We think, and rightly, of bodies as war’s chief victims. Civilians blown to pieces in their homes, or dashing for water and food across streets and squares; conscripts caught in the blasts of modern weapons; animals left to run loose and starve, or crudely butchered for emergency food. Objects may hardly seem victims at all. Yet at times they seem to endure at least secondary suffering.
One of the most potent images of devastation in the war that began in 2022 is Elizabeth Servatynska’s photograph of apartment walls shelled bare except for a pine kitchen cabinet, mass-produced at low cost. (I know – its twin is installed in my flat in St Petersburg).
The walls which the kitchen cabinet clings to are equally standard, but transformed by the war into something exceptional. As are the objects loaded on to trucks and transported as booty, shipped by courier service to cities where the only economically viable activity is buying and selling ‘used’ goods. Sinks, fridges, and washing machines aren’t ‘heritage’ in the same way as the paintings of Maria Primachenko, or the books and exhibits in the Chernihiv Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities. But damage and loss to routine objects are devastating, in their way; just so, ordinary buildings are missed as severely as architectural monuments.
Thus, in times of crisis, objects are not only subject to destruction, but to transformations of meaning. As anthropologist Alisa Sopova argues, “The work of mourning is currently being performed by means of semiosis: objects and places are being removed from the material world and placed into a symbolic universe where they acquire new meanings.” Objects, in extremis, are credited with human feelings; the kitchen cabinet became an example of how you, as a person, can and must “hang on.”1Alisa Sopova, ‘“Be Strong Like a Kitchen Cabinet”: Indestructible Objects as Symbols of Resistance in Ukraine’, American Ethnologist, 4 May 2022, <https://americanethnologist.org/features/reflections/be-strong-like-a-kitchen-cabinet>.
Transformations from the material to the symbolic are foundational to cinema as an art form, a realist medium in the Barthesian sense that it records “what really was”. Yet, in circumstances where real objects are ruined, the process works in reverse. Once nothing is there, illusions acquire a disturbing immediacy. They at once proclaim the material character of now vanished objects – and at the same time, the menace to objects generally, since photographic media don’t preserve, but only record.
A striking illustration of this process is Sergei Parajanov’s Kyiv Frescoes (1966), a collage of fragments from the screen tests of an “art documentary” meant to be released for the twentieth anniversary of “the Great Patriotic War”, but first delayed, then stopped in production. Any sympathetic viewer of Parajanov immediately observes the importance of things. When I myself saw The Legend of the Fortress of Surami (1984) for the first time about thirty-five years ago, it was precisely objects that informed my state of enchanted bewilderment. It was almost disappointing to realise, when I watched the film again years later, that it has characters and emplotment.
Film scholarship (an example is James Steffen’s fine book, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, 2013) relates the prominence of objects in Parajanov’s work to an aesthetic that brings into contrast past and present and celebrates the artistry of the everyday, dissolving boundaries also between the real and the imaginary. This is compelling, but not exhaustive. For Parajanov, objects also have a transgressive role, crossing the boundary between externality and intimacy, between “the home” and the world beyond.
In Parajanov’s films inspired by traditional or folk culture – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), The Legend of the Fortress of Surami (1985), Ashik Kerib (1988) – such transgressional boundary-crossing is less obvious. Here, “homes” are exposed to the outside world in any case. In the imaginary Carpathians, it is the farmstead (dvir), rather than the individual house as such, that the characters inhabit. Yet all the same, objects can seem out of their proper place. The most scandalous example is the double harness yoke that Parajanov used for the marriage of Ivan and Palahna, a vital object in subsistence farming, but also a symbol of beastly servitude. In a variety of senses at once, it should not be there.
Parajanov’s account of his first encounter with Hutsul culture, in his 1966 essay “Moto Perpetuo”, began with a point of loss. The Carpathians were a disappointment. “When I got there, I was in no way charmed. Rather the reverse. The first things I saw were mundane and modern. European footwear, tarmac, bicycles, electricity pylons. The cliffs where the Huteniuks and the Paliychuks fought their battles were gone — blown up for a new road. To be honest, I found this weird combination of ancient and modern depressing. The whine of high-voltage wires and the lament of the alpenhorn. A gold watch worn over a hand-embroidered shirt-sleeve…” Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors became a project of recuperation. Objects were temporarily returned from museums to their former homes, and embedded in imaginative reality. The double-yoke ritual was invented start to finish, a rendition in material form of an image from a local folksong.2Sergei Paradzhanov (Parajanov), “Vechnoe dvizhenie”, Iskusstvo kino 1 (1966), 33–4.
The first image of material culture in “Moto Perpetuo”, though, comes from more recent history: a visit to the Crimea in 1947, when Parajanov was working as an assistant on the film, The Third Blow, directed by Igor Savchenko, his teacher at the All-Russian State Institute of Film Studies, VGIK. “On the Carcinites Bay, no mallows were in flower, and the village women were not whitewashing the homes they had built from German battle helmets; the war, even cinema war, made them deeply anxious.” This sense of unease is crucial also in Kyiv Frescoes, the film that Parajanov was planning when he wrote “Moto Perpetuo”.
Rather than “frescoes” as such, the individual episodes represent a series of different interiors that are defined not by their surfaces (white walls, plank floor), but by what they contain. In Sequence 1, for instance, three soldiers, moving in concert, sit down on three ornate antique chairs, pull off their heavy military boots and puttees, then squat and methodically wipe the floor-boards of an empty space with rags. All of this seems amusing, like an operetta chorus. But a collage of objects before the scrubbing is more disturbing. On one of the chairs lie three watches, picked out by Parajanov in “Moto Perpetuo” as symbols of ostentation. Next to it, a boot – incongruous and jarring on the antique chair.
In Sequence 2, a uniformed soldier lies prone, gun across his chest, on a narrow bed covered with a lace-trimmed sheet. His posture suggests the laid-out dead, yet he is shuddering and gasping. An oil lamp sways from the ceiling like a intimation.
In Sequence 3, a woman in bridal attire – a priest stands behind her — uses strips from her net veil to make a diagonal cross that she presses along a sheet of glass facing the viewer.
The central figure in the script of Kyiv Frescoes was ‘The Man’, an anonymous artist whose biography resembles, in an abstract way, Parajanov’s own. But he appears in none of these scenes. Rather, they speak generally of war.
According to Parajanov’s script, the scene of soldiers washing the floor was supposed to suggest their helpfulness.3James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 91. On the film’s production history generally, see ibid., 88–112. But on film, the focus on the soldiers’ boots, symbols of power and potential victimisation, has a different kind of echo.4For instance, the ‘Prologue’ [Vstuplenie] to Anna Akhmatova’s commemoration of the Great Terror Requiem (1935-1961), not published in the USSR till 1987, but widely known in to the “second culture” through typescripts and copies of the edition published in Munich in 1963, includes an image of “Russia writhing under bloodied jackboots”. Conversely, in the second scene, the resonance of the gun is transformed by relocation to a domestic interior. The diagonal crosses made of tape were a familiar image of war films and still photographs decades before Kyiv Frescoes; here the protection that they offer has intimations of the sacred, but also vulnerability. By intention, these sequences echoed “the Great Patriotic War” and more particularly, its cinematic portrayals. Watched in 2022, they seem to parallel the present, recalling precisely the domestic objects and interiors that are threatened by war now.5See e.g. Cao Yan, “Window Sealed with Duct Tape to Protect Glass from Bombing, Kyiv, Ukraine”, not dated , <https://www.dreamstime.com/window-sealed-duct-tape-to-protect-glass-bombing-kyiv-ukraine-war-russia-against-ukraine-window-sealed-duct-image246585227>.
The objects in Kyiv Frescoes were not ‘homely’ so much as they were unheimlich (‘unhomely’, eerie) in the Freudian sense, representing an intrusion by fear. The presence of war now, in 2022, gives them a compelling presentism. There is a similar effect when one looks again at the central installation from a 2016 exhibition on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.6The exhibition, curated by Pavel Gudimov and Andriy Alferov, was originally shown in the Kyiv Mystetskyi Arsenal, 23 March-10 April 2016 < http://yagallery.com/en/exhibitions/tini-zabutih-predkiv-vistavka>, later in the Andriy Sheptytsky National Museum at Lviv. Here, the Hutsul tools used as props were dominated by installations, one of commanding size and colouration.
Viewed in retrospect, this large installation also takes on an ominous tone: ploughshares turned into swords, or at any rate, rifles.
Kyiv Frescoes defied the original plan for an official film of war commemoration. From the beginning, there was a gulf between the pomposity of the obelisk and eternal flame glimpsed at the beginning, and the ‘private’ sequences. In its realisation, the film proved far too light-hearted, or indeed light-headed, for the era when it was made. But against the background of an unnecessary and grotesque war, like a bad but deadly joke, the displaced objects in the film have found a new and compelling context.
Catriona Kelly is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Soviet Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Honorary Professor of Russian and Soviet Culture in the University of Cambridge. Her books include St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past (2014, Russian translation 2022) and Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Studio under Brezhnev (2021), and she is currently working on historical film in the post-Stalin era.
|↑1||Alisa Sopova, ‘“Be Strong Like a Kitchen Cabinet”: Indestructible Objects as Symbols of Resistance in Ukraine’, American Ethnologist, 4 May 2022, <https://americanethnologist.org/features/reflections/be-strong-like-a-kitchen-cabinet>.|
|↑2||Sergei Paradzhanov (Parajanov), “Vechnoe dvizhenie”, Iskusstvo kino 1 (1966), 33–4.|
|↑3||James Steffen, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 91. On the film’s production history generally, see ibid., 88–112.|
|↑4||For instance, the ‘Prologue’ [Vstuplenie] to Anna Akhmatova’s commemoration of the Great Terror Requiem (1935-1961), not published in the USSR till 1987, but widely known in to the “second culture” through typescripts and copies of the edition published in Munich in 1963, includes an image of “Russia writhing under bloodied jackboots”.|
|↑5||See e.g. Cao Yan, “Window Sealed with Duct Tape to Protect Glass from Bombing, Kyiv, Ukraine”, not dated , <https://www.dreamstime.com/window-sealed-duct-tape-to-protect-glass-bombing-kyiv-ukraine-war-russia-against-ukraine-window-sealed-duct-image246585227>.|
|↑6||The exhibition, curated by Pavel Gudimov and Andriy Alferov, was originally shown in the Kyiv Mystetskyi Arsenal, 23 March-10 April 2016 < http://yagallery.com/en/exhibitions/tini-zabutih-predkiv-vistavka>, later in the Andriy Sheptytsky National Museum at Lviv.|