At Pushkin House, until 29th April 2015, is an installation by the acclaimed Russian artists Vitaly Pushnitsky and Olga Jurgenson. Curated by Elena Zaytseva, Akhmatova. Anrep. Berlin. is an exhibition that explores Silver Age poetess Anna Akhmatova’s relationship with two fellow countrymen, the philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin and the artist Boris Anrep. The archives of Pushkin House and the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St Petersburg have provided the stimulus and source material for this thoughtful show.
Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) is one of the most acclaimed poets of the twentieth century, Russian or otherwise, and it’s her story and connections with Britain that underlie the exhibit. Akhmatova’s early work – like Pushkin’s – enjoyed huge success, the appearance of her first book Evening (1912), proclaiming a major new literary talent. Yet later in life she was viewed by the Soviet authorities as a dangerous figure, and was accordingly hounded throughout her career. Akhmatova’s life was encircled by tragedy: her husband was murdered by the Soviets in 1921, and in the Great Terror of the 1930s her son, Lev Gumilev, was arrested, spending most of the next 18 years in the Gulag. Akhmatova was also to lose her common-law husband Nikolai Punin to the camps, where he died in 1953. Yet – one of the few unrepentant Russian poets to survive the Revolution and the purges – she remained loyal to her country and never left it.
However, her friend Boris Anrep, who first met Akhmatova during the First World War, did leave. He settled permanently in England in 1917, prompting Akhmatova to rage in verse that ‘you are an apostate: for a green island/you betrayed, betrayed your native land’. Yet Anrep and Akhmatova seem to have adored each other, even from afar. En route to England, Anrep studied Byzantine art in Paris and learned to make mosaics, an art in which he excelled, being commissioned by the National Gallery in London to create a floor mosaic in the Portico entrance hall. Anrep’s theme was ‘Modern Virtues’: Churchill, embodying Resistance, is posed by the White Cliffs of Dover; Bertrand Russell is included to personify clarity of mind. But it’s his old friend Akhmatova Anrep depicts as the figure of Compassion. She reclines next to a pit of emaciated human corpses, the artist’s image at once an acknowledgement of the Nazi death camps and the horrors of Bolshevism.
It was in post-war Leningrad that Akhmatova first met Isaiah Berlin, one of the foremost thinkers and philosophers of the twentieth century. Born in Riga, Berlin was just a boy when his family emigrated from Soviet Russia to London. Returning to the USSR on a visit in 1945 he met surviving members of the Russian intelligentsia, notably Akhmatova and the similarly persecuted Boris Pasternak, the poet and later author of Dr.Zhivago. These meetings strengthened Berlin’s opposition to Communism, and shaped his future ideas. In a series of essays, Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956, Berlin describes his encounter with Akhmatova as if spellbound: ‘I bowed – it seemed appropriate for she looked and moved like a tragic queen’. Their meeting, now legendary, changed both lives forever: Berlin was so entranced by their nocturnal conversation he battled all night not to go to the lavatory lest a visit there break the spell, while Akhmatova, rightly or wrongly, blamed their encounter for starting the Cold War, and wrote her famous ‘Poem without a Hero’ about it.
But what of Pushnitsky and Jurgenson – what’s their response to these three interconnecting lives? Pushnitsky has installed a tree – felled during a storm? – from the English countryside. Meticulously chopped up, it’s been reassembled to span two floors in Pushkin House, and now stands – majestically – at the heart of Russian culture in London. The tree, rootless and repatriated, could be a metaphor for the lives of Berlin and Anrep. Denuded of leaves and branches it seems as if it’s always been growing, quite nonchalantly, in the elegant rooms of this Bloomsbury townhouse.
In the basement, where Pushnitsky’s tree has its ‘roots’, is Jurgenson’s first video installation – a film of Anrep’s mosaic at the National Gallery, with close-up shots of Akhmatova/ Compassion, projected onto the wall. Gallery visitors step over the mosaic oblivious to the imagery on which they walk. Jurgenson has elevated Anrep’s mosaic from the horizontal to the vertical, an act that raises both artist and subject to a superior position in Western visual culture, now quasi-hung like an Old Master or an icon. On the ground floor, the tree still jutting up through it, archive materials from Pushkin House are displayed, including the page in the guest book signed by Anna when she visited in July 1965. The exhibition comes to its conclusion on the floor above, where Jurgenson has projected onto the ceiling – beautifully – the filmed crown of a tree, the blue sky and branches above us. A single wall displays 33 framed items from the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St Petersburg – reprinted photographs and fragments of her poems and letters, showing the last material traces of the relationships between Akhmatova, Anrep and Berlin.
Akhmatova. Anrep. Berlin. is the first time Pushnitsky has shown his work in the UK. The booklet that accompanies it (only £2) has a wealth of essays by the curator and Nina Popova, director of the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St.Petersburg. It’s a visually stunning and contemplative exhibition, and comes highly recommended.
Akhmatova. Anrep. Berlin. can be seen free of charge at Pushkin House, 5A Bloomsbury Square WC1A 2TA, until 29th April 2015, between 2 – 5 pm. Entry is free.