Ms. Marina Fedorova first turned to the theme of the St. Petersburg prison Kresty (which literally translates from the Russian as ‘the Crosses’), complete with its unfortunate notoriety, two years ago, when she took part in a group exhibition of the same name. It was then that a cycle of canvasses appeared, dedicated to women whose sons or husbands, brothers or sweethearts are behind bars, and to their female resignation or, on the contrary, their resistance to fate, their resilience, but also, most importantly, hope (the series was titled Women Who Can Wait, or Love Never Fails). This is not the time or place to ponder the culpability or the innocence of the male side of this unusual dialogue in absentia, their being in jail. The project, after all, in essence, is about the faithfulness of the women and their devotion, and in that sense it fits into a convincing and respected associative line that is founded on a Russian moral and cultural tradition, beginning with the wives of the Decembrists who went on to become the heroines of Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem Russian Women. The composition of each of the painted canvases, created in a monochrome black and gray colour scheme with fine red contouring at the edges of the canvases, is built on a confrontation of the female image and the empty space that surrounds it, like an allegory for solitude and separation, combined with a thinly veiled visual association, the rods of the prison bars meeting at right angles forcing us to recall, at one and the same time, the most unreserved and genuine sacrifice in history, that of Christ (it is this that we are forced to think of, ultimately, when hearing the weighty expression ‘This is the cross I bear’). A wife can’t shake off the image of her husband: in her memories hands and bodies cross in a loving embrace; a sister looks out the window, and its casement and the bars of the balcony on the outside create a cross-formed iron lace; a lover is sprawled on a light surface, and it looks as if a tiny red cross of a laser aimer has been pointed at her, like a source of despair and pain that can’t be removed. Alongside this series of the Artist’s works we can easily place the canvas Lonely, where it is not a linear, cross-shaped pattern that dominates, but an undulating rhythm that enters into a kind of duel with the vertical and the horizontal lines of the deserted and, therefore, disproportionately vast bed that occupies the background of the composition.
Subsequently, Ms. Marina Fedorova’s original concept for the cycle underwent significant developments – it was expanded both in its chronological and thematic dimensions. On the one hand, the notion of Kresty was extended to include historical realities, and the canvas Mother appeared. The work is painted in such a way as to convincingly resemble an old, torn photograph, where the immediately recognizable silhouette of the poet Anna Akhmatova, with her characteristic profile, is partially blocking the figure and face of her son Lev Gumilyov, depicted full front. They both can barely be made out against the sombre greyish-black background that surrounds them, like a visual image that has almost been wiped clean from the memory but nevertheless suddenly arises, an almost fleeting reminiscence, a simultaneously direct and ambivalent protest against injustice and political repression.
Gumilyov was one of the most famous inmates of the Kresty prison, his incarceration there ending tragically. Nevertheless, not so famous prisoners have languished in this prison, and languish there to this day. Following several more visits to Kresty, Ms. Marina Fedorova painted a number of canvases that reflect the everyday, entirely joyless life of the prison. Here, for example, a young prisoner is seen looking straight at the viewer with anguish and all but vanishing hope, either from the other side of the internal corridor grill, which is presented as an insurmountable barrier between this and that life, or from behind a table covered with magazines, and so on. Nearby is an older, more experienced and life-beaten inmate, smoking in his cell surrounded by empty plank beds.
Throughout this series of works, the motif of the cross rings with a renewed force – in the interwoven rhythm of wrinkles around the eyes, in the creases of the clothing, but more than anything else in the monotonous and invariable rhythm of the prison bars, the frames of the plank beds or simply in the interchanges of the compositional verticals and horizontals. It becomes something akin to the genius loci of this comfortless place, dividing those who enjoy freedom and those who are deprived of it. With a little effort, we can spot this motif in almost every work, including those faithfully documenting the life in the prison and its interiors: the Mirror, with its smashed amalgam and cracks on its surface spreading in different directions like the legs of a giant spider; Door, with its cell number, a slot for food and a spy hole through which the inmates can be watched; Birds, showing a murder of crows flying away from the prison wall against the background of a barred window which looks like a mass of interlinked crosses; and finally, Panopticon, a view from below of the Kresty’s main dome, again as if seen through the red crosshairs of a gun sight. Life beyond the prison walls is captured in Embankment, where, dissolving in the mist and snowfall, but nevertheless beautiful, a view of the Smolny Nunnery and other buildings is seen, again barely distinguishable through the harsh rhythm of a grill on the prison window, and again presented not directly, but as if through a red glass reticule.
The theme of imprisonment has always been closely linked to that of striving for freedom from constraints, fleeing from captivity. In this series there are two works that are close to one another in addressing this theme – Plan and Escape. One features a close-up of an inmate’s face, with the plan of a path through corridors and up and down staircases etched in his brain (the Artist’s black and white palette is reinforced here by her blood-red signature and a tiny dot indicating the main character’s place in the very centre of the prison labyrinth drawn on the map). The escape itself – along the endless corridor lit by monotonous lamps – is painted in a vibrantly bright red against which the black outline of the fugitive can clearly be made out, but one can’t help noticing that yet again in the very centre of his silhouette the fine red crosshairs of a gun sight appear – either a sign of the coming atonement, or the captured instant before the unavoidable shot in the back.
Nevertheless, despite all these impediments, the male (or female?) protagonist of this painting cycle manages to attain freedom. He/she wanders through the sun-drenched street of the city (Vosstaniya Square), or suddenly lands in a Forest among the strictly vertical birch trunks with the puny horizontal branches and yet again a red reticule pointed right in the middle. Another character finds herself, like a fairytale heroine, surrounded by an entire pack of wolves and – closer towards the back – a herd of reindeer, as if dividing them with her own body. This sacrificial act is enhanced by the colour palette: instead of a little red riding hood, the girl is wearing a bright red dress that drapes her entire figure, spellbinding the viewer. Nevertheless, the Bed, with its sharp, angular and seemingly voluminous creases still leaves the heroine in a dismal and disconsolate solitude. The same motif of all-encompassing and all-concealing creases is central to the composition of Fate, which depicts a huge close-up of a palm furrowed by wrinkles intersecting at different angles, often like crosses, the lines and creases predicting what is to come. And the Black Bag of shiny plastic, ready to swallow into its belly the Artist’s unfinished sketches and a painting that has just been started, a bold red patch looking like a pool of blood, can be seen as yet another allegory – the short-lived victory of the dark principle and the irrevocability of sacrifice.
In 1910, one of the most striking texts in the Russian prose of the Silver Age was published – Sisters of the Cross, a novel by Aleksey Remizov, a stunningly written piece telling of the difficult, unhappy fates of the ‘little people’, mainly women, who seemed to be sharing or swapping their misfortunes with one another. This also was a fairly rare, but important ritual of cross sisterhood (and sometimes brotherhood) – an exchange of baptismal crosses to achieve a spiritual unity. Making his characters partake in this rite not literally but allegorically, Remizov shows that this unrecognized but intuitively sensed spiritual kinship allowed them to find a certain inner confidence, and even strength. Now, making a reference to the title of Aleksey Remizov’s renowned, and ostensibly very sad, tale (which in fact channels not only sorrow, but also hope), I by no means want to say that the relationships between the heroines of Marina Fedorova’s canvases and today’s inmates of the very real prison that is Kresty linked to them by certain invisible threads repeat the collisions of lives lived over a century ago. The erstwile spiritual, intuitive kinship today often gives way to the deliberate solidarity of those who are waiting for their imprisoned nearest and dearest. But at the same time, there is definitely a certain similarity between the two. Remizov’s Sisters of the Cross find new meaning and relevance today.
Andrey Tolstoy, D.Sc.
Director of the Research Institute for Theory and History of Fine Arts,