‘The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde: The Life and Times of Nikolay Punin’ by Natalia Murray
(Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012)
Reviewed by Theodora Clarke
“Nikolay Punin is not a name widely known in the West. His file has languished in the KGB archives since his death in 1953, and his grave in the Gulag where he died is marked only by a number”. So begins Natalia Murray’s account of Punin, one of the most prominent art-critics of the avant-garde in Russia. Punin was a leading figure who became Commissar of the Hermitage, lectured at the Academy of Arts, was the right hand of Commissar Lunacharsky and became head of the Petrograd branch of the Visual Arts Department of Narkompross. For over two decades Punin also worked as a prominent curator and art critic. From 1913 until 1938 he organized major exhibitions of Russian art and worked at the Russian Museum. This book makes clear the essential contribution that Punin made to artistic developments in Russia. Thus it seems astonishing that his life has remained untold until now. Yet Murray’s book is the first biography of this great figure in the cultural history of the Soviet Union.
The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde sets Punin within the context of nearly sixty years of Russian history. Through an examination of his life, Murray examines the Russian avant-garde and the fate of artists after the October Revolution. The book examines in detail the artistic trends and cultural policies which dominated Soviet art in the 1930-1950s. The first few chapters focus on Punin’s upbringing at Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg, and his early years up until the October Revolution. We hear about the formative influence of Byzantine art and Russian icons on his studies. We learn about the importance of foreign influences on Russian art such as French artists’ exhibitions and the foundation of the Russian Museum in which Punin played a major role. In addition, Murray tells us intimate details about Punin’s personal life such as his marriage and infidelity. One of the reasons, she explains, that Punin has remained such an obscure figure, over the last fifty years, is that his life has been overshadowed by that of his lover, the famous poet and writer Anna Akhmatova.
The book is full of interesting anecdotes and quotations from his writings. One fascinating chapter is devoted to how Punin became an art critic and his new approach to studies of art history. He wrote many articles including for Apollon, one of the most prestigious journals of art and literature in Russia at this time. However, unlike his contemporaries, Punin would add personal observations to his articles eschewing the traditional approach of dry academic papers. He was a gifted, if flowery, critic. Punin is quoted throughout and so we get a sense of his voice and power as a writer. To give us a sense of his ornate style, Murray quotes from the twenty five year old Punin, who wrote:
“Like a phoenix, Byzantium arose from the ashes of diverse and dying cultures, in order to rage in the Hippodrome for many centuries to come, and argue on the square about the divine nature of Jesus, and to revere in the atrium of St. Sophia… Byzantium feels to us like a huge inflamed wound, for which the lips of Hellenism are not gently enough, and the centuries of oblivion are not long enough, and now, agitated by its ambitions, drunk by the vinegar of pain, it is blazing towards us through her lethargic sleep, giving a horrible and wild odour of rotting flowers”.
The number of influential figures who feature in this biography demonstrate that Punin was at the heart of the intellectual and cultural life in Russia in the twentieth century. Punin knew Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lilya Brik, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Kazimir Malevich, amongst many others. The names read like an A to Z of the Russian literary and artistic avant-garde. Punin’s favourite group was the Knave of Diamonds who formed in 1911. He was the first Russian critic to support this new artistic movement, which included some of the most progressive Russian artists of the day, thus he also became acquainted with leading figures such as Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. As Murray makes clear, Punin became one of the most forward-looking art critics of his time. He was a passionate advocate for new developments in Russian art.
Punin was also attracted to the Russian icon. From 1914, he worked in the department for Old Russian Art at the Russian Museum. The museum contained the largest collection of icons in Russia and the famous icon of the Old Testament Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Punin’s work there coincided with a resurgence of interest in Russia’s traditions and heritage. He was attracted to these ancient relics and their influence of the newly emerging Russian avant-garde. In 1923 Punin wrote that “the influence of Russian icons on Tatlin is undoubtedly greater than the influence of Cézanne or Picasso upon him”.
Punin’s story is one of the forgotten histories of twentieth century art. He was dismissed from the Academy of Arts for not conforming to new state art rules and his story has been almost deleted from most books on the history of Russian art. However, as Murray’s narrative makes clear, he was a hero of the avant-garde who supported artists and ensured their work was not destroyed when it fell from favour. Punin’s downfall was that he was open in his opposition to Socialist Realism. In the 1930s any mention of Russian icons or twentieth century art was prohibited. The once great supporter of the avant-garde and specialist in icons and Byzantine art was barred from teaching so-called “bourgeois art”. As Murray explains, “all the forms of experimentalism or formalism that he had supported were denounced as decadent, degenerate and anti-Communist, especially the paintings of Malevich”. Punin was attacked by the Soviet regime and paid the ultimate price for his dissenting views with his life. He once wrote: “We were persecuted and will be persecuted, not because we are anti-bourgeois, or the other way around, but because we possess the gift of creative art. This is the reason we cannot be tolerated by mediocrity, even by Communist mediocrity”.
Punin died in the Abez Gulag in May of 1953, aged just sixty-four, nearly three months after the death of Stalin. He was buried in the freezing labour camp beyond the Arctic circle. When Akhmatova, his once great love, learnt of his death she wrote a short poem dedicated to ‘N.P’: “And that heart no longer responds/ To my voice, exulting and grieving./ Everything is over….And my song drifts/ Into the empty night, where you no longer exist”. The book is illustrated with over 100 black and white photographs of Punin and reproductions of works by leading figures of the Soviet avant-garde such as Tatlin and Malevich. Some of the extraordinary and previously unpublished images include photographs of Punin after his final arrest in 1949 from his KGB file. They show the critic tired, emaciated and with his head shaved yet still defiant to the end.
This is an important book that is extensively researched and well written. However, what makes this a significant text also is that the author had access to personal archives. The rich primary material here is taken predominately from the Punin archive held by the subject’s granddaughter, Anna Kaminskaya, and her son. Other useful sources are from the archive at the Akhmatova Museum. One of the strengths of the book is that Murray includes a large number of quotations from Punin’s beautifully written articles. She has also helpfully reproduced a full list of his books and articles at the end. Most of them have never been re-printed, or even translated from Russian, so she provides an invaluable service for other scholars. No doubt after this publication, further translations of his writings will be undertaken and other historians will be inspired to do more research on this great unsung hero of the Russian avant-garde.
Punin lived a colourful and packed life which coincided with a remarkable period in Russian history. He lived through Imperial Russia, the Revolution, two World Wars, the siege of Leningrad and the Gulag. As this book makes clear, Punin has been forgotten for the last fifty years in histories of Russian art. However, this remarkable individual played a major role in the development of post-revolutionary Russian art who ultimately sacrificed his life for his beliefs.
Theodora Clarke is an art critic and lecturer on Russian art. She holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Theodora is currently completing her PhD thesis which examines an American collector of Russian avant-garde art in the early twentieth century. She founded and edits the online arts magazine Russian Art and Culture and set up Russian Art Week in London.
This article was first published in East-West Review, Journal of the Great Britain-Russia Society, Winter Edition 201.