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Five watercolors with four once unprintable poems

October 3, 2011

The first 16 pages of the current issue of The Russian Review are printed on glossy paper for Ernest A. Zitser’s article on “political pornography.” He analyzes a series of explicit watercolors (most with explicit poems) first made public in 2003 in an exhibit at the New York Public Library. The pictures show the eighteenth-century rulers — Peter the Great, Anna Ioannovna, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, and Paul I —having sex with their various lovers (wives, in Peter I’s and Paul I’s cases), behind a set of doors, complete with sentry, that could be folded back to show the intimate scene in the room beyond.

Zitser has three purposes: to broaden our idea of nineteenth-century Russian culture by analyzing this rare and forbidden material; to contest the NYPL’s dating of the images as from the 1790s (Zitser says nineteenth century and seems to lean toward the 1840s); and to situate the images as “political pornography.” That is, they occupy an intermediate space between apolitical paintings that might exist for pure sexual gratification and taboo-breaking on the one hand, and revolutionary caricatures on the other:

On the surface, the Russian watercolors even appear to be styled after the engravings of revolutionary, antimonarchist pamphlets, particularly those directed against the “uterine fury” of Marie-Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI. However, compared to the libelles’ graphic violence, the Russian drawings seem less intent on bringing down the Imperial double-headed eagle than in covertly flipping the bird (mano fica) to the powers-that-be. (572)

Unlike the French caricatures, these watercolors were made by and for the elite, who could recognize the various French and Russian pictures, risqué and otherwise, to which they alluded.

I have to take Zitser at his word on much of the visual evidence; it’s not obvious to me that his plate 10, a picture of one of the sentries guarding the door in the pornographic series, derives from his plate 9, from a mainstream nineteenth-century book that shows an eighteenth-century military uniform (565, 577). Are the uniforms more similar than we should expect for two images based, however indirectly, on the same real-world prototype? But visual art has never been my strong suit, and I am probably not seeing what most readers can easily see.

Along the way Zitser links to, among other things, Russian caricatures of Napoleon (such as the French emperor teaching his son to run, since “the art of running is necessary to the Napoleonic dynasty”), to two versions of P. N. Chuvaev’s “An Impediment to Love,” pictures from An Historical Description of the Uniforms and Armaments of Russian Forces (1840-62), and official portraits of Anna Ioannovna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II.

See Ernest A. Zitser, “A Full-Frontal History of the Romanov Dynasty: Pictorial ‘Political Pornography’ in Pre-Reform Russia,” The Russian Review 70.4 (2011): 557-83 (gated).

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