Street Art in St. Petersburg
16 August, 2016
Bear with me for a moment of seeming banality, but did you know that a Soviet poet once lived on Mayakovsky street…?
And no, I’m not just talking about the mythic infamy of the eponymous Mayakovsky himself. There is actually a tale of two poets unfolding on this street. The first – an irrepressible ego who achieved the heights of literary acclaim, and the second, one of his colleagues who toiled, unpublished, in ascetic obscurity before dying in exile in 1931.
Next time you find yourself walking down Mayakovsky street, continue on to the corner of Kovno alley and you may notice a peculiar face peering down from you. On the corner of building 11, a sly, stenciled silhouette glances suspiciously over the street below, as if a glimpsed from the space of a closing door. This is a portrait of one of the former inhabitants of the house – the surrealist Soviet poet: Daniil Kharms.
Chances are Kharms is unknown to you unless you’ve taken modules in Russian literature. The circumstances of his career did not exactly lend themselves to critical acclaim; a misplaced modernist in an oppressive era, he was not only banned from publishing but also imprisoned in a mental hospital twice, before his premature passing. The publication of his works has only been possible posthumously, and for a long time, only in samizdat circles As such it reached an extremely belated audience, in fact it is only now that the life and work of Daniil Kharms can truly be said to have started attracting a cult following.
Kharms’s strange world of short stories and bizarre poems is now generally hailed as a precursor of major literary movements of the twentieth century. Yet, given that his absurdism is easy to both overlook and underestimate, his reputation still lags behind that of his literary contemporaries. This is all the more reason why there should be a memorial plaque on the house of his former residence, which is precisely what artists Pasha Kas and Paul Mokich, who created the Kharms portrait sought to do. They painted the image to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the poet’s death, back in February this year.
It only took a couple of weeks for the complaints to start filtering in, however, and soon after, the image attracted the attention of officials , which, whenever street-art is concerned; has a habit of shortening its lifespan. The council questioned the legality of the Kharms graffiti and ordered it to be covered up. Amazingly, this decision instigated such an outcry from Kharms’s band of followers that it was subsequently retracted. Which is why you can still – for now at least – see it when you stroll down Mayakovsky. But who knows how long it will stay there? The question of the boundary line between art, graffiti and vandalism, is just as contested as the literary questions which condemned Kharms to silence during his lifetime – meaning both his literature and his legacy are still far from secured.
This blog was brought to you by Kamila, intern and student at Liden and Denz St. Petersburg