Sir Ernst Gombrich, for one, is glad to hear the news. The eminent art historian stands in the modestly furnished drawing room of his Hampstead house, leafing through his copy of Leonid Pasternak’s memoirs, recently published in England. The book’s publication had attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institution, and the first retrospective of the painter’s work in the United States is being organized under its auspices. I had just spent several days in Oxford with the artist’s family; my briefcase bulging with books, papers, and notes I was able to bring back with me to London, I call on Dr. Gombrich in the hope that he might help me organize some of my own inchoate thoughts. The suburban stillness of this vine-covered house is conducive to introspection. “Beautiful,” he says, not looking up from the illustrated volume, “a good painter.”
I tell Dr. Gombrich that the Smithsonian newsletter detailing the plans for the traveling exhibition, which will originate in Washington, DC and span the artist’s career with some 60 works in all media, describes Leonid Pasternak as “a Russian Impressionist.” He winces, glancing at the wall opposite; two tiny Dutch landscapes return his glance. “Impressionist? No,” he says quickly, adding pensively, as an afterthought: “But then—who is?”
As Mrs. Gombrich enters the room with some tea for us, he continues: “Historians of art, like most historians, have never recovered from reading all that Pliny. They see in history the bare forms of innovation and revolution, of progress and discovery, all in a kind of sterile continuum. When they see the work of a painter, they need to understand his part in the process; they ask, ‘What did he invent?’ They cannot say, for instance, that this Russan painter ‘invented’ or ‘perfected’ what they call Impressionism, but they can say that he introduced it into Russia, like the steam engine or the telephone, and so we have a new label, ‘Russian Impressionist,’ and their work is done.” It is getting late, and we say our goodbyes. Sir Ernst wishes me luck with my article.
On a luminous afternoon in the spring of 1893, members of The Wanderers, a group of painters which dominated fin de siècle Russian art, were busy hanging their regular exhibition at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Amid the noise that usually accompanies such lastminute preparations—the muttering of workmen, the prying-open of crates, the voices of the artists themselves—a man in his early 30’s was looking intently at one of the pictures already in place. Shyly, he gave his “Debutante” one last look and was about to leave, when suddenly there was commotion at the entrance. A hush fell over the workmen and artists alike, and the motley crowd—as if visited by the Inspector General in the final scene of Gogol’s play—was perfectly still. The visitor entered, and as he began looking at the hanging pictures it seemed to the young man that his eyes “drilled holes in the air.” The young man’s excitement, like the feeling of awe that had hushed his older colleagues moments earlier, was understandable, for the visitor was in fact the inspector general of Russian culture, emerging with it from the twilight of the 19th century and entering a borderless spiritual sphere which many of us inhabit to this very day. The visitor was Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, and there he stood, slightly apart from the crowd of onlookers, before one of the pictures. “This,” said one of the exhibition’s organizers, “is ‘The Debutante’ by Pasternak, a young painter of ours . . . ” He had not finished the sentence before Count Tolstoy interrupted: “Yes, yes. I know the name.” Years later, Pasternak would remember in his memoirs:
I gasped like a condemned man who suddenly learns of his pardon. Overwhelmed by delight and embarrassment, I hardly knew where to put myself “In that case, allow me to introduce you to the painter himself. He is here,” said Savitsky; immediately the circle of people opened and I found myself in front of Tolstoy, who looked charming and radiant. I stood there helpless with confusion, and I remember the warmth and tenderness of his large fatherly hand as it shook mine. He said something agreeable to me, but I was so excited by the thought that Tolstoy was giving me his attention, and I felt so ashamed and awkward, especially in front of my elder colleagues, that I could not make out his individual words. It was something to do with the fact that he knew my Letter From Home and my drawings.
Speaking objectively, there was good reason for Tolstoy to have heard of Leonid Pasternak. Born in 1862, in the port city of Odessa, he had attended the Munich Royal Academy of Arts before coming to Moscow in 1889 where he married the young but already famous concert pianist Rosalia Kafman; that same year, a painting of his, entitled “Letter From Home” and chosen to be included in The Wanderers’ annual exhibition, was purchased by Tretyakov for his private collection, a collection so important that, after 1917, it would be preserved intact at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. For a 27-year-old painter, this was a triumphant beginning.
As fate would have it, at the time of his acquaintance with Tolstoy, Leonid Pasternak was working on an album of watercolor drawings to War and Peace commissioned by The North, a popular illustrated magazine, to be used as a promotional supplement for its subscribers. Other artists asked to contribute to the album included Vereshchagin and Repin, perhaps the bestknown “names” of the day, and the offer could not have been more flattering. The fortuitous meeting at The Wanderers’ preview led to Pasternak’s visit to Tolstoy’s house in Khamovniki, in Moscow, and the writer was thrilled to see scenes from his novel come to life—in his opinion, for the first time since its publication. As Pasternak later remembered, Tolstoy had never approved of illustrations for the various editions of War and Peace sent to him by publishers because “they all looked like battle sketches.” Tolstoy’s enthusiasm for Pasternak’s contribution to The North album was the beginning of a relationship which lasted until the writer’s death. How important that relationship was to the young artist is clear from the following passage in his memoirs:
If I were in the habit of keeping a diary, I would have written the following—doubtless in great excitement—towards the evening of 28 October 1898. “Tatyana Lvovna has just been. She informed me that Lev Nikolayevich has written a new story. He requests me to go to Yasnaya Polyana to get to know the contents, and wants to ask me if I will undertake the illustrations.” I hardly dared to believe this good fortune. It can’t be! Lev Nikolayevich! Lev Nikolayevich himself inviting me to illustrate his new work! Terrifying! It took my breath away. God help me!
The “story” which Tolstoy asked Pasternak to illustrate was the novel Resurrection; of all of Tolstoy’s works, this one was to cause the most controversy. Even before publication, it became known that the author had arranged to have all proceeds from the book’s sale turned over to a persecuted religious sect, the Dukhobors, in order to finance their emigration from Russia to Canada. To raise the most money, the novel was to appear in serial form throughout Europe and in the United States, with the French magazine Illustration taking the lead. It was by Illustration that Pasternak’s first drawings for the novel’s opening chapters were formally commissioned, and although the magazine subsequently reneged on the deal for fear of scandalizing the “young ladies among our subscribers,” within months the reading public the world over was being introduced to Pasternak’s work.
While Tolstoy was writing Resurrection—his first novel after his famous vow never to have anything more to do with belles-lettres—and sending it to the many publishers in weekly installments, Pasternak became an artist-in-residence at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate near Tula. This period had an enormous influence on the painter and—for obvious reasons—on his career. When the novel cleared the censors and began to be serialized in Russia in the influential magazine Niva, Pasternak’s name became a household word among the burgeoning intelligentsia of the early 1900’s.
In the years that followed, Pasternak’s work sustained and expanded the reputation he had acquired as Tolstoy’s favorite illustrator. In 1901 he became one of the founders of the Thirty-Six, a group of artists which many of the Wanderers joined; in 1903, he cofounded the Union of Russian Artists (URA), which was to become an important stabilizing influence on the art world of the following decade, shaken by the explosions of European modernism. Pasternak’s group was wary of the speed with which “experimental” French painting was inundating the world and Russia specifically; through their exhibitions and classes (Pasternak began teaching at the Moscow School of Painting, affiliated with the Petersburg Academy of Art, which under the leadership of Prince Lvov gained much influence), they sought to define a direction in art which the world would recognize as genuinely Russian.
Apart from the extreme parochialism and modesty of spiritual means that characterized the 19th-century Russian art upon which many of URA’s members were compelled to draw in their search for the native idiom, the task before Pasternak and his friends was made more difficult by the emergence of the World of Art, a group of artists and writers who published an influential, richly illustrated literary journal by the same name. The rival group was founded in Petersburg by Diaghilev, who would later achieve world fame for his productions of the Ballet Russe. The Worid of Art’s art world view was much more complete and unified, its aesthetics easier to promote and export, and in a matter of a few years the West came to know the face of Russian art, an art of red firebirds and yellow samovars, of gay boyars and sad petrushkas, the splendid, decorative, wild style that quickly swept the world and still fascinates it today. Such was the achievement of Diaghilev; to be sure, the world of art he gently ruled over was brimming with genuine talent, drawing into its domains men of genius like Chagall and Stravinsky; but the success of the World of Art—and of the European avant-garde, which welcomed it as the only significant, genuinely Russian artistic phenomenon—cast a shadow over the URA. Weighed down by the “musty Realist” reputations of their “elder statesmen” drawn from the ranks of the Wanderers, without a brilliant promoter like Diaghilev or a successful critical organ like The World of Art, their Union existed in name only; each would be, for good or ill, the master of his own fate.
Pasternak’s fortunes were favorable ever since his early association with Tolstoy (even the most avant-garde world-of-artists could but tremble at the mention of that name). In the years following their acquaintance, Pasternak’s own home, on Volkhonka Street near the Pushkin Museum, became something of a Tolstoyan salon. It was here, and at the family’s country house, that Pasternak entertained—and sketched—the artists, writers, poets, and musicians whose names are essential to any record of European culture before the Second World War. Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Wanda Landowska and Fyodor Chaliapin, Rainer Maria Rilke and Lev Tolstoy—all were drawn by Pasternak from nature, and, later, often painted by him; taken together, these portraits alone should ensure his place among the painters of our century. One of his portraits of Tolstoy, now in the Louvre, captures the man he idolized in a moment of dejection; the sitting man’s body seems free of any stress, his aristocratic bearing has all the grace of a young cadet resting between dances; yet the man is old, and the light of the lamp which avoids his face and spares its features seems frozen. This is the Tolstoy of Father Sergius, Tolstoy as the man he thought would never be understood.
During those happy Moscow years, the Pasternaks’ four children were growing up in that remarkable home. Although she had given up the concert career, which made her famous throughout Europe by age 20, to devote her time to the family, Rosa Pasternak continued teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and practicing several hours a day; Scriabin and Rachmaninov, frequent guests at the Pasternaks’, often brought their latest work for her to play. The oldest child in the family would later date the beginning of his conscious life from one evening in November 1894, when he was awakened by the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s new piano trio; his mother, assisted by two of her colleagues from the Conservatory, was performing it for Tolstoy and several other guests in the next room. Tchaikovsky titied the work “On the Death of a Great Artist.”
The child was four years old. His name was Boris.
There is a mews of Georgian houses in the heart of Oxford called Park Town; in one of these. No. 20, Leonid Pasternak spent his last years following the death of his wife, after a prolonged illness, in 1939. Rosalia’s illness, and the need for special medical treatment, compelled Leonid to accompany her to Berlin in 1921. In Berlin, Pasternak was recognized—as he had been in Moscow—as one of the foremost portrait painters of the age; the critical acclaim his exhibitions received, he recalled, “surpassed all my expectations.” By the late 30’s, however, the political situation in Germany began to deteriorate rapidly, and the Pasternaks left for England to join their daughter who had married an Englishman and settled in Oxford. Lydia Pasternak Slater, 84, still lives in the Park Town house; her sister Josephine Pasternak (who was married to a distant relative of Leonid’s with the same family name), 86, lives nearby in Oxford. They, and the six children they have between them, are the heirs to the Pasternak family heritage in the West, while the children of their two brothers, Boris and Alexander, remain in Russia.
My conversations with the two sisters reminded me that the story of the Pasternak family is a story of reputations. I have known the poetry of Boris Pasternak by heart since the age of eight, and to this day I believe that all of Russian culture is but a preface to his words.
Let us free words anew.
As our garden lets—its amber rind,
Both careless and kind,
A few, a few, a few.
His first “words” appeared in print just before the First World War, when the Pasternak home was still the idyll it had always been. Josephine remembers her brother reading his poems by her bedside; by then he had abandoned music, his first love, which the genius of his parents’ friend Scriabin inspired him to pursue. The events of 1917 (“Our land is all smudged by the lightning,” he wrote in a poem that year) put an unambiguous end to that idyll, and shortly afterward the family itself was scattered (the last time Boris saw his parents was during a visit to Berlin in 1923). The poet remained in Moscow and continued to write and publish poems so fresh, bold, and lasting that by the early 1930’s his verse occupied a place in Russian literature which invites comparison with Shakespeare’s in English. The mention of Shakespeare is more than a well-meaning attention grabber; like Shakespeare, Boris Pasternak was able to transform the existing poetic vocabulary and expand the language of poetry with the superhuman, elemental force of his gift. Alexander Pushkin is often credited with creating the literary Russian language we use today; if this is indeed the case, and the place of the “Russian Shakespeare” is permanently reserved by Pushkin, I can only say that the English equivalent of Boris Pasternak has not yet existed.
In 1934, the Soviet regime disbanded the last of the remaining independent writers’ associations and closed down their publishing affiliates. As Stalin’s terror was nearing its height, writers were being organized by the state into a “union,” membership in which was, of course, compulsory. By that time, Pasternak’s reputation was established, and the Soviets accepted it for what it was; what is remarkable, however, is the extent to which the regime’s ideologues saw Pasternak’s poetry as “constructive.” The child of a happy family, Pasternak saw mostly the good in a world around him that was being plunged into terror and misery; such was the nature of his joyful genius, and the Soviets were free to interpret his joy as approval of their regime. Besides, the Pasternaks’ family tradition was largely apolitical, so there was littie in the poet’s private life that could lead them to revise their wishful interpretation.
Despite the regime’s benevolence, Pasternak stopped writing. In a private letter he wrote in 1953, he recalled his state of mind:
At that time I was nineteen years younger, Mayakovsky had not yet been deified, they kept making a fuss of me and sending me on foreign trips, I could have written any filth or trash and they would have published it; I was not in fact suffering from any disease, but I was constantly unhappy and was pining away like a fairy-tale hero under the spell of an evil spirit. I wanted to write something honest and genuine in honor of the society which was so kind to me, but this would only have been possible if I had been willing to write something false. It was an insoluble problem like squaring the circle, and I was thrashing around in an uncertainty of intention which clouded every horizon and blocked every road.
The spiritual paralysis of the man who described himself in his odd position as “thrice-decorated wizard-consultant for poetry” did not pass unnoticed by the regime; the rulers’ displeasure was akin to the embarrassment of a host who wants to show off to his guests a prize songbird which at that moment becomes obstinate in its silence. The suicides of Vladimir Mayakovsky, in 1930, and Marina Tsvetayeva, in 1941, the two figures closest to Pasternak in poetic temperament, against the background of Stalin’s purges and show trials, punctuated that silence—and there was nothing anyone could do about it, not even the poet himself.
When the prize songbird resumed its song, the world came to know it as The Poems of Yuri Zhivago. Objectively speaking—and on this important point I have the agreement of his sister Josephine—the poems of Doctor Zhivago are as far from the early work of this supreme genius of Russian poetry as Wellington’s Victory is from the Beethoven we know. The songster had lost his voice.
The succes de scandale of the novel to which the Zhivago poems were appended and the award of the Nobel Prize to its author two years before his death in 1960 forever changed the delicate balance of talent and reputation in the Pasternak family. By then the world had forgotten the father; now it would idolize the son, but for all the wrong reasons—and, what is even worse in the sisters’ view, make the task of restoring their father’s reputation as a great artist that much more difficult. “Pasternak?” museum curators would ask, “Is he related to Boris Pasternak?” As labels go, even “Russian Impressionist” somehow seems more appropriate.
My uncle, who knew Boris Pasternak well in his later years, liked to tell of a visitor who came to see the poet on the day of the Nobel announcement. Sticking his head through the halfopen door, Pasternak giggled: “Someone’s got the Nobel, ni-ni, ni-ni-ni!” It is ludicrous to believe that a man so open and unpretentious could ever be concerned about his “reputation,” and this openness is clearly a Pasternak ‘ family trait. Both Lydia and Josephine, ‘ as well as their children—all of whom, ‘ incidentally, bear a striking physical resemblance to Boris—say they are not in the least bit concerned about “public opinion,” even though both are equally firm in their efforts to rectify public misconceptions and misjudgments of the two family “suns,” Leonid and Boris. How adamant they are in their views is evidenced by a passage in Josephine’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Boris Pasternak’s novella The Last Summer. “True,” she writes, after the Nobel award,
there was enough genuine recognition and scholarly appreciation too, but it was constantly being drowned by the unbearable buzz of the loudest and cheapest of professional bluebottles, whose aim in life it is to convince the public of the myth that it appreciates only filth, money-talk, and scandal, and accordingly to feed it nothing else. How much all this hullaballoo must have hurt and astonished Pasternak is easy to understand if one remembers his own views on fame . . .
Whatever the family view of fame, Josephine and her two children, Charles Pasternak and Helen Pasternak Ramsey, do seem to have a realistic conception of the process by which an artist’s reputation may be brought in accord with his achievement. Both sisters realize that a poet’s output is not so much a physical as a metaphysical reality once his works have been published, while a painter’s oeuvre exists only on canvas and paper—and must be preserved, maintained, and exhibited to continue its existence—yet Lydia and Josephine disagree on the methods by which Leonid’s heritage is to be perpetuated. Lydia envisions a Pasternak family museum in Park Town, to which all the heirs would donate their shares of the collection, run by her daughter Ann and Ann’s husband, the poet Craig Raine. Josephine soberly describes her sister’s plan as a pipedream and favors selling some of the paintings to established private collectors. Lydia sees this rival plan as mercantile and outrageous—despite the fact that it was just such an acquisition that started Pasternak on the way to fame in 1888 when Tretyakov Dought his “Letter From Home.” With good reason, Josephine believes that today’s collectors—a few among them, at any rate—are as discriminating and powerful as Tretyakov was in his own day, and their “mercantile” attention is the best way of restoring Leonid Pasternak to the ranks of the known.
It is difficult to argue with these Pasternak women. Both write poetry (although, in this writer’s opinion, only Josephine’s approaches her brother’s genius), both have a strong and original perspective on Russian culture and history, both have witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of men and civilizations. They love each other like sisters and, like sisters, they quarrel—most often, about the world’s capricious judgments and the ways of appealing them for posterity. Despite these differences, their efforts have not been in vain. In 1958, a memorial retrospective was organized by the Ashmolean Museum; another, also in Oxford, took place in the winter of 1982, three years after a retrospective exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The last exhibition’s critical success, and the English publication of Leonid’s memoirs, paved the way for this year’s Smithsonian show, and both sisters now hope that, in some way, their differences will be ameliorated by the American reception of the retrospective—and that a future course of action they and their children can all agree on will somehow be charted. Along with them, we can only hope that the wicked Diaghilevian firebird of recognition can be captured for Leonid Pasternak by the Smithsonian, and that—if it cannot look deeper into the nature of things—the world will at least know this artist as a Russian Impressionist who was the father of Boris.