“Someone 1917”: Boris Grigoriev’s “Faces of Russia”

A most rewarding exhibition – well thought through and thoroughly prepared. It features a selection of works, mostly paintings, created by Russian artists around 1917, roughly from the start of WWI until the early 1920s.

The revolutions of 1917 broke out in the midst of a golden age for Russian visual and performative arts – perhaps the golden age for the graphic arts. This exhibit is a small but well chosen sample of works from that time – some sourced from private collections and provincial museums, others well known but placed into an unusual context.

Victor Shklovsky wrote about his early (probably first) encounter with Victor (Velimir) Khlebnikov shortly after A Slap to the Face of Public Taste was published in 1912:

It featured the first printing of Khlebnikov’s list of dates. They were printed in columns, with intervals, with intervals of 317 or its multiples. The final line looked thus: “Someone 1917.”

I met Velimir Khlebnikov, quiet and wearing a buttoned-up black frock-coat, at a reading.

“The dates in the book, – I said – are years when great empires were destroyed. Do you believe that our empire will be destroyed in 1917?”…

Khlebnikov replied, hardly moving his lips:

“You are the first to understand me.”

The is where the title of the exhibition, Nekto 2017, or Someone 2017, comes from. One can take a look at some of the paintings exhibited by googling for Некто 2017 or “Someone 2017” (searching for images, including the inverted commas). Unfortunately, none of them seems to include Boris Grigoriev‘s Faces of Russia, perhaps the most remarkable highlight of the show. The 1923 painting summed up a long series of smaller-size works, mostly portraits, begun around 1917. It is now part of the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich collection, bought in 2007 by Alisher Usmanov and housed in the Constantine Palace near St. Petersburg.

Oddly, I could not find a decent-sized reproduction of Faces of Russia on the net. The image at Sotheby’s (scroll down for Fig. 5) is small. This article, a review of the 2011 Grigoriev exhibition at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, includes an even smaller image but is worth reading or at least looking through if one has any interest in Grigoriev. Among other things, it’s unclear whether the yellowish color seen in Sotheby’s reproduction likewise dominates the background in the original and whether its hue is more of a wheat field or of a golden iconic nimbus. To be sure, one has to see the painting in person as Grigoriev’s palette is too subtle for lo-fi jpgs.

Art scholars have pointed out similarities in composition and the color scheme between The Faces of Russia and Eastern Orthodox icons. The word for “face” in the title of the painting, Liki Rossii, is not the standard Russian word for face (that would be litso, derived from the same root as lik) but one used a religious or poetic context, referring to images of saints in icons, or the face of the moon, or a beautiful visage. The oft-repeated observation that Russian avant-guard artists appropriated perspectives and techniques from traditional iconography is more or less obvious. What’s less obvious to me is what to make of Grigoriev’s closing depiction of the Russian country folk in the context of his other work. (Links to pages in Russian with more images: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

I thought Faces of Russia would qualify as cover art candidate for Tatyana Tolstaya’s 2000 novel Kys’, translated as The Slynx. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic village populated by post-civilization Russians with relatively mild but well manifested genetic disorders.

On the other hand, the girl’s face sketched by Grigoriev for a family portrait in 1917 reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga. This girl also appears in Peasant Land (The People’s Land) (1917), but her face begins to harden with distrust and pain.

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