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Posts Tagged ‘Communism’

Soviet Ghosts

July 17, 2014 | by

Soviet decay

A military base in East Germany, constructed in 1937 and used by the Germans as an elite riding and driving school. Photo: Rebecca Litchfield, via the Guardian

The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,

We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …

See more photos here.

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Fata Morgana

March 4, 2014 | by

Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987.

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Hotel Habana Libre. Photo: Sandino235, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years have passed since the publication of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’s tale of his years in Cuba under the Castro regime and his life in exile in the U.S. One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge during the revolution, Arenas was persecuted for his writings and his homosexuality. He escaped in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and in 1990, dying of AIDS, committed suicide in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Published in 1993, Before Night Falls is as urgent and compelling as ever—a portrait of exile and longing, of the anguish and rage of the dispossessed.

Born in 1943 on a farm in the province of Oriente, Cuba, Arenas developed a rich inner life early on. “[Regarding] the magical, the mysterious, which is so essential for the development of creativity, my childhood was the most literary time of my life,” he wrote in Before Night Falls. Morning fog blanketing the landscape like a ghostly shroud, palm trees bursting into flame as lightning struck, dark rivers flowing endlessly to the sea—all entranced him. Most astonishing was night, when, beneath the ancient glittering sky, his grandmother told tales of the supernatural.

At sixteen, Arenas joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains, but his enthusiasm gave way to disenchantment and despair, a trajectory he chronicled in his writing. In 1962, he finished Celestino antes del alba (published in the U.S. as Singing from the Well), the first in his Pentagonía, a series of five semi-autobiographical books. Celestino won second prize in the 1965 UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) competition; in 1967, it was published in a print run of two thousand copies that sold out in one week. No further editions were issued; it was the only novel Arenas would publish in Cuba. His next novel, El mundo alucinante (published in the U.S. as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando), the tale of a renegade Mexican monk who dreams of a free society, was banned in Cuba for its “erotic passages” but smuggled out and published in France in 1968 to great acclaim. Read More »

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Diego, Frida, and Me

March 20, 2013 | by

Molly's Factory

Molly’s Factory

When a woman artist looks for her forebears, she sees a void.

There are, needless to say, great female artists. There’s Tamara de Lempicka, queen of art deco. There’s Artemisia Gentileschi, forever in paintings, cutting off her rapist’s head. There’s love-ravished Camille Claudel, making the hands of her lover Rodin’s sculptures before being institutionalized for forty years. There are Mary Cassatt’s paintings of children. But it can’t be denied: the canon of Western woman’s art is nothing compared to the canon of Western woman’s writing.

Noted Audre Lorde, “Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” While a writer may require only a room of one’s own, an artist needs years of training, muses, a studio, canvas, paints, patrons, and, fundamentally, a world that lets her be grubby and feral and alone.

Growing up, the women in art history who inspired me were primarily models: Victorine Muerent. La Goulue. Far from pampered, indolent odalisques, these are sexy, tough, working-class women, often with backgrounds in the sex trade. Notable contrasts to the genteel girls who studied flower painting along with piano and embroidery, my archetypes were flamboyant, glamorous self-creations, unabashedly employing themselves as their own raw materials in a world that would give them nothing else. I too worked as an artist’s model. For an artist, the job is a paradox: you’re clay for someone else’s creation while longing to make your own. Read More »

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Gulag Tunes

November 30, 2012 | by

One afternoon in 1943, just before a lunch date with Picasso, Dina Vierny was arrested in Paris. Three months later Picasso received her note, smuggled out with the prison laundry, saying she wouldn’t be able to make it.

Vierny, the well-rounded young muse of Maillol’s twilight years, had spent several months in 1940 leading refugees through the mountains from France to Spain. She met her charges at the train station, in her red dress, and they followed her, in silence, all the way to the Spanish border. She was arrested in 1940 and soon released, but by 1943 the Gestapo had the idea that she was some kind of Mata Hari, or perhaps a gold smuggler. During repeated interrogations, over the course of six months, she insisted that she loved hiking (which was true) and that she had been in the mountains buying cooking oil (which was false).

Born in Chisinau, Vierny was raised in a family that was both musical and politically radical. Her father, an Odessa Jew, was a pianist who lost his virginity to an anarchist during exile in Siberia, and her aunts were what Vierny calls “demoiselles nihilistes.” Vierny had sung in the radical performance group Octobre, under the leadership of Jacques Prévert, and with the famous Dimitrieviches, émigré Roma cabaret singers. In prison, she sang for those about to be executed, every Saturday. She had a large repertoire, and she took requests: in her memoirs she says that one young Communist waiting to be shot asked her to sing Edith Piaf through the cell window. She never saw his face.

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North American Books I Read as a Child in Castro’s Cuba

October 19, 2011 | by

Havana, Cuba. Photograph by Jordi Martorell.

In the spring of 2007, I was invited to a dinner organized by The Paris Review in honor of Norman Mailer. The novelist had just published what would be his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, and would have a conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That evening, when Mailer entered the room, with his very distinctive mien—that of a rather solid and stout man who, because of his age, used two canes—I was deeply moved. I told him—what else do you say in those circumstances?—how much I admired his books and that I started reading them when I was very young, many years ago.

A few days later I told a friend about this experience. “But, how?” he acted surprised, “Did you read Norman Mailer in Cuba?” And added, “Wasn’t he supposed to be one of the banned North American authors on the island?”

My friend had imagined, perhaps for a good reason, that you couldn’t find American literature in Cuba, that it was banned because both countries were at more or less declared war, an openly proclaimed enmity. I patiently explained to him that nothing like this ever happened. Mailer’s books and those of many other North American authors were not censured in Cuba; in fact, they were widely sold. You could find them in every library; they could be read by everyone. Read More »

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August 25, 2011 | by

Alexander Lobanov, Untitled, n.d. Collection abcd, Paris.

The opening lines of “From a Great Mind,” a song by the Siberian folk-punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, run something like this when translated from Russian:

From a great mind, only madness and jail,
From a reckless head, only ditches and barriers,
From a beautiful soul, only scabs and lice,
From universal love, only bloodied physiognomies.

A similar sentiment animates “Ostalgia,” the recently opened exhibit at the New Museum in New York. The name for the show is taken from the German neologism ostalgie, a portmanteau of east and nostalgia meant to evoke a longing for life in East Germany, particularly its daily rituals and their trappings. But the show—and this is probably true of its namesake concept—is not really about a longing for communism. It is rather about the hunger for the kind of meaning that can only emerge from meaning’s suppression. Repressive regimes raise the stakes: under them, art is not something artists are paid to create, but something that extorts a price—perhaps a terrible one—from the artist. Ostalgie is not for the totalitarian government but for the clarity that emerges from the knowledge that great minds risked the gulag, the madhouse, the blindfold, and the rifle with every act of artistic creation. Read More »

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