Arendt’s embroidered life: History of famous doctors and artists’ family

November 3

Representatives of the Arendt dynasty made a great contribution to the development of medicine, the arts and even aviation. Maria Arendt, an embroidery artist and sketcher, speaks about the two-century-long history of her family through pieces of the exhibition “Architextile or All Sewn Up” at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. and Mosgortour compiled this joint article on the past and present of the Arendts.

Emperor’s doctor and Pushkin’s friend

Nikolai Arendt followed in the footsteps of his father, head physician Fyodor Arendt, and became one of the most famous Russian doctors of his time. In 1805, he graduated from the Imperial Medical and Surgical Academy and afterwards was assigned to the St Petersburg General Hospital. He did not work for long there: seven months later the young doctor was drafted into the Navaginsky Infantry Regiment, with which he took part in the 1812 Patriotic War. Nikolai Arendt was appointed chief physician of the military hospital and was indispensable during campaigns and battles. For performing a craniotomy in the field, he was awarded the rank of senior physician, 1st class.

After the war, the surgeon remained in France as the chief physician of the Russian occupation corps and lectured at the Sorbonne. In 1816, he returned home and retired 11 years later. However, he did not refrain from the job of his life: he consulted court doctors on how to treat Nicholas I (the emperor had  severe pneumonia). The emperor recovered, and several months later he appointed Arendt as his physician.

Famous writers were also treated by the doctor. He aided Mikhail Lermontov when he was injured during riding, and stayed with Alexander Pushkin after his duel with d'Anthès. The doctor used to know Nikolai Gogol, too.

The Arendts still remember the friendship between Nikolai and Alexander Pushkin. It inspired the doctor’s great-great-great granddaughters, artists Maria and Natalya Arendt, to create a project “Other Pushkin” that made part of the Architextile or All Sewn Up exhibition: medical equipment next to inkwells from the family collection as well as embroidered portraits of the poet. It also has the “valuable parcel:” a virtual parcel with penicillin the sisters send to their predecessor to save the great poet. The medicine was not yet invented in 1837.

“Our family had several generations of doctors, so we cannot do without medicine at the exhibition. We decided to save Pushkin with the help of modern art,” Maria Arendt explains.

Doctor and aviator

Nikolai Arendt’s nephew with the same name was also a doctor who graduated from the Emperor Medical and Surgical Academy. He treated Vissarion Belinsky and Vasily Zhukovsky. When a plague epidemic broke out in Persia, he was sent to Tehran as part of the imperial mission, and then back at home he wrote a dissertation on the disease. The job won him a PhD in medicine. Arendt worked as surgeon for several years, but then decided to leave Petersburg for his home city, Simferopol, where the climate was more suitable for him for health reasons.

In Simferopol, Nikolai Arendt became enthralled with aviation. In his free time, he experimented with kites, studied birds and tried to create his own flying machine. He wrote several works on gliding, including “A brief study of modern aviation” and “Aviation based on the principles of bird gliding.” Moreover, he introduced such terms as “aviator” and “aviation,” laid out the basics of gliding and soaring and invented an engineless flying machine.

However, Nikolai did not forget his main job: he was often asked for medical advice and never took any money for it. He had to spend the money he saved on his new hobby and also seek the state’s support. In 1877, Nikolai Arendt sent a request to the military agency asking to allocate him 2,000 roubles to build the first glider but never got a response. He also wrote to chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev but he did not believe in the doctor’s studies. This letter, by the way, can also be found among the exhibits, together with Nikolai Arendt’s personal belongings and a gypsum portrait made by his granddaughter Ariadna.

Arendt never gave up despite all his difficulties: he continued experimenting on creating models of gliders paying out of his own pocket until he went bankrupt. He had to sell his house, and his family moved to a small estate near Yalta where he worked as a doctor and experimented with aviation until he passed away.

First artist and sculptor

Ariadna Arendt founded the artist line in the family. She always loved art and visited the estate that belonged to her aunt’s husband, painter Mikhail Latri (seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky’s grandson). In 1928, Ariadna graduated from the arts college in Simferopol and moved to Moscow to go to the Higher Art and Technical Institute. She studied at the sculpture department where Vladimir Favorsky, Ivan Yefimov and Vera Mukhina taught. There Ariadna met her future husband, sculptor Meer Eisenstadt. Not everything went smoothly in their relationship, and in her book, Your Art will Never Leave, Arendt wrote:

“Meer Eisenstadt was a withdrawn and sullen man who never opened up in full. When we studied in Vkhutemas (Higher Art and Technical Studios), I was very interested in his Monkey, which was later bought by the Tretyakov Gallery, and I started to talk to him. This is how we met… His art was striking with unusual and unexpected interpretations of the images. I should elaborate on his work, Fitness. It represents a thinking girl in a characteristic pose, once again on a pile of squares and cubes resembling ancient ruins but oddly enough, harmoniously connected with each other…”

The sculptors’ granddaughter, artist Maria Arendt, transferred a part of the Fitness picture to fabric: she embroidered a fragment of the fountain. The girl in the background looks like Ariadna. Maria also enlarged sketches made by her famous grandfather and transferred them onto fabric: he had a habit of drawing on tiny scraps of paper, and a suitcase with these sketches happened to survive.

In 1934, Ariadna and Meer had a son, and a couple of years later, Ariadna had an accident: she was run over by a tram while hurrying to work. A young woman without legs found salvation in modelling: she devoted all her time in hospital to this. Soon, Ariadna decided to divorce her husband, but she did not stay alone for long: in 1941, she again met with sculptor Anatoly Grigoryev, who had been in love with her for many years. Maria Arendt also paid attention to this story. She created a portrait of her grandmother, where a woman with a cane is either leaning against the wall or hovering above the floor. Maria attached a light cloak to the plaster mask of Ariadna created by Grigoryev, and embroidered it with excerpts from the sculptors’ diaries and letters.

In the late 1940s, Grigoryev was arrested for participating in the “anti-Soviet theosophical underground” and sentenced to eight years in camps. During all this period of time, Ariadna made customised figurines, ceramics and park sculptures. She also designed her own method for assembled stone sculptures. In 1954, her lover was released early. They finished their house in Koktebel, and until Grigoryev’s death in 1986, they lived either in Moscow or Crimea.

Artist sisters

Sisters Maria and Natalya Arendt carried on. Their parents dedicated their lives to paleontology but still didn’t break “the artistic line:” Yelena wrote the book “Crimean saga: The Arendts-Sontsovs – four generations” and Yury is a collector interested in the arts and sculpture and, like his mother Ariadna, carves  sculptures from stone. During their childhood, Maria and Natalya lived in the artist town in Verkhnyaya Maslovka Street (several buildings), spent a lot of time in the Arendt’s studio and started taking part in exhibitions already at an early age.

Natalya has lived in London since 1991 but comes to Russia often. She is a stage artist by education, but she also paints, sculpts and organises exhibitions. Her sister Maria chose an “easier” art: embroidery on fabric. It is interesting that in her youth she wanted to become a priest or a doctor, but her love for art prevailed, due to Ariadna who taught her granddaughter.

“I used to embroider miniatures and make something like shy graphics. During a joint exhibition with Natalya I realised that nobody will notice my works among enormous sculptures and I have to do something about it. I began to embroider miniatures using white stitches on a black background. Small things on huge ones. This is how this all started. Every stitch was measured; I did each piece slowly and carefully,” says the artist.

A lot of her art is dedicated to the artist town where she grew up and where she lives  today. Maria stresses that the backside of the art is as important as the front. Her works always have a story, a plot, and she leaves it to the audience to decide what turn it will take.


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