The Beautiful Lady Rebels: Sexuality, Subjectivity, and the Woman Artist in Fin-de-Siècle Russia

Susan Larsen, University of California, San Diego

My paper takes its title and its emphasis from a passage in Liubov' Mendeleeva-Blok's memoirs in which she notes her resistance to her future husband's vision of her as the incarnation of his ideal "beautiful lady." Recording one of her earliest attempts to break off their relationship, Mendeleeva-Blok proclaims, "Prekrasnaja Dama vzbuntovalas'!" (L. D. Blok, "I byl' i nebylicy o Bloke i o sebe," in Aleksandr Blok v vospominanijax sovremennikov, Vol. 1). My paper explores the influence of Russian Symbolist visions of the "beautiful lady" on several works of fiction and autobiography that imagine the consequences of allowing the beautiful lady to speak for herself, rather than serving primarily as a catalyst of spiritual transformation and artistic inspiration for the men in her life. The works I will examine in some detail include Mendeleeva-Blok's memoirs; Lidija Zinov'eva-Annibal's Tridcat' tri uroda (1907), a fictional diary of a lesbian love affair; and Evdokija Nagrodskaja's Gnev Dionisa (1910), a first-person fictional account of a woman painter's unconventional attempts to reconcile her intellectual, aesthetic, and sexual passions.

Each of these very different works reflects a struggle to overcome the idea of the beautiful lady as an almost inevitably passive feminine ideal. Each of these texts also wrestles with the place of female sexual desire as an unavoidable, if often inconvenient element in the formation of a woman artist's public and private selves. While many Russian Symbolists, both male and female, envisioned love as an avenue to spiritual transformation, rather than physical gratification (see Olga Matich, "The Symbolist Meaning of Love: Theory and Practice," 1994), the three texts my paper examines suggest that some women who moved in Symbolist circles were not content to serve as chaste channels of otherworldly insight, but insisted on looking at, rather than through the the female body as a source of both pleasure and danger. Mendeleeva-Blok writes explicitly, for example, about her frustration with Blok's treatment of her as "some sort of abstraction, however ideal," when she wants to be and be seen as "a living human being [...], even with all [my] imperfections." Conversely, Zinov'eva-Annibal's Thirty-Three Monsters explores the consequences of accepting the abstract role of "beautiful lady" as a self-definition and suggests that narcissism is the inevitable result. Written in the form of a "diary of a beautiful lady," Thirty-Three Monsters also exposes the tension between embodied and aestheticized sexual desire in its portrait of the actress Vera's fatal love for the novella's unreflective (but excessively reflected) narcissistic narratrix. Nagrodskaja's Wrath of Dionysos is equally obsessed with the tension between sexual and aesthetic fulfillment in its representation of a woman artist whose brief flight on the "wings of eros" ultimately traps her in bondage to what Anastasija Verbickaja later labeled the "yoke of love" (see her 1916 Igo ljubvi). Nagrodskaja's heroine is no "beautiful lady," although the "beautiful lad" with whom she falls so powerfully in lust tries to force her into something like that role. Ultimately, all three of the texts that interest me in this paper indicate the seductive force of the ideal of the "beautiful lady," while simultaneously exposing the impossibility of that ideal as a possible subject position for a heroine possessed of carnal knowledge and desires.

Each of these texts has been discussed by commentators in the context of fin-de-siècle anxieties about sexuality (Burgin and Engelstein), the Russian autobiographical tradition (Heldt), and the Symbolist tradition of zhiznetvorchestvo (Bogomolov), but no scholars (to my knowledge) have yet addressed these works in the context of Symbolist ideas of the prekrasnaia dama and the impact of those ideas on both the "life" and "creativity" of Russian women writers.