By the deathbed Edvard Munch 1915 Symbolist art painting 1915

“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch

1915 By the Deathbed (Fever) oil on canvas 174 x 230 cm Munch Museum, Oslo.jpg
“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch (1915)


Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.


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In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.

In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.

The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²

This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.

In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.

De Young Museum San Francisco

Museum Liveblog: De Young Museum

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This is a very different kind of post, but hopefully an enjoyable one! I’m going to be in San Francisco next week for business and when I’m in the Bay, I can’t resist hitting the museums down there which are some of my absolute favorite.

I’m going to be live-blogging my visit to the De Young museum next week on my instagram page. There’s a feature on the instagram app called “stories” where, much like snapchat, a series of pictures is featured in a stream of photos and lasts only for 24 hours. If you have the app, follow Coup de Dés for the museum liveblog! Also just generally follow the page for lots more art and paintings than I get a chance to post here- I like to do some heavy-hitting criticism on this site, and the insta-feed is much more light and concise, with much more quantity.

If people like this, I’ll definitely keep doing it with other museums and galleries, as I tend to spend a lot of time at one or another!

If you have a gallery or museum you’d like to see me visit and post about while I’m in the Bay, leave a comment and I’ll try to add it to my list of things to do! Or if there’s a spot in Portland or Eugene, Oregon, that’s much more accessible for me since that’s where I live.

Anyhow, if you miss the feed and want to see what I got up to, I’ll probably upload the best pics to this page in a gallery form and you’ll hardly have missed a thing. Edit: I uploaded a bunch of images to this page; see image slideshow above!

Who knows, I might even find some brand new art to write a new post about while I’m down there? Here’s hoping there’s some great 19th century works on view somewhere I happen to visit.


Henri Matisse Window at Tangiers

Henri Matisse: Window at Tangier



It would be a mistake to exaggerate the link between any single 20th century art movement and Henri Matisse. His use of a comprehensive range of styles and approaches in creating his broad and highly influential oeuvre is paralleled by few among his contemporaries. With that in mind, it’s often useful to speak of larger trends, mentalities, and tendencies in Europe when discussing Henri Matisse. In Window at Tangier (La Fenêtre à Tanger), two such tendencies are striking: Essentialism and Orientalism.

Essentialism in European art can be described as the tendency to distill shapes, colors, and other compositional elements into their most basic and elemental expressions. In Window at Tangier, we see this in both the reduction of the colors into large fields of yellow, ultramarine blue, and very pale blue and in the rendering of the tree line and window pane into large areas of more-or-less unified color. Part of what makes this piece so impressive is the impact created by the harmony in the simple and beautiful shapes and hues.

Interestingly, it is difficult to extricate Essentialism from Orientalism entirely. The trend of essentialism that gained traction around the early years of Matisse’s career was inspired largely by Japanese printmaking that was arriving from Japan. Artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were very popular at the time, and they inspired artists all over Europe to create similar evocations of harmony. The Tonalist movement of James Whistler, for instance, drew on the techniques used in Japanese prints to create a new language of interior and landscape painting that spread even to the Americas.


Hokusai, Suspension Bridge
James Whistler, Nocturne:Blue & Gold- Old Battersea Bridge


Artists like Matisse, Picasso, Felix Valloton, etc., pushed this new interest in essentialism to new and intriguing extremes. Window at Tangier is by no means Matisse’s most striking or radical exploration of his ability to use economy of shape and tone- late in his career, he explored intensely minimal approaches to imagery with paper cut out pieces such as The Snail (1953):



So while we can say there is something of an Orientalism that is implicit in the essentialist approach to creating Window at Tangier, we can also point to a more direct and more philosophical/spiritual dimension of Orientalism at work here. First, it is important to note that the painting itself is set in Tangier. While Tangier is located to the South of France, the Moorish culture of Morocco is tightly bound- at least in the European mind- to the religious and spiritual culture of the East: Islam.

There are two parts to why the copious use of ultramarine blue is associated with the East in European painting: one is that the word ultramarine itself (literally “over seas”) actually came from beyond Persia and is associated with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Persia, and the Western subcontinent of India. Artists and art aficionados continued to associate the color with the Orient and Islam due to both the sourcing of the pigment itself and the popularity of the color in illustrated manuscripts, tiling, and pottery of the Middle East.

Beyond the pigment and its unique history itself, the color blue was associated with wisdom- particularly among the French Symbolists and the Theosophists. Symbolism may not have been a dominant trend overtly in Matisse’s works, but he was trained in the atelier of pre-eminent Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I’ve written before about the link between the Symbolists and Orientalism (such as in this essay on James Ensor), but what’s important to note here is that the link in the Orientalist cosmology between and innate, intuitive, and primitive spiritual wisdom and the East is a major feature of the Orientalist mindset. So here we see the link again between the Orient, the color blue, and a kind of spiritual harmony/wisdom that represents a guilt and fear among Modernizing Europe and its cultural expressions.

Henri Matisse, In the Atelier of Gustave Moreau

Matisse would go on to utilize these tropes more aggressively in many of his later works, using the color blue to color whole figures and canvases as an expression of internal knowledge and introspective exploration. What makes Window at Tangier so successful is the balanced and poetic use of Matisse’s broader affinities in an application to a single, recognizable subject- the painting is both exemplary of his deeper inclinations and a stand-alone evocation of a time and place. This particular balance is, in fact, the essence of lyricism.


Russian History of Eurasianism Kirilov

The Foundations of Eurasianism in Russian Fin De Siecle Literature

As the turn of the twentieth century was approaching, the nations of Europe were looking at themselves and what they had become in the century of rapid change that was the nineteenth century. Nations that had existed in their place for milennia but had had no country became nationstates. Russia, too, was doing this. In fact, Russia had been doing it for 70 years before 1900. Some said that Russia was just a backwards and weak version of Western Europe, that Russia had to move quick to emulate Germany and France. Others, however, were trying to understand Russia’s identity on it’s own terms, as a mixture between Europe and Asia, but truly part of neither. This idea evolved into a cultural movement, Eurasianism, in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The foundations of the Eurasian philosophy as an evolution from Pan-Slavism may have had its roots in the fin de Siecle literature of Russia, and those foundations are what I hope to address here.

One of the basic foundations of what we may call Eurasianism is the idea that Russia is not by nature a European country. This is actually an idea that was first developed in the 1830’s, and had been discussed by Russian scholars widely for fifty years before the time period that I am concerned with in this essay (1880-1919). So, first I would like to look at the questions “what does it mean to be a non-European people?,” and “in what ways is Russia not a European nation?”

In 1834, in the guise of a letter to a female friend, Petr Chaadaev wrote the first of his so-called “philosophical letters,” entiteld “Philosophical Letter Written To A Lady.” It was first published in 1836, in one of the few journals in print at the time in Moscow. Alexander Herzen later said of it “it had the effect of a gun shot in the dead of night (Hohn 36).” The letter simultaneously introduced and established the idea that there was infact an opposition between Russia and the rest of Europe, or at least Western Europe (Raeff 159). The letter was so incendiary that as a result, the editor of the publication in which it was published was immediately punished with exhile and had his journal abolished, and Chaadaev was declared insane and put under house arrest. He would live out his life uncommfortably in this manner, and though he wrote seven follow up letters, they were not published in his life time (Raeff 174).

Chaadaev’s letter had awoken Russia to the idea that the slow, piece-meal adoption of some Western innovation was not working (Hohn 34). Whereas some were inspired to fight many Westernizing trends, the Slavophiles and Pan-Slavs, others took the side of Chaadaev, who had called for Russia to quicken the pace of Westernizing reform. Chaadaev claimed that Russia had merely “vegetated” on Europe’s periphery, and had absolutely no “history” or sense of civil rights, civil duties, or individual freedom (35). Debates over what Russia was and what Russia should become split Russia’s scholarly world along the Westernizing-Slavophile line, and the same debate would continue on, into the fin de Siecle.

One of the representatives of Slavophile scholarship who opposed the Westernizing trend of Chaadaev was Nikolai Danilievsky. His writing in 1869 of “Russia and Europe” defined Slavophilism to many, but it also was the foundation for the concepts of later generations of Russians of Russia’s non-European nature. He wrote “Only (the confusion of universal culture with Germano-Roman culture) could produce the pernicious delusion of Westernism, which fails to admit the close affinity between Russia and the Slav world, or the historical meaning of the latter, and assigns to us and our brothers the pitiful, insignificant role of imitators of the West. Such a delusion deprives us of the hope for any cultural significance, i.e., for a great historical purpose (Kohn 195). We can see not only the anti-Westernizing sentiment that Blok and Bely would later embrace here, but also the introduction of the idea of a great historical mission for Russia, which Blok and Bely would later develop into ideas of imminent apocalypse for Europe originating in Russia. Vladimir Solov’ev, the philosopher and writer from whom the young Symbolists Blok and Bely took so many of their ideas, is curiously quiet on the question of Russia as a non-European nation. He, like Danilievsky, was a pan-humanist. To Solov’ev, this was exclusive, meaning that he could never truly be a Pan-Slav, like Danilievsky. He was neither a Westernizer, however. That he was has been suggested before, primarily because of his advocacy for a grand rapprochement with the Catholic Church in Rome, but that was, again, an expression of his religious pan-humanism.

Whereas Solov’ev was fairly silent about Russia being or not being a non-European nation, the second generation Russian Symbolists were definetly not so. The West and the Westernizers became frequent targets for Blok and Bely (Raeff 361). While mentions of Westernizers were usualy made in the form of jokes in their works, this doesn’t indicate that they took the Westernizing opposition lightly. The city, that symbol to the Symbolists of the West, became a hated and accursed places (Malstad 312). Blok, in one of his most famous poems, “Night. Streetlamp…,” expressed his hatred for the city:

The night. The street. Streetlamp. Drugstore.

A meaningless dull light about.

You may live twenty-five years more;

All will still be there. No way out.


You die. You start again and all

Will be repeated as before:

The cold rippling of a canal.

The night. The street. Streetlamp. Drugstore.

(Blok 14)

Saint Petersburg is clearly indicated here, as is evidenced by the mention of the canals. Canals became another symbol for Symbolists of the cursed city. That all there is to a city is eerie lights, strange modern buildings, and meaninglessness was an idea the Symbolists developed and frequently evoked in their poetry and writing, but it had also been done by Anton Chekhov and Gogol (Malmstad 314). Blok used the idea again in such poems as “The Stranger,” “Humiliation,” and “Factory.”

In Andrei Bely’s novel “Petersburg,” the idea of city as cursed was taken to entirely new levels. The over-all color of the city was gray or sickly yellow, the worst colors possible for the Symbolists (Cioran 106). Again, Bely was not the first to characterize the city so- it was done first by Gogol. Nonetheless, the persistent mention of the miserable gray and the oppressive pale yellow of the city’s countenance is a clear message to the reader that the city truly is a place to be avoided if possible.

The most powerful statement about the city’s accursed nature is the theme of the Dutch sailor. The Dutch sailor is clearly meant to be taken as both Peter the Great and captain Van Valkenburg, the flying Dutchman. Peter the Great appears in many forms in the novel, including a stone man (a symbol of guilt, from a famous work of Pushkin’s) and the famous bronze statue of him which inspired Pushkin’s narrative poem “The Bronze Horseman.” Not the most frequent version of Peter to make symbolic appearances in the novel, the image of Peter as the Dutch captain is one of the more powerful symbolically.

The Sailor is introduced to us at the very beginning of the novel, as Apollon Apollonovich contemplates how grand Petersburg’s rectillinear prospects are: “On his shadowy sails the Flying Dutchman winged his way toward Petersburg from there, from the leaden expanses of the Baltic and German Seas, in order here to erect, by delusion, histy lands and to give the name of islands to the wave of onrughing clouds (10).” Besides the periodic apparition of the sailor, the connection between Holland and it’s accursed sailor and Petersburg is further emphasized by the constant mention of the canals of Petersburg. The mention thereof is one of the many repeating motifs evoking the city’s curse.

Bely was influenced a great deal by the composer Richard Wagner, the composer of the famous opera “The Flying Dutchman.” The main idea of the story of the Flying Dutchman is that captain, Van Valkenburg, is cursed until Judgement Day to wander the seas (recall the eternal twilight suffering of the citizen in Blok’s ‘Night. Streetlamp…’). Considering Peter’s relation to St. Petersburg as founder thereof, for Peter to be the Flying Dutchman would be for him to transfer his curse to the city. Consequently, seeing as Petersburg was the symbol to the Symbolists of the city itself, this would indicate that to Bely, the city is inherently an accursed place.

The instances of the West being demonized in the works of Bely and Blok are so many as to make the mention of each a lengthy task, but a bigger picture begins to become clear, even when looking at only a few: The West is not something Russia should be imitating, as it is full of evils and will result in inevitable implosion. The curse of the city is an echo of Danilievsky’s assessment of Russo-European relations, that Russia needs to be itself because those problems with the civilization of the West.

Whereas Slavophiles of the day were content to attack the West and understand Russia as the dominant force of the separate Slav civilization, as Danilievsky’s followers were, the Symbolists were interested in the Russia’s eternal entanglement with the East as an alternative to Europe. A picture of Russia as a synthesis of Asia and Europe, with European culture being the thin veneer covering the vast Asian expanses beneath,‘ began to evolve out of the works of Blok and Bely.

The poetry of Aleksandr Blok is perhaps the best place to search for Eurasian ideas and beliefs in Russian literature. His lyrics were widely read by the intelligentsia from his early period as a disciple of Vladimir Solov’ev up through the Bolshevik revolution. While the incendiary quality of Blok’s works have long been acknowledged, his bold statements of Eurasian ideals have rarely been examined, inspite of the clear message the poet was sending.

In his early work, Blok favored mystical subjects, which further connected him to the legacy of Vladimir Solov’ev. The focus of his early poems is what he called “the Beautiful Lady,” Vladimir Solov’ev’s “Sophia,” the eternal divine feminine, the embodiment of whom he believed to be his wife Liubov Mendeleeva (Matich 95). Mystical subjects and imagery were always to be a large feature of Blok’s poetry, and in some places the mystic quality of his verse only intensified over the years (i.e., “The 12,” “On Kulikovo Field,” “Venitsiyah,” etc.). As Blok’s verse developed, however, and he became estranged from Mendeleeva, its focus shifted to Russia and to history.

The shift in Blok’s subject matter seems to have begun to occur around the time of Blok’s “Italian Journey.” The trip to Italy he made with his estranged wife was originally meant as a kind of second honey moon for the couple (Matich 129). In fact, Russian intellectuals had been making journeys to Italy in the European Romantic “Gran Toure” tradition for some time before Blok and Mendeleeva (i.e., Zinaida Gippius and husband, etc.), and thus, the trip itself could have been an exercise in engagement with history, a theme that would pervade his poetry written while there. On this trip, Blok had meant to keep extensive travel logues of the art he viewed there. This never really materialized, but while in Italy, he did write some of his most powerful and famous poetry, compiled in “Italian Verses (1909),” in which is evident the beginning changes in Blok’s self evaluation as a Russian poet in the fin de Siecle.

Whereas the Beautiful Lady had been the center of Blok’s poetic world in his early poetic career, the verses penned by Blok in his “Italian Verses” made little to no mention of the Beautiful Lady (Matich 129). She had been replaced by the Dark Muse, sometimes represented as the Oriental Lady. Blok’s oriental femme fatale was not simply the fetishist, decadent trope being employed all over Europe in the Modernist literature camps, representing destructive beauty without scruples (Matich 155). She was the other side of the Beautiful Lady, and, importantly to Eurasianism, she was Russia.

The Dark Oriental Muse makes many appearances in Blok’s Italian poems. In her book “Erotic Utopia,” Olga Matich notices the fact that Blok should associate Italy with these Oriental Femme Fatales is strange: “As with Cleopatra, one rightfully asks why Blok linked Salome to Italy, especially Venice. Searching for an answer, one is again struck by his representation of Italy as a mythological Oriental woman immortalized in Western art (143).” Matich’s analysis brings things back to the primary topic of her book, the erotic. Considering the fact that this period in Blok’s writing was when he was beginning to recast himself as not only the mystic poet follower of Sophia and the apocalypse, but as Russia’s vox populi, another interpretation of the Oriental woman theme is possible.

In part II of Blok’s poem “Venitsiyah” is where Salome makes her first appearance in the work of Blok. Her association with the dead city of Europe, Venice, is important to Blok’s new position as prophet for Russia. Salome, in the Biblical story, is the killer of the prophet. In Blok’s poem, however, she becomes the purifier of the prophet: she takes the poet/prophet (i.e. Blok himself) and separates the source of his prophecy, his head, from his body, which is inherently flawed and sinful (Matich 146-47).

Poets and prophets have long been closely related in Russian literature since Russia’s Romantic era. Mikhail Lermontov wrote a series of poems about the poet being a prophet, and one might recall his prediction of his own death in “The Dream.” Pushkin, perhaps in a way more relevant to Blok’s poet’s transfiguration, also wrote poems about the poet as a prophet, and even wrote one specifically about the gruesome transfiguration moment: “Tormented by spiritual thirst I dragged myself through a sombre desert. And a six winged Seraph appeared to me at the crossing of ways.” The poem continues, “He bent down to my mouth and tore out my tongue, sinful, deceitful, and given to idle talk; and with his right hand steeped in blood he inserted the forked tongue of a wise serpent into my benumbed mouth (Pushkin 93).”

Besides being the medium of the poet’s transfiguration into the prophet of Russia, Salome is further a symbol of Russia itself. The dead European city, in this case Venice, is the scene in which purification by the Oriental Lady occurs. The European city could represent any of Russia’s “thin European veneer” (Matich 158). This scenario, repeated later in “On Kulikovo Field,” where the Oriental woman comes to the decayed and collapsing Europe and brings apocalypse and subsequent victory in purification in the mass shedding of blood, is one possible interpretation of Blok’s second part to “Venitsiyah.”

Destruction, irrationality, and spirituality all became wrapped up in a dark feminine form in Blok’s work, something we can call Mongolism (Matich 159). Blok himself did not typically describe †the early Eurasianist element of his work as Mongolism, unlike Bely. He did, however, have a set of ideas which were highly formulated, and were very prevalent in his work, especially after his Italian journey. Because of the nature of Symbolist art, the fact that Blok never named his Eurasianist ideas one way or the other shouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t call this theme by the Solov’evian name for it when talking about it. Symbolism encouraged the development of a highly personalized set of symbols for ideas. Also, the fact that Bely was so ready to describe this Mongolism theme as he did should indicate that speaking of Blok’s Eurasianism is fairly safe, considering their relationship.

For Blok, as for the later formal Eurasianists, Mongolism came to represent purification. This idea could have its roots in Vladimir Solov’ev’s piece “A Brief Tale of the Antichrist.” In the story, China builds an enormous army and takes over Europe. Europe is subjected to fifty years of Chinese domination, from which it eventually arises, in unity and harmony, and overthrows its Eastern overlords. The story can be called artistic writing, as it is not written in Solov’ev’s typical philosophical style, and it deals with fictional events. It is not, however, meant to be taken as purely fictional (Wozniuk xxviii). It is meant to be taken as a sort of warning to Russia of the apocalypse which, to him, necessarily originates in the East.

Blok’s poem “On the Field of Kulikovo (1908),” sometimes called “On Kulikovo Field,” is just such a scene of purification. The setting of the poem is the famous battle in which Russia achieved its first military victory over the Mongols, a scene which Blok revisited a number of times, perhaps most notably in his essay “The people and the Intelligentsia.” The poem describes the struggle and eventual victory of Dmitrii Donskoia and his troops:

The river spreads out wide… Sad, lazy, it is flowing.

Washing its bare banks, and

Above those yellow clay slopes- haystacks, growing

Sad, stand on the steppeland.


O Russia! O my wife! Our long and narrow

Road lies clear though distressed.

Our road with an old Tatar freedom’s arrow

has deeply pierced our breast.


And always war! We only dream of peace through ample

Blood, dust… alas…

The steppeland mare flies on and on and tramples

the feather-grass.


And there’s no end. The slopes and miles flash clearer

Past. Stop! The flood

Of frightened clouds is moving nearer, nearer…

The sunset’s blood.

(Blok 9)

The very earth of the steppe in this poem is characterized as yellow by Blok. Yellow, especially when not associated with a city scenario, is the Russian Symbolists’ symbol of Asia (Cioran 106). The river Niepravda, which washes over this Asian terrain in the poem, is described in the same way, it’s action characterized with the same verb (ona raskinulsyah) as Cleopatra was in her glass encasement in Blok’s Italian journey poem “Cleopatra.” Olga matich, in “Erotic Utopia,” takes this repetition to mean that Blok is characterizing this Russian landscape as an Oriental woman (139).

The arrow which pierces the breast is important, for one thing, because it is perhaps the first time that Blok uses “we” in his poetry, expanding his typical “I” to incorporate all of Russia (Matich 154). Also, it represents that purification through violence that later would become a feature of the philosophies of George Vernadsky, Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii, and, more recently, Gumil’ev (Paradowskii 4). The piercing and long suffering does not result in death, as the decapitation of John the Baptist does not result in death in the poem “Venitsiyah.” It allows Russia to become even more powerful than the great horde, and on Kulikovo field, inherits the glorious Mongol tradition.

The poem is actually quite long, and many events of the longer poem are only introduced briefly in part I of the poem. One of these themes is the woman on a horse, leading Russia into battle, rushing past Russia’s fallen, as in the first part’s last stanza:

The sunset’s blood! From my heart blood is streaming.

Cry, my heart, cry…

There is no peace! The steppeland mare flies gleaming,

galloping by.

The woman who leads Russia into battle, along with the rest of the Asian symbols, brings to mind the scene in “Venitsiyah,” which was actually written a year after the Kulikovo poem: A woman appears on the dead European veneer, leading the poet into the scene of terrible violence, which actually represents purification. In Venitsiyah, however, the Oriental woman has an active role in the transfiguration, whereas here, she leads the poet on his own “distressed” road.

Much later in his poetic career, Blok wrote the poem which has become most widely acknowledged for its Eurasian theme- “The Scythians.” This poem has gained much attention for its incendiary language against Europe, as well as its characterization of Russia as an Asian horde:

You are millions, we are multitude

and multitude, and multitude.

Come, fight! Yea, we are Scythians,

Yea, Asians, a lant eyed, greedy brood.


For you- centuries, for us- one hour.

Like slaves, obeying and abhorred,

we were the shield between the breeds

of Europe and the raging Mongol horde.


For centuries you eyes were towards the East.

Our pearls you hoarded in your chests

and mockingly you bode the day

when you could aim your cannons at our chests.


The time has come. Disaster beats its wings.

Each day the insults grow apace.

The hour will strike, and it may chance

your Paestums will go down and leave no trace.

(Blok 36)

In this poem, any European facade has been destroyed or abandoned. Blok identifies Russia with Asia fully. Chaadaev’s perceived gap has become a chasm which the poet challenges Europe to cross. An interesting feature of this Asian characterization of Russia is that while the poet identifies Russia in the present with the great Asian hordes, there is also a remembrance of a time when Russia was not so, in the second stanza. As a shield against the Mongols, Russia was not Mongol itself, it would seem. If so, this seems to echo the purification and transfiguration of Russia in the Kulikovo poem, which results in Russia’s inheritance of the Mongol legacy.

“The Scythians” is also important for its clear association of the Asian Russia with apocalypse. Apocalypse is one of the main pieces to the Eurasianism of the Symbolists Blok and Bely, as it was to Valdimir Solov’ev. It is the historical mission which the Symbolists saw the Westernizers trying to deprive Russia of. The ruins of Paestum being erased is the poet telling Europe that no trace will be left of Europe. Later on in the poem, the poet makes a final threat: Should Europe not “Come to (Russia’s) arms and rest,” Russia will “clear the grounds for the appalling scenes of war between the savage Mongol hordes and pitiless science with its mass machines.”

Another interesting association between Russia and feminized Oriental apocalypse occurs in “Scythians,” reminiscentt of the Italian poems. The sixth and seventh stanzas repeat a feature of the poem “Cleopatra:”

Oh, pause, old world, while life still beats in you.

Oh, weary one, oh, worn, oh, wise!

Halt here, as once did Oedipus

Before the Sphix’s enigmatic eyes.


Yes, Russia is a Sphinx. Exulting, grieving,

And sweating blood, she cannot sate

Her eyes that gaze and gaze and gaze

At you with stone-lipped love for you, and hate.

The Sphinx image was also used by Blok to describe Cleopatra. Once again, the Dark Muse is associated with Russia, as she was in the Kulikovo poem. There were elements of Solov’evian philosophy which were forever a feature of Blok’s works, and this feminine apocalypse was one of the most prevalent (Matich 160). In terms of seeking Blok’s Eurasianism, we start to see that to Blok, Russia was the fallen and trampled nation that was to inherit the Mongol legacy and be the driving force behind European apocalypse.

This idea, of Russia as the abused and forgotten nation, was also occasionally echoed by Andrei Bely, as in the poem “Enough!”:

Enough! Don’t wait or hope,

be scattered, my unhappy people.

Agonizing succession of years-

Be shattered and vanish into space!


Ages of poverty and bondage,

Oh, my Motherland,

Let me sob my heart out

In your damp, empty expanses.

(Bely 260)

Although Bely rarely spoke of Russia in this mode in his later years, this idea of Russia as downtrodden was something that even Chaadaev and the Westernizers held in common with the Pan-Slavs. Bely chose to emphasize the glorious, though terrifying and awful historical mission that was Russia’s- the apocalypse. This is perhaps one of the best examples of the differing directions the works of Blok and Bely took, Blok coming to describe Russia in increasingly darker terms, for example, the sinister smile of the Sphinx.

The smile of the Sphinx of Blok’s “Scythians” is also notable in its use of one of Blok’s descriptions of the people- enigmatic and strange smiles, disguising violent intent. In “The People And The Intellingentsia,” Blok describes the people in such a manner: “From the other side- ever the same faintly ironical smile, knowing silence… a dreadful laziness it always seemed to us; or else the slow awakening of a giant, as it seems to us more and more. A giant waking with a singular smile on his lips. No intellinegt smiles like that (Blok 359).” We can interpret this as being the smile of the nation that knows that it will rise and fulfill a great historical destiny, as Solov’ev described Russia (Matich 156). To Blok and to Bely, this was indeed something to fear, as Blok concludes in his essay. The warranted self-interested concern of the intellingents, however, did not change the inevitability, for good or for bad, of revolution of the people.

Concluding these examinations of Blok’s works, it is safe to say that there was a Eurasianist philosophy emerging in those works. Russia was darkened, but it was really another face of Solov’ev’s Sophia; it still had a grand historical mission to fulfill. Russia was not European, as he expressed in “Scythians.” Whatever European element that can be said to exist in Russia is shallow at best (as in “On Kulikovo Field”) and it is both cursed (as in “” and countless other Blok poems) and will be erased in the fulfillment of Russia’s historical mission (as in “Scythians”).
Aleksandr Blok may have been the favorite poet of Russia’s fin de Siecle Silver Age, but Andrei Bely is equally important in the foundation of Eurasian ideals. Indeed, Bely’s poetry is regarded by few to be on par with that of Blok, but his novels and theoretical essays are considered by some to be amongst the best ever written (i.e. Vladimir Nabokov [Janecek 3]). Indeed, people were reading novels like “Silver Dove” and “Petersburg” about the time that people were reading the Italian Verses of Blok.

Like Blok, Bely was an admirer of Vladimir Solov’ev, and a friend of the Solov’ev family through Sergey, the philosopher’s younger brother (Janecek 5). While some have argued that Bely’s admiration for Solov’ev’s work was on the level of Blok’s (Matich 119), Elsworth states that Solov’ev’s influence on Bely is hard to gauge (9). Perhaps the most likely relationship of Bely to Solov’ev’s work is that explained by Bernice Rosenthal: that Bely was always drawn to apocalyptic thought, and Solov’ev, though not the only apocalyptic thinker to influence Bely, gave Bely a lot of fuel for his apocalyptic views (Rosenthal 182).

The apocalypticism of Bely was similar to that of Blok: There would be a second coming of the messiah, it would come from the east, and Russia’s involvement therein would be integral. This idea they both borrowed from Solov’ev (Rosenthal 182). Therefor, when we look at “the East” in the works of Bely, as is the case with Solov’ev and Blok, we need to keep in mind the inherent symbolism of the apocalypse that it was intended to carry.

Bely’s symphonic novel “Petersburg” is where we find many of his ideas of Russia’s nature and historical mission. “Petersburg” is the work in which Bely brought many of his strands of thought together in one incredibly complex novel: music in prose, metrical verse, Mongolism, etc. It is also his most famous and widely read novel. It is here that every central belief of Bely was expressed, as difficult to find as it may be.

The novel is widely known to have been founded on Wagnerian principles of so-called Gesammtkunstwerk, frequently rendered in English as “synthesis of the arts.” Those familiar with Wagner might recall the descending chromatic scale recurrent in “Tristan und Isolde,” used to remind us and give us a feeling of Tristan’s suffering. Bely uses many such motifs, the most prevalent of which are the following: Mongolism, the apocalypse, the color yellow, the darkness of the workers, and the circle. All of these are symbols of the Eurasianism of the symbolists, and considering their frequency in recurrence (my estimate would be about one mention of one, if not many mentions of all themes, on every of Petersburg’s 300 pages), “Petersburg” can easily be seen as being intended to be a discussion of Eurasianism.

Mongolism, though it has not been proven so, may have had it’s roots as an idea in the work of Vladimir Solov’ev. His poem “Pan-Mongolism” is perhaps his best known statement on the matter:

Pan-mongolism! Though the name is savage

It carresses my ear

As if it is full with portent

of a great Divine Fate…

(Wozniuk 293)

The poem continues to an apocalyptic conclusion for Russia: “O Rus, forget your bygone glory… scraps of your banners are given/ for amusement to yellow children.” In the last line of the poem, reference to Russia as the third Rome is made as Solov’ev claims “there will not be another (Rome).”

The name “Pan-Mongolism” may sound comical. Indeed, the first line of the poem indicates to the reader that Solov’ev finds the idea of Pan-Mongolism to be bizarre. Nonetheless, I’ve yet to find any critique of the poem that accounts for that as an intended element. Instead, I think that it expresses the true level of angst Solov’ev was experiencing surrounding the so-called “yellow terror,” a term which Bely is know to have frequently employed when discussing the “East (Berberova 117).”

Solov’ev’s vision of conflagration in the East came to life in the times that the novel “Petersburg” was set. The novel was in fact written in 1913, but I don’t think that we necessarily need to view the prevalence of the fear of yellow terror in the novel as mere recounting of the attitudes of the times in which the novel was set, 1905. The theme of yellow terror, which Bely himself described interchangeably as “Mongolism” when discussing the book, is part of the nature of Russia to Blok and Bely. It represents the historical mission of Russia: apocalypse.

The novel has a few characters that can be said to be protagonists, besides the true protagonist, which is the city of Petersburg itself, in the tradition of Pushkin (Malmstad xiii). One of them, Apollon Ableukhov, is an interesting case of Mongolism in the novel. He is, in fact, of Mongol blood himself: “(His ancestors’) place of residence was the Kirghiz-Kaisak-Horde… for brevity’s sake, Ab-Lai-Ukhov was later changed to Ableukhov, plain and simple (2).” Even so, Apollon Apollonovitch has a certain anti-oriental attitude, represented by many frequently reappearing Leitmotifs, including the symbolic motif of the square and the line: “Proportionality and symmetry soothed the senator’s nerves… most of all he loved the rectilinear prospect; this prospect reminded him of the flow of time between to points (Bely 10),” and later in the passage “After the line, the figure which soothed him more than all other symmetries was the square (11).”

The square in the novel becomes the contradiction to the circle, the figure Bely fondly associated his novel with. The circle which Bely used to describe his novel incorporated Mongolism as one of the primary elements (Berberova 118). If Mongolism was represented by the circle, than the West was represented by the square. Indeed, in the very prologue of the novel, Bely introduces us to this idea “Nevsky Prospect is rectilineal (just between us), because it is a European prospect… Nevsky Prospect is a prospect of no little importance in this un-Russian-but nonetheless-capital city (Bely 2).”

Apollon’s love for the square and the line and it’s application to the earth which creates the grid of the city in the form of Petersburg’s grand prospects is only marred by his fear of the people. “Apollon Apollonovitch did not like the islands: the population there was industrial and coarse,” Bely writes (11). ,The people are generally represented as Eastern in Russian Symbolism. Compare this to Ableukhov’s fear of the “grey human stream” coming in from Vasilievskii Island. The association of grey with the workers who inhabit Vasilievskii Island is, of course, Apollon Ableukhov’s own, and not Bely’s. The color grey in the works of Bely represented the manifestation of actual evil in the physical realm (Cioran 107).

The hatred of Apollon Apollonovitch for the workers is further conceptualized in the line vs. circle relationship: “Apollon Apollonovtich did not wish to think further. The islands must be crushed! Riveted with the iron of the enormous bridge, skewered by the arrows of the prospects… (11)” The islands are constantly contrasted with the main land, and specifically the English Bank, where Apollony Apollonovitch lives, of Petersburg.

Apollon Ableukhov has a son, Nikolai Apollonovich, who lives with him. His attitude towards his son is another curious incident of his apparent hatred of mongolism. He frequently refers to his son as a “scoundrel,” and in some instances seems to use that term as synonymous with “Mongol” or “Mongoloid.” Apollon Ableukhov can be said to be “Mongoloid” himself, and this is just one of the curiosities of the book. Without making any great logical leaps, perhaps we could interpret Apollon’s hatred of mongolism as the denial by those Russians ruling over Russia who denied Russia’s Eastern nature, i.e. Westernizers. Blok, in-fact, expressed his own dislike for Westernizers, as in his essay “The People And The Intelligentsia” (“The Slavophile principles, deeply grounded in the people, have always been in fatal obstacle to the ‘intelligentist principles [Blok 361].’”), and it is quite normal to find Blok and Bely expressing the same ideas. At the same time, the Russian Symbolists were also prone to complex and practically nonsensical verses.

The son of Aplollon, Nikolai, is somewhat more of a true representation of the Mongolism of the early Eurasianists. He frequently casts himself in the role of Mongol or Tatar, as in the following “Nikolai Apollonovich remembered that he was an old Turanian who had been incarnated in the blood, in the flesh of the hereditary nobility, in order to carry out a secret mission: to shake everything to it s very foundation (166).” This shaking everything to the foundation mirrors Blok and Solov’ev’s apocalypticism, and, more closely, Blok’s Mongolism. He also is identified by Apollon as Tatar or Mongol frequently.

The story line itself identifies Nikolai Apollonovich with Mongolism. Nikolai becomes involved with “The Party,” presumably an Anarchist or Socialist group that employs terrorist tactics for political gain (Elsworth 94). He, in despair over his rejected advances on Sophia Likhutina, promises the party that he will assassinate some one. The person that he has been assigned by the party to kill ends up being Nikolai Apollonovich’s own father, the conservative politician Apollon Ableukhov. The man who is in charge of Nikolai Apollonovich’s involvement in the assassination scheme is another “Mongol” character, Lippanchenko, who I will discuss separately shortly. Nikolai Apollonovich is given a time bomb with which he is to blow up his father, which eventually ends up exploding, but killing or injuring no one.

The association of Nikolai with destruction, even though he doesn’t end up destroying anything of consequence, is supposed to be an expression of his Mongol nature. Bely did not ever define what “Mongolism” meant to him, though he did use it in discussing his writing (Berberova 118). This makes it difficult to discuss in what ways various characters are Mongol, Westernizers, etc., which means that it is equally difficult to discuss potential Eurasianism in his work. We must then define Mongolism for Bely alone by what we can find in his writing which we can say defines Mongolism, as has been done with Blok before (i.e. by Olga Matich, etc.).

For Bely, I tentatively propose the following principles of so-called Mongolism, conscious of the potential academic dangers of doing so, derived primarily from “Petersburg:” Destruction, irrationality, feeling rather than thinking, rural rather than urban centered. All of these things are known to be mirrored in Blok’s work, the “Eurasianism” of whom has been documented by scholars like Olga Matich (see “Erotic Utopia,” chapters four and five). I believe that we can safely assume that these are the concepts that Bely means to wrap up in the term “Mongolism,” wrapping of many concepts in one symbolic phrase being one of the defining features of the Symbolist movement with which Bely associated himself.

Further evidence of what Mongolism could have meant to Bely can be found in the works of Solov’ev, Bely’s admiration of whom has been widely demonstrated by Russian Symbolist scholars like Gerald Janecek, Bernice Rosenthal, Olga Matich, andJ. Elsworth, just to name a few. The Mongolism of Solov’ev’s writing is primarily: destruction, irrationality, and feeling (Wozniuk xxviii). The ways in which Mongolism might have been conceptualized by Bely and by Solov’ev are really quite difficult to sort through, but the difference is primarily this: Bely and Solov’ev both feared the “yellow terror,” but Bely, in his way, embraced so-called Mongolism with hopes for apocalypse.

Though it may be dangerous to put words in the mouth of Bely, it is something that must be attempted, and has indeed been attempted by scholars before. The works on Bely’s writing of Elsworth and the compilation of essays by scholars on the work of Bely put together by Gerald Janecek are primarily exercises in this. Considering how often “Mongol” themes appear in Bely’s work, I believe the exploration of what Bely meant is most necessary.

Besides the Ableukhovs, there are many characters associated with Eastern symbols. Sofia Petrovna, the woman with whom Nikolai Apollonovich is infatuated, is frequently described in the book by her fashionable oriental tastes. She decorates her house with fashionable Japanese prints. Her tastes, of course, are mocked by Bely as disingenuous and contrived. One of the only notes from Bely himself in the 1916 edition was attached to this quote from her; “He would praise her Japanese landscapes… And (Sophia Petrovna) would blurt out: ‘it’s from the brush of Hadusai (Bely 40).’” Bely’s note drew attention to the fact that she had mixed up the Japanese names, as she had intended to tell the visitor that it was Hokusai who had created it (Malmstad 317).

One of the Mongol characters of the novel who truly embodies Bely’s “Mongolism” is the character Lippanchenko. Lippanchenko may have been based by Bely on an infamous terrorist Evno Azef. The meaning of the name and it’s derivation is a source of some debate, as some maintain that Bely, who made no secret of the Lippanchenko-Azef connection, must have known that Evno Azef used the pseudonym Lipchenko while he was abroad. Bely denied this, saying that it was the sounds of the name that inspired him, some of which are also featured in Ableukhov. The addition of the “oo” sound, which was associated by Russian symbolists with the word “revolution,” among other things, to the l-p sound, which Bely personally associated with chaos, creates quite an evocative name for the central, “Mongoloid” characters of the tale (Malmstad 311).

Lippanchenko’s name itself implies Mongolism, and it is quite readily apparent that Bely wants the reader to make the connection, as his introduction to this “Party” agent is laden with references to Lippanchenko’s actual heritage: “(A fat man’s) yellowish, clean-shaven face, inclined slightly to the side, smoothly floated on its own double chin. And besides, the face glistened (24).” The glistening of Lippanchenko’s face in his introduction to the reader is notable, as stickiness and sliminess become Leitmotifs of Lippanchenko throughout the book: “His lips still quivered, resembling pieces of sliced salmon, not yellowish-red, but oily and yellow.” Later on in the book, the tin can in which the time bomb is encased is referred to as slimy, both as it used to contain oiled fish, and because the tin can is passed on from Lippanchenko to Nikolai Apollonovich. Thus, whenever the oiliness or stickiness of the can is being mentioned, with out explicit mention of him, Lippanchenko, and his Mongolism, are being evoked.

Towards the end of chapter one, we discover that Lippanchenko is of Mongol descent: “’Excuse me Lippanchenko, are you of Mongol descent?’ ‘Why such a strange question?’ ‘Every Russian has some Mongol blood (27).’” Besides the very significant line about all Russians being part Mongol, something echoed again later by the formal Eurasianists, it is significant that the character who is responsible for handing down orders of destruction and chaos to Nikolai Apollonovich should literally be a Mongol. This is further proof of what Bely tried to create with his symbolic “Mongolism-” destruction and apocalypse. Lippanchenko is further associated with apocalypse when Dudkin, an underling of his, has an apocalyptic revelation that he needs to murder Lippanchenko- “Destroy it all-” which echoes Nikolai Apollonovich’s brief entertaining of the idea that he should kill his father after another such apocalyptic revelation scene from earlier in the novel.

In conclusion of these examinations of the foundations of Eurasianism in the work of the Symbolists, though somewhat difficult to formalize, we can see that there definitely was a Eurasian philosophy that was being constructed there. In the minds of Bely and Blok things were perhaps more systematized than they chose to express- something likely considering Symbolism’s emphasis on obscurration (one of Bely’s most ubiquitous motifs in “Petersburg”) and personalized anesthesia. The themes that do emerge- Russia-centered apocalypse, revolution, the non-European nature of Russia, and the inheritance of “Mongolism” from Russia’s historical involvement with Asia- are nonetheless deniable.

The last element of Eurasianism which requires separate attention leads into a discussion of the formal Eurasianists, and that is the realization of the Russian Symbolist apocalypse that was the Bolshevik revolution. The Solov’evian Second Coming of Man was adapted into theories of actualization thereof by Blok and Bely. The way they saw the apocalypse so often alluded to in their works actually happening, an occurrence they saw as inevitable, was revolution of the people.

The actual politics of the Bolsheviks were only tacitly endorsed by Bely and Blok (Rosenthal 186). This is because they saw the revolution as an unpleasant necessity to a greater, inevitable second revolution which would be the coming of God. Bely frequently alludes to this in “Petersburg” (i.e., the apocalyptic visions of Dudkin leading to the murder of Lippanchenko). The seeming contradiction and complexities of this idea were expressed best though in Blok’s poem “The 12”:


…They march far on with sovereign tread…

“Who else goes there? Come out, I said

come out!” It is the wind and the red

Flat plunging gaily at their head.


The frozen snowdrift looms in front.

“Who’s in the drift? Come out! Come here!”

there’s only the homeless mongrel runt

Limping wretchedly in the rear…


“You mangy beast, out of the way

Before you taste my bayonet.

Old Mongrel World, clear off, I say!

I’ll have my sole to my boot!”


“Who’s that waving the red flag?”

“Try and see! It’s dark as the tomb!”

“Who’s that moving at a jog

Trot, keeping to the back-street gloom?”


“Don’t worry, I’ll catch you yet,

Better surrender to me alive!”

“Come out, comrade, or you’ll regret

It- We’ll fire when I’ve counted to five!”



… So on they go with sovereign tread-

Behind them limps the hungry mongrel,

And wrapped in wild snow at their head

carrying the flag blood red-

Soft footed in the blizzard’s swirl,

Invulnerable where the bullets sliced-

Crowned with a crown of snowflake pearl,

In a wreath of white rose,

Ahead of them Jesus Christ goes.

(Blok 35)

The association of Christ with the violent revolutionaries signifies the blessing of God on the revolution. Though the twelve soldiers in the poem act quite badly, their bullets (the symbol of their rash and unwarranted violence) do no harm to Jesus. Jesus leads them on, even through threats against him, because the revolution is absolutely essential and right in Blok’s view. The fact that it is not the soldiers of the true apocalyptic revolution, which to Blok was inevitable, does not decrease the power of the storm (which signifies the inevitability of the “elemental storm” of the revolution of the people).

The mangy dog represents the Old World, as does the dog’s hapless owner who appears earlier on in the poem. The casual passing by of the dog, and the threats made to it by the Red Army soldiers represents how truly decrepit the European facade of Russia was to Blok, and how much more powerful the Mongolism of the murderous twelve was than the pitiful limping of the Old World’s representatives were in the face of the Red Army. One of the most controversial elements of the Eurasianist movement, begun by Nikolai Trubetskoi, Petr Suvchinskii, George Florovsky, and Petr Savitskii, was its peculiar embracing of the Bolshevik revolution.

Precisely as Blok and Bely embraced the revolution, so did the Eurasianists. The argument of the majority of the Eurasianists was that the Bolshevik was good because it was an inevitable revolution of the Eurasian populace (i.e., Russia) against the “Germano-Roman” imperialist forces at work in Russia (MERSH 7). They concluded through their studies of history that the Bolshevik revolution was a necessary stage in the revolution of Eurasians against the alien European culture forced on it, but that it was inherently contradictory, and would ultimately fall apart.

This imitates very closely the theories of Blok and Bely. Considering that Blok died in 1921, the very year of the publication outside of Russia of the first Eurasianist collection of works, “Way Out To The East,” it’s hard to say whether or not he would have endorsed Eurasianism. Likewise, it is difficult to say what Bely might have thought, as most of his time outside of Russia, until his death, were spent visiting centers of the Anthroposophical movement. There were incredible similarities between the Eurasianism of Blok and Bely and the formal Eurasianist movement, nonetheless.

In the preface to “Way-Out To The East,” Trubetskoi made a brief introduction to Eurasianism: “The Russian people and the peoples of the ‘Russian World’ are neither European nor Asiatic. Merging with the native cultures and life that surrounds us, we are not ashamed to call ourselves Eurasians (MERSH 6).” These native cultures, Trubetskoi et al. reasoned, were combinations of Finno-Ugric, Slavic, and Turanian (Turko-Mongol, essentially) cultures and ethnicities. It’s interesting to note that Bely in “Petersburg” makes extensive reference to all of these groups and their impact on Petersburg (and, naturally, the entire Russian World)- even, surprisingly, the Finns. The “Finnish” theme of the book is well noted by scholars- for example Malmstad and Elsworth- drawing on the examples of the revolutionary Dudkin’s constant refference to his homeland (Helsinki), the origin of the rock of which much of the city was built (Finland), and various other small things (Styopka’s ‘Finnish’ knife, etc.).

The Eurasianists also believed that the defining moment of the history of Russia was the Mongolian invasion (Paradowskii 1). They believed that Russia had “inherited the Mongol legacy (4),” much as Blok described in the poem “On Kulikovo Field.” The de-emphasis of Kievan Rus in favor of the rise of Russia from Mongol dominance is, in fact, one of the defining elements of the Eurasian movement of Trubetskoi and Florovsky. Ryzsard Paradowski, a scholar of Leo Gumil’ev, the father of the Eurasianist revival currently going on in Russia, even acknowledges the fact that some of Eurasianism’s ideas are much older than the movement itself: “the fact that the Russian state is spread over two continents could not have been without influence on Russian ideology (2).”

In conclusion, Blok and Bely can be said to have derived, to a certain degree, their ideology from Vladimir Solov’ev. They created Symbolist art, based largely on Wagnerian principles, which undeniably expressed beliefs about the Asian orientation of Russia. The formal Eurasianist movement arose the year of Blok’s death, expressing the same ideas about the Bolshevik revolution, Russia’s non-European nature, Russia’s undeniable Asiatic roots, Russia’s deep and different spiritual nature as compared to Europe, and even believed that Russia had inherited the Mongol legacy in its victory over them. In any case, we can see that in the debate about Russiaà’s national character, these two groups from successive eras came to the same conclusions, and the ancient legacy of the Mongols and Tatars is something that part of Russia wanted to embrace.



Works Cited:


Alexandrov, Vladimir E. Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fictions. London: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Ed. Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

—. “Revolution and Culture.” Rosenthal and Bohachevsky-Choiak 273-289.

—. “Enough.” Obolensky 260.

Berberova, Nina. “A Memoir and a Comment: The ‘Circle’ of Petersburg.” Janeck 115-120.

Blok, Aleksandr A. “The People and the Intelligentsia.” Raeff 359-363.

—. “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution.” Raeff 364-370.

—. “The Scythians.” Presto 36.

—. “The 12.” Presto 33-36.

—. “On Kulikovo Field.” Presto 9.

—. “Night. Streetlamp…” Presto 14.

—. “Venitsiyah.” Matich 142.

Chaadaev, Petr I. “Letters on Philosophy of History.” Raeff 160-173.

Ciaoran, Samuel D. “A Prism For the Absolute.” Janeck 103-114.

Elsworth, J. D. Andrey Bely: A Critical Study of the Novels. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1983.

Hartman-Flyer, Helene. “The Time Bomb.” Janeck 121-126.

Janeck, Gerald, ed. Andrei Bely: A Critical review. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1978.

Matich, Olga. Erotic Utopia: The Decadent Imagination in Russi’as Fin De Siecle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press: 2005.

Obolensky, Dmitri, ed. The Heritage of Russian Verse. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965.

Padawolskii, Ryszard “The Eurasian Idea and Leo Gumiliev’s Scientific Ideology.” The Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 1999.

February 20 <;

Presto, Jennifer, ed. Course Packet: Colt 243. 2005.

Pushkin, Aleksandr. “The Prophet.” Obolensky 93-94.

Rosenthal, Bernice G. and Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, ed. A Revolution of Spirit: Crisis of Values in Russia, 1890-1924. Trans. Marian Schwartz. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.

—. “Revolution as Apocalypse: The Case of Bely.” Janecek 181-192.

Raeff, Marc, ed. Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992.

Soloviev, Vladimir S. Politics, Law, and Morality: Essays by V. S. Soloviev. Ed. Vladimir Wozniuk. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000

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PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: "The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses"

PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES: “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses”


The art of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes developed such a reputation for the measured nature of his art that the preeminent French Realist author and critic Emile Zola described it as “an art made of reason, passion, and will.” To the modern viewer, however, it is arguably reason that dominates Zola’s trio of descriptors. Puvis de Chavannes’ use of highly structured composition is remarkable among his peers in the community of Symbolist painters. When one compares his work The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses to the more frantic expressions of Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, etc., his work stands out as far more calculated and restrained. Still, The Sacred Grove remains an exemplary accomplishment among the strain of Symbolist art that privileges the Ideal over the darker side of the Sublime.

Part of the reason Puvis de Chavannes’ work is identified as highly Idealistic is the carefully wrought structure of his work. The Sacred Grove is a prime example of this tendency. The placement of the Muses in this work is careful and deliberate to the aims of a pyramidal composition. I have written before of Puvis de Chavannes’ use of this device in my article on Young Girls by the Seaside. Though Young Girls used this pyramidal device to unique effect, the pyramid has often been used by artists such as Michelangelo and Piero Della Francesca  to evoke harmony, fortitude, and triumph.

see & explore
Puvis de Chavannes, “Girls by the Seaside”

The Sacred Grove and Girls by the Seaside were far from the only instances Puvis de Chavannes employed this design element:

Puvis de Chavannes, “Autumn”
The White Rock
Puvis de Chavannes, “The White Rock”

There are a number of further examples of Puvis de Chavannes using the pyramid in his arrangement of figures. Suffice to say, its use in The Sacred Grove was not an isolated incident among his oeuvre. I do not seek to level the charge at Puvis de Chavannes that he lacked compositional inventiveness per se. I prefer to ask the question, “what motivated Puvis de Chavannes to repeat his use of the pyramidal organization of figures so often?”


Twelve years prior to The Sacred Grove‘s undertaking in Lyon, France, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a treatise on criticism that can be of use in examining Puvis de Chavannes: The Birth of Tragedy. In it, Nietzsche supposes the existence of two discrete tendencies in artistic expression- the Apollonian, the impulse of harmony and order with a potentially unbending mathematical and logical tilt; and the Dionysian, or passionate and animated, perhaps to the point of wreckless. While these two strains were separate in Nietzsche’s mind, their synergy resulted tragedy, which he identified as the highest order of art.

Nietzsche’s observations are particularly salient in discussions of Puvis de Chavannes, as much of his art can be said to characterize that Apollonian quality of intellectual balance to the near exclusion of more chaotic yet passionate elements. Insofar as symmetry and order dominate The Sacred Grove, I propose that this piece is the high-water mark of Apollonian tendency in his oeuvre. Further, whereas Girls by the Seaside displays gestures of languid self-reflection, doubt, and ennui in its characters, The Sacred Grove situates its figures in markedly more contrived and rigid poses meant to convey unmistakable expressions of certainty, poise, and intellect. The idealism of The Sacred Grove is, in the end, remarkable for being so prima facie.

The Muses themselves- the subjects of The Sacred Grove– were in fact lead by Apollo in Classical mythology. In that context, it would seem natural that the Muses would epitomize a visually Apollonian quality. And yet other Symbolist artists occasionally explored a more melancholic or uncertain aspect of the Muses, such as Gustave Moreau did in his Hesiod and the Muse.

Gustave Moreau, “Hesiod and the Muse”

Beyond the lense of Nietzsche’s critical system, Puvis de Chavannes appears to approach Classicism of subject and style with a Platonistic inclination. Whereas a more tragic or comical view of the Classical Grecian gods might have suggested more lascivious or seductive characteristics in the Muses and their cohorts in this piece, Puvis de Chavannes proposes a harmonious society of enlightened and orderly figures that represents an Ideal to be glimpsed and perhaps pursued by man. These figures do not appear to be a part of the natural world that, in Puvis de Chavannes’ time, was increasingly fraught with strife and conflict.

We are left to conclude The Sacred Grove may seem out of place in the Symbolist context where uncertainty, exploration, anxiety, and tragedy were chief concerns to most of its proponents. What keeps it in company with the Symbolists of late 19th century is a longing to rebel against the rising tide of scientism and “reason” of contemporary French society. While there is a highly ordered and logical nature to this piece that dominates the mood of the painting, it does depict an antiquarian interpretation of the Ideal that proposes a perhaps Supernatural and decidedly transcendent animating force of the arts and culture which is entirely different from the Naturalistic and empirical aims of contemporaries such as Gustave Courbet, Emile Zola, and Honore de Balzac. That world of the Muses- as logically ordered as it may be- is still held out by virtue of its perfection beyond the visible. In this sense, it is moved by the Symbolist spirit.

Albert Pinkham Ryder: “Mother and Child”

Mother and Child, Albert Pinkham Ryder


The image of mother and child is an image of eminent importance and familiarity in the tradition of European painting. Aside from the quintessentially human nature of the subject, the mother and child has a unique role in European art due to the importance of the relationship between Mary and Jesus in the Christian religion (and particularly the Orthodox and Catholic traditions). Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Mother and Child is unique among both this broader genre and his own peers in the Symbolist school in its composition and ethos.

The importance of the Madonna and child imagery hardly needs recapitulation for most students of European art- the list of Renaissance artists who produced a variation on this theme is likely appreciably longer than the list of Renaissance artist who did not. Nonetheless, it’s important to note why that was the case. The fact is, the image of Mary- like most popular images from the Middle Ages onward- was popular as a painting subject because it was a popularly commissioned by the patrons of artists. It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of Mary, the mother of Jesus in European culture over the centuries. Beyond that, the brighter side of parenthood was one of the easier aspects of the Christian canon of imagery to depict- unlike the life, passion, etc. of Jesus, which was quite dramatic, Mary and Jesus seated together presented a subject which is both adequately devout and uniquely serene in nature.

I don’t want to get carried away with providing examples of Madonna and child imagery (that could be a blog unto itself!), but I’ll provide a couple of examples of this trope for reference- one from the early Renaissance painter Duccio and one from a later Italian painter Sandro Botticelli:

Sandro Botticelli

There is nothing about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s image of a mother and her child that explicitly references the Madonna and child tradition, as easy as it would be to imagine that he would anticipate his image being linked to that tradition. That said, his image is strikingly different from familiar variations on the broader theme of a mother and child. Whereas the image of a mother and child avails the opportunity to display both the tenderness of that relationship and the emotions of the mother in her facial expressions, Pinkham Ryder depicted his pair facing each other with back turned to the viewer. The focus of attention is not on a display of emotion itself.

The act of situating the subjects so that we cannot see their expressions introduces a new and intriguing dynamic to the image of mother and child: the viewer is left to imagine the look on the mother’s face. Is the child asleep? Is the woman comforting a crying child? This compositional device invites the agency of the viewer.

Bringing the viewer to starting-point of a departure of the imagination was the stock-and-trade of the Symbolist painter. As I stated in my introduction to my approach to Albert Pinkham Ryder,

“The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration.”

The journey to the heart of this image is the viewer’s to make- it is not proffered in the the manner of Botticelli and Duccio. This compositional device clearly links this piece to Symbolist tradition. An explicit example of this aim of the symbolist can be found Odilon Redon’s painting Winged Man:


Winged Man, Odilon Redon

In Redon’s piece, we are brought to the cliff of imagination. The eponymous winged man looks out toward the horizon, perhaps toward his goal. Or perhaps he looks inward as he prepares to launch into flight. He might be the legendary Icarus, in which case we wait in suspense and anticipation for the ultimate failure of the central figure. He might be an angel returning to the celestial realm. In any case, any and all of those possibilities are on the table, and the purpose of the image is not to tell us which presumption is correct. The point is to take us to the precipice.

While the approach and aims of Pinkham Ryder’s image may have much in common with Symbolist sensibilities, his choice of specific subject is anything but typical. The Symbolists approached femininity with trepidation and skepticism more often than not. One is more likely to find the Symbolist depicting Salomé- the decapitator of John the Baptist- than a mother and her child. Indeed, Gustave Moreau, the preeminent Symbolist, depicted Salomé many times. Felicien Rops, as I have noted previously, made a career of exploiting fears of the femme fatale archetype. Franz von Stuck took a less provocative approach than Rops, but essentially made the same kind of name for himself as a depictor of female ferociousness. In fact, the list of Symbolists who did not depict femme fatale imagery is, like our list of Renaissance painters who didn’t depict the Madonna and child, is much shorter than the list of those who did. The introduction of a female figure who is not in some way explicitly in tension with masculinity is somewhat of a departure from predominant trends in continental Symbolist art of the day. 

As I hope to illustrate in future essays on Albert Pinkham Ryder, he was adept at utilizing the animating spirit of the Symbolist and “decadent” styles coming out of Europe while maintaining a idiomatic and distinct body of subject matter. Decades after his time, images of the mother and child that employ similar tools of uncertainty and obscurantism started to proliferate: Dali, Picasso, Henry Moore, and Francis Picabia produced variations on the theme ranging from sympathetic to bizarre in character. In this way, we can see Pinkham Ryder here (as elsewhere) as somewhat of a bridge to the Modernist moment, where idioms of expression and subject took privilege over “accessibility” and familiarity of subject.