Anna Akhmatova in the Modernist Moment

Nathan Altman. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914. Oil on canvas. 123.5 x 103.2 cm. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Nathan Altman. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. [Source: Anna Akhmatova Foundation]

Anna Akhmatova had become a cultural icon by the time Nathan Altman painted her in 1914. Her bangs and shawl, her regal bearing and unassailable assurance, constituted the Akhmatova look. Her poems were read avidly in St. Petersburg, as Vogue would b in New York and Paris, as guides to self-presentation in the modernist moment. One poem from Evening, her first book, turned metaphor into fashion statement as lovestruck young women across Russia chose mismatched gloves — like Akhmatova.

Was the poem about her own tumultuous life? It’s tempting to read autobiography into it, but she was too much the master of voice and persona for simple explanations. It could refer to the eclipse of her marriage to the poet Nikolai Gumiliev, who left her in 1911 for adventures in Abyssinia . It could allude to her incendiary affair in Paris in the spring of that year with the unknown painter, Amadeo Modigliani. Here’s the poem. Pull on your own gloves, it’s cold out there.

Song of the Last Meeting by Anna Akhmatova

My breast grew helplessly cold,
But my steps were light.
I pulled the glove from my left hand
Mistakenly onto my right.

It seemed there were so many steps,
But I knew there were only three!
Amidst the maples an autumn whisper
Pleaded: “Die with me!

I’m led astray by evil
Fate, so black and so untrue.”
I answered: “I, too, dear one!
I, too, will die with you…”

This is a song of the final meeting.
I glanced at the house’s dark frame.
Only bedroom candles burning
With an indifferent yellow flame.

[Source: Wikipedia]

First posted March 9, 2008

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