the cold damp barracks which accommodated two hundred people, together with his fellow-prisoner, the philosopher Lev Karsavin, Punin would give lectures to their less-educated inmates about the meaning and significance of the icon of the Virgin Mary of Vladimir, and about the twentieth-century icon, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (fig. 5.3).

33Punin died in August 1953, a few months after Stalin’s death. He was only sixty-four years old, but he had managed to fit several lives into this relatively short time – a colourful life in Imperial Russia, two revolutions, three arrests, two World Wars, the siege of Leningrad, and the Gulag. Back in 1940 Punin had written:

  • 54 Punin’s letters to M. Golubeva, approx. 1940, in Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, p. 445.

It is such a happiness to be still alive; I did not expect this; I never thought that I would live for so long. Levushka [the pet-name for Lev] Bruni said to me a long time ago: ‘What an amazing Guardian Angel you have.’ Art does not want to part with me. It still needs me to preach it in front of the mad people who have lost it.54

  • 55 Ibid., p. 436.

34For Punin the one and only thing, for the sake of which he lived and died, was art: “I am – the eternity and the destiny, something basic, everlasting and enduring, like art itself. I just do not want any system, no system at all, if possible. To be equal with life, to be part of it – a slice of it, made in art.”55

  • 56 N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo. Mastera russkogo iskusstva XIV-nachala XX veka. Sovets (...)

35In 1957, after the Twentieth Party Congress, and following the special request of his relatives, Punin was rehabilitated, but publication of his books and articles was still not permitted for a long time. Even when some of Punin’s articles were finally published in 1976 in Moscow, they were heavily criticised by “those with authority” – “people in the system”, as Punin used to call them – and nothing was available for a further ten years.56

  • 57 Punin’s letters to M. Golubeva, approx. 1940, in Punin, Mir svetel liubov′ iu, p. 438.

36For fifty years this most respected voice of Russian Futurism, the man of principle, principles which he never compromised, had been deliberately forgotten. But history likes justice and remembers its true heroes. In 1940 Punin wrote: “Art – is a very personal thing – the most personal out of everything that is given to man in life. That is why the love of art is full of passion; it feels like the love of a woman: both have a great desire for eternity. To transform the present into the future – this is the true purpose of art.”57

37Punin carried his passionate love of icons and his strong belief in their impact on twentieth-century art throughout his life. Up until now Punin’s impact on the development of the Russian avant-garde has been underestimated and his name was obliterated from most books on art history in Russia. His remarkable life serves as a reminder of the cruelty and injustice of the Communist system, which still, to this day, threatens to compromise the democratic freedoms which Russia claims to adopt. Russian icons and their preservation occupied an important part of Punin’s rich life, giving him inspiration and lifting his spirits in the most difficult and challenging periods of his life.

Notes

1 ‘Red Commissar’ refers to Punin’s honorary position of People’s Commissar of the State Hermitage and the Russian Museum, which he was granted by the People’s Commissar of Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933). In this role Punin had to liaise between the museums’ councils and the new Bolshevik government. Although he was never a member of the Bolshevik party, he was seen by many museum curators as the party’s spy.

2 The principal literature on Punin as at the date of writing comprises the following: The Diaries of Nikolay Punin, ed. by Sidney Monas and Jennifer Greene Krupala, trans. by Jennifer Greene Krupala (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press; Amersham: Combined Academic, 2000); Nikolai Punin, Mir svetel liubov′ iu: Dnevniki, pis′ ma, ed. by Leonid A. Zykov (Moscow: Artist, Rezhisser, Teatr, 2000); John E. Bowlt, ‘From Practice to Theory: Vladimir Tatlin and Nikolai Punin’ in Literature, Culture, and Society in the Modern Age: In Honor of Joseph Frank, ed. by Edward J. Brown (Stanford: Department of Slavonic Studies, 1992), pp. 50–67; Natalia Murray, The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde: The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Natalia Murray, ‘No Future for the Futurists? Art of the Commune and the Quest for a New Art in Post-Revolutionary Russia’, The International Yearbook of Futurism Studies. Reactions to Futurism in Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, The Netherlands, USA, ed. by Günter Berghaus, 4 (2014), 202–29; Larissa Zhadova, ‘Un articolo sconosciuto di Punin’, Rassegna sovietica, 37, 3 (May-June 1986); Sovetskie khudozhniki. Izbrannie trudy o russkom i sovetskom izobrazitel′ nom iskusstve, ed. by Irina Punina (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1976); Nikolai Punin, ‘Cycle of Lectures [Extracts], 1919’, in John E. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. Theory and Criticism 1902–1934, revised edition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2017), pp. 170–76; ‘Iskusstvo i Revolutsiia’ (unpublished manuscript, N. Punin Archive, St Petersburg; fragment published in Iskusstvo Leningrada, 1989).

3 Nikodim (or Nikodeme) Pavlovich Kondakov (1844–1925) was an art historian with special expertise in the history of Russian Christian icons. For more on Kondakov, see Chapter 8 of this volume. In 1876 he published the History of Byzantine Miniature Painting (N. P. Kondakov, Istoriia vizantiiskogo iskusstva i ikonografii po miniaturam grecheskikh rukopisei (Zapiski Imp. Novorossiiskogo Universitet, 21) (Odessa, 1876; second edition, Plovdiv, 2012), https://archive.org/details/kondakov), in which he used the old-fashioned chronological method for which he later became known. From 1888 he taught at St Petersburg University. From 1893 he was a member of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, and from 1898 a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1895, together with Fedor Uspensky, he founded the Russian Archaeological Institute of Constantinople.

4 N. Punin, ‘K probleme Vizantiiskogo iskusstva’, Apollon, 3 (1913), 19, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issledovaniya_i_materialy/apollon

5 Ibid., p. 21. “мы слишком много смотрим на повседневную жизнь, чтобы понять великолепие граненого сапфира”.

6 Ibid., p. 23. “мясник не продавал мяса без того, чтобы не высказать какого-нибудь довода, который он придумал за ночь, о той или иной степени величания св. Девы”, где на “площадях, в лавках, у ступеней храмов спорили о Триединой Ипостаси, о непорочном зачатии, о природе Иисуса”.

7 For the catalogue, see: Vystavka drevnerusskogo iskusstva v Moskve, ustroennaia v 1913 v oznamenovanie chestvovaniia 300-letiia tsarstvovaniia doma Romanovykh (Moscow: Imperatorskii Moskovskii Arkheologicheskii Institut imeni Imperatora Nikolaia II, 1913).

8 W. Weidle, Tri Rossii, quoted in Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova. Poet and Prophet (Los Angeles, CA: Figueroa Press, 2006, revised edition), p. 47.

9 Jane A. Sharp, Russian Modernism between East and West: Natal′ ia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 24.

10 Pavel Muratov (1881–1950) was a Russian essayist, novelist, art historian, critic, and playwright. From 1906 until 1914 he worked at the Rumiantsev Museum in Moscow. He became friends with the writers Boris Zaitsev, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Nina Berberova (who called him “one of the most remarkable men I ever met”), as well as the artist Nikolai Ulianov. From 1906 he published in the journals Vesy, Zolotoe runo, and Apollon. He collaborated with Igor Grabar on the latter’s History of Russian Art (1909–14), and in 1913–14 he helped publish the journal Wisdom (Sofiia), dedicated to early Russian art. After 1918, he helped Grabar restore cathedrals and was associated with the only bookshop in Moscow which remained unregulated by the state, The Writer’s Library. Nikolai Mikhailovich Shchekotov (1884–1945) was an art historian, art critic, and artist. In 1910–11 Shchekotov studied ancient Russian art with the famous collector of Russian icons, Ilia Ostroukhov. In 1918 he began his career as a critic, publicist, and museum official. Shchekotov was a member of the collegium of the People’s Commissariat of Education from 1918 to 1922, director of the Russian Historical Museum from 1921 to 1925, and director of the Tretyakov Gallery in 1925–26. He was a member of the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia from 1923 to 1932.

11 See for example Nikolai Punin, ‘Vystavka drevnerusskogo iskusstva (ustroennaia Moskovskim arkheologicheskim institutom)’, Apollon, 5 (1913), 39–42, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issledovaniya_i_materialy/apollon; Nikolai Punin, ‘Novye priobreteniia Muzeia Imperatora Aleksandra III’, Apollon, 6 (1913), 52–53, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issledovaniya_i_materialy/apollon; Nikolai Punin, ‘Zametki ob ikonakh iz sobraniia N. P. Likhacheva’, in Russkaia ikona, sbornik 1 (Petrograd: t-vo R. Golike i A. Vil′ borg, 1914), pp. 21–47; Nikolai Punin, ‘Ellinism i vostok v ikonopisi. Po povodu sobraniia ikon I. S. Ostroukhova i S. P. Riabushinskogo’, in Russkaia ikona, sbornik 3 (Petrograd: t-vo R. Golike i A. Vil′ borg, 1914), pp. 181–97; Nikolai Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, Apollon, 2 (1915), 1–23, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issledovaniya_i_materialy/apollon; Nikolai Punin, ‘Vystavka tserkovnoi stariny v muzee Shtiglitsa’, Apollon, 4–5 (1915), 93–94, http://www.v-ivanov.it/issledovaniya_i_materialy/apollon.

12 Voldemars Matvejs [Vladimir Markov], Printsipy tvorchestva v plasticheskikh iskusstvakh: faktura, first published in 1914, reprinted in Voldemars Matvejs. Statii, katalog proizvedenii, pis′ ma, khronika deiatel′ nosti “Soiuza Molodezhi”, ed. by Irina Buzhinska (Riga: Neptuns, 2002), p. 54.

13 Punin, Mir svetel liubov′ iu, Letter of 22 April 1913, p. 46. “[…] и уже, конечно, не забыть столь совершенного искусства, перед лицом которого вся Европа (за исключением, может быть, Ренессанса) – эстетические и часто дурные игрушки”.

14 Ibid.“Если бы только кто-нибудь из петербуржцев знал, что за сокровища погребены в Москве и что такое вообще – икона. В одной Божьей Матери Новиковской церкви, которую я сегодня видел, сосредоточены такие души, что если бы взять души всех героинь Достоевского, Тургенева, Пушкина, души сестер Аренс, души тысяч самых глубоких женщин – то и этот синтез не превзойдет силою и глубиною эту одну икону.”

15 N. Punin, ‘Obzor novykh techenii v iskusstve Peterburga’, Russkoe Iskusstvo, 1 (1923), 17–28.

16 John Milner, Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian Avant-Garde (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 24.

17 Quoted in Antonina Izergina, ‘Kvartira N 5. Glava iz vospominanii’, Panorama iskusstv, 12 (1989), p. 194.

18 Ibid., p. 193.

19 Pavel Muratov, ‘Peterburgskaia russkaia ikona’, Sofiia, 4 (1914), quoted in P. Muratov, Drevnerusskaia zhivopis’. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia (Moscow: Airis-Press, Laguna-Art, 2005), p. 348. “Редакция сделала бы лучше, если бы в самом деле ограничилась одними прекрасно выполненными произведениями, не заполняя больших страниц бесцветным случайным текстом. Кому нужны статьи, точно выхваченные из нечитаемых археологических трудов, напечатанные хотя бы и с красненькими виньетками, хотя бы и на негнущейся бумаге?”

20 Ibid., p. 349.

21 N. Punin, ‘Zametki ob ikonakh v sobranii N. P. Likhacheva’, p. 23.

22 Ibid., p. 47.

23 N. Punin, ‘Ellinism i vostok v ikonopisi’, p. 181.

24 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo. Mastera russkogo iskusstva XIV-nachala XX veka. Sovetskie khudozhniki. Izbrannye trudy o russkom i sovetskom izobrazitel ′ nom iskusstve, ed. by Irina Punina (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1976), p. 39.

25 Ibid.

26 N. Punin, Andrei Rublev (Petrograd: Apollon, 1916), p. 23.

27 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo, p. 36.

28 Ibid., p. 41. “подходит в одеянии обновленном, на котором византийско-европейское Возрождение вышило свои узоры, свой нежный, классически прекрасный орнаментальный убор”.

29 Ibid.“[…] икона такой боговдохновенной красоты, что мы, как цветы к солнцу, возносим к ней свою душу и в суете своих смертных желаний не можем отказаться от жажды узнать, найти, назвать имя, которое отмечало в мире гения, поднявшегося на столь одинокие, столь нежно-прекрасные и чистые вершины”.

30 Ibid., p. 48.

31 N. Punin, Andrei Rublev (Petrograd: Apollon, 1916), pp. 19–20.

32 Ibid., p. 23.

33 N. Punin, ‘Andrei Rublev’, in N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo, p. 48. “Искусство не родится в один день, искусству нужна жизнь и нужно прошлое, никакое искусство не живет без традиций. Где наши традиции?”

34 N. Punin, ‘Vstrecha ob iskusstve’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 5 (5 January 1919), 2.

35 Anatoly Lunarcharsky, ‘A Spoonful of Antidote’ (Lozhka protivoiadiia), quoted in Wiktor Woroszylski, The Life of Mayakovsky, trans. by Boleslaw Taborski (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1972), p. 250.

36 Anatolii Lunarcharskii, ‘Vstrecha v dome Lassalia’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 5 (5 January 1919), p. 3.

37 N. Punin, ‘Revolutsionnaia Mudrost ′’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 6 (12 January 1919), p. 2.

38 Riza (Russian: риза, ‘robe’) or oklad (оклад, ‘covered’) is an icon cover, sometimes referred to as ‘revetment’ in English.

39 N. Punin, Tatlin. Protiv kubizma (St Petersburg: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1921), p. 28.

40 N. Punin, ‘V Moskve (Pis ′ mo)’, Iskusstvo kommuny, 10 (9 February 1919), p. 2.

41 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 23 October 1916, p. 103.

42 A. Akhmatova, Requiem (1935), quoted in Emma Gerstein, Moscow Memoirs (London: TheHarvill Press, 2004), p. 320.

43 Sergiev Posad was renamed ‘Zagorsk’ by the Soviet regime in 1930, after the death of the revolutionary Vladimir Zagorsky.

44 OGPU (or GPU) – Unified State Political Administration (Ob″ edinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie). OGPU was the secret political police from 1922 to 1934, then superseded by the NKVD, and which had been founded to fight political and economic counter-revolutionary activity.

45 Quoted in Vitaly Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, trans. by J. Conquest (London: The Harvill Press, 1995), p. 102.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid., p. 122.

48 Ibid., p. 123.

49 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 24 February 1944, p. 373. Punin was evacuated to Samarkand during the Siege of Leningrad with the Academy of Arts.

50 Ibid., diary note of 7 March 1944, p. 377.

51 Ibid., diary note of 26 February 1944, p. 375.

52 Ibid.

53 Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, diary note of 8 April 1944, p. 380.

54 Punin’s letters to M. Golubeva, approx. 1940, in Punin, Mir svetel liubov ′ iu, p. 445.

55 Ibid., p. 436.

56 N. N. Punin, Russkoe i sovetskoe iskusstvo. Mastera russkogo iskusstva XIV-nachala XX veka. Sovetskie khudozhniki. Izbrannye trudy o russkom i sovetskom izobrazitel ′ nom iskusstve, ed. by Irina Punina (Moscow: Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1976).

57 Punin’s letters to M. Golubeva, approx. 1940, in Punin, Mir svetel liubov′ iu, p. 438.

Table des illustrations

Légende 10.1 Nikolai Punin, c. 1919. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4659/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Légende 10.2 Nikolai Punin with Russian Museum guard, 1914.Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4659/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 178k
Légende 10.3 Vladimir Tatlin, Painterly Relief. Collation of Materials, 1914, iron, plaster, glass, asphalt. Whereabouts unknown. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4659/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 386k
Légende 10.4 Nikolai Punin. c. 1940. Photograph © Punin Family Archive, St Petersburg, all rights reserved.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4659/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 278k

Auteur

PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and prior to this she studied History of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg and completed the PhD course at the Hermitage Museum. In 2012 she wrote her monograph, The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde. The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin (1888–1953) (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic, 2012). At present she is lecturing on nineteenth-and twentieth-century Russian art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, the Art Fund, and The Arts Society; she also works as head of education and public programmes at GRAD (Gallery for Russian Art and Design), and curates exhibitions of Russian art in England. She recently curated a major exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts entitled Revolution: Russian Art 1917–32 (11 February–17 April 2017) and is now editing her next book, on the subject of post-revolutionary festivals in Petrograd.

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