Letters in Sokolniki

Grigory Revzin on the Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy

This museum is ephemeral in a somewhat scary way. Although a bold inscription that reads, “The Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy”, has a bit of a hussar-like style and catches your eye at the very entrance to Sokolniki Park, the place is so democratic the idea of the exquisite art of calligraphy will be the last to cross your mind. On the way to the location (5 Luchevoi prosek), you pass a remarkable constructivist building of a Chess and Checkers Club, where alkies and hooligans with a deep devotion to the game of chess, party hard with beer and vodka. At the end of the prosek you will face a little piece of a siding hall that has distinctive features of a temporary building erected for commercial purposes. It is the last in the row of spacious hangars hosting professional and industrial exhibitions and the smallest, the little brother. Well, this is the infamous Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy, though something tells me tomorrow it might disappear. Hurry up or it will be too late!

However, as soon as you enter the museum, your first impression falters. The hall contains a European-looking quality exquisite minimalist exposition. I have been to design museums in London and in Frankfurt and I can say they would have envied such an interior. Theirs is very much the same, but somehow more neglected, more encumbered. Whereas here everything is as neat as a new pin.

This museum is the brainchild of Alexey Shaburov, Head of the MVK International Exhibition Company. This gentleman, a racer, a skier, and a judo wrestler, who created his company in the 1990s on the remains of a largely neglected and forgotten exhibition complex in Sokolniki Park is fond of big projects. He is famous for establishing a museum at the North Pole to commemorate Ivan Papanin’s expedition; for flying a non-stop flight following Valery Chkalov’s flight plan; and for organizing an exhibition at the Eiffel Tower. A fairly typical Putin-era PR campaigning: a blend of extreme, easy money, and patriotism. Perhaps the sport injection of risk and danger that Putin’s gentlemen crave, together with patriotic beau gestures, insuring them against not-so-pleasant government “danger”, should be counterbalanced by a penchant for thoughtful activities and laborious tasks. Otherwise, I cannot find a feasible explanation for the racer and pilot’s passion for calligraphy.

However, the cup of peculiar bows and compliments to the powers that be has not passed from here. According to the museum’s press-release, the gem of the collection is a handwritten copy of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. As far as graphic design is concerned, there is nothing special to it, the text is executed in a dull Uncial Cyrillic Book Hand with repulsive line spacing computer effects; identical, independent of letter area intervals; and that isn’t much of a classical calligraphy. Though the idea of writing a contemporary constitution in an ancient script is fun. Around four years ago, Vitaly Naishul, the spiritual father of Russian privatization, made a suggestion to rewrite the text of the Constitution of the Russian Federation to replace all words of non-Russian origin, such as “president”, “federation”, “referendum” with Russian equivalents. I remember Article 11 of the proposed edition, “Rus is to be ruled by a Tsar. The Tsar can rule continuously for a dozen years. First, the people elect their Tsar for six years and then yet another time for another six years, but thereafter no more”. Thus the constitution makes much more sense. Though in this copy Alexey Shaburov did not alter the text, it does have an air of a Naishul style.

The Russian section of the museum is the weakest in the bargain, featuring mostly photocopies of historic documents. What is the big deal? And the overly elaborated, pretentious scripts remind me of a popular belief among Russian graphic designers, according to which the Cyrillic script is at a considerable disadvantage as compared to the Roman script. No graphic guru can make up for the hideous ascending plank of an “И”, disgusting gaping of an “Ы”, unnatural reverse bend of a “Я” over a “Г”, small countryside fence of a “Ш”, utter desperation of the self-conscious ugliness of an “Ъ” with its farewell tail wobbling behind. However, in my opinion, antique Russian scripts possess a certain degree of elegance just like Russian compound sentences, masterly framed into rhyming poetry. Unfortunately, such scripts are not represented at the museum, which, on the contrary, abounds in wild excesses of Uncial and Half-uncial Cyrillic Book Hand.

But instead, what a marvelous collection of Japanese, Chinese, Korean artists“ masterpieces! I had an impression that Mr. Shaburov seriously studies judo, not just to pay tribute to Mr. Putin, for he has an intuitive understanding of the Japanese. The collection might have been a success if compiled only of oriental works of art. Thus, the Sakura Festival (this year it will commence on April 14th) has always been a huge success: graphic design is complimented by other Japanese traditions, from martial arts to cuisine. The hieroglyphs are so beautiful! The author’s personality is deeply imprinted in those strokes. Where a Chinese would show reverent following of the mathematical algorithms of writing, a Japanese would explode with emotion fighting the shadows with his lightning-quick and precise brush strokes. This is fascinating!

Everything fades in their glory. However, Avraham Borshevsky’s handwritten Torah deserves some attention. Well, it is not as beautiful, but the movement of the pen, the persistence of those horizontal lines piercing letter after letter, word after word, permeate the atmosphere with guttural chanting, almost audible, reading the sacred text that seems to be swaying in an almost magical rhythm. It is like a text and a musical score all in one piece.

As far as Indian calligraphy is concerned, well… there is no need for that. Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, a famous Russian writer, poetess, and playwright, once said, “Let India be. A strange place, but let it be.” And I will say: “No! Let it not!” It is just heavens know what! They manage to turn a strict and reserved manuscript into a patchy ornament, as if it is not a noble piece of calligraphy, but a dancing episode from an Indian soap opera! Dear Mr. Shaburov, as one calligraphy fan might implore another, I implore you to replace this work of art with something else, something more becoming for the high status of Sanskrit, the father of all Indo-European languages. Since you took up such a plight in the heart of Sokolniki, brace yourself and eradicate the women’s fanciful sari patterns from calligraphic masterpieces. This “gypsta style” is totally inadmissible in the halls of such a respectable institution!

What is noteworthy is the Muslim collection of the museum. There are very few places in Moscow, where you can discover the whole variety of the vivid, refined, and multifaceted culture of Islam; engender respect for it. Although this collection is far from presenting a complete overview of Arabic scripts, contemporary works of art from Tatarstan, Jordan, Iran, it will not leave you indifferent. What struck me most was a Jordan manuscript wherein a minimalist architectural labyrinth was depicted, resembling a plan of an ancient palace. The only thing I would change is the translation of the ayat l`a ll`ahi ill`a l`ah from the more accurate but less traditional, and therefore, more “eye-soring” “there is no deity but God” to “there is no god but Allah” which is the canonical version adopted among Russian Muslims.

As the 80-year-old Fazil Iskander once wrote, “Oh, Time, in which we stand!” For it all looks a bit bizarre, a bit weird, if you know what I mean. This park full of alkies and bums, these exhibitions of dentistry and the woodworking industry, these metal hangars with cheap siding, this meritorious judo master and polar explorer, and then, like a devil out of the box, a calligraphic collection! It would be a pity if it were all doomed to perish, for how can a museum persevere in such a pavilion? Perhaps it will be merged with the Chess & Checkers Club, a nice piece of constructivism that is not going to last for long as well, I’m afraid… All will be squandered on vodka.

Address: 1 Sokolnichesky val, Sokolniki Exhibition and Convention Centre, Pavilion 7
Tel.: +7 495 728 7758

In winter preliminary booking is required.
In summer the museum works daily, entrance – free.

Source: The Kommersant-Weekend, newspaper