Russian Landscape Painting and the Art of Memory in Čexov’s Stories

Daria A. Kirjanov, University of Pennsylvania

The impact of the visual arts on Čexov’s literary art has been widely acknowledged, especially that of impressionism (Čiževskij, Senderovich). Little attention, however, has been given to the connection between Russian landscape painting and the literary techniques used in his representation of memory. This paper identifies a cycle of stories in which memory and remembering can be seen as the artistic media used to “paint” the composition and poetic content of the text.

Čexov was well acquainted with the works of Russian landscape painters of the second half of the nineteenth century and, in particular, had a close personal friendship with Isaak Levitan, one of the best known of the “Itinerants” school. Though few of Čexov’s characters are artists by profession, a large number of them are endowed with highly artistic imaginations and the ability to structure their perceptions of the natural world into a form that resembles the composition of a landscape painting, especially as reflected in the aesthetics and philosophy of Levitan’s canvasses.

The “memory-images” (Casey, Bachelard) that emerge on the mnemonic level of the text become the focal points in the landscape of the text. Similarly, the process of remembering itself parallels the process of composing a landscape painting, as exemplified in the works of Levitan, in which the expanse of land, sky, and the natural world engulf and dwarf the elements of man’s world. This paper will draw on Henri Bergson’s theories of memory, specifically on his concept of “duration,” as well as on Gaston Bachelard’s notion of “memory-images.” In theorizing the interface between memory, art and the creative process, the work in this area of the contemporary philosopher, Edward Casey, and art historian, Malcolm Quantrill, will be applied. The stories “House with a Mezzanine,” “Lights,” “Veročka,” and “A Lady with a Lapdog”—all based on remembered events that are transformed by the narrative into mnemonic landscapes—will be examined as illustrations of the connection between the techniques of painting a landscape and those of recollecting the past. In conclusion, this paper will attempt to articulate how the aesthetic content of these stories, with respect to memory and art, engages broader philosophical and moral dimensions in these works.