Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Home of the Artist

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I visited the home of the artist, Ilya Repin (1844-1930), a painter who lived in the forests near St. Petersburg, Russia. He painted historical and religious scenes -- perhaps the most famous was his painting, The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV. 1880-1891, which I had a chance to view at the Russian Museum. It can also be viewed online at Olga's Gallery. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see a few characteristic articles -- dagger, flasks, blankets -- some of the props are at Repin's house, now a museum. Strangely enough, a few years later, I was visiting a museum in Gandje, Azerbaijan, and they had a few items affiliated with Repin. To my amazement, I recognized some of the items in the painting! It was really surprising. Repin's house was an interesting place -- lots of light and stained glass. He had a lazy-susan arrangement in the dining area-- guests had to serve themselves. He was known as quite the eccentric -- now a Russian treasure. His work is, in some ways, an homage to empire. The museum docents were very professional and rigorous. I enjoyed it, but felt drained after....

Home of the Artist

Rain streaming down a glass belly
my fear outstretches itself
at this figure of a bat sprawled in a window,

paned and impaled by day;
the surface is smooth, the history abrasive

like our guide’s voice: “Welcome to Repin’s Home!”
and then, seeing my friend’s cell phone,
mumbled something about "new russians"
or was it "foreigners"-- I couldn't tell.

But the only foreigner was me, trying to
downplay my Americanness, surrounded
by old uniforms, dried sweat, and mildew
rising up from the subjects of study after study --

Repin painting with a three-foot brush,
palette strapped to his waist – he, treating his failing eyes
carpal tunnel syndrome & trembling hands with defiance –

“I am the reincarnation of Peter the Great” he said,
and his self-portraits looked nothing like himself,

but Himself – he who pronounced all guests self-sufficient;
he sentenced those with aristocratic leanings into “the box”
where they defended their inability to mind themselves
and themselves alone.

The rain issued out from the night
like cloud after cloud of bats;
it froze me into my mind’s own window;
History's rage spewed, my English consonants buzzed
like swarms of locusts devouring one's holy land.

Last night, streaks of rain interrupted the window;
today, the pane interrupts the rain.

Transparent glass in the shape of a flying bat
is portraiture of memory itself;
glory, preservation, with identity-making
in spite of clarity and flight.

Yes, flying is a state of mind;
it is a reaching up, or an echo, it is a sounding
or a fearful shame –

Day and night
are so confused these days.