Exhibits on “Tolstoy’s Final Journey” and “Gulag Art” at Regenstein Library, Now through December

Please visit: http://ceeres.uchicago.edu/events/2009-2010/100714-tolstoyexhibit.shtml

Regenstein Library Exhibit: “Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, 1828-1910; 1910: The Last Year, The Final Journey”

Novelist—Playwright—Philosopher—Religious Thinker—Educator…

A hundred display cases, a museum, in fact, would be needed to adequately illustrate the works of this literary giant and explore the vastness of his influence. His complete works have been published in 90 volumes (1928) and more recently, in a projected 100 volumes (2000-), while the books and articles written about him number in the tens of thousands. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his death, this exhibit, in its minuscule space, attempts only to provide a glimpse into the final year of a tempestuous soul, still searching at the very end for answers to questions he posed throughout his life: What is Art? Truth? God? Love? Death? His political influence was so great, so feared by the Tsarist government, that he was hounded and censored to the very end; his moral influence, giving rise to a worldwide movement, was so contrary to the church establishment that he was excommunicated. And in spite of all efforts by church and state to prevent the event of his death from vitalizing his millions of supporters among the young, the peasantry, and the intelligentsia, his death was turned into a feverish media event.

Much has been written of Tolstoy’s dramatic final days. His dream of a contemplative old age in the shadow of his 80 year-old sister Maria’s monastery walls at the Shamardino convent were short-lived, as he quickly left the monastery when his family discovered his whereabouts. Fleeing to the Caucasus by train, Tolstoy falls ill and dies in the stationmaster’s rooms at the Astapovo station. He was buried, according to his wishes, in the woods of his beloved estate Yasnaia Poliana, without religious ceremonies or addresses. In tribute, crowds of thousands gathered along the route of his journey home, singing the prayer for the dead “Memory Eternal”.

“In the middle of the night of October 28, 1910, Lev Tolstoy closed the door to the room where his wife of forty-eight years was sleeping, packed his things and left his home, never to return. At the age of eighty-two, the most famous living Russian embarked on a final journey that would become one of the great legends of the twentieth century. His disappearance immediately became a national sensation… As he lay dying of pneumonia, he became the hero of a national narrative of immense significance.” (William Nickell, The Death of Tolstoy, Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910.)

The exhibit is located in the Second Floor Reading Room of Regenstein Library and will run through December 2010.

June Pachuta Farris
Bibliographer for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies

Please visit: http://ceeres.uchicago.edu/events/2009-2010/100714-gulagart.shtml

Gulag Art

an exhibit running through December 2010 in Regenstein Library

For both the professional artists and amateurs who were able to create artworks within the Gulag, the lack of oppressive Party mandates limiting content and stylistic expression would have meant greater freedom to experiment with style and content. However, due to the limited choice of subjects, materials and inadequate time to complete each work, artworks which were created by prisoners in the Gulag camps can be described as “journalistic” in style, more often than not depicting scenes or elements from the prisoner’s daily life — their immediate surroundings — such as landscapes, portraiture, domestic still-lives and interiors, as well as narrative scenes depicting human torture, the realities of imprisonment and harsh physical labour. Portrayals of landscapes with churches and graveyards point to the high mortality rates of the “revolutionary era” of the Stalinist Soviet Union.

In the Gulag, creativity took on many forms, from written memoirs (such as one work currently on display by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia), to arts and crafts, paintings and body art. Tattoos were the common marks of identification among the “real” criminals. Professional artists who found themselves in concentration camps were often “employed” by the criminals, drawing tattoos in exchange for food or “protection” from other inmates. The subject matter varied according to every criminal’s past. Tattoos were markings which spoke of the horrible deeds that every vor (“thief”) had performed or where they “did time” for their crimes. Among the most popular tattoos were the images of Soviet leaders. These were often applied to chest right over the heart or at the back of the head in the hope that guards were less likely to shoot a prisoner through the image of a great leader. Other tattoos were of explicitly sexual content, employing anti-Semitic and sexist imagery, swastikas, demonic characters, and allegorical motifs. There were also tattoos which marked a prisoner’s time in the Gulag, explicitly pointing to the horrific death tolls, listing the names of the camps through which the prisoner had survived and various propaganda slogans.

There are currently 290 Gulag museum initiatives on the territory of the former USSR, none of which appear to be state-sponsored. Information relevant to cultural undertakings of the Gulag camps is scarce and the number of visual artists who suffered imprisonment during the Stalinist reign is an elusive figure. Official records, written and revised numerous times, prove to be somewhat unreliable. The Memorial society is the largest organization which is currently working on preserving the memory of the Gulag through its digital database as well as the Virtual Museum. The Virtual Gulag Museum http://gulagmuseum.org/index_eng.htm brings together research and archives from the former Soviet Union to record the existence of the Gulag and the suffering of its victims. Its collection of visual artifacts remains the most accessible and significant in the study of Gulag arts and crafts.

The exhibit is located in the Second Floor Reading Room of Regenstein Library and will run through December 2010.

Katya Pereyaslavska, Guest Curator
Master of Information Candidate, M.A. Fine Art History, University of Toronto


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