Five metres from a slipper bath filled with ice and cocktails, discussing Modernist Art with Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Aysulu and Anna (from British Council Russia) we found we had experienced the same epiphany as Paul at the Tretyakov Gallery that day. We had been confronted by an alternative narrative of the origins of Modernist figurative painting; confronted by a different version of Malevich’s Black Square than we had previously seen mediated by magazines and text books.
The black pigment of the square was parched so that yellow and red oblongs were visible through the cracks. Where the black persisted the surface texture betrayed numerous oblongs underneath that crossed the threshold of the famous square.
The didactic square from art history turned out to be the completion of numerous false starts and revisions towards simplicity. That’s a very different story. Black Square was preceded and followed by masterpieces we’d never seen. Marc Chagall on an epic scale was a revelation for many of us at the table. Exhilarated, we began flicking through everything we know between Beveridge and Woolf, wondering if we had been sold a partial version of Modernist art history.
This encounter with The Square was emblematic of our whole experience of Moscow. The painting and the place, when mediated, are both abridged. The Black Square loses its texture and presence, just as Russia becomes reduced to its foreign policy and Putin fridge magnets. My ignorance of Russia’s view of itself, which is the result of Russian politics and British media, prevents me from understanding the spectrum of their fears and ambitions. The red and yellow oblongs under the square remind me of the striking diversity of peoples within the Russian Federation. Their government very consciously celebrates this, and a new park will feature all four terrains found within the Federation. However, this cosmopolitan theme was already commonplace under the USSR, evident in the regenerated park at VDNKh where pavilions were built from the materials and styles of different distant Soviet Republics. Today, Russians from some of these races find actual social mobility within the Federation does not live up to the ideal. How familiar. Yet what I found embarrassing is that such an important tension within Russia was news to me. And is this any surprise when on Russian TV their politicians do normal things, like look at their smartphones, but British media employs the same old newsreel shorthand of earnest white faces bobbing on a sea of little communist claps. Russian ‘alternative media’ does no better, piping out mirror image foreign policy to Anglo-American discontents who are still hoping for one accurate news source. Its fanbase would do far better to visit Russia and get a sense of its diversity, contradictions and tensions over Georgian dumplings.
The British Council delegation we belonged to was assembled to represent the UK as guests of honour at Non/fiction Literature Fair during the UK Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016, and satellite events in bookshops, museums and galleries. Over dinner Jonathan Coe made the kind of fascinating, nuanced observations about innovation in contemporary fiction you would expect from an accomplished novelist who is also B.S. Johnson’s biographer.
Like A Fiery Elephant executes the manoeuvre of engendering sympathy and admiration for B.S. Johnson, at times an unpleasant person, salvaging his life and his art without employing the unsatisfactory excuse that they are distinct. He did the same for a Russian audience in the UK Pavilion, briefly a revivalist tent where the majority pledged to read some Johnson. I hope they also read Coe’s new book, Number 11.
Jim Crace, author of Harvest, was another inspiring personality. He has what my Russian friend calls ‘a face accustomed to smiling’ and his conversation alternates between humility and encouragement. Much like Paul Mason, who is always animated, active, alert to whatever political events are unfolding and the fact that news can appear from anyone anywhere at any time. He often interrupts himself mid-sentence to greet a new arrival at the table, “Hi, we haven’t met, I’m Paul.” There were many more people like this. These Islands produce some impressive people sometimes, and we were enjoying all this from ‘the kids’ table’, with Emma Healey, whose novel Elizabeth Is Missing I enjoyed greatly, delightful children’s author and publisher Jenny Broom, and comic artist Tom Gauld. The latter two and ourselves also spent some time working with students at the British Higher School of Art and Design; Russian students, primarily, taught in English in Christopher Rainbow’s groundbreaking BA Illustration department.
British Artists were a bit late to Modernism. It was a reaction to what was happening over there. Less a response to Modernity, than a plaintive “why can’t modernity happen here?” emerging from a stuffy sitting room. What better subject for my lecture at the British Higher School than the link between one of Moscow’s most enthusiastic citizens, Kandinsky, and London’s avant garde. Edward Wadsworth praised and reported On The Spiritual In Art in BLAST! for the advancement of abstract painting in Britain. I also told the story of David Bomberg at the Ballets Russes, and London’s rejection of Italian Futurism. The students contrasted Marinetti’s machine worship with our blasé use of technology, contemporary interest in the hand made and ecological design. They were brilliant students.
Next day I led a day-long collaborative workshop in which we would design a system of simple cut-out glyphs that we could use to screenprint sounds commonly used in both English and Russian. I had sent a lesson plan to prime them for my arrival, but so well prepared were these excellent students that we had done the pre-lunch part of my plan by eleven. Just as well, as I’d not realised how long lunch would be. Three students had pretty much fully realised alphabets of their own before we began, so we had plenty to work with, but it must belong to all of us. We worked through strategic questions. Would our glyphs refer to Cyrillic or Latin or ignore them? Would they be diagrammatic? Would they, like Kandinsky’s art, be forms that refer to gut feelings or the elements of art? In pairs, we made cut outs representing different sounds that had been distributed. In response to these questions we critiqued our results. Finally, my lesson plan long exhausted and pedagogical improvisation taking its place, we extracted elemental flourishes we could all agree on, then used these to make a final stab at our assigned sounds.
We stopped short of creating modifying punctuation marks. And just as well, as I suddenly realised I was no less than four hours late for my next engagement and I had lost my voice. (Which is normal for work like this. Often that phone in your hotel room will ring soon after you enter it, knackered, and someone who has been looking after you and that you are yet to meet will ask you a question that you cannot answer about where you are supposed to be). Yet our process of refinement could easily have gone on to create a very minimal set of shapes with modifying dots and circles to create a universal phonic set. How Modernist is that!
A screenprinting workshop was built for us within the British Pavilion. While talks and signings happened we contributed to the general hubbub as we worked with our groups of students to improvise screenprints; composing, choosing colours, binding sheets. The drying prints bobbed overhead while the public witnessed and contributed to our process of creation and execution. A favourite exchange was with a man who works in a screenprinting factory who couldn’t believe we could print with so little equipment. “How are you doing this!” he kept asking, as if we were magicians.
The dry prints were made into a massive book, five foot-long pages in each line, like the five metrical feet of Shakespeare’s Iambic Pentameter; ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM. Here is a decoding of the concrete poem we wrote as we went, which became a kind of picture story about love, with two characters, or souls, living on a mountain in the spring. A betrayal leads to quarrelling, one soul leaves for the sea. Sorcery, dreams, comfort eating and finally forgiveness and reconciliation. How Shakespearean is that!
весна душа гора душа весна
мечта весна мечта весна мечта
весна душа гора измена весна
измена мечта измена мечта измена
гора душа хула душа коралл
душа гора хула коралл душа
гора немой немой немой коралл
гора ворожба мечта измена коралл
еда мечта немой мечта еда
мечта еда немой мечта еда
весна ворожба прощай измена весна
весна душа прощай душа весна
прощай душа гора душа прощай
село село маяк село немой
spring soul mountain soul spring
dream spring dream spring dream
spring soul mountain treason spring
treason dream treason dream treason
mountain soul reviling soul coral
soul mountain reviling coral soul
mountain dumb dumb dumb coral
mountain sorcery dream treason coral
food dream dumb dream food
dream food dumb dream food
spring sorcery forgive treason spring
spring soul forgive soul spring
forgive soul mountain soul forgive
country country lighthouse country dumb
Of course, in the original, the colour panels are like a tapestry creating rhythm through repetition and their position in space in a way that text on a page alone cannot. The panels are more like characters moving on a stage than tiny printed words. It concludes with a nod to Mayakovsky (маяковского), no stranger to recording tempestuous love affairs in print, in the form of a lighthouse (маяк) set in a landscape.
Representing Britain. The British Council (and Literature) made this easier, representing as they do the best of British. One Russian cab driver welcomed Brexit as a sign that white people everywhere can now federate at arms length in championing their ethno-national interests. Most Muscovites were far more cosmopolitan in their views. But international opinions I heard brought one moral dimension of Brexit to mind; envy.
The thing about coveting your neighbours wife, or their ass, is that the fantasy never includes the process by which it could come to pass. Fantasy demands the suspension of logistical realities. A person may think they’d be happier if they were married to the woman next door, but once the work of obtaining an ex-wife, breaking up the neighbours’ marriage, traumatising the kids, moving house, alimony and so on and on – it can hardly be the same dream in the end. Many, though not all, of British referendands displayed this kind of self-delusion about what we would get in terms of money, resources and trade outside the EU. Politics isn’t merely about declaring ones own wishes, but pursuing a civil society that includes those on the breadline and EU citizens now at home in the UK; those with the least say by volume and set to lose the most. Should the United Kingdom remain.. Can the United Kingdom remain united.? Apparently not.
This is a lesson from literature, from Shakespeare, where for centuries actors have committed the same mistakes, lusts and treasons, imagined the same delightful ends and fallen short with foolish means, staged twice daily so we don’t have to. What is the point in rehearsing tragedy when all the world insists on being a stage? And, in this era of global citizenship, will geriatric Britain be content with dishing out Cowerdly put-downs it believes give an air of sophistication, when in fact they betray British insecurity? The UK merely tolerated for the money it generates? Or conceals? Yet Britain, for now, is still admired for its culture; our biggest “export”. Is culture, like most exports, rarely consumed by the natives?
One Official, dressing wisdom as wit like a Shakespearean fool, made a speech in which they declared that we will unite the world through art. Solidarity! I agree. Building society is what art is really good at, delineating a territory for objective human cooperation and appreciation.
Our delegation’s experience would be valuable for all. Our Government can support the pioneering work of the British Council by cancelling costly visas, Russia could begin by making holiday and trade visa concessions to Moscow and St Petersburg. This would allow a groundswell of humanity to take root and bypass the old discredited, divisive diplomatic channels.
My lasting impression is that Muscovites and Londoners can scarcely ever have been so similar as we are now, and we must not let the populist opportunists and the politicians who pander to them keep us apart.