Anna Akhmatova's "An Old Portrait" and the Ballets Russes

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ABSTRACT:

The unspecified visual art referent in Akhmatova's enigmatic poem, "An Old Portrait" (Staryi portret, 1910), dedicated to the painter Aleksandra Ekster, has long inspired critical speculation. Scholars (Superfin and Timenchik, Rosslyn, Rubins) have proposed numerous readings, but none has entirely resolved the poem's mysteries. I will argue that the ballets Le Pavilion d'Armide and Cléopâtre, performed in the first Paris season of the Ballets Russes, provide hitherto unexplored subtexts for the spare but dramatic poem. Considered within the context of the ballets, the poem's characters and details take on more specific and meaningful contours. By analyzing these ballets' respective libretti, costume designs and stage sets, it becomes possible to detect in the poem references to the Gobelins portrait depicting the deadly enchantress in Le Pavilion d'Armide, the poisoning of Amoun at the conclusion of Cléopâtre, and Vaclav Nijinsky's performances as Armida's servant in Le Pavilion d'Armide and Cleopatra's slave in Cléopâtre. The poem also demonstrates Akhmatova's early fascination with portraiture, especially the complex relationship between artist and sitter. In this sense, "An Old Portrait" anticipates the poet's eventual cultivation of her own image in portraits painted by her contemporaries.

THE YEAR 1910: A YOUNG POET PLOTS HER ENTRANCE ONTO THE PUBLIC STAGE

In the fall of 1910, at the age of twenty-one, Anna Andreevna Gumileva (née Gorenko) wrote the poem "An Old Portrait" (Staryi portret) and then sent it, along with three others, to the poet and critic, Valerii Briusov (1873-1924). It was Akhmatova's hope that Briusov would agree to publish some of her poems, for he had recently assumed charge of the literary section of the journal, Russian Thought (Russkaia mysl', 1880-1918). In a brief letter accompanying the poems, Akhmatova asks for his verdict on her future as a poet: "I would be endlessly grateful to you if you would write and tell me whether I should occupy myself with poetry. Forgive me for troubling you."1 For the first time, she signs her work with a pseudonym, Anna Akhmatova, reflecting ancestral roots traced through her maternal great-grandmother to the last khan of the Golden Horde, Akhmat.2 Viewed in light of her marriage to the young poet, Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921), in April 1910, Akhmatova's adoption of the pseudonym in the fall of that year appears as a deliberate attempt to begin Grafting her own distinctive public image.

Marked by her marriage, her first trip abroad, her first poetry reading, and her first productive period of writing, 1910 proved to be a momentous year in Akhmatova's life. Following their wedding, Akhmatova and Gumilev traveled in May to Paris for a month-long honeymoon. Already well-acquainted with the French capital, Gumilev was able to serve as his new bride's guide to the city and its cultural life. Akhmatova's impressions of the city, recorded in her autobiographical prose, ranged from observations on politics and fashion to the status of poetry ("Parisian painting had devoured French poetry"). She noted, among other things, her encounters with writers and artists, including the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920).4 Following their return from Europe, Akhmatova and Gumilev attended Viacheslav Ivanov's Petersburg literary salon, the Tower (Bashnia), where Akhmatova read several of her poems publicly for the first time. In the fall, she studied literature at Raev's Higher Historical-Literary Courses (Vysshie istoriko-literaturnye kursy Raeva) in Petersburg and began composing the poems that would eventually comprise her first book of poetry, Evening (Vecher, 1912). Akhmatova wrote: "Poems came at a steady pace-nothing like this had happened before. I searched, I found, I lost. I sensed (rather dimly) that I was beginning to succeed."5 1910 was also the year of the posthumous publication of Innokentii Annenskii's Cypress Chest (Kiparisovyi larets) and the abandonment of symbolism by the rising generation of Russian poets. …