Earth Mixed with Water: "Painting" the Feminine in the Verbal Art of Elena Guro

Juliette Stapanian Apkarian, Emory University

In contrast to prominent roles played by a number of women in the development of Russian avant-garde painting, Elena Guro is the only woman to claim a major place in Russian Futurist literature. Trained as a painter before beginning to publish her literary work, Guro offers an intriguing juncture in what commonly has been considered to be a "his"-tory of Russian Futurist literature. A dynamic movement drawing from diverse sources, Russian Futurist writing emerged in interrelationship with the visual arts. While recent scholars skillfully have demonstrated parallels in Guro's writing with devices used by Impressionist and Cubist painters, analogues with the visual arts also can help elucidate a complex and deeply embedded portrait of the feminine in Guro's writing. Although generally remembered as a sensitive writer of children, animals, and nature, Guro offers a profound exploration of issues of gender. Her work in this regard describes a wide range of parallels with painting and sculpture, a range that provides further insight into the intricate sweep from turn-of-the-century Impressionism to an Expressionism configured by Russian Futurism. Guro's verbal "painting" of the feminine effectively describes a process of embodiment/Embodiment that synthesizes strategies of the visual arts, including Russian folklore, religious art, and the tonalities of Western Expressionism.

In a work called "At the Park" (V parke) Guro's persona suggests that poems be created from handfuls of earth mixed with water. This image provides a succinct reference by Guro to a fundamental relationship between the verbal and plastic arts, a link that proves useful for understanding her concept of the feminine. Selections from her Hurdy-Gurdy, Autumnal Dream, and Little Camels of the Sky--when juxtaposed with visual images by artists ranging from Andrej Rublev to Natalia Goncharova and Edvard Munch--reveal consistent and meaningful affinities in this regard. Ultimately, Guro's verbal "painting" of the feminine sheds important light on our understanding of the concept of gender in Russian Futurist literature more broadly. Although Russian Cubo-Futurist men often crudely heralded the masculine over the feminine, their strong challenge to confining categories has distinct resonance in the work of Guro. In the midst of these male "hooligans" of early Russian Cubo-Futurist poetry, the kind and modest Guro may appear to be a curious exception. Yet, as Matiushin writes, "if for many her link...was some sort of sad misunderstanding, that is only because they did not understand her nor them."