Nikolay Punin is not a name widely known in the West, primarily because his file languished in the KGB archives since he died in 1953, partly because his grave in the Gulag where he died is marked only by a number, and partly because his own reputation became submerged under that of his lover, the poetess Anna Akhmatova; evidence of this is that the Anna Akhmatova Museum in the House on the Fontanka in St. Petersburg, is in fact in Punin’s old apartment.
Photograph of Nikolay Punin (1920s), Punin family archive, St. Petersburg
Yet, during his life, this remarkable individual was one of the most influential figures in the turbulent but exciting arena of post-revolutionary Russian art and its social and political context. Throughout his life Punin was also one of the most persistent and uncompromising propagators of Paul Cézanne and his legacy.
Nikolay Punin was a critic of the new era, promoting new art, proclaiming that: ‘Our art is the art of form, of shape, because we are proletarian artists, artists of a Communist culture. He welcomed the October revolution as an opportunity to establish new art, which would be based on the achievements of such artists as Cézanne.
Punin’s ‘Cycle of lectures’, which were given in Petrograd in 1919 and published in 1920, aimed to give an overview of Western-European art and to identify the Russian avant-garde with it. In these lectures Punin tried to distinguish which elements make an artist great, rather than ordinary. He felt that artists such as Cézanne and Picasso had the power to break free from the accepted rules and laws. In his sixth lecture the art critic announced: ‘Cézanne broke painting from the shackles of subject matter.’
Admiring this unique French artist, Punin felt that ‘nature for him was only the reason, only the dictionary for perfectly constructed work of art.’ He believed that what matters for the artist is what he feels rather than what he understands and that ‘the major aim of artistic activity is to transform the world through new forms of beauty’.
In his review of the new trends in the art of St. Petersburg, which was written by Punin for the magazine ‘Russian art’ in 1923, the art-critic described Cézanne’s painting ‘Grand Pin Près d’Aix-en-Provence’, which was purchased by Ivan Morozov in 1908. Comprised of separate blocks of paint, this painting represented the new era of post-impressionist art. Punin used this painting for his explanation of Cézanne’s work. He compared it to the academic landscape by the representative of ‘Peredvizhniki’, Ivan Shishkin. He said that if you pull a branch of Shishkin’s tree, it will come out together with roots and earth; in Cézanne’s painting, together with the branch, part of the sky will be torn. Punin’s comparison reflected the wholeness of Cézanne’s landscapes.
By 1921, many artists and writers had left Russia in anticipation of arrests and deportations. They lived in Russia through the most difficult post-revolutionary years of starvation and poverty, driven by their faith in building the new art of the new nation. Their disillusionment and their emigration signalled the beginning of the end of the Russian avant-garde.
Punin had written four books and more than forty articles in three years after the Revolution and played a leading role in all the major developments in artistic life in 1920s Russia. But now, Nikolay Punin, like many, began to feel frustrated by the limitations of the new communist system, and increasingly by his limited success in trying to ‘defend the freedom of artistic arts’.
Punin was arrested for the first time on 3rd August 1921 – just a few months before the Department of Visual Arts of Narkompross was closed. Later he would say about these events: ‘It was the end of my love-affair with the revolution.’
From 1923, he concentrated mainly on lecturing, writing and museum work. After being excited about all the new possibilities which came with the change from a rather hard hearted imperial regime and being the right hand of Lunacharsky in the first years after the October revolution, already in February 1920 Punin had written in his diary: ‘One quality of the revolution – life gets to be a risk.’
But despite his first encounter with rejection and with persecution by the state, Punin continued his attempts to educate new Soviet people in modern art. ‘Nothing can happen to me which can crush me. And that’s my destiny,’ – wrote Punin to his wife in July 1923.
On 3 April 1921 the Museum of Artistic Culture was officially opened in the Myatlev House, which used to house IZO Narkompros. Researching the experimental nature of avant-garde art, the museum was the only institution of its kind in the world. It represented the new art, striving to explain it to the masses. In 1922, at Filonov’s suggestion and through the determined efforts of Malevich and Nikolay Punin, the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) was established with the Museum of Artistic Culture as its base. It was a truly unique establishment, where artists explored the laws of visual perception and the formation of art. For Punin this newly-established institution represented the fulfilment of all his dreams about educating workers in modern art with Cézanne’s legacy as its focal point.
Malevich suggested that the ideal museum exhibition of new art should have several parts, such as ‘Painting as such’ with Cézanne in the centre of it. But in 1926 the museum together with Inkhuk were closed over-night, and even though its priceless collection was moved to the department of the newest movements, which was headed by Punin at the Russian museum, the doors, opened for the avant-garde artists by the October revolution, were gradually closing down.
In January 1933 Punin also lost his job as the head of already non-existent department of Newest Movements and was ordered to change the exposition of the 20th century Russian art at the Russian museum in two weeks. From now on he was only allowed to remain a member of the artistic committee of the museum. However, when the flames of the revolution have died down, Punin still kept his position as a fighter for Russian avant-garde and promotion of Western-European modern art – it was his brave choice, the price of which was first his career and then his life.
Back in 1919 in one of his articles in the newspaper ‘Iskusstvo kommuni’, Punin wrote: “We were persecuted and will be persecuted, not because we are anti-bourgeois, or the other way around, but because we possess the gift of creative art. This is the reason we cannot be tolerated by mediocrity, even by Communist mediocrity.”
During the late 1930’s, Punin was working on the last serious work of his life - a text-book on the history of Western-European Art. It was 494 pages long, and it was written in three months in the spring of 1939. After putting lots of pressure on Punin and the four other authors to finish this book quickly, the publishers then sat on it for a year, reducing chapters dedicated to the art of the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century to 35 pages (less than 10% of the whole text-book). The text-book was then reviewed by the famous Moscow-based art-historians, Lazarev and Alpatov.
Originally, the chapter on the ‘Art of Imperialism’, which then meant ‘Impressionism’ and ‘Post-Impressionism’, was written by another art-historian, Valentin Brodsky. But in 1940 he had already been mobilized to the front, and Punin decided to re-write this controversial chapter. In the beginning of this chapter Punin explained that the ‘art of imperialism’ did not deny traditional art – instead modern artists studied and criticised it, and finally created new art in accordance with the tastes and ideas of their time. He dedicated the large part of this brief overview of Western-European art to one of his most admired artist – Paul Cézanne, about whom he wrote:
“Cézanne – is one of the most intense artists ever known in the history of Western-European art. Absorbing in his art the whole richness of the painting tradition of his predecessors, denying any romantic or idealistic associations, he saw the expression of painting in everything around him…”
Punin felt that Cézanne brought back the classic traditions of French art, which were denied by the Impressionists, and that his followers, rather than Cézanne himself, made his inventions look formal. Punin always adored Cézanne. In 1915, he had written to his wife, Anna Arens: ‘Will I, like my contemporaries, leave the content [of the painting] behind, and for another year will be hating Gauguin and loving Cézanne?’
Punin never betrayed his love for Cézanne. In 1940 Lazarev was writing to him how all the professors of the history of art at the Moscow State University were against his chapter on the ‘Art of Imperialism’. At the time Lazarev was still on Punin’s side, saying that the ones who criticized him the most would never be able to write like him. He wrote that he really liked this chapter, but advised Punin to make some characteristics smoother and milder in order to minimize criticism. Punin ignored this suggestion, but, much to everyone’s surprise, the text-book was still published. In the bizarre circumstances of the day, this was because Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and Stalin’s right hand man, apparently liked it.
However, in nine years’ time, Punin’s text-book was heavily criticised in an article by one Gyakov called ‘Formalists and aesthetes in the role of critics’. He declared that Nikolay Punin ‘openly advertised decadent, corrupt western art and such representatives of it as Cézanne and Van Gogh’. He complained that Punin dared to call these ‘formalist artists’ geniuses.
Soon after this article was published, in 1946 Punin was fired from the State Leningrad University and Academy of Arts, where he taught for 20 years, for ‘not succeeding in providing ideological and political education of his students’. In August 1949 he was sent to GULAG for ‘preaching Cézannism’. All copies of his text-book were removed from all universities and libraries. Most of them were burned, and only a few survived to modern days.
In February 1946, Punin once again wrote in his diary: ‘Recently I was not able to write at all’. One of his students, Mikhail Flegel, had returned from Vienna, where he was posted as a soldier, and brought back with him some beautiful reproductions of French Impressionists. Punin and his student Ciciliya Nissel’shtraus went to Flegel’s house to see these photos, which Nikolay Nikolaevich would later use in his lectures. He admired all the freedom of expression and sincerity of these paintings, which were classified as a bad influence on the young builders of Communism in the Soviet Union.
In March of the same year Punin wrote again about his beloved patriarch of Modernism, Cézanne:
“Cézanne’s feat is not just in the fact that he was a true painter, as everyone thinks of him, but in the way in which he stood in front of the world with such an opened heart, cleared from all the additives not related to art - such an opened heart, that no other artist ever had before, including Rafael, Titian and Velasquez. Cezanne is the main representative of visual art, its fullest impersonation. That is the main goal and idea of Cézanne’s art. For everyone who can relate to it, his paintings are like the house, in which the soul has a beautiful life, <…> because his art – is the house, built in painting materials.”
Punin also came to the conclusion that there should always be a strong connection between ‘people in paintings’ and ‘people in real life’. He wrote in his diary that in the Hermitage people moved in ‘a more natural way’ in the rooms with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and looked rather ‘awkward’ in the room with Renaissance art – ‘walking like spirits surrounded by the immortal’.
In April 1946 Punin was writing to his old friend, artist Lev Bruni, that ‘art did not prove worthwhile’ and that ‘Cézanne and Van Gogh are its fruitless victims’. Bruni replied that Punin should not despair, and that no one can be greater than Cézanne, who was ‘the first artist, apart from Delacroix, to show people the way to Painting.’
However, after Punin’s lecture on Impressionism, which he gave at the Union of Artists in April 1945, criticism of his views on Cézanne and Van Gogh was getting stronger. In February 1946 he wrote in his diary: ‘Life is difficult, and I am tired.’
In his lecture Punin bravely announced: ‘Whether or not our government likes it, our art will have to take modern Western European art into account.’ After Punin’s arrest in 1949, Vladimir Serov, who at the time was the president of the Union of Artists in Leningrad and the prime cause of art-critic’s arrest, told the prosecutor about this bold phrase from Nikolay Nichoilaevich’ speech, and added that when the stenographer gave Punin his speech for corrections, he did not want to change it. Even when he was told that it was inappropriate to leave such a phrase in the stenographic copy, he crossed out the word ‘government’ and wrote ‘governing board’. Now it looked as if he was holding the board of the Union of Artists rather than the whole Soviet government accountable for bad Soviet art.
Not surprisingly, in 1949 Punin was arrested and sentenced for 10 years in GULAG. At his questioning in connection with Punin’s case, Vladimir Serov also quoted Punin’s other phrase from his earlier speech ‘Impressionism and Paintings’:
“Soviet art is a backward art, while contemporary Western European art, such as art of Picasso, and also the art of Western Europe of the beginning of the 20th century, such as art of Cézanne and Van Gogh, are the highest achievements of contemporary culture.” Expressing such views in the Soviet Union equalled inevitable arrest and a prison sentence.
In August 1953 64-years old Punin died in Abez settlement. He had managed to fit several lives into this relatively short time, a colourful life in Imperial Russia, Revolution, three arrests, two World wars, the siege of Leningrad and the Gulag. Back in 1940 he had written:
“It is such a happiness to be still alive; I did not expect this; I never thought that I would live for so long. Levushka Bruni told me a long time ago: ‘What an amazing Guardian Angel you have.’ Art does not want to part with me. It still needs me for preaching it in front of the mad people, who have lost it.”
In 1953 – the year when both Stalin and Punin died – 36 Picassos were released by the Soviet museums for exhibition in Italy, and then in Paris. In December 1954 an exhibition of 19th century Dutch and Belgian Art was opened at the Hermitage. For the first time the timeless paintings by Van Gogh, so beloved by Punin, were exhibited.
But the real breakthrough happened three years later when first at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and then at the Hermitage museum in Leningrad, the first and the largest exhibition of 19th and 20th century French masters was opened.
At the Hermitage this historic exhibition occupied 54 rooms of the Winter Palace, and included more than two thousand works of art, from David to Cézanne. By the cruel irony of his life, Punin did not live to see this ground-breaking exhibition. But one of his students, Anna Izergina (who became a curator of 19-20th century French paintings at the Hermitage museum), curated this ground-breaking exhibition.
Jealous and greedy Soviet officials may have managed to get rid of Punin, but his followers, his students, continued his mission of educating people in true art.
This article was first delivered as a paper at the postgraduate conference 'Cultural Exchange: Russia and the West', University of Bristol in April 2011. Natalia Murray is a Russian art-historian. She comes from St. Petersburg, where she graduated from the Academy of Arts and the PhD course at the Hermitage Museum. She is currently working at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her biography of N. Punin 'The Unsung Hero of the Russian Avant-Garde. The life and times of Nikolay Punin (1888-1953)' will be published by Brill Academic Publishers in March 2012.