March has already finished? This blog post is late?? It is not so easy to tell at the moment… The subject of this post, the early geneticist William Bateson (1861-1926), might have considered my disorganisation a “trait”. What must he have thought of the avant-garde when he visited Soviet Russia?
Last week, I decided to tackle a set about major exhibitions and exhibition spaces in Moscow which had been in the Slavonic cataloguing backlog for some time. How hard a cataloguing challenge could it be? 4 volumes, 6 accompanying discs, 3 accompanying sheets, and 1 accompanying commemorative coin later, I can confirm that the answer was – very.
Cambridge’s copy of VSKhV–VDNKh–VVT︠S︡ is, according to Library Hub (the very new replacement for COPAC), the only one held in the country, which is unsurprising given that it was published in a small run not for general sale. The set was produced to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Moscow’s extraordinary exhibition complex, in 2009, although the UL was only able to obtain a copy years later.
A recent Russian arrival to the University Library takes as its subject tourism in the Soviet Union. Skvoz “zheleznyi zanaves” : See USSR! : inostrannye turisty i prizrak potemkinskikh derevenʹ (Through the Iron Curtain : See USSR! : foreign tourists and the spectre of Potemkin villages; C215.c.1563) is by Igor’ Orlov and Aleksei Popov. Visitors to the Soviet Union normally saw the country in carefully choreographed tours arranged by the state agency Intourist. Such control made sure that the tourists saw strictly what they were meant to see, hence the mention in the book’s titles of Potemkin villages – shorthand for ensuring that appearances support the desired narrative (the term comes from Catherine the Great’s favourite, Potemkin, pulling the wool over her eyes by assembling fake village fronts during a tour).
Later this week, on 19 and 20 April, the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, will hold an international conference in Cambridge on The People’s Art School and Unovis in Vitebsk. Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, was the home of an extraordinary avant-garde art school at which Marc Chagall (the town’s most famous son), Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitsky taught. Many of the artists at the school joined the art union UNOVIS, set up by Malevich. Unovis stands for Utverditeli novogo iskusstva (Champions of the New Art).
Among the early Soviet treasures in Catherine Cooke’s collection in the University Library is a small and fragile Unovis publication dating from January 1921 and described as the union’s second publication or edition. On its cover is Malevich’s famous Black Square, with the words “Let the overthrow of the old world of arts be traced out on the palms of your hands” written above it. The booklet has four sections in it (NB the links below are to Russian Wikipedia entries for the authors):
On its back cover, the booklet ends with an exhortation: “Comrades! Get ready for the all-Russian spring exhibition of ‘Unovis’ in Moscow”.
Lithographed on poor-quality paper, the booklet is a rather miraculous survivor. According to the WorldCat and COPAC union catalogues, Cambridge is unique amongst major Western collections in having a copy. The title can be accessed through the Rare Books Reading Room. Its classmark is CCC.54.464.
A few spaces remain at the conference this week. For those interested in attending, please see this page for joining details.
Last month, the CamCREES Revolution lecture series audience enjoyed a beautifully illustrated talk on Soviet porcelain. Petr Aven spoke about the development of porcelain work in the Soviet Union, with examples from his own superlative collection. This blog post looks at the collection’s staggering 3-volume catalogue, generously presented by Mr Aven to the University Library after his talk. The subject of porcelain as a medium for Soviet propaganda is fascinating, and the catalogue is an exquisite and important addition to the Library on the topic.