Rublev's head and marble Empress rescued. Stories about statues from four Moscow museums

June 1

Biography of some exhibits of Moscow museums could become a book — an action-packed thriller or a historical novel. These sculptures have long been standing in cool Museum halls, and we often pass them by unaware of the stories behind. Read the most interesting stories in a joint article by and the Mosgortur Agency.

One Empress who failed to turn into 40 busts of Karl Marx

Visitors to the Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve are familiar with the marble statue of Catherine the Great with its Mona Lisa-like elusive smile. The throne plinth of the Ceremony Hall of the Grand Palace is not a usual location of the 2.6-meter high statue of the Empress. A little less than 100 years ago, the marble Catherine sculpture created by the legendary sculptor Opekushin was recognised as having no value and was very close to being scrapped.

The sculpture was created in November 1896 to mark the centenary of Catherine the Great's death, with the Moscow City Duma being the initiator of its creation ten years earlier. The building of the Duma, now housing the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, then existed only as a design, with the place for the monument allocated nearby, on Voskresenskaya Square (presently Revolutsii Square).

Assembly Hall of the Moscow City Duma. 1908. Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

The work was entrusted to the sculptor Mark Antokolsky. Two options he had developed in four years were disapproved, and the Duma refused his services. During that period, the concept had also changed: the Duma rejected the idea of the monument erected in the street to interfere with the horse car traffic. So, they decided to place the monument inside the building, whose construction started in 1890. The design of the Empress' statue was entrusted to Alexander Opekushin, who had already been renowned due to his monuments to Pushkin in Moscow and St. Petersburg and Lermontov's monument in Pyatigorsk.

"The monument is very beautiful and spectacular. The statue of the great monarch is made of Carrara marble with a porphyry pedestal and grey Finnish granite foundation. The Empress has a purple mantle on, with St. Andrew's chain around her neck and the same order ribbon over her shoulder; she holds a bronze gilded sceptre in her right hand and has a small Imperial crown on her head," as reported by the Moscow Leaflet publishing house on the next day after the grand sculpture presentation.

Opekushin's creation survived in the crucible of revolutionary events, and in 1924 it was transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts since 1937). However, the statue was recognised as an item having no museum value, and it was offered to sell it "subject to buyer pick-up". The sculpture's low rating is illustrated by the fact that the documents listed the monument as 'a statue of Catherine the Great by an unknown sculptor', although Opekushin imprinted his name on the front of the pedestal.

Later, the marble Empress moved to Izmailovo, to the summerhouse of the famous Soviet sculptor Sergei Merkurov, who headed the Museum in 1944-1949. He was ordered to recycle the four-ton statue to make sculptures of revolutionaries — an order for 40 busts of Karl Marx, as the print media suggested.

"[The sculpture] was handed over to me as marble to produce busts, but when I saw the name Opekushin, the author of the monument to Pushkin, I decided to keep it," wrote Merkurov in February 1952, a few months before his death. To prevent destruction of Catherine's monument, he secretly sent it to his friends in Armenia, to the State Gallery of the Republic, disguised as marble scrap.

The rescued Empress had stood in Yerevan until the USSR collapse, and returned to Moscow only in 2003. For several years, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts have been restoring back its former beauty. Since the summer of 2007, marble Catherine has stood at the Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve.

Election of deputies of the State Duma in the Assembly Hall of the Moscow City Duma. Photo of 1906. Iskry (Sparks) magazine. Tsaritsyno Museum Reserve

A story about a great painter called to serve revolution

The State Darwin Museum displays not only stuffed rare animals and animalistic artworks. You may also see a plaster head of Andrei Rublev here. The bas-relief depicting the most renowned Russian iconographer was created by sculptor Vasily Vatagin, the founder of the Russian animalistic school and one of the Museum's founders.

For a long time, Rublev could not be identified, since Vatagin was famous primarily for its numerous sculptural images of animals. This non-typical work appeared in his record thanks to the decree 'On the Republic Monuments' adopted in 1918, better known as Lenin's plan of monumental propaganda.

Vasily Vatagin. Andrei Rublev's Head

This plan proposed to put up monuments country-wide (primarily in Moscow and Petrograd) to those people who could be generally considered as harbingers of the revolution. In the summer of 1918, their list was published. It included mostly revolutionaries and public figures of the past with Spartacus top-listed. The list of writers was preceded by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, with a few representatives of other arts and some scientists. Only four artists were mentioned, namely Rublev, Kiprensky, Ivanov and Vrubel.

During the Civil War, sculptors by far failed to create monuments to all the nominees. Those poor times monuments were usually made of short-life materials with only a few of them survived until present. A fragment of the monument to the iconographer Andrei Rublev, preserved in the Darwin Museum, represents one of such rarities.

This is how Vatagin described his work on it:

"The list included Rublev's name, so I applied for it. I conceived this monument as a 6-metre high architectural stela on a red granite basement, with a bronze high-relief Rublev's figure against the white-stone masonry shaped as an arch with a mosaic or majolica insert — the image of a five-domed cathedral".

Vasily Vatagin. Andrei Rublev monument's design. 1918

The monument was supposed to be erected next to the Nikolskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, but this idea was never implemented. According to Vatagin, "a 3-metre figure of Rublev was sculpted and cast in plaster (in the Darwin Museum premises), but only its photo and a design sketch survived."

Only a bronze-toned plaster bas-relief shaped as a head of the old Russian icon painter has survived. After Vatagin's death, the bas-relief was listed in the Museum as a 'Homo sapiens head', as the memory of its appearance was lost. I was not until 2017 when it regained Andrei Rublev's name once again.

About one monument to the classic replaced by another one

Classics in the Soviet Union were very much appreciated, with Pushkin being the most favourite poet and writer. Friendship with the Decembrists, free-thinking poems, tsar's disgrace — he was a perfect harbinger of the revolution. In 1937, there was a big event dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the poet's death in the USSR. At that time, the sculptor Vasily Kozlov had a concept to create a monument 'Pushkin on a Walk', whose plaster model has been held by the State Pushkin Museum.

Vasily Kozlov Pushkin on a Walk. 1936

Kozlov was not an ordinary Soviet artist. In the 1920s, he served as Chairman of the Petrograd Committee of Sculptors, in 1927, his monument to Lenin was erected in front of the Smolny Palace, the 'cradle of the revolution'.

He imagined his Pushkin as 'emotional and fast-moving towards the centuries ahead'. To highlight his dynamic movement, he depicted the poet holding a cane. Even during Pushkin's life, this accessory was much talked about: they attributed great physical strength to Alexander and believed that he walked with a cane weighing one pood. In fact, the cane weighed a quarter of a pood, that is four kilograms.

The monument's concept first appeared to the sculptor in 1935, with Lassalle Square as its erection place — 'amidst the architectural ensemble associated with the years of Pushkin's life, a monument surrounded by buildings once visited by Pushkin and occupied by his friends Vielgorsky, Karamzin and Vyazemsky, framed by greenery against the background of beautiful Russian architecture, now the Russian Museum."

In 1937, on the eve of the anniversary, the first competition for the Pushkin monument to be set up in Leningrad was announced. Kozlov's work did not compete, but it could be viewed at the all-Union Pushkin Exhibition in the Historical Museum in Moscow, so it was discussed in print media along with the nine competitive projects.

Ivan Buyev, Boris Iordansky. Poster. 1937

The Spit of Vasilyevsky Island had been chosen as the monument's location, but contestants failed to make their designs match the existing architectural ensemble with their rostral columns and the Exchange building.

In 1938, another round of competition failed as well. Vasily Kozlov died in 1940. The same year, they turned to his idea to put up a monument on Lassalle Square recently renamed Iskusstv Square (the Arts Square), but soon the war began. The next competition was announced in 1947. And, once again, the first three rounds failed.

The winner, Mikhail Anikushin, was not chosen until 1951, with the bronze Pushkin set up in the public garden in front of the Russian Museum only in 1957, 22 years after Kozlov had an idea to place the great poet's statue there.

A story about a monument to a Soviet sculptor restricted to travel abroad set up in Germany

When the sculptor Vadim Sidur started his work on his 'Monuments' series in the 1960s, he could hardly imagine that in some ten years these works would be actually put up in city streets and squares — and not only in the Soviet ones.

Vadim Sidur (1924-1986) was born in Ekaterinoslav (presently the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Dnepropetrovsk before 2016) in a family of teachers. His family members were among those 11,000 Jews killed by the Germans in Dnepropetrovsk during the war.

The would-be sculptor and graphic artist, having added a year to his year of birth in the documents, graduated from a machine-gun school and joined the front to get a nearly fatal wound by a German sniper's bullet. In 1945, after many hospitals, Sidur entered the Moscow Art and Industrial School (presently the Moscow State Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts).

Vadim Sidur's works used to display war and suffering. His miniature 'Monuments' series sculptures such as 'Victims of Violence', 'Victims of Bombs', 'To the Dead Children', 'Victims of Love', 'Treblinka' and others were recognised outside the USSR. Western audience was introduced to the Soviet sculptor's works by the West German Slavicist Karl Eimermacher, who  visited Vadim Sidur's Moscow workshop in 1970.

"I witnessed Russian art I had never been aware of and had not even expected to see," the scientist recalled. As early as 1971, he arranged Sidur's exhibitions in Frauenfeld (Switzerland) and Kassel (Germany) displaying only photographs of his works.

Opening of the monument to Vladimir Sidur in Kassel. 1974

The anti-war message of the Russian avant-garde artist was particularly appreciated in the West German Kassel, and there were several reasons for that. First, the former centre of the Nazi Germany's tank industry experienced massive bombing, with more than 10,000 citizens killed and 90 percent of the buildings destroyed. Second, in 1955, this city became an avant-garde art centre, and since then, every five years it hosted ‘documenta’ festival that brought together the most prominent avant-garde masters.

In October 1974, at the height of the Cold War, Sidur's 'Victims of Violence' was set up in the city thanks to the funds raised by Kassel residents. "It is an astonishing sculpture, a powerful and emotional work, silence of anger and compassion," the writer Samuel Beckett, a Nobel prize winner  invited to the opening of the monument, described it.

The original model made by Vadim Sidur in 1965 is displayed at the Vadim Sidur Museum in Novogireevo.


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