Printer Friendly

The Petersburg sublime: Alexander Benois and the Bronze Horseman Series (1903-22).

Reviving St. Petersburg

With the flourishing of studies devoted to St. Petersburg inspired by the city's 300th anniversary in 2003, it is difficult to imagine that at the time of the bicentennial celebrations of 1903 St. Petersburg had been virtually abandoned as an artistic theme. Alexander Benois (in transliteration from the Cyrillic, Aleksandr Benua) brought attention to this lacuna in his 1902 article "Picturesque Petersburg" (Zhivopisnyi Peterburg), where he called for a return to representations of St. Petersburg in painting, illustration, engraving and lithography after almost a century of neglect. One year later Benois answered his own call for a renaissance in the aesthetic construction of St. Petersburg with his famous series of illustrations to Alexander Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (Mednyi vsadnik, 1833). With its tragic portrayal of a young hero whose fiancee perishes in the terrifying flood of 1824, and of his confrontation with the animated statue of Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg, Pushkin's poema is pregnant with the possibility for re-conceptions of Petersburg catastrophes, and conflicts between authority and citizens, in light of the political traumas of the early twentieth century. These points of connection, between Pushkin-era and revolutionary Petersburg, begin to emerge in particular when we examine Benois' executions of two later versions of the Bronze Horseman series, dating to the periods 1905-06 and 1916-22. (1) Spanning two decades and two revolutions (1905 and 1917), Benois' Bronze Horseman illustrations offer a new reading of contemporary Petersburg disasters, and mark the beginning of a new way of imagining the city.

The publication history of the series has resulted in the virtual disappearance of certain illustrations from public view. Benois' third series, published in 1923, amalgamated the illustrations of the first and second series, with three significant exceptions. One illustration from 1903 and two illustrations from 1905-06 were left out and never republished. Because of the extremely small circulation of the first two series, these excised illustrations are practically unknown. In the Stalinist era, republications of the Benois illustrations were infrequent and drastically shortened as a series. (2) These Soviet editions were selected without exception not from the first version of the works, published in the avant-garde journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva) in 1904, but from the third version, largely executed in 1916 but completed only in 1922 and published in book form in 1923. Although originally commissioned by a specialist group of bibliophiles, Soviet editions of the Benois Bronze Horseman illustrations tended to be aimed at children. Thus the illustrations were significantly repositioned for a Soviet reading audience. Beginning in the mid 1960s, Benois' work enjoyed a limited revival, with two books treating his life and work by the art historian Mark Etkind (1965 and 1989) and a 1970 exhibition of his works at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In general, however, Benois' work receded from public view for most of the Soviet era. The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between the three versions of Benois' Bronze Horseman illustrations, bringing attention to the obscure second version of the works, including an illustration that has not been republished since 1912. The question of Benois' unyielding retrospective outlook is revisited, as well as the unresolved issue of the relationship between these illustrations and the theme of revolution. I approach these scholarly debates, addressed by Etkind (1965 and 1989) and Ospovat and Timenchik (1987), from a new perspective in this essay, asking to what extent Benois conceived St. Petersburg according to an aesthetics of the sublime, as imagined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) and critiqued by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner (1888).

A City of the Sublime

In the article "Picturesque Petersburg," Benois addresses the degraded image of St. Petersburg held in the public imagination of the early twentieth century. Russia's imperial capital is pictured as gray, dull, characterless and bureaucratic. The cult of adoration of St. Petersburg from the eighteenth century, evoked in the elegant watercolours, lithographs and engravings of Stepan Galaktionov and Andrei Martynov, is dead. For most of the nineteenth century, Benois complains, there has been "complete silence" (Benua 1902a, 4) on St. Petersburg in art, and in the present day not one artist is focusing on Petersburg as a subject. Images of St. Petersburg have stagnated to the point where the city is seen as "ugly" (bezobraznyi) (Benua 1902a, 4), an emblem of mindless order like a "crude soldier with a stick" (soldafon s palkoi) (Benua 1902a, 2). (3)

Benois was an expert in St. Petersburg architecture and decoration: he contributed three essays on these themes to the journal Worm of Art, in addition to editing two other specialist journals that regularly treated the subject, but "Picturesque Petersburg" is his nearest attempt at formulating a theory of Petersburg aesthetics. (4) Benois argues that in the eighteenth century talented artists such as Fedor Alekseev, Mikhail Makhaev and Semion Shchedrin evoked the classical beauty of the city in their works, whereas in the nineteenth century the Slavophile bent of the leading Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) group turned European-oriented St. Petersburg into an unsuitable artistic theme. The rhetorical strategy presented in this article, of a luminous presence replaced by a lapse into silence, has been re-worked by more recent analyses of the Petersburg aesthetic, which take a different perspective on the problem. Examining how Russia's rulers used public festivals and assemblies to fashion their own cultural construction of St. Petersburg, Richard Stites sees in the eighteenth century an attempt to create a "panegyric utopia," with an attendant "iconography of happiness--prosperity, security, order, virtue, harmony and calm" (Stites 21). In the nineteenth century, under the influence of the military 'paradomania' of Paul I, Alexander I and Nicholas I, this ceded to an "administrative utopia" (Stites 19) that emphasized order and discipline over happiness. But how, asks Benois in his 1902 article, can artistic depictions of St. Petersburg move beyond the nineteenth-century legacy of the "soldier with a stick?" In order to rehabilitate the image of St. Petersburg for the new century, Benois called, not for a return to the past, but for a Petersburg that would be appealing yet menacing, "terrifying" and "merciless" but also "wonderful" and "charming" (Benua 1902a, 2). In other words, he called for the pleasure and grandeur of the 'panegyric code' to be fused with the stiffness and cruelty of the 'military/administrative code.' Through his vision of a city both magnificent and menacing, Benois was feeling his way towards a new aesthetic construction of St. Petersburg as a city rooted in a feeling of the sublime.

The Petersburg that Benois propounds, the "intelligent and malevolent sorcerer" (umnyi i nedobrodushnyi koldun) (Benua 1902a, 1), as opposed to the "soldier with a stick," was not, of course, entirely new. If we proceed from Edmund Burke's definition of the sublime as "a delightful horror" (Burke 136), or Kant's as a feeling of delight caused by an object that alternately attracts and repels the mind (Kant SS 23), it emerges that the Petersburg sublime, so neglected in the visual arts, had been elaborately developed in the literature of the nineteenth century, in Nikolai Gogol's Petersburg stories, (5) in Fedor Dostoevsky's White Nights and Notes from Underground and in Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" (which Benois illustrated between 1898 and 1910). In these literary works the imperial capital is imagined as an eerie, treacherous place, but also fascinating and darkly magical. All of these texts owe a debt to Pushkin's 1833 The Bronze Horseman, with its seminal image of St. Petersburg as a city that alternately charms and kills. Indeed, the poema opens with a paean to Petersburg's glorious beauty and closes upon the corpse of its hero, who has been pitilessly pursued by the city's eponymous tsar-founder. Put in this context, Benois' 1902 article can be read as a call for the visual arts to close the gap with literary depictions of the city, to capture on the easel what had been so convincingly evoked on the page--and in the following years Benois' appeal was taken up by several fellow illustrators and artists. (6)

The 1903 commission for an illustrated edition of Pushkin's Bronze Horseman arrived at just the right moment for Benois to transform his theory into practice. In examining Benois' construction of St. Petersburg as a city rooted in the sublime, I do not mean to suggest that he--or Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky--directly engages in his work with philosophical theories of the sublime. Benois approaches these themes as an art historian and specialist in architecture in his 1902 article and never explicitly connects with the theorists or history of the sublime. I do suggest, however, that the theory of the sublime had been extensively developed and disputed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by Burke, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; and that its territory was controversial, consequential and in the process of being worked out in various artistic fields. In particular, Nietzsche had advanced a new critique in his 1888 The Case of Wagner that made a provocative link between the sublime and the fundamental properties of modernity itself. Nietzsche's late study of the sublime suggests a potential area of common interest with the artists and thinkers of the journal World of Art, who were engaged in creating a theory and practice of modernist art, poetics and literature.

The Case of Nietzsche

The influence of Nietzsche's writings in Russia was immense and felt acutely among the contributors to the Worm of Art, which included departments devoted to art, poetry and theory (although there was considerable overlap among the three). Nietzsche's impact is manifested in such works as Lev Shestov's The Philosophy of Tragedy: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky (Dostoevskii i Nitsshe [filosofiia tragedii]), which was published serially in the journal (in volumes 7 and 8, 1902); and in Andrei Bely's essay "Symbolism as World-View" (Simvolizm kak miroponimanie) published in volume 11, 1904. Benois and Sergei Diaghilev, the two editors of the journal, became acquainted with Nietzsche's work in the 1890s through Charles Birle, the cultural attache to the French Embassy in St. Petersburg (Rosenthal 12), and the journal itself paid tribute to Nietzsche's idea that 'the world of art is above all earthly things' (Rosenthal 12) by taking as its logo an eagle perched high above the earth. As early as 1902, Benois was somewhat acidly referring to Nietzsche as "a German thinker who despotically fills (zapolnit) all contemporary Russian thinking" (Benua 1902c, 44), and while we do not know for certain whether Benois read Nietzsche's 1888 work on Wagner, we do know that Benois was a devotee of Wagner and designed the theatre decorations for his opera "Twilight of the Gods," which premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1902.

In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche argues that the culture of modernity is exemplified by sublime feeling. His claim is that Wagner's operas arouse the sublime by creating a sense of the "gigantic" (Nietzsche 623), the "immeasurable" (628), the overwhelming and disturbing, and thus embody the "whole corruption" (643) that is modernity:

Perhaps nothing is better known today, at least nothing has been better studied, than the Protean character of degeneration that here conceals itself in the chrysalis of art and artist. Our physicians and physiologists confront their most interesting case in Wagner, at least a very complete case. Precisely because nothing is more modern than this total sickness, this lateness and overexcitedness of the nervous mechanism, Wagner is the modern artist par excellence, the Cagliostro of modernity. In his art all that the modern world requires most urgently is mixed in the most seductive manner: the three great stimulantia of the exhausted--the brutal, the artificial, and the innocent (idiotic). (Nietzsche 622).

The sublime, says Nietzsche, is predicated on the passions rather than on a feeling of harmony and beauty. He writes that in the present day, "To elevate (erheben) men one has to be sublime (erhaben) oneself. Let us walk on clouds, let us harangue the infinite, let us surround ourselves with symbols!" (624). This equating of the sublime with a feeling of chaos and exhaustion that is symptomatic of modernity suggests Nietzsche's significant departure from earlier work (including his own) in the theory of the sublime.

Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) places the theory of the sublime in the context of a broader Enlightenment concern with questions of aesthetics and taste. His analysis advances the earliest substantial work on the sublime, Longinus' third-century CE A Treatise Concerning Sublimity, by moving away from a definition of the sublime as the power to awe with language. Burke's theoretical innovation is the discovery that pain and terror, if observed from a position of safety, can be objects of aesthetic delight. Kant takes up the problem in an early work, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1763), and in his mature Critique of Judgment (1790). Kant's position in the later work is that a feeling of the sublime is aroused when the imagination is confounded by encountering something of absolute magnitude (the mathematical sublime) or absolute might (the dynamical sublime). Since the sublime object exceeds the limits of the imagination, reason steps in to apprehend the object through supra-sensible means. Kant states:

We feel, first the displeasure of the inadequacy of the imagination, then the pleasure of the might of reason, and this gives us a sense of being superior to instead of cowed and terrorized by, nature. (Kant, SS 29)

By overcoming terror in the imagination, an individual is left with a great sense of moral worth, and this dual process of displeasure followed by pleasure is what constitutes a feeling of the sublime. Kant insists that the sublime cannot in fact exist in objects in nature, nor in culture (art and literature), but only in the mind itself, in the feeling aroused by the friction between imagination and reason.

Nietzsche's innovation is to identify art, in particular tragedy and music, as a powerful source of the sublime. In his early work The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche positions himself with Kant on the question of the sublime's ability to ennoble humanity and arouse a feeling of moral worth and esteem. Nietzsche argues that in tragedies such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the viewer is elevated by the feeling of the sublime that is produced by witnessing a noble man's great suffering. By the time he wrote The Case of Wagner, however, Nietzsche had significantly revised this early position, depriving sublime feeling of the sense of moral worth that Kant had assigned it. Now the sublime is equated with the immeasurable by means of confusion and depletion and becomes the true articulation of the 'sickness of the age,' which Nietzsche terms modernity. But to what extent can we claim that Benois' Bronze Horseman series is itself an articulation of modernity and addresses the questions that had concerned Nietzsche? After all, the illustrations to Pushkin's work depict St. Petersburg at the time of the flood of 1824, and Benois has been diagnosed, by contemporaries and later critics, with an "anachronistic condition" (Bowlt 190) that turned him into a "retrospective dreamer" (Etkind 1965, 10) and obscured the events of the present. Before turning to the question of how Benois develops a feeling of the sublime in the series, the problem of whether the illustrations are oriented towards the past or the 'present' needs to be addressed.

Turning Forward the Unyielding Backwards Glance

Benois' reputed "anachronistic condition" appears to be confirmed by his first set of Bronze Horseman drawings. These thirty-three compositions were painstakingly created to evoke the Pushkinian era of early nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, from the offprints prepared in the polytype style of the 1830s to the small size of the original drawings, intended to reproduce the pocket-size effect of the almanacs of the 1820s (Benua 1980, 396). Benois took a meticulous, 'archivist' stance to the details of period clothing and architecture, yet a closer look reveals that the first Bronze Horseman series develops connections with the 'present' of 1903 and Benois' lived experience in St. Petersburg in a number of important ways. The opening illustration to the Bronze Horseman series shows Peter the Great contemplating the site for the future foundation of St. Petersburg. While the 1903 version of this illustration shows Peter's face to the viewer, the 1905-06 version (as well as the 1916) changes orientations, showing Peter from the back (Figures 1 and 2).



In the 'Peter facing' variant, the tsar's face is drawn from a 'living mask' that Benois himself discovered in the Hermitage in 1903, and discussed in the 1903 volume of the journal Art Treasures of Russia (Khudozhestvennye sokrovishcha Rossii), which Benois co-edited with Adrian Prakhov. (7) Up until Benois' uncovering of the long-hidden living mask in 1903, artists had drawn Peter's face exclusively from his death mask. In this sense, Peter was 'seen' anew--vital and animated--in the early twentieth century, and this is the first sign of Benois' experience in 'present' St. Petersburg intersecting with his careful evocation of the 'past.'

Secondly, in the fall of 1903 a flood immobilized St. Petersburg and temporarily transformed the city into a tableau vivant of the 1824 flood depicted in The Bronze Horseman. Benois writes in his memoirs about surveying the damage caused by the flood from the windows of his family apartment, located at that time at 2 Malaia Masterskaia Street (Benua 1980, 398). The fifth illustration of Part I takes the same perspective that Benois and his family did in 1903, showing observers leaning out of windows to view flood victims trapped between apartment buildings lining each side of a residential street (Figure 3). (8)


The 1916 version of this illustration was dedicated by Benois "To the memory of my parents' home on Nikol'skaia Street," suggesting an intermingling of images of the family apartment of 1903, the childhood apartment of the late nineteenth century and the fictional apartment of 1824. Thirdly, evidence of the interpenetration of past and present can be seen in the fifth illustration to the Prologue, which depicts a public celebration taking place on Mars Field (Figure 4). (9)


This image suggests a connection with the 200th anniversary celebrations of 1903, which were located--in contrast to other Petersburg anniversary celebrations that centered on the Neva river (Nemiro 431)--on Mars Field. From these examples it can be asserted that Benois was not an exclusively retrospective artist, and that in his careful depictions of Pushkin-era Petersburg an attention to a lived and directly experienced city can also be discerned. Benois' vision of Petersburg, with different stages of history made present simultaneously, recalls Freud's definition of the life of the mind, in which history becomes cumulative rather than sequential (Freud 16). This being the case, the question of a response to the Revolution of 1905 in the second version of the Bronze Horseman illustrations, composed 1905-06, becomes crucial.

Benois and the 1905 Revolution

Benois was in St. Petersburg on Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, and spent several hours that day walking and surveying the disaster after imperial soldiers opened fire on a group of unarmed protesters, killing and injuring participants as well as members of the general public. His walk included a visit to the Academy of Arts on Vassilievsky Island, where his 1903 Bronze Horseman drawings were being exhibited by the Union of Russian Artists (Benua 1980, 418). In February 1905 the Benois family left Russia for France and lived abroad for over two years, only returning to Russia in 1907. In Versailles in the fall and winter of 1905-06, Benois produced the six new compositions for the second version of the Bronze Horseman series, which had been contracted one year earlier, in March 1904. (10) The new Bronze Horseman illustrations had been commissioned as part of an inexpensive paperback series 'for the people.' Not surprisingly, all the major Benois critics have found in this 'people's edition' of the 'Petersburg story,' (11) which depicts a tragic confrontation between the 'little man' and authority, a response to the recently experienced 1905 Revolution. Art historian John Bowlt has pointed out that despite Benois' repeated claims to being "foreign to politics" (Benua 1980, 444), he in fact distinguished himself from the dominating modernist trend of 'art for art's sake' and believed in the democratic or utilitarian function of art (Bowlt 194). (12) Etkind, careful to correctly position the emigre 'Soviet enemy' Benois in his 1965 study, finds in Benois' flight from Russia in 1905 a "cry" against the fate of the people and the city "where blood was flowing" (Etkind 1965, 57). Etkind reiterates this position in 1989, even calling the 1905 series a "graphic transcription of the nature of his response to contemporary events" (Etkind 1989, 128). Ospovat and Timenchik find the 1905 Revolution reflected in the polarization and extremism of the second series and situate Benois' response within a more general theme suggesting the turning of the "wheel of history" (Ospovat and Timenchik 284-85). (13) In short, the consensus among critics has been that the 1905-06 illustrations evidence Benois' response to the 1905 Revolution.

A closer look at the six 1905-06 compositions, however, reveals a more complex picture. Without denying the important findings made by the critics mentioned above, one new piece of information needs to be included in order to make a balanced judgment of the second series. If indeed the intensified anguish and despair of the 1905-06 illustrations records an artistic response to the tragic year 1905, then one must consider the discordant note struck by the virtually unknown sixth illustration, which depicts by far the most hopeful and reassuring ending of the entire 1903-22 series (Figure 5).


This illustration is virtually unknown for two reasons: because the circulation of the 'people's edition' was so limited, and because it was replaced in the third version of the series and therefore not republished in the Soviet era. The illustration in question depicts the ramshackle house beside which Evgeny's lifeless body lies. In the 1903 version of this composition the mood is desolate and bleak. Evgeny's body lies helpless and abandoned. But in the 1905-06 version Benois radically departs from this mood. Evgeny's body is discovered by two fishermen, who call out and beckon to a third, in the background, for help. For the only moment in the entire series, which has been set in darkness and rain, the sun is coming up on a new day. This sense of human presence, of human voice and of the uplifting warmth of the sun's rays jars against the idea that this series reflects Benois' response to the widespread pessimism and disappointment of 1905. Benois himself moved away from this positive ending when he turned to the 1916 version of the illustrations. In the final version of this scene the perspective approaches much closer to Evgeny's corpse, revealing his face to the viewer. The sunrise has been excised and two fishermen approach quietly and sadly from the side. I contend that a full response to the theme of revolution was worked out only with the completion of the third version of the illustrations and can be discerned in the striking meteorological imagery of the final series, which augments the visual development of the sublime in Benois' illustrations.

The Benois Sublime

Benois develops a feeling of the sublime in his illustrations, firstly, through his colour palette, which is somber and malevolent. The first series was executed in India ink and watercolours, printed in black and white and then hand-coloured and printed again (Benua 1980, 397), and the dominant palette is black, charcoal and dull yellow. A friction is achieved between this gloomy colour scheme and the elegant contours of St. Petersburg's classical and baroque architectural ensembles. The overwhelming impression of the series is that of a sense of darkness descending on the individual from multiple sources: the shadow of the enormous ensembles, the autumn night, the angry storm clouds, and the relentless rain. In his early treatise, Burke singles out the dominance of shadow, blackness and obscurity in creating a feeling of the sublime and arousing a sense of fear in the viewer who, if sufficiently distanced from the danger, begins to feel a sense of aesthetic delight (Burke 40). The immensity of St. Petersburg's architectural ensembles in Benois' depiction is another source of sublime feeling, creating a sensation of magnitude that is calculated to enervate the viewer. St. Petersburg's urban plan produces what art historian Grigory Kaganov calls an awareness of the "infinity of space" (Kaganov 16), a result of the monumental ensemble style of architecture and the construction of five massive interconnecting squares in the city center. This area of the capital is the locus of the confrontation between Pushkin's hero, Evgeny, and the Bronze Horseman, and Benois depicts the sense of yawning space felt by Evgeny as he flees away from his terrifying predator down empty squares that were designed for military parades holding tens of thousands.

While Kant locates this sense of absolute magnitude as an important source of sublime feeling, he argues that it is not the objects themselves that create the feeling, but the ideas they prompt. In this case, of course, the looming imperial facades, and the monument itself suggest the powerful oppression of the tsarist regime. Evgeny's brave yet futile opposition to tsarist tyranny recalls John Ruskin's account of the sublime in Modern Painters, where he asserts that "it is not while we shrink, but while we defy," that a feeling of the sublime is aroused (Ruskin 49). Indeed, the sublime in Benois' illustrations is very much in line with Ruskin's concept of a "deliberate measurement of [...] doom" (Ruskin 49). Certainly a central image of doom is the flood itself, which creates a scene of panic and civic catastrophe. I maintain that Benois develops a connection between the murderous storm and the contemporary experience of revolution through the striking meteorological imagery of the third and final version of the series.

A World on Fire

Benois returned to work on the Bronze Horseman illustrations in the summer of 1916, when he was staying at Kapsel' in the Crimea. As noted earlier, the third series is an amalgamation of thirty-two of the thirty-three 1903 illustrations and four of the six 1905-06 illustrations, plus new executions. Work on the illuminations and tailpieces extended to 1922. In general, the third series unites and blends the work of the two earlier series, but within this overall framework some significant new additions emerge. One striking change is Benois' nephological imagery, that is, the storm clouds that lurk in the background of the illustrations. In his memoirs, Benois conceptualizes the 1905 Revolution in terms of storm, thunderclouds and violent weather, imagining the build-up to 1905 as "thunder gathering, ready to burst" and the Revolution itself as "political stormy weather" (Benua 1980, 418). (14) In a recent work, the philosopher Yuriko Saito has argued that weather's magnificence and "power to threaten our safety and even existence" makes it an important source of sublime feeling (Saito 168). Benois' connection between the uncontrollable and frightening storm and the eruption of revolution is evidenced by the changes he made to the 1916 series. Whereas in the 1903 series the storm clouds over St. Petersburg are white, billowing and oriented on a horizontal plane, by 1916 four of the illustrations show a change to jagged black funnel clouds running on a vertical plane, as if stretching from the ground to the sky.


These black funnel clouds emerge at a specific point in the Bronze Horseman story, during the moments of the Bronze Horseman's animation and pursuit of his human prey. The centerpiece of this meteorological crisis, when the clouds turn from white to black and soft to sharp, is the illustration known as "Za nim nesetsia vsadnik mednyi" ("After him gallops the Bronze Horseman"). A marked change can be seen when the 1903 and 1916 versions of this composition are compared (Figures 6 and 7).

In the later version the diabolical nature of the Bronze Horseman is emphasized by the fact that his shadow is no longer cast on the ground. Moreover, Benois has altered the clouds so that all four 'run' in the same direction as the Horseman, suggesting a parallel between the clouds and the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. This apocalyptic subtext is extended by the fact that the second cloud appears to be issuing from Peter's mouth like the trumpet of the archangel that heralds the end of time. (15) Yet Benois' striking new cloud formations permit the possibility of placing his story not only within the larger tradition of a St. Petersburg apocalypse, (16) but also linking this moment to the conflagration of revolution. The steep rise of the four cloud columns in the 1916 version makes them appear to be burning smoke that issues from a world on fire in the revolutionary-minded slums of Petersburg's industrial suburbs. Benois' development of the storm clouds at the moment of confrontation between tsar and citizen, and his transformation of the clouds to appear as columns of burning smoke, suggests that revolution figures as a prominent theme in the final version of the works, conceived and created in the inter-revolutionary period between 1905 and 1917.


Figure 7. Alexander Benois, "After him gallops the Bronze Horseman." Illustrations published in book form (along with Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman) by the Committee for the Popularization of Artistic Publications of the Russian Academy of the History of Material Culture (1923).

The Modernist Construction of St. Petersburg

In general, the Petersburg that Benois presents in his Bronze Horseman series goes beyond the level of a faithful set of illustrations to a nineteenth-century epic poem, developing connections with prevalent Russian modernist anxieties associated with a looming apocalyptic crisis and the rise of revolutionary 'storms' emanating from St. Petersburg. More broadly, Benois makes prominent the sublime sense of terror and wonder of the urban metropolis and exemplifies a modernist way of viewing the city. In his essay "Walking in the City," Michel de Certeau contrasts the medieval and renaissance "scopic drive" (de Certeau 92) that attempts to see the city in panorama, to the spatial practices of modernity, in which the city is seen from the perspective of the stroller, segmented and distorted. Benois anticipates Jean-Francois Lyotard's recent theoretical positioning of the sublime at the very epicenter of modernist poetics, and the Bronze Horseman project of 'drawing a feeling of the sublime' is an early attempt to represent "that which falls outside the horizons of representation" (Lyotard 81). Benois' new, twentieth-century aesthetic construction of Petersburg reasserts Nietzsche's proposition of the primacy of art and culture as a source of the sublime, thus celebrating the sovereignty of the 'world of art,' but distances itself from Nietzsche's 1888 attempt to delimit the sublime as a feeling that produces futility and confusion. Through his artistic portrayal of Evgeny's courage and deep suffering, Benois returns to the Kantian and early Nietzschean understanding of the sublime as that which can ennoble humanity and make the viewer esteem the human condition. In this way, Benois moves beyond an emphasis on motifs of cultural decline characteristic of decadence and finds a path towards the cultural renaissance that he connected to the full flowering of modernist art. (17)

Benois emigrated from Russia in 1924, the year that St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad, and never returned. His departure and his status as a leader in the world of avant garde art account for the suppression, or at least severe editing, of his work during most of the Soviet period. Yet Benois' particular vision of a sublime, 'merciless' yet 'charming' St. Petersburg has proved to be enduring. Benois taught readers and viewers how to 'see' St. Petersburg anew; his stylized portraits of the city, instead of faithfully rendering 'reality,' instructed readers to view the city as an artistic tableau, thus making life into art. The Bronze Horseman series recalls an elegant past while simultaneously referencing the revolutionary 'present,' and thus moves beyond what Julie Buckler has recently described as the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century preservationist drive to continually compare 'present-day' Petersburg to its former illustrious image, creating a city that is always a "ghost of its former self' (Buckler 50).

In discovering a modernist Petersburg sublime, Benois opened a powerful new vein of images, one that could be readily appropriated according to various cultural agendas. As Polina Barskova has recently shown, artistic responses to St. Petersburg during the period of German siege (1918) and civil war (1918-21), (18) sought devices capable of aesthetically distancing and containing traumatic scenes of disaster (Barskova 695). As electricity and public transport disappeared, and a heating crisis led citizens to dismantle wooden homes, the city was left in a moribund condition (Barskova 694). Civil-war-era writers were able to aestheticize the degenerated city by fashioning it as a site of Roman-style artificial ruins, and Benois' Petersburg sublime functions, similarly, as a strategy to beautify catastrophe and elevate the traumatic experience of revolution. Conversely, Lenin showed a canny ability to put sublime feeling in the service of a revolutionary aesthetic code in his manufacturing of a new cultural program that emphasized physical and ideological immensity in artistic tributes to the state. The kind of massive and ferocious appeal required by the Soviet sublime is exemplified by the 1926 monument to Lenin arriving at the Finland Station, itself a re-conception of the Bronze Horseman with its large, unusually shaped pedestal and motif of an indomitable leader pointing Russia forward to the future. In creating a theory and practice of the Petersburg sublime, Benois fashioned an aesthetic construction of the city capable of encompassing both modernist and Bolshevik cultural exigencies, an aesthetic capable of seeing St. Petersburg through one of the most turbulent and exciting periods of its history.


I would like to thank the Center for Study in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria for the award of a faculty fellowship in 2007 that provided research time and a thought-provoking discussion group. I would also like to thank the Rare Manuscripts Department at the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for granting permission to photograph several Benois illustrations from 1904; as well as the Summer Research Lab at UIUC for generously providing a housing grant for the duration of my research time there.


Barskova, Polina. "Piranesi in Petrograd: Sources, Strategies and Dilemmas in Modernist Depictions of the Ruins (1918-1921)." Slavic Review 65.4 (Winter 2006): 694-711.

Bely, Andrei. "Simvolizm kak miroponimanie." Mir iskusstva 11 (1904): 173-96.

Benua, A. [Alexander Benois]. Istoriia russkoi zhivopisi v XIX veke. Moskva: Izdatel'stvo "Respublika," 1995.

Benua, Aleksandr [Alexander Benois]. "Zhivopisnyi Peterburg." Mir iskusstva 7 (1902): 1-5 (1902a)

--. "Krasota Peterburga." Mir iskusstva 8 (1902): 138-42 (1902b).

--. "Staroe i sovremennoe iskusstvo." Mir iskusstva 8 (1902): 44-46 (1902c).

--. Moi vospominaniia v piati knigakh, kn. 4, 5. Moskva: Nauka, 1980.

Bowlt, John E. The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the "World of Art" Group. 2nd Ed. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners, 1982.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. London: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1987.

Buckler, Julie. "The City's Memory: Texts of Preservation and Loss in Imperial St. Petersburg." Preserving Petersburg: History, Memory, Nostalgia. Ed. Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008: 39-56.

De Certeau, Michel. "Walking in the City." The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988: 91-110.

Etkind, Mark. Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benua, 1870-1960. Leningrad-Moskva: Izdatel'stvo "Iskusstvo," 1965.

--. A.N. Benua i russkaia khudozhestvennaia kul'tura kontsa XIX nachala XX veka. Leningrad: "Khudozhnik RSFSR," 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.

Hoisington, Sona Stephan. "Mednyi vsadnik through the Eyes of Alexander Benois." RCSCSPL 28 (4), 1990: 479-506.

Kaganov, Grigory. Images of Space: St. Petersburg and the Visual Arts. Trans. Sidney Monas. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, 1st ed. (1790). Trans. James Creed Meredith. ebooks@adelaide, 2004. <>

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. New York: International Universities Press, 1982.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "The Case of Wagner." Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 1968: 611-48.

Ospovat, A.L. and Timenchik, R.D. "Istoriia odnogo izdaniia." Pechal'nu povest' sokhranit'. Moskva: Nauka, 1987: 215-55.

Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer. "Introduction." Nietzsche in Russia. Ed. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986: 3-48.

Saito, Yuriko. "The Aesthetics of Weather." The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith. New York: Columbia UP, 2005: 156-76.

Shestov, Lev. "Dostoevskii i Nitsshe (filosofiia tragedii)." Mir iskusstva 7 (1902): 69-79, 230-46 and 321-51; 8 (1902): 7-44, 97-113 and 219-39.

Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams, Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.


University of Victoria

(1) Because of delays between composition and publication, Benois' illustrations are referred to throughout this essay according to their year(s) of composition. In brief, the 1903 drawings were published in the journal World of Art in 1904; the six new illustrations created in 1905-06 were published in an inexpensive paperback 'brochure' in 1912; and the drawings created 1916-22 were published in book form in 1923. Ospovat and Timenchik deal extensively with the unusual publication history of Benois' Bronze Horseman illustrations in "Pechal'nu povest' sokhranit'" (1987).

(2) Editions of The Bronze Horseman with illustrations by Benois were published in 1936 and 1945 by the State Children's Publishing House (Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo detskoi literatury). The 1936 edition included only thirteen illustrations from Benois' total series; the 1945 only five.

(3) All translations from Russian are mine unless otherwise noted.

(4) Benois also edited the journals Art Treasures of Russia (Khudozhestvennye sokrovishcha Rossii) with Adrian Prakhov (1901-03), and Bygone Years (Starye gody) with V.A. Vereshchagin (1907-16).

(5) Gogol's Petersburg stories include "Nevsky Prospect" ("Nevskii Prospekt," 1835), "The Nose" ("Nos," 1836) and "The Overcoat" ("Shinel'," 1842).

(6) These include Dmitry Kardovsky's 1904 illustrations to Gogol's "Nevsky Prospect," Boris Kustodiev's illustrations to a 1905 edition of Gogol's "The Overcoat", and, somewhat later, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky's 1922 illustrations to Dostoevsky's White Nights. See Helena Goscilo's essay on the project of creating a visual tradition for phantasmagorical Petersburg, "Unsaintly St. Petersburg? Visions and Visuals" in Preserving Petersburg. History, Memory, Nostalgia, eds. Helena Goscilo and Stephen M. Norris. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008: 57-87.

(7) The historian M.A. Polievktov was the first to note that Benois' 1903 Peter was drawn from the living mask. See Ospovat and Timenchik 257.

(8) Sona Stephan Hoisington discusses this illustration and its connection to the Benois family apartment in her 1990 article "Mednyi vsadnik through the Eyes of Alexander Benois," p. 481.

(9) Benois and his family were living in Rome at the time of the St. Petersburg anniversary celebrations of 1903, but received detailed descriptions of the events in correspondence with Benois' nephew, Evgeny Lanceray. See Lanceray's letter to Benois of 18 May 1903 in Lansere, E.E., "Pis'ma Benua, A.A.," 1903, Alexander Benois Archive, Fond 137, Folder 318, Manuscripts Division, Russian State Museum.

(10) The 1904 commission was made for a set of illustrations to be put out by the publishing house Expedition (Ekspeditsiia) on behalf of the Commission of People's Editions (Kommissiia narodnykh izdanii). In 1908 the project was abandoned when the Commission closed down and Expedition Press turned all its manuscripts over to the St. Petersburg Literacy Society (Sankt-Peterburgskoe obshchestvo gramotnosti). The Literacy Society finally published the illustrations in 1912. See Ospovat and Timenchik pp. 234-36.

(11) Pushkin subtitled his Bronze Horseman "a Petersburg story" ("peterburg skaia povest'").

(12) This seems to be confirmed by the introduction to Volume 1 of Art Treasures of Russia, edited by Benois and Adrian Prakhov (1901), where a call is made to take art out of the museums, free it from the domain of "specialists" and involve the Russian public in their artistic heritage.

(13) Ospovat and Timenchik make a clever association between one of Benois' new compositions, showing Evgeny running with arms spread out, almost prone, and a satirical sketch by Nikolai Shestopalov that appeared in the oppositional weekly Zritel' in 1905. In the Shestopalov sketch a terrified government official, whose pose exactly prefigures Evgeny's posture, is pursued by the iron "locomotive of history." See Ospovat and Timenchik, p. 283.

(14) Benois' memoirs were originally published in two volumes as Zhizn 'khudozhnika (Life of a Painter) in 1955, just five years before his death. See Aleksandr Benua, Zhizn'khudozhnika. N'iu Iork: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1955.

(15) I am indebted to Dr. Terence Marner for sharing his expertise in visual its ages of the apocalypse with me and making several excellent suggestions about the nephological imagery found in Benois' illustrations.

(16) The end of St. Petersburg has been predicted almost since the moment of its 1703 foundation. One of the earliest myths regarding the apocalyptic fate of Russia's new capital is attributed to Peter the Great's first wife, who prophesied that the city would stand empty. V.N. Toporov deals extensively with the evocation of apocalyptic themes in the so-called "Petersburg text" of Russian literature. See V.N. Toporov, "Peterburg i peterburgskii tekst russkoi literatury," in Semiotika goroda i gorodskoi kul'tury: Peterburg. Uchennyi zapiski Tartuskogo universiteta. Vypusk 664. Trudy po znakovym sistemam: XVIII, ed. Iu. M. Lotman (Tartu, 1984) and V.N. Toporov, Mif Ritual Simvol. Obraz. Issledovanniia v oblasti mifopoeticheskogo. Izbrannoe. (Moskva: Progress/Kul'tura, 1995). David Bethea has also produced an excellent, although not exclusively Petersburg-centered, study of the apocalypse in Russian literature in The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

(17) Benois calls for just such a renaissance in the introduction to his 1901 His tory of Russian Nineteenth Century Art (Istoriia zhivopisi v XIX veke. Russkaia zhivopis').

(18) Petersburg was renamed Petrograd from 1914 to 1924 and Leningrad from 1924 to 1991.
COPYRIGHT 2009 University of Waterloo - Dept. of Germanic and Slavic Language Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Swift, Megan
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Previous Article:A note from the editor.
Next Article:Ayn Rand's aesthetics: preserving the glamor of Hollywood's silent screen.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters