Academic journal article Pushkin Review

"With No Great Quantity of Paintings": Pushkin's Polemic with Raphael in "Madona"

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

"With No Great Quantity of Paintings": Pushkin's Polemic with Raphael in "Madona"

Article excerpt

One of only three sonnets Pushkin wrote in his lifetime, "Madona" (1830) is a monument to the union of a poet's life and work. (1) Due in large part to the circumstances of Pushkin's death, reception of the sonnet has focused less on the poem itself and more on his wife's famous epithet. Although Pushkin's marriage is important from a creative standpoint, the extent to which Natal'ia Goncharova's presence has saturated interpretations of his poems to her should be reexamined. The stoic quality attributed to Goncharova most notably in "Madona" (1830) became fertile ground for scholars and writers interested in Pushkin's mythologizing of his wife. (2) This concentration on Goncharova--thought to be the core of the sonnet--appears to have stifled greater interest in the poem beyond Pushkin's ekphrasis of the painting that inspired the comparison. A deeper investigation into the rarity of the sonnet form in Pushkin's oeuvre, as well as the rhetorical stance imbedded in his tone and word choice, shows a more complex side to "Madona."

Whatever the details of their married life, the association Pushkin drew between the Madonna image and his bride-to-be does not exhaust or exclude other interpretations of the sonnet. Just by taking the poem's title as our point of departure, it seems emphasis should first be placed not on Pushkin's wife, but on the culturally-loaded associations the word "Madonna" had in the Romantic period. The purveyor of the Romantic fascination with Raphael's Madonnas was Vasily Zhukovsky, whose essay "Rafaeleva Madonna" (Raphael's Madonna) had itself arisen after a close reading of Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder's Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of an Art-loving Friar), written in 1797. (3) Before Pushkin wrote "Madona" in 1830, he had already made poetic reference to Madonnas by Raphael with an eye to Zhukovsky's presentation of the artist in his essay. In the poems "Kto znaet krai, gde nebo bleshchet ..." (Who knows the land, where the sky shines ...) and "Ee glaza" (Her Eyes), both from 1828, one finds a foregrounding of Raphaers Madonnas and conventional praise for the rare talent of their creator in the vein of Zhukovsky, albeit with some irony. Compared to the poet's rejection of "the paintings of old masters" (kartiny starinnykh masterov) in "Madona" two years later, the two poems from 1828 betray the traditional Romantic reception of Raphael, although "Kto znaet krai ..." initiates a playful critique of the painter's dedication to the Madonna image. The penultimate line of the sonnet, however, is an emphatic claim not only over Goncharova, but over the Madonna image itself: "tebia, moia Madona" (literally "you, my lady"; my emphasis)--an image connected to earlier poems, but also to certain literary and cultural trends of the nineteenth century.

Apart from a cursory reference in "Polkovodets" (1835), a poem that shares the reverent tone of "Madona" in its opening lines, Pushkin did not refer to the Madonna image again. Pushkin may have written about other incarnations of Mary, (4) but the term "Madonna," prior to the sonnet, frequently corresponded to a painting by Raphael. The image ceased to be just a painting once it had been associated with his wife--what had once been a ubiquitous symbol of culture and Raphael's entrenched position in the Romantic view of the artist was transfigured by Pushkin's pen into a human being. Like his brief experimentation with the sonnet, Pushkin retired the image once he had taken it to the limits of creative expression. Perhaps this general tendency towards constant experimentation and innovation is the source of Pushkin's suggestion in "Kto znaet krai ..." that Raphael choose other subjects to endow with his genius. A poet with Pushkin's range provides an interesting contrast to an artist known for painting the same woman over and over again. The language and tone of "Madona" further reinforces the change in Pushkin's attitude toward the image. …

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