The Petersburg Sublime: Alexander Benois and the Bronze Horseman Series (1903-22)

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Reviving St. Petersburg

With the flourishing of studies devoted to St. Petersburg inspired by the city's 300th anniversary in 2003, it is difficult to imagine that at the time of the bicentennial celebrations of 1903 St. Petersburg had been virtually abandoned as an artistic theme. Alexander Benois (in transliteration from the Cyrillic, Aleksandr Benua) brought attention to this lacuna in his 1902 article "Picturesque Petersburg" (Zhivopisnyi Peterburg), where he called for a return to representations of St. Petersburg in painting, illustration, engraving and lithography after almost a century of neglect. One year later Benois answered his own call for a renaissance in the aesthetic construction of St. Petersburg with his famous series of illustrations to Alexander Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (Mednyi vsadnik, 1833). With its tragic portrayal of a young hero whose fiancee perishes in the terrifying flood of 1824, and of his confrontation with the animated statue of Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg, Pushkin's poema is pregnant with the possibility for re-conceptions of Petersburg catastrophes, and conflicts between authority and citizens, in light of the political traumas of the early twentieth century. These points of connection, between Pushkin-era and revolutionary Petersburg, begin to emerge in particular when we examine Benois' executions of two later versions of the Bronze Horseman series, dating to the periods 1905-06 and 1916-22. (1) Spanning two decades and two revolutions (1905 and 1917), Benois' Bronze Horseman illustrations offer a new reading of contemporary Petersburg disasters, and mark the beginning of a new way of imagining the city.

The publication history of the series has resulted in the virtual disappearance of certain illustrations from public view. Benois' third series, published in 1923, amalgamated the illustrations of the first and second series, with three significant exceptions. One illustration from 1903 and two illustrations from 1905-06 were left out and never republished. Because of the extremely small circulation of the first two series, these excised illustrations are practically unknown. In the Stalinist era, republications of the Benois illustrations were infrequent and drastically shortened as a series. (2) These Soviet editions were selected without exception not from the first version of the works, published in the avant-garde journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva) in 1904, but from the third version, largely executed in 1916 but completed only in 1922 and published in book form in 1923. Although originally commissioned by a specialist group of bibliophiles, Soviet editions of the Benois Bronze Horseman illustrations tended to be aimed at children. Thus the illustrations were significantly repositioned for a Soviet reading audience. Beginning in the mid 1960s, Benois' work enjoyed a limited revival, with two books treating his life and work by the art historian Mark Etkind (1965 and 1989) and a 1970 exhibition of his works at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In general, however, Benois' work receded from public view for most of the Soviet era. The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between the three versions of Benois' Bronze Horseman illustrations, bringing attention to the obscure second version of the works, including an illustration that has not been republished since 1912. The question of Benois' unyielding retrospective outlook is revisited, as well as the unresolved issue of the relationship between these illustrations and the theme of revolution. I approach these scholarly debates, addressed by Etkind (1965 and 1989) and Ospovat and Timenchik (1987), from a new perspective in this essay, asking to what extent Benois conceived St. Petersburg according to an aesthetics of the sublime, as imagined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) and critiqued by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Case of Wagner (1888).

A City of the Sublime

In the article "Picturesque Petersburg," Benois addresses the degraded image of St. …


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