Books: Cultural Amnesia — Paul Muratov |
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Paul Pavlovich Muratov (1881–1950) shows just how brilliant somebody can be and still be a forgotten man. Essayist, critic, novelist and playwright, he was also the most learned, original and stylistically gifted Russian art historian of his time, and he wrote at least one book well equipped to last beyond his time and ours as well; but today it is as if he had never existed. What went missing wasn’t him, but the Russia he grew up in. As with Diaghilev, he had all the artistic wealth and burgeoning energy of pre-revolutionary Russia as a context, but unlike Diaghilev he had no means of taking the spiritual substance of his context with him when it was time to run. In 1914 Muratov edited the magazine Sophia, promoting his ideal of a perennial classicism. He had already written a travel book meant to embody that idea: Obrazy italii, a title which is usually translated as The Images of Italy, although The Forms of Italy might be a better way of putting it, because he talks about much more than just paintings, taking in sculpture, buildings, gardens and the layout of cities. (We have a certain latitude in translating the title because the book itself has never been rendered into English.) The Revolution in 1917 was a powerful hint that the idea of a perennial classicism had a shaky basis in reality. The hint soon became a storm. After 1918, Muratov was associated with the only bookshop in Moscow which remained unregulated by the state. Called the Writers’ Library, it was a wonderland of a market in which the bibliographical treasures of Tsarist Russia were exchanged for grain, clothes and firewood. (Readers of Italian can find the story on pages 4 and 5 of Muratov’s Google entry, where Michael Osorgin, with the help of Claudia Zonghetti’s suitably elegant translation, tells the almost unbearable story of the writers and the scholars shaking from cold and hunger as they traffic in their doomed treasures.) Banished in 1922, Muratov went on the road, deprived for the rest of his life of any scholarly resources except his memory. In the 1920s he was in Berlin, as a valued member of the vibrant émigré community evoked by Nina Berberova in The Italics Are Mine, the best single book written about Russian culture in exile. Berberova played chess with him, and always remembered him as “a whole and accomplished European”: large praise from her, who was so conspicuously that very thing herself. (Berberova said a beautiful thing about Muratov. “He was always in love in a balanced and quiet way.” She also said that he was “a man of inward order who understood the internal disorder of others.”) At some point, along with several other books, Muratov managed to publish Obrazy italii in the definitive edition mentioned below. In the 1930s he was in Paris, where he acquired a reputation among left-wing intellectuals as an anti-Bolshevik—a very plausible development. During the war he was in Ireland, pursuing an incongruous new career as a military journalist: he wrote an account of the Russia campaigns for Penguin, thereby telling the almost laughably ironic story of how the Nazis were defeated by the same forces that had earlier ruined his life. As far as I can piece his story together, Ireland was his last stop. I could have left him out of this book and nobody would have noticed. The history of humanism in the twentieth century has managed to bury Obrazy italii, and nobody cares. Our idea that if a book is good enough it can never disappear is thereby proved false, because Obrazy italii is one of the most dazzling books of its type ever written. Can something so wonderful be allowed to vanish? Muratov himself was probably reconciled to the possibility. In that tragic bookshop called the Writers’ Library he had seen a whole culture breaking up, like a stricken submarine in the abyss. So he had no illusions. But he didn’t give in, and his subsequent career as a wandering scholar proved that there can be such a thing as a heroism of the mind.

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Del Sarto’s golden arms don’t make us forget for a moment his everlasting internal mediocrity, just as Wölfflinn, by laying bare with such clarity the laws of “classic art” in del Sarto’s composition, tries vainly to discover in it for us one of the heroes of the High Renaissance.


CAN A GREAT book vanish? The fate of Paul Maratov’s Obrazy italii (which I prefer to translate as The Forms of Italy, exercising my prerogative as one of the few people alive who have ever picked up a copy of it) suggests that it can. The book is seldom mentioned now, and the name of its author does not crop up often even in histories of the Russian emigration after 1917. (From all the Russian departments of all the universities in the world, the Web reveals a grand total of three scholars, one French and two Italian, who are on his case.) For a long time, when I began to read in that field, I never knew Muratov had been there. Looking back on it, however, I am glad to have discovered Muratov comparatively late in my life. His taste was too sure, and his view too wide, to have been much use to me earlier. It was his bad luck, and indeed the whole of modern history’s, that one of the most accomplished of all writers on art remained almost unknown to the international reading public: but it was my good luck, because when I found him I was ready, and his masterwork Obrazy italii hit me like a long and beautiful poem. Ostensibly, the work is a three-volume prose treatise, published in the original Russian by the Leipzig émigré publishing house Z.J. Grschebin-Verlag in 1924. But for the mature student armed with patience and a sufficiently large Russian-English dictionary, Muratov’s first few paragraphs have a surprise in store. Cool as equations, they are as rich as lyrics, and when it transpires that there are thousands more of them to come, the enthralled reader finds it hard to believe his good fortune.

There are many unknown masterpieces in the world, but they usually get that way because they were never very good. The Forms of Italy is a genuine unknown masterpiece. As a book on the Italian Grand Tour it not only stands directly in the tradition of Goethe, Gregorovius, Burckhardt and Arthur Symons, but it is better than any of them. (Better than Goethe? Yes, better than Goethe.) Muratov went to all the towns and cities, knew everything about the art and literature, had unfaltering judgement, and packed the whole complex mental and physical experience into tight, clear paragraphs saturated with meaning and sensitivity. The book is just too good to be true, and until somebody translates it into appropriately neat English the enthusiast will always run the risk of being thought to have made it up. It exists, though. I own two sets, and one of them is in front of me now. The three volumes are tiny, in a unique format which was probably specified by the author himself: shorter and squarer than crown octavo, bound in faded red linen, they slot into a maroon paper-covered cardboard box. There are black-and-white photogravure illustrations of some of the more famous paintings, frescoes, fountains and buildings, but mainly all you can see as you flick through is creamy white little square after creamy white little square of tightly packed black Cyrillic letters to a grand total of about a thousand pages of text. The magic is in the writing, and magic it really is; not flowery, but lavishly fruitful; sense and sensibility in their most condensed yet fluent congruity of form. It would be almost a relief if his judgement had sometimes lapsed. An ephemeral element might have been a comfort. But uncannily, indeed hauntingly, he spoke with an authoritative timbre that seemed to come from the future rather than the past, as if his testament, published in exile, was the harbinger of a time when the devastation of modern history would be put into reverse.

When I was first in Florence in the 1960s I swallowed Heinrich Wölfflinn’s line on Andrea del Sarto hook, line and sinker. The Phaidon edition of Wölfflinn’s Classic Art was with me as a handbook when I toured the churches, cloisters and galleries. It enshrined his proto-structuralist thesis that the artists of the Cinquecento had been engaged in a quasi-architectural approach to composition in the form of a steadily more compact pyramid, with the logical development—a Leonardo cartoon was here adduced—that several members of the Holy Family should end up sitting on each other. Andrea del Sarto, according to Wölfflinn, brought this monumental formal trope to a ne plus ultra climax. After him, the aberration of Mannerism began, with Pontormo as a particularly flagrant example of incipient monumentality sabotaged by neurasthenia. With the aid of Wölfflinn’s treatise I became a scolding bore on the subject of the Cinquecento. On the Quattrocento, less hindered by academic assistance, I was capable of the odd independent judgement—I could see that any developmental theory that denied a high place to Paolo Uccello must have something wrong with it—but when it came to the High Renaissance I had a seeing-eye dogma, and the snorting beast was provided by Wölfflinn. Pontormo was right there in front of me (I was lodging only a few blocks from Santa Felicità and could see one of his supreme achievements every day just by stepping through the front door) but I had managed to convince myself, by repeated shouting over too many beakers of cheap chianti, that del Sarto was the last true exemplar of the titanic impulse. I doubt if even Muratov could have impinged on an obtuseness so well ingrained: unless, of course, he had got there first. But his book lay far in my future: far enough, luckily, to give me the remorseful but acute satisfaction of having expanded my view before his opinion had the chance to endorse it.

Over the years I came to appreciate Pontormo and Bronzino without benefit of clergy. The impact was all the sweeter when I found Muratov echoing my enthusiasm about the young Pontormo’s fresco cycle in the Medici villa called Poggio a Caiano. He called the fresco cycle “one of the most surprising and beautiful productions of Italian art.” The key word is “surprising.” In a serenely dazzling ten-page stretch of prose, Muratov responds with a whole heart and mind to the unexpectedness of Pontormo; to the way a youthfully fulfilled and tirelessly original career like his just shouldn’t have been there at that point in time; to the unanticipated refreshment, through one prodigiously gifted young man, of a tradition already buried by success. Muratov also seemed to take Bronzino at the same estimation I did, as a hard-edged paradigm of iconic excellence with an unplanned but inescapable literary application, someone who painted in a way one would like to write, presenting the clean-cut relief of a cameo no matter how large the canvas, his unoccupied planes of colour as precisely calculated as his embroidered detail: a unique combination of the broad brush and the engraving tool.

But the true revelation of Muratov’s book was how his high standard of aesthetic judgement extended into the society and politics of the artistic context. He wasn’t the first writer who had treated Italian cultural history in this way, but nobody, not even Gregorovius or the mighty Burckhardt, had come near Muratov’s ability to compress an encyclopaedic erudition into a dramatic prose narrative. The consideration did not escape me that this was what Marxist cultural analysis ought to have looked like but conspicuously didn’t, even when it came from the pen of Walter Benjamin. (What did escape me was that Diaghilev’s writings on art, at the turn of the century, had already established the cultural parameters within which Muratov later wrote: that not even Muratov, in other words, had sprung full-blown from the head of Zeus. In culture there is never an innovation that does not spring from a tradition, because the interweaving of innovation and tradition is what culture is.)

How could, how can, such a prodigy of a book go missing? Egon Friedell’s Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, a comparable effort in a field where few comparisons are possible, was threatened with death but proved impossible to kill. Unlike its author, it was invulnerable. Too many refugees took a copy with them in their baggage. Friedell’s lifetime testament was surrounded with affection and protected on its journey. Muratov’s equivalent achievement was forgotten. The Russians in exile, except to the limited extent that they, too, were a Jewish émigré community, did not provide a framework in which the book might be remembered. Nor did Russian émigrés of a conservative background, or even a merely liberal one, necessarily find favour among the Western intelligentsia, which for the next fifty years devoted enormous resources of inattention to helping ensure that the Soviet Union’s official trivialization of the bourgeois heritage would be carried by default. There was no émigré publishing house of Russian provenance that could equal the success of Phaidon or Abrams in translating itself into English while still preserving the core achievement of its origins. It might have helped if Muratov had gone to America, like, say, Ernst Kantorowicz, the fabulously erudite author of a book about Frederick II that achieved the piquant distinction of finding favour with Mussolini, Hitler and Goering. But as a student of current events Muratov was last heard of in Ireland during the war, writing and editing the Penguin volume on the Russia campaigns. No American university ever put money and effort into codifying his reputation and achievement with an appropriate archive. The Phaidon archive, alone, would be sufficient to ensure the continued existence of Friedell’s key works: but I wonder if there is a proper shelf of Muratov’s books anywhere in the world. As well as my two separate sets of Obrazy italii, bought in London and Buenos Aires, I own his Fra Angelico, translated from French into English in 1928: since all the plates were monochrome, it nowadays rates as junk even in those doomed second-hand bookshops that have mainly scrap for stock. During the late twenties and early thirties, he brought out several books in French: I have his book on Russian icons, Trente-cinq Primitifs russes, published in Paris in 1931. There was at least one other book in Russian, a little pamphlet on Cézanne. (It was published in Berlin in 1923, perhaps as a rehearsal for Obrazy italii: I bought my copy in Oxford, and it already looked as if it had been chewed at the corners by two different sizes of rat.) His Penguin on the World War II battles in Russia is on the shelf too, and I suppose it gives his career an unlooked-for illumination, such as Max Friedländer, say, might have provided for himself if he had spent the last year of his life writing a treatise about ice hockey. But looking at my undocumented grab bag of Muratovian scraps, I can’t help wondering how to make sense of it all.

The point is that I shouldn’t have to do the wondering. It ought to be a task for scholarship. The thing I really wonder about is what the Russian departments of the British universities have been doing with their time. Unlike their American equivalents they haven’t got much money, but even now, as the Cold War demand for interpreters has shrunk, they have had the benefit of dozens of Ph.D. students all requiring to be given suitable subjects. Surely the scholars and creative artists who were lost to the terror and disenfranchised by the emigration constitute a reservoir of potential theses that might have actually contributed to knowledge instead of just furthering careers. On the walls of my library are three Suprematist paintings by Nina Kogan, who taught on the faculty of Malevich’s Unovis art collective in Vitebsk from 1920 through into 1922, at the very time when Muratov, in the Writers’ Library in Moscow, was engaged in the melancholy task of measuring out the country’s literary heritage by its weight in black bread. Though Malevich at that time was keen on the idea that the work of his colleagues should all look the same, Kogan’s looked different: she used the standard Suprematist kit of squares, oblongs and floating bits and pieces, but she gave them a pastel lightness hinting at the airborne boudoir of a futuristic angel. She stood out, even though Unovis was an outfit dedicated, in all lack of irony, to the precept that the artist’s individual personality should vanish. No Unovis artist at the time, of course, had any conception that the state would eventually take steps to guarantee just such a result. By late 1922, however, the official cultural organs were making it clear that the opinion of the artists would not necessarily be heard first in the question of which direction the arts might take. (It was about this time that Muratov was lucky enough to be expelled from the country.) A woman of integrity surrounded by men with the souls of gangsters, Kogan stayed on in Russia, sincerely believing that she had a duty to her country’s future. Her faith was rewarded with the inevitable persecution and eventually, most likely during the siege of Leningrad, she disappeared into the whirlwind. In my wishful thinking, she starved to death along with all the poor souls who weren’t awarded the survival ration: but there was a purge on as well as a siege, and it is more likely that the hoodlums got her. The final judge of the relevance of her airily lyrical art to the monolithic purposes of the state was probably an NKVD slave driver in Siberia. There is one slim monograph about her, published in Zurich in 1985 to accompany a retrospective exhibition. The booklet was given to me by the proprietor of the Paris boutique Petroushka, where, over the course of years, I bought several of her strangely lovely little pictures. “Nina Ossipowna Kogan” says the title page. “1887 Vitebsk–1942(?)” In that bracketed question mark lies the tragedy. Sunt lacrimae rerum, and the tears are a frozen lake with no clear shore: no wonder they get into everything. But at least, for Kogan, there is a booklet. Where is there anything about Muratov?

In one of his more charming fits of silliness, William Saroyan once said of George Bernard Shaw, “I am that man by another name.” I am not sure if I am Paul Muratov by another name: he knew much more than I do, and to the extent that I can construe his Russian fast enough to catch its rhythm, I have a dreadful suspicion that he wrote better as well. But I am very sure that I am that man with another fate. When I leaf through the tiny volumes of his magisterial book, I see the love of art rewarded by the distortion of a life, and the quietly desperate affirmation of creativity in the face of unrestrained destruction. I would like to think that I had the same passion, but except from hearsay I know little about the same destiny: not even enough, perhaps, to be sufficiently glad that I know no more. To die guessing that you will be forgotten is one thing. But what would it be like to know that you have been forgotten before you die?