Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Voyage dans l'ancienne Russie, Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky at Musée Zadkine

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Tour de Signal à Boukovo, 
Just when I thought I knew every museum in Paris, I find one I have never previously even heard of. The Musée Zadkine at Vavin is the former studio of the Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. As I wandered through the light-filled rooms, looking out onto a peaceful garden filled with Zadkine’s sculptures, I could only imagine the inspiration of such a space.

Garden at the Musée Zadkine
I found this hidden Paris treasure because the museum is currently exhibiting a series of photographs by Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, taken between 1909-16 as he travelled through Tsarist Russia from the Urals to Samarkand, from Volga to Siberia, documenting his discoveries in three-way colour glass transparencies. The display of the images at the Musée Zadkine is moving and creative. They are interspersed with Zadkine’s sculptures in light boxes attached both to the wall and to the floor. The wonder of the photographs is that they are in colour, the result of a process that was, at the time, unheard of. It is only because Procoudine-Gorsky had access to the most avant-garde scientific developments — read wealth, education and power — that he was able to document this vast and, for many, unforgiving land. Eventually, Procoudine-Gorsky was commissioned by the Tsar himself to take photographs and bring them home for all to wonder at.

Images on display at Musée Zadkine

Procoudine-Gorsky documents Russia as it was, as I learnt, knew it, and as I like to think it was meant to be. His images are a document of Russia before the world pulled it to Moscow and St Petersburg, when Russia beyond the two cities mattered. This is Russia when science and technology valued the arts, when there was a concerted effort to take technology and science to the farthest outreaches. It was a time before the revolution, but of course, these images show none of the persecution, violence and struggle of Tsarist Russia.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Habitants du Daghestan, 1904
In ThroughAmateur Eyes I discussed the early developments that enabled some of the first colour photographs produced in Nazi Germany around the late 1930s. That means that Procoudine-Gorsky’s transparencies are made 30 years prior. So the photographs themselves are of historical interest as well as the interest in what they photograph. In 1948 they were taken by the Library of Congress left in archives until 2000 when they were restored and digitally transferred. What isn’t made clear by the exhibition is the extent to which they were remastered in the LOC’s digital scanning. Given the clarity and density of the hues, I am assuming there was some colour enhancement. Nevertheless, the display on light boxes shows with extraordinary clarity every detail of the scene, every blade of grass and every straw of hay is discernible thanks to the three colour process. The delicate reflections on water, and the soft clouds in the sky can almost be touched, they are so crisp in reproduction. With this comes the flaws and deterioration of the images, the bleeding of colours, the fading of cyan blue from the stock that leave a reddish brown.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Church of the Resurrection in the Grove, Kostroma, 1910
What I loved most about the transparencies is their capture of the stasis and silence of Russia, not only as this vast land was on the cusp of industrialization and pre-Revolution, but also its stasis that continued into the Brezhnev years and the Cold War.  Long distance landscapes and shots of villages nestled into the bend in a river, endless skies and untouched green fields on perfectly clear days, the spires and domes of Orthodox churches, local inhabitants posing for portraits in long shot, workers in fields, nothing seems to move in this timeless world. The agrarian nature of the land, the apparently idyllic world also reminded me of Tolstoy’s Russia, at least, those parts of his world that have not been touched by the pressures and distortions of the society he critiques.

Sergei Procoudine-Gorsky, Procoudine-Gorsky on the Karolitskhali River, Georgia

To start visitors off on the romantic journey into Russia of yesterday, the museum offers tea out of a samovar at the entrance. The whole experience was one of walking into the dream of a world that always looked much better in representation than reality.

All Procoudine-Gorsky's images copyright Library of Congress, Washington

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