Cosmin Minea has published his full chapter about ‘Foreign and Local Entanglements in the Creation of Romanian Architectural Heritage in the Late 19th Century’

Cosmin Minea, ‘Foreign and Local Entanglements in the Creation of Romanian Architectural Heritage in the Late 19th Century’, Art and Politics in the Modern Period, Dragan Damjanović et all. (eds.), (Zagreb: University of Zagreb, FF-press, 2019), 293-302.

DOWNLOAD IT HERE: https://arthist.ro/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Minea-Zagreb-Article-full.pdf

Magdalena Kunińska will present her paper titled ‘The dignity of the art historian”: Lech Kalinowski, Jan Białostocki and a response to Max Dvořák “Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte“ in Poland after the Second World War’ on April 16

She will take part in the conference The Influence of the Vienna School of Art History II: The 100th Anniversary of Max Dvořák’s Death which takes place on 15-16 April 2021 online and is organised by the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

The conference is held online on Zoom. Registration will take place via e-mail: murar@udu.cas.cz. Unregistered participants will be able to watch the conference online on Facebook of the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

See here more details, including the conference program.

Cosmin Minea will present this Friday his paper, ‘The transnational creation of the Romanian national architectural heritage in the nineteenth century.’ at the international conference ‘Space, Art and Architecture between East and West: The Revolutionary Spirit’, Athens. Watch it on youtube at 11.15 CET.

Click here for the official booklet of the conference

  • The audience will be able to join us on the Hellenic Open University Channel on YouTube, where the conference will be live- streamed here.

Anna Adashinskaya has presented her paper “Pious Offerings to Meteora Monasteries (1348-1420s): Between Political Representation, Family Belonging, and Personal Agency” at the 23rd International Graduate Conference of the Oxford University Byzantine Society.

To access the conference booklet, visit: https://oxfordbyzantinesociety.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/oubs2021_booklet.pdf

The general link of the conference is here:  https://oxfordbyzantinesociety.wordpress.com/international-graduate-conference-2021/

From Bucharest to Byzantium: the entangled history of a Romanian art history book in St Andrews University Library

A signed copy of George Oprescu’s 1935 book Roumanian Art from 1800 to our Days in St Andrews University Library reveals fascinating links between Scottish and Romanian academics in the interwar period.

Shona Kallestrup

______

George Oprescu, Roumanian Art From 1800 to Our Days, A.-B. Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt, 1935. Copy held by St Andrews University Library.

Among the few books on Romanian art in the library of St Andrews University is a signed copy of George Oprescu’s Roumanian Art from 1800 to Our Days, published in 1935 in Malmö. Oprescu (1881-1969) was one of Romania’s most important art historians; he held the Chair of Art History at the University of Bucharest and founded the Institute of Art History (part of the Romanian Academy) which today bears his name. This English translation of his book, together with the original French version, was commissioned by the Swedish editor John Kroon who had met Oprescu at the 1933 International Congress of Art History in Stockholm and persuaded him ‘to give a conspectus of the artistic movement in Roumania in the XIXth and XXth Centuries’.[1] It represented the third attempt (and the first in English) to present modern Romanian art to an international public,[2] and comprises a short, fifty-page, summary essay, followed by an extensive photo catalogue divided into painting, sculpture and architecture. Important both for the rich number of images made available to a western audience for the first time, and for the significant presence of women artists (nine painters, five sculptors and one architect), Oprescu’s short volume was one of the very few internationally-accessible publications on modern Romanian art before the ideological rupture of communism distorted art historical scholarship on the pre-socialist period.

George Oprescu’s inscription to Prof. Baxter in Roumanian Art From 1800 to Our Days. St Andrews University Library.
George Oprescu (1881-1969). Image source: http://www.istoria-artei.ro/g-oprescu-fondatorul–m102

The St Andrews volume carries an inscription on the first page: ‘To Prof. Baxter in remembrance of his trip in Roumania. Friendly, G. Oprescu’, together with a presentational label to the library from ‘Professor J. H. Baxter, DLitt, etc, 1939’. James Houston Baxter (1894-1973) held the Chair of Ecclesiastical History at St Andrews from 1922-70. He is most famously remembered for the series of excavations of the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople that he conducted for the Walker Trust between 1933-39. Recent research by Dr Lenia Kouneni of the School of Art History at St Andrews has revealed the curious story of the spiritualist underpinnings of this venture, which originated as a paranormal quest to find the remains of Justinian’s Library. Funded by the Markinch paper-mill owner David Russell, via the Walker Trust that his great uncle had set up to support the University, the excavations were the result of Russell’s friendship with the neo-Christian mystic Major Wellesley Tudor Pole, who had ‘discovered’ the purported location of Justinian’s Library through spiritualist séances with Russian exiles in Paris. Professor Baxter, with the weight of St Andrews University behind him, was subsequently engaged to give a legitimate academic front to the enterprise. Luckily for Russell and Baxter, the excavations – although finding no evidence of the Library – very quickly came upon an extensive, mosaic-paved peristyle hall, today considered one of the finest material discoveries of imperial Byzantium.[3]

James Houston Baxter (1894-1973), Photograph by George Cowie, 1938. Image Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID GPS-BaxterJH-2. CC BY-NC Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Public License.

It was in the course of Baxter’s journeys to and from Istanbul that he regularly passed through Romania en route to cross the Black Sea from the port of Constanța. He made contact with several of the most important Romanian intellectual figures of the day: together with Oprescu these included the leading historian, eminent Byzantinist and (from 1931-32) Romanian Prime Minister, Nicolae Iorga; as well as the famous writer Princess Martha Bibescu. Barely a decade, then, before the descent of the Iron Curtain severed Romania’s complex cultural and political links with Western Europe, Baxter found himself part of a rich transnational network of intellectual exchange that stretched from the Balkans to Scandinavia, evidence of which is preserved today in his correspondence in the St Andrews archives and in the books he donated to the library. Taking Oprescu’s art historical gift as a starting point, this blog will briefly explore some key points that emerge from the entangled history of the Romanian scholar and the St Andrews Byzantinist.

First, let us place Oprescu’s book in its art historiographical context. Art History only really emerged as a self-confident discipline in Romania in the 1920s with the work of scholars like Oprescu, Iorga, Alexandru Țzigara-Samurcaș and Coriolan Petranu. This, in turn, was a result of the widescale adoption of western academic frameworks that accompanied Romania’s emergence as an independent state and rapid re-orientation from Oriental to Occidental models in the nineteenth century. This abrupt volte-face had brought with it the introduction of western easel painting, sculptural traditions and beaux-arts architecture, together with the academies and salons that supported them. Yet the country’s longer historical artistic evolution, characterised by a strong Byzantine and folk tradition, did not fit comfortably into the art historical models developed in Western and Central Europe. Romanian art historians struggled with the problem of how to bridge the cultural caesura of the nineteenth century and link the religious art of the past with the very different forms of modern secular painting, sculpture and architecture. Oprescu explained that his book was an attempt, therefore,

to throw into relief the circumstances, outward or subjective, which surround and explain the development of the Roumanian school […] in a word all the various features that might disconcert an observer accustomed to the kind of developments that were then taking place in western countries.

Pastels by Ștefan Luchian, reproduced in Oprescu, Roumanian Art From 1800 to Our Days, A.-B. Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt, 1935, p. 102. St Andrews University Library.

His first chapter frames this shift in terms of a ‘spiritual reawakening’ that separated the older generation (bowed down by ‘Turkish domination’ and ‘underhand connections with the foreigner, Russian or Austrian’, their ‘intrigues’, ‘selfish scheming’ and ‘mental sloth’) from ‘the children of these same men … possessed of a burning patriotism, aspiring to freedom and eager for social justice, imbued with the political and literary ideas of the West’.[4] This is followed by a discussion of what he calls the early ‘primitives and pioneers’ who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, laid the groundwork for the emergence of a distinctive ‘Romanian school’ in the second half. According to Oprescu, this was initiated by Teodor Aman (1831-91) and found its most successful representatives in the Barbizon-trained painters Ion Andreescu (1850-82) and Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907) who fused French painterly language with a Romanian poetic sensibility. Their success opened the door to a younger school of colourists, most notably Ștefan Luchian (1868-1916), followed by a raft of ‘contemporary’ artists whose diverse practice ranged from traditional academicism to international modernism.

Work by Nora Steriadi, reproduced in Oprescu, Roumanian Art From 1800 to Our Days, A.-B. Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt, 1935, p. 182. St Andrews University Library.

Oprescu was clearly slightly wary of the latter, excusing the former Zurich Dadaist Marcel Iancu and the Expressionist-Constructivist artist Max Herman Maxy (both key figures of the Bucharest avant-garde) as follows: ‘Marcel Iancu and Maxy represent more revolutionary tendencies, softened, however, and made acceptable by a touch of irony and a singular blend of colours’.[5] Tellingly, he does not recognise Maxy’s significant role (together with Andrei Vespremie) in the development of a modern Academy of Decorative Arts in Bucharest,[6] stating that ‘in the field of the applied arts we have produced rather little’, and favouring instead the vernacularising pottery, embroidery and mosaics of Nora Steriadi.[7] This is understandable: Oprescu was a driving force in the interwar period’s vigorous intellectual interest in the Romanian peasant and produced an important publication on the subject for the London-based decorative arts magazine The Studio in 1929 (also in St Andrews’ Library).[8] But it is also symptomatic of the critical divide that seems to have emerged between Bucharest’s internationalist, largely Jewish-led avant-garde and ideologically-motivated ‘official’ narratives of what constituted ‘Romanian’ identity in art following the creation of Greater Romania after the First World War.

Work by Cecilia Cuțescu-Storck and Rodica Maniu, reproduced in Oprescu, Roumanian Art From 1800 to Our Days, A.-B. Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt, 1935, p. 141. St Andrews University Library.

Central to this narrative was the idea of a native artistic ‘sensibility’ that linked Byzantine and folk art with the modern forms of contemporary Romanian artists. This was clearly articulated by Oprescu in his conclusion to Roumanian Art where he argued for continuity of ‘soul and outlook’ and explained that the Romanian love of colour, ‘an ancient inheritance, born of an intimacy with nature’ and expressed by peasant art through the centuries, exemplified the innate artistic ‘feeling’ linking past and present art forms.[9] This was a narrative also fostered by Oprescu’s close friend, the leading French art historian Henri Focillon, in his catalogue article for the 1925 Exhibition of Romanian Art in Paris. The intellectual and personal friendship between Focillon and Oprescu was significant for the development of the ideas of both. While Oprescu showed a clear affinity with the formalist approach articulated in Vie des formes, Focillon (who built up a fine collection of Romanian folk art) shared Oprescu’s desire to widen the definition of ‘art’ to include work hitherto considered to belong to ethnography. Together they helped organise the 1928 International Congress of Folk Arts and Folklore in Prague. Here Oprescu, who had been Secretary of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation since 1923, promoted an internationalist vision of folk art as reflective of a wider human condition that transcended political geography and could help post-war efforts to build bridges between cultures.

It was with a similar desire to foster international relationships that Oprescu took part in the Thirteenth International Congress of Art History in Stockholm in 1933. The congress had the ambitious aim of extending the reach of art history to all territories and, as such, took as its theme ‘national schools’. Yet, as Carmen Popescu has argued, this actually resulted in a hierarchical mapping of art, framed in terms of the ‘great’ nations which produced ‘universal’ styles, and the ‘little’ nations which assimilated and ‘nationalised’ them. It is a cartography of centre and periphery that Art History still wrestles with today. The result, according to Popescu, was that ‘all the speakers from the “peripheries” strove to demonstrate, firstly, that their art constituted a national school and, secondly, to justify its belonging to the great family of art’.[10] Oprescu’s book, written on the back of this conference and gifted to Baxter, is one such example.

Picture page from The Times, 26 October 1935, with images accompanying Baxter’s article ‘The Secrets of Byzantium’. Image source: The Times Archive.

There is no record of whether Baxter, whose own scholarly interests lay in much earlier periods, ever used the book; he certainly donated it to the University Library within a couple of years. His goal in fostering Romanian contacts seems to have been to extend his international network of Byzantine scholars, and also to acquire local help in arranging practical issues. Princess Martha Bibescu, for example, writing in 1937 from the Quai de Bourbon in Paris, intervened on his behalf with the Romanian Ministry of Communication concerning a financial matter. Reminiscing about her visit to the Istanbul excavations in May of the previous year, she thanked Baxter for sending a copy of the report on the Great Palace dig that he had published in The Times in 1935 and which had stirred up a fair level of public excitement. [11]

The most important Byzantine scholar with whom Baxter crossed paths in Bucharest was Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940), historian, literary critic, playwright, former Prime Minister and eminent Byzantinist, who had organised the first International Congress of Byzantine Studies in 1924. Baxter met him in 1936, a year after the publication of Iorga’s famous study Byzance après Byzance, when he participated in a historical congress in Bucharest and visited Iorga’s home. He also seems to have charmed Milena Iacob, the librarian of Iorga’s Institute of Byzantine Studies, who made him a gift of a valuable embroidered Romanian blouse and wrote an effusively admiring letter, now in the St Andrews archive.[12] Other letters in the archive indicate that Baxter travelled fairly widely within Romania (including a visit organised by the British Council to a Dr Luttinger in Cernăuți [Czernowitz] in April 1936[13]), and corresponded with scholars such as Constantin Marinescu, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Cluj (Kolozsvár).

Baxter’s Romanian interactions should be seen within the context of his wider Balkan networking activities and his extensive correspondence with key scholars in Sofia, Belgrade, London, Copenhagen and beyond. He used his position at St Andrews to further his interests in Istanbul: in 1938, when the Walker Trust’s excavation permit was due to expire, Baxter proposed Bay Fethi Okyar, the Turkish ambassador in London, for an honorary degree from the University. He was supported by Steven Gaselee, librarian and keeper of the papers at the Foreign Office in London, who was also the British literary agent of Romania’s Queen Marie. The manoeuvre worked and the permit was renewed for a further two years.[14]

Photograph from the Walker Trust excavations of the Great Palace mosaics, 1935-38. Sir David Russell Photographic Collection. Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library.

It was presumably in the context of one of these visits to Bucharest between 1936-38 that Baxter met Oprescu and received his book. By this stage Oprescu, although Secretary of the Committee of Arts and Letters in Geneva, was returning more frequently to Romania, where Iorga had appointed him Professor of Art History at Bucharest University in 1931. He was also involved in the work of the Institut Français in Bucharest which he had helped Focillon to found in 1924. The Institute played a central role in diplomatic efforts to expand cultural exchanges between the two countries, attracting key French intellectual figures such as Roland Barthes who came as its librarian in 1947.[15] Barthes, like Oprescu, was homosexual; while Barthes was able to leave Bucharest in 1949 with the tightening of Soviet control, Oprescu had to forge a working relationship with the new regime which may to some degree have used his homosexuality as a means of coercion.[16] Despite the Securitate reports filed by fellow art historian and informer Petru Comarnescu, Oprescu managed to maintain his position as Director of the Institute of Art History, even using the Institute to support cultural figures persecuted by the new regime.[17] Ioana Apostol has argued that the Securitate eventually closed Oprescu’s file believing that he was ‘merely too stubborn to be ideologically disciplined’.[18]

Baxter, meanwhile, was facing problems of his own. Kouneni explains that, as war loomed, Baxter was dismissed by Russell from direction of the Great Palace project (citing his inability to get on with fellow archaeologists) and didn’t author the final report of the excavations published in 1947. During the War, the British Council and Steven Runciman (then Professor of Byzantine History and Art at the University of Istanbul) were given curatorship of the site, with David Talbot Rice of Edinburgh University taking over for the final seasons from 1952-54.[19]

It is unlikely that Baxter and Oprescu were able to maintain intellectual links after the Iron Curtain descended. Certainly, no further evidence of correspondence has yet come to light. Since 1939 Oprescu’s book has remained quietly in St Andrews’ Library, rarely borrowed save by me as a PhD student in the 1990s. If Romania itself has yet to find a place in the global turn of art history now taught in western universities, then at least Oprescu’s early attempt to disseminate knowledge of Romanian art internationally, by planting books – the vehicles of this dissemination – in foreign collections, can now be recognised for the role it played in the rich pre-socialist nexuses of transnational intellectual exchange.


[1] George Oprescu, Roumanian Art from 1800 to Our Days, Malmö: A.-B. Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt, 1935, p. 9.

[2] It followed Nicolae Iorga’s very brief account of western influence on nineteenth-century Romanian art in the epilogue of L’Art roumain du XIVe au XIXe siècle (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1922) and Jean Cantacuzène’s (Ioan Cantacuzino’s) essay ‘La Peinture Moderne’ in the catalogue of the Exposition d’art roumain ancien et moderne, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris: Georges Petit, 1925.

[3] Lenia Kouneni, ‘“By Scottish Munificence”: The Walker Trust Excavations of the Great Palace in Istanbul, 1931-34’, forthcoming in Discovering Byzantium in Istanbul: Scholars, Institutions, and Challenges (1800-1955), Istanbul Research Institute, 2021. I am grateful to Dr Kouneni for generously allowing me to read an unpublished draft of her article, as well as for help finding Romanian material in the Baxter archive.

[4] Oprescu, p. 11.

[5] Oprescu, p. 51.

[6] See Alexandra Chiriac’s doctoral thesis, Putting the Peripheral Centre Stage: performing modernism in interbellum Bucharest 1924-34, University of St Andrews, 2019.

[7] Oprescu, p. 54.

[8] George Oprescu, Peasant Art in Roumania, Special Autumn Number of The Studio, London: Herbert Reiach, 1929.

[9] Oprescu (1935), pp. 60-61.

[10] Carmen Popescu, ‘“Cultures majeures, cultures mineures”. Quelques réflexions sur la (géo)politisation du folklore dans l’entre-deux-guerres’, in Spicilegium. Studii și articole în onoarea Prof. Corina Popa, București: UNArte, 2015, p. 236.

[11] Letters from Princess Marthe Bibesco to Baxter, 14 and 27 January 1937, University of St. Andrews Library, Special Collections, Box 1937-39, folder 1. The report was entitled: J. H. Baxter, ‘The Secrets of Byzantium’, The Times (London), 26 and 28 October 1935.

[12] Letter from Milena Iacob to Baxter, 9 May 1936, University of St Andrews Library, Special Collections, ms36944/– [1936]. This was a generous and symbolic present: the Romanian blouse (or ia) was one of the most appreciated pieces of Romanian folk art in Western Europe, coveted by collectors, sold in modern reinvention by Liberty’s, publicised by Queen Marie and immortalised in Matisse’s 1940 painting ‘La blouse roumaine’. 

[13] Letter from K. R. Johnstone of the British Council to Baxter, 2 April 1936, University of St Andrews Library, Special Collections, ms36944/345.

[14] Kouneni, p. 26. Gaselee himself owned a signed copy of Queen Marie’s book Why? A Story of Great Longing, that he donated to Cambridge University Library.

[15] See Alexandru Matei, ‘Barthes en Roumanie: histoire et amour, expériences pathétiques’, Romance Studies, Vol. 34, Issue 3-4, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1080/02639904.2017.1308072

[16] Unlike his contemporary Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaș, who was stripped of his academic positions and died in penury, Oprescu managed to maintain a relationship with the new authorities and was appointed Director of the Institute of Art History, founded in 1949 as one of several new research institutes under the auspices of the Romanian Academy. He remained in this role until his death in 1969. In 1992 it was renamed the George Oprescu Institute of Art History.

[17] See Lucian Boia (ed.), Dosarele secrete ale agentului Anton. Petru Comarnescu în arhivele Securității, București: Humanitas, 2014.

[18] Ioana Apostol, ‘“Cercetătorul” în atenția securității: G. Oprescu în arhivele C.N.S.A.S.’, Studii și Cercetări de Istoria Artei. Artă plastică, Tome 7 (51), 2017, p. 161.

[19] Kouneni, pp. 30-37. The report was entitled The Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors: Being a First Report on Excavations Carried Out in Istanbul on Behalf of the Walker Trust (The University of St Andrews), 1935-38, Oxford: OUP, 1947.

Anna Adashinskaya will give a talk at the AISEES Spring Lecture Series on February 10th, 4:00 p.m. (EST), titled “Discovering History or Spying for the Country? Russian Imperial Research Expeditions by P.N. Milyukov and N.P. Kondakov to Macedonia”

February 10, 2021, 4:00 p.m. (EST)

Anna Adashinskaya (New Europe College, Bucharest). “Discovering History or Spying for the Country? Russian Imperial Research Expeditions by P.N. Milyukov and N.P. Kondakov to Macedonia”

Lectures are free. For the link, follow https://aisees.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/AISEESorg

From: Russia with (Winter) Love. Russian Postcards Celebrating the Winter Holidays. To: You

Anna Adashinskaya

This overview of Soviet postcards for the festive winter season shows how political and economic concerns translate into some intriguing postcard designs that include World War 2 themes, the adventure of the Soviet Grandfather Frost or the Great Soviet Industry.

The old custom of Christmas letters in England caused problems for the prominent London inventor, Henry Cole. He couldn’t leave the messages unanswered, but found them too numerous to deal with all at once. During the holiday season of 1843, this anxious gentleman came up with a solution. He commissioned an acquaintance, the artist J.C. Horsley, to make a sketch depicting a family at the festive table, accompanied by a generic Christmas greeting. The image, printed in a thousand copies for Mr Cole’s friends and families, became the first Christmas card sent via the British postal system.

In Russia, Christmas postcards appeared only at the end of the 19th century. The first open letters (without illustrations) were put into circulation on 1 January 1872 and their production was initially a state prerogative. The State Paper Procurement Expedition specifically printed them for the main church celebrations. However, the refined Petersburg and Moscovite public also commissioned postcards from private artists or photographers, and delivered them via couriers, sidestepping the Imperial Post.

On the majority of the Christmas cards of this era, one may see scenes from the Gospels, angels, various animals and young children. Though many talented painters aspired to create elegant festive pictures, Elisabeth Boehm (1843-1914) became the most popular postcard illustrator. Her small watercolors featured sugary images of children wearing traditional Russian dresses, accompanied by folk proverbs and celebratory wishes. Famous Russian art critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) praised Boehm for her “original scenes of Russian life,” while grateful customers offered to sponsor the printing of her designs.

Christmas card With the Feast of Nativity!, Elisabeth Boehm, Printing House Richard, St. Petersburg, between 1904 and 1914, Collection of the National Library of Russia, source: http://expositions.nlr.ru/ex_print/bem/

After the 1917 Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned as inappropriate for the new atheist society, and the tradition of exchanging postcards temporarily ceased. Christmas customs received a second life in 1935, however, when the USSR established New Year as an alternative winter feast. Old Christmas personages underwent secularization as well, as Soviet cultural discourse appropriated and transformed their confessional belonging, but essentially their functions and attributes remained the same. The protagonists of the feast received new identities found in Slavic pre-Christian narratives, such as songs or fairy tales:  St. Nicholas became the folklore Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz) and the infant Jesus was transformed into the Young Year Toddler. Soon other symbols gained new interpretations: the Bethlehem star changed its colour to red and became an emblem of the Red Army. The cast of animals became localized as well: the traditional cow, donkey and sheep of the Nativity were replaced by Russian taiga creatures (wolfs, bears, foxes, deers, and hares), engaged in the transportation and ornamentation of the New Year tree. In January 1937, in the spirit of Soviet women’s emancipation, Grandfather Frost received a female co-worker, the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). Gradually, all these new attributes of the Soviet winter holidays made their way onto the postcards exchanged by USSR citizens via the new, fast-delivery Post. These mobile pictures were perfectly suited to the popularization of the new imagery; published in large print runs, they reached the most remote corners of the country in a matter of days.

New Year postcard, Unknown author, special commission by Lenkulttorg, Agroplakat typolitography, 1939, number of printed copies: 25.000, private collection, source: https://forum.vgd.ru/post/601/39314/p2854821.htm
New Year postcard Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden, Vladimir Nikolaevich Adrianov, 1954, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, private collection, source: https://soviet-postcards.com/
New Year postcard To Daddy, to the Front, 1942, S. I. Aladzhalov, State Editing House Art, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, number of printed copies: 200.000, private museum collection, source: “Vasya Terkin”: private historical and literary museum (https://slawa231270.wixsite.com/terkin)

The New Year postcards changed their designs and messages following the start of the Second World War. Rapid correspondence exchange with the army became a truly strategic issue, on a par with purely military tasks such as the supply of weapons and cartridges. The Soviet Post strove to deliver mails even to and from the Front and partisan units. During wartime, postcard editions were specifically designed for every annual celebration, though the quality of paper and colours declined. In one of the most difficult periods of the war, during the Battle of Moscow in October-November 1941, the publishing house Art issued a freshly designed set of New Year’s greetings with a circulation of 300.000 copies. These new images contained patriotic messages reminding soldiers of their duty to the country, nation, and family. WWII New Year postcards roughly fall into two main categories, those sent from home and greetings from soldiers to their families and friends. The former often pictured children sending letters “for Daddy at the Front!” and women working “for Victory, for the Army,” while soldiers’ postcards usually depicted troops in winter uniform and typical New Year characters assisting the Soviets in battle. Thus, Grandfather Frost became a bearded sailor destroying the hated Nazis with missiles launched from his gift sack.

New Year postcard Grandfather Frost brings New Year gifts to the enemies, Solomon Samsonovich Boim, Issued by of the Political Administration of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, 1941, Collection of the National Library of Russia, source: the National Electronic Library (https://rusneb.ru/catalog/000200_000018_RU_NLR_bibl_2087526/)

Soldiers seemed to appreciate the very possibility of using a postcard instead of normal paper. Its cheery colourfulness and different texture created a much-needed feeling of festivity within the daily military routine. In a postcard from the Contemporary Russian History Museum, an unknown Soviet soldier highlighted the unusual beauty of the postal medium to his recipients:

My dear ones! You see, how beautiful the paper is that I am using to write to you! We received these cards to celebrate the New Year. I congratulate you and kiss you warmly. I won’t be able to greet this New Year with you. Well, we’ll greet the next one together. Drink, each of you, a full glass for me, and for all our chaps who are fighting the German bastard at the Front. It must of course be a full glass! And filled with good wine! I wish you a happy and kind New Year for 1942. And we will do our best here. At the moment our chaps are beating the Germans hard, and in ’42 we will be even stronger.” (New Year’s Eve of 1 January, 1942).

New Year postcard Greetings from the Front!, Moscow State Publishing House Art, 1941, Collection of the State Archives of the Astrakhan Region, Fund No. Р-822, Inv. 5. Case 7, Fol. 1rev., source: https://archive.astrobl.ru/page/virtualnaya-arhivnaya-vystavka-dokumentov-my-pomnit-obyazany-pochtovye-kartochki-i-pisma

Towards the end of the War, depictions of the coming New Year became associated with the advance of the Soviet Army, as the Russians used the same verbal forms in both phrases, the “coming year” and “the advancing army”. This linguistic polysemy caused the appearance of a postcard design depicting the New Year as a victorious Red Army soldier.

New Year card [Congratulations] for the coming year, A.A. Kazantsev, L.Ya. El’kovich, Leningrad Union of Soviet Artists, 1944, Private Collection of Sergo Grigoryan, source: http://redavantgarde.com/collection/show-collection/980/print/

Mass reconstruction projects distinguished the post war era, with several million Soviet citizens sent to build houses, factories, roads, and railways. Consequently, the imagery of New Year cards changed as well. Now, the Young Year Toddler and Grandfather Frost turned into workers and engineers. They operated loading cranes and managed oil refineries to create a better future for the Soviet people.

New Year postcard Congratulations for the New Year, wishing new labour victories, Evgeny Nikolaevich Gundobin. Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1959, private collection, source: https://vyatskiy-trader.livejournal.com/448985.html
New Year postcard Grandfather Frost as a Builder, N. Bragintsev, IZOGIZ Issue, 1959, number of printed copies: 2.350.000, private collection, source: https://www.pinterest.ru/pin/420734790182756168/

After the War, the USSR replace the doctrine of “world revolution” with the policy of  “peaceful coexistence”, acknowledging capitalist states’ right to exist and facilitating international collaboration. Around the same time, the main Soviet publishing house for fine arts, IZOGIZ, initiated a new series of festive postcards. They featured the achievements of the country’s foreign policy and underlined the peaceful and international character of the communist state. Thus, with the USSR representing itself as a guarantor of international peace, the Soviet Young Year Toddler walked on the Earth, bringing peace to various nations.

New Year postcard with peace wishes in different languages, T. Gladkaya, IZOGIZ Issue, 1962, number of printed copies: 3.000.000, private collection, source: https://p-o-s-t-c-a-r-d.livejournal.com/6494.html

During the Khrushchev Thaw, Soviet citizens began to make international contacts. In July 1957, the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Moscow, attracting 34.000 people from 130 states. The festival came at the height of attempts to “raise the Iron Curtain slightly”: for the first time, many foreigners came to the country, and some of them established friendly relations with Russians. The people of the USSR strove to maintain a correspondence with their foreign friends for decades, and the publishing house Soviet Artist (Sovetskiy hudozhnik) assisted this task by issuing postcards with foreign language greetings and international postage stamps.

New Year postcard with wishes in different languages and the berthing of the Soyuz spacecraft to the Salyut orbital space station, V. Tarasov, Editing House Plakat, Moscow, 1978, number of printed copies: 2.800.000, private collection, source: https://www.pictorem.com/44555/Vintage%20USSR%20greeting%20card.html
New Year postcard with wishes in Russian and English, A. Plaksin, the Soviet Artist Publishing House, 1968, Moscow, the Collection of the Museum and exhibition complex of the town of Lesnoy, Sverdlovsk region, source: http://museum-lesnoy.ru/novogodnie-otkrytki/

In people’ consciousness, the New Year offered a promise of change and novelty, and was closely associated with new hopes and expectations. Soviet cinema staged New Year’s Eve as a joyful communal celebration where different classes came together to wish “New happiness” to each other. Following this thrust for innovation, the visual tradition started to depict the main technological and cultural discoveries of the outgoing year on New Year postcards.

New Year postcard with the world’s first satellite, I. Kominarets, Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1957, private collection, source: https://cccp.livejournal.com/48718.html

These closely followed developments in the Soviet space programme and every December a new element of space exploration found its way into the designs commissioned by the Soviet Post, the Ministry of Communication, or the Transportation Ministry. In 1957, when the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, the theme of spaceships burst into the postcard world. Initially, artists had to craft their own imaginary depictions of rockets, as original images and photos were strictly classified. By the New Year of 1958, however, anyone could buy a postcard featuring the Sputnik. By 1962, three satellites orbited the planet, and Grandfather Frost rode them instead of the traditional horse Troika. On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin made the first flight into space in the Vostok-1 spacecraft. That year, Soviet citizens recognized his historic orange SK-1 spacesuit on the congratulatory images printed by the Soviet Post. In 1965, the first ever spacewalk inspired the New Year postcard of 1966, where three little boy astronauts dance around a star tree in outer space.

New Year postcard with Grandfather Frost riding three satellites, S. Tsiporin and G. Savitsky. Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1962, private collection, source: https://zen.yandex.ru/reportaji_ussr
New Year postcard with a cosmonaut wearing an SK-1 spacesuit, A. Grudinin, IZOGIZ Edition, 1962, number of printed copies: 3.000.000, private collection, source: https://www.pinterest.ru/pin/384776361899357895/
New Year postcard with cosmonauts in outer space, I. Iskrinskaya, the Soviet Artist Publishing House, Moscow, 1966, private collection, source: https://www.dvaveka.ru/bumazhnaja-kollekcija/sovetskie-otkrytki/pochtovaya-otkrytka-c-novym-godom-yelka-v-kosmose-moskva-1966-g/

The cold of the Arctic and Antarctic was well-suited to winter festivities and so too the Soviet ideology of promoting achievements in science and technology by means of such popular media as congratulatory postcards. After many decades working in the Arctic, Soviet researchers decided to apply their experience to the ice of Antarctica, and, in 1956, the First Composite Soviet Antarctic Expedition left Leningrad to reach the southernmost continent. That year’s postcards celebrated this exchange of polar expertise by issuing New Year images where the “indigenous population” of the northern seas, the polar bears, met their southern counterparts, the penguins. A little later, in September 1959, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker, Lenin. Even before completing its naval tests, the icebreaker was already featured on postcards celebrating the arrival of 1960.

New Year postcard with polar bears and penguins, I.V. Znamenskij. Issued the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1959, Private collection, source: https://soviet-life.livejournal.com/1320557.html
New Year postcard with the world’s first nuclear icebreaker Lenin, Anatolij Antonovich Antonchenko, IZOGIZ Edition, 1959, number of printed copies: 1.700.000, Private Collection, source: https://zen.yandex.ru/media/proektsever/ded-moroz-na-ledokole-5f0ef3f16fe55550572a8484

New Year cards also reacted to USSR successes in civil aviation and railways. For example, in 1973, Grandfather Frost rode the Yak-40, the world’s first turbojet passenger aircraft for local transportation, and a year later, could also be seen flying the Il-62, the first Soviet long-haul jetliner operating intercontinental flights. In the 1970s, Grandfather Frost assisted young KomSoMol workers constructing the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM), which stretched nearly 3250 km from Lake Baikal to the Soviet Pacific coast. Given the difficult terrain, the construction of the BAM presented an engineering challenge: almost half of the route ran through permafrost, where winter temperatures could plummet to −60° C. However, that clearly didn’t pose a problem for the traditional winter characters.

New Year postcard with Grandfather Frost flying on a Yak-40 turbojet, G. Komlev Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1973, Private collection, source: https://kino-ussr.ru/1276-sovetskie-novogodnie-otkrytki.html
New Year postcard with the Baikal–Amur Mainline train, S. Gorlish’ev. Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Moscow Printing Factory (MPF) Goznak, 1978, the Orenburg Regional Universal Scientific Library named after N.K. Krupskaya, source: https://orenlib.ru/news/read/vystavka-novogodnih-sovetskih-otkrytok-staraja-dobraja-skazka.html

The decline of Soviet ideology paralleled a growth of consumerist society, and New Year postcards began to echo the new concerns of the nation. Sugary and sentimental pictures of children and animals, together with the very concept of Christmas, made their way back into print. As the late-Soviet population dreamed of satiety and comfort, so traditional New Year wishes started to be accompanied by images of festive tables, laden with champagne, exotic fruits, and expensive desserts. And caviar became the main achievement of the outgoing year…

New Year postcard, photo by P. Kostenko/ Issued by the Ministry of Communication, Printing House Marka, 1986, Private collection, Source: http://valenik.ru/vsesvit/tema/c/champagn.html

Shona Kallestrup is Speaker at the AAH ANNUAL PUBLIC LECTURE | RE-WRITING WOMEN INTO ART HISTORY

ANNUAL PUBLIC LECTURE | RE-WRITING WOMEN INTO ART HISTORY

3 December 2020, 7 – 8.15pm BST, Online

This event will take a fresh look at women as collectors, patrons, exhibition organisers and museum founders in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Until recently, women’s contributions in these areas has been undervalued, not keeping up with the attention and critical recognition that women artists have received.  Our three speakers will consider the achievements of some extraordinary and fascinating women in the art world whose accomplishments are less well known than their male counterparts of the period, though are equally significant.

The event will be hosted by Sandi Toksvig and will feature three, fifteen-minute talks by the speakers followed by a panel discussion. Presentations will include the following:

Meaghan Clarke, Senior Lecturer in Art History, University of Sussex
While women are invariably absent in institutional histories of this period, the elusive records of temporary exhibitions indicate that women were active cultural agents. Fair Women was the historical equivalent of a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. Organised by a committee of women, this exhibition of portraits of women and decorative objects opened in 1894 to great fanfare at the Grafton Galleries in London. It coincided with the emergence of the independent New Woman in novels, plays and the press. In looking nostalgically back to previous models of female behaviour, the exhibition has been seen as a ‘slap in the face’ for the New Woman. However, on closer examination Fair Women complicated assumptions about the representation of women and the superficiality of female collectors and art patrons. Women were celebrated for their ‘wit and intellect’, and the show revealed an important network of collectors, patrons and ‘New’ women.

Shona Kallestrup, Associate Lecturer, School of Art History, University of St Andrews
The charismatic Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938) was an amateur artist, writer and collector of unusual tastes. Arriving in Romania in 1893, this British-born princess acted as a conduit for transnational artistic exchange, aligning herself with the breakaway Bucharest group ‘Artistic Youth’ and cultivating an international network of contacts that included the American dancer Loïe Fuller with whom she made a ballet and film. With her talent for public media strategy, Marie crafted a vision of monarchy which at times shocked her British relatives, but placed her at the heart of the Romanian national ideal. Central to her success was the distinctive visual culture she curated in a series of extraordinary palace interiors filled with collections of Art Nouveau, Byzantine and peasant art. Widely disseminated as photographs and postcards, these served as powerful performative settings for Marie to act out her successive roles as a Princesse Lointaine, wartime saviour and ‘Mother of all the Romanians’.

Elizabeth Emery, Professor of French, Dept of World Languages and Cultures, Montclair State University
The Musée d’Ennery, the first free public museum of Asian art in Paris (opened in 1908), owes its existence to a young woman, Clémence Lecarpentier (1823-1898), who began collecting small sculpted objects related to Far Eastern mythology in the 1840s. At her death in 1898, she bequeathed her collection, which had grown to nearly 7,000 objects to the French state, along with the house whose galleries she had designed to showcase it. Despite the fact that she was praised by contemporaries for her pioneering work as a collector of Far Eastern sculpted and ceramic objects, and despite the existence of archives that clearly document her fifty-year engagement with the collection, scholars continue to present this remarkable house museum either as the work of her wealthy husband, playwright Adolphe d’Ennery, or as a joint venture. The elision of Clémence Lecarpentier Desgranges d’Ennery’s agency from cultural memory derives from complicated social factors, among them women’s legal status in France, nationalism, classism, and a sexism that persists in marketing materials that characterize the collection as a “jewel box,” an “opulent time capsule,” or as a “cabinet of curiosity.”

The panel discussion will be moderated by Thomas Stammers, Associate Professor (Modern European Cultural History) in the Department of History, Durham University.

Join us online for this FREE event, book your ticket via Eventbrite.