Art and Faith

Monday, 5 November 2007

V Shcherban. Sprouts of Life

Filed under: fine art,Russian,Soviet period — 01varvara @ 00.00

Sprouts of Life (V. Shcherban, 1967)

This is a painting dense with meaning. Firstly, what is the date? The blast strips on the window and the blackout curtain are a sure sign that the action portrayed is taking place during the Second Great Patriotic War (World War II on the Russian Front).

Where is it? We can tell that she is in an urban apartment, in a large city. My guess is that she is in Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg). Why? Note her emaciated and gaunt condition. The city had undergone a 900-day siege in which many thousands of its people had died of starvation. Unfortunately, the intent of the Fascists was to destroy the city and obliterate its citizens, for in the eyes of the Nazis, they were only Slavic untermenschtum (“subhumanity”). The ring encircling the city had only been broken in early 1944. Also, see the candle on the table, which means that the electricity is at best sporadic, if not non-existent.

Now, is the woman single or married? No way to tell, but, she is certainly pregnant and starting to show. There is a ball of yarn on the table, and she is knitting baby clothing. Without a doubt, her husband or fiancé is at the front. Obviously, he had leave at one time or another in the near past, and they were able to get together in privacy. Perhaps, he was one of the soldiers who helped to break the siege of the city. No doubt, he shared his meagre rations, which must have seemed a feast to her after the privations of the preceding two years. There were times when a person could hold their daily bread ration in the palm of one hand.

One can surmise that he is not dead, so, the first sprout of life is the prospect of a new life after the war, with her new child and reunited with her man. However, note the emptiness of the apartment. Everything has been sold to procure what little food was available during the horrors of the siege. She has almost nothing left; she must start afresh. Nevertheless, a second sprout of life is that the city itself is coming back to life after almost being strangled to death by the Nazis. The people of “Piter” may have lost everything they owned, many had lost many (or all) of their loved ones, but, their life sprouts afresh, yet again.

A third sprout of life is that it is the springtime, and the earth is coming back to life after the harsh Russian winter. There is still snow visible on the roofs of the houses, yet, there are pussywillows in a jar on the windowsill. This is a sure sign of early spring.

Where did she get the pussywillows? That is a hint of the fourth sprout of life, the revival of faith in a land where there had been unrelenting atheist persecution for some twenty-five years. You see, it is the custom in the Orthodox Church in Russia to give pussywillow branches in place of palms on Palm Sunday. She had probably gone to liturgy and had carefully taken her branches back home and placed them in an old jar, for all her other vases and bowls had been broken or sold.

The faith still lives! She cannot hang an icon in the room, for that might draw the attention of a malicious neighbour (for the gulag was an ever-present reality). Yet, she can place her precious branches on the windowsill to remind her of the new life in the earth, the new life in the city, the new life growing within her, and the new life in faith that can be tentatively expressed. No doubt, it is Holy Week. That is, Easter is coming… yes, a resurrection, in more ways than one.

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