Vladimir Britanishsky’s “The Wandering Artists”

Britanishky and Astafieva.jpg

Vladimir Britanishsky with his wife, Natalia Astafieva

The Russian poet and translator Vladimir Britanishsky (1933-2015) never achieved fame abroad, but he did contribute, unintentionally, to the rise of a poet who took the West by storm. In a 2004 interview, the painter Oleg Tselkov, who was close to Joseph Brodsky, recalled a conversation with his late friend:

“Do you know how I started writing poetry?” Joseph once asked me in a totally unexpected and beside the point way. “Does the name Britanishsky mean anything to you?”— “Yes,” I reply, “Vladimir Britanishsky, I knew him, he was a Petersburg poet, well-known in our circle.” “Well then,” Joseph continues, “I used to hear everyone around me talking about Britanishsky, Britanishsky! So I took a piece of paper and started writing poetry myself, and I saw that it was not difficult for me at all. And ever since then I have been writing poetry.” (Translated by Tatiana Retivov.)

But Britanishsky is more than a footnote in the myth of Brodsky. He was a distinguished, distinctive poet, whose great subjects were the natural world and visual art. These preoccupations were partly determined by, and partly determined, his biography: he was the son of a painter, Lev Britanishsky, and received training as a geologist at the Leningrad Mining Institute. In fact, he was one of a handful of “miner” poets, who found freedom and inspiration by heading out from the capitals on geological expeditions; their work embodied the spirit of the post-Stalinist “Thaw” in Soviet culture. Britanishky’s first collection, Explorations (Poiski), appeared in 1958, and he continued to publish painstakingly “exploratory” poems until his death three years ago. It is precisely this “exploratory” quality — this urge to get to the bottom of things — that makes his work so haunting.

In the poem below, from the mid-1980s, Britanishsky tries to get to the bottom of his admiration for the group of 19th-century Russian painters known as “the Wanderers” (Peredvizhniki). These great realists, who collectively rebelled against the thematic restrictions imposed by the Imperial Academy of Arts, served as the aesthetic model for the Stalinist artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism. But in fact, the goals of the two schools could not have been more different: whereas the Socialist Realists painted scenes of the Soviet Union as it should have been, in accordance with Soviet ideology, the Wanderers painted Russia as it really was, sometimes lush and beautiful but often blighted and desolate. In appropriately plodding, heavy verse, Britanishsky rescues the Wanderers from Soviet co-optation. He finds in them a model for genuine commitment to truth and fairness, and for genuine artistic camaraderie. The painters to whom he refers by name are Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894), Vasily Perov (1834-1882), and Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897).

Pryanishnikov - Empties - 1872.jpg

Illarion Pryanishnikov, “Empties” (1872)

A version of my translation was first published in the winter 2015 issue of the now defunct and much-missed literary journal Chtenia: Readings from Russia, about a month after Britanishsky passed away. You can find the original poem, “Peredvizhnichestvo,” at the poet’s website.

The Wandering Artists

Yes, all the same — I’d like to thank the Wanderers,
their style of painting, weightier than fetters,
their wearisome, ascetic grayness-brownness,
their glumly lenten self-restrainedness,
didacticism and tendentiousness,
their finger-prodding way of bearing witness,
with their illusions from the 1860s,
and with their poor folk, loved above all else,
and with their speakers of the truth, the holy fools,
and with their nobles, whom they ridiculed.
Yes, all the same — I’d like to thank the Wanderers,
their saintly truthfulness, their true-to-lifeness,
depicting Russia as it was, unvarnished,
made up of peasants and of exiled convicts,
never ignoring the real facts of life:
Pryanishnikov’s empty carts, victims of fire,
Perov’s drowned maidens and his funerals,
his ragged clothes, bast shoes, pitiful scarecrows,
his slums — befouled, because they’re genuine,
full of cramped rooms, wallpaper peeling,
and in each one consumptive artists dying,
all of them cranks or outright lunatics.
I’d like to thank all the nomadic Wanderers
who took the roads beyond the walls of capitals,
where — past Savrasov’s crooked, gangly
birch trees, looking rather ugly —
unmeasured landscapes greet the eye:
the northern forests, southern fields of rye,
and little rivers, churches, dove gray villages,
almost the ones of Blok and of Yesenin…
I’d like to thank all the nomadic Wanderers,
but thank their Wandering righteousness thrice over,
which ventured to sustain or to recover
a workshop spirit of camaraderie in artists,
a sense of brotherhood, of honesty, of fairness…
I’d like to thank them for all this. But in particular —
it’s for ourselves that I must thank the Wanderers,
whose spirit still lives on in us, survives in us,
not bright, a little dimmed, a little dulled,
but present, like a conscience and a soul.

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3 thoughts on “Vladimir Britanishsky’s “The Wandering Artists”

  1. HI Boris! This was great—I’d never heard of Britanishsky! and so see the artist’s struggle to present life as it is rather than as it should be. The distinction between socialist realist agenda and the aims of the Wanderers was very well put. Really apt. Hope alls well with you! I”m shivering in between having turned in the book and waiting for the last notes… and trying to find a way to bail out the boat of my despair over what’s happening to this country. Anyway, we’re around, love to hang out sometime! much love, Janet

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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