Art and Music in Nestor Kukol'nik's Fiction and Criticism

Christine Rydel, Grand Valley State University

In his Literaturnye vospominanija, Ivan Panaev describes an evening at a literary salon in which Nestor Kukol'nik emerges as the central figure. Alas, his vivid portrait of Russia's most popular playwright of the 1830s and 1840s as a poseur has become the most quoted reference to Kukol'nik in the criticism. Panaev shows Kukol'nik reclining on a sofa, hand to fevered brow, as he bemoans Russian philistines and threatens never to write again in his native tongue. However, in response to the horrified cries of dismay of his acolytes and admirers, Kukol'nik promises to continue to write for them„his only worthy audience. He thanks his fans not in his own name, but in the "great cause of art." Though Kukol'nik certainly was not a writer of the first rank and did on occasion play the buffoon, he deserves a better legacy than Panaev's grotesque caricature.

Other contemporaries describe Kukol'nik in a more positive light, emphasizing his genuine devotion to art, music, and literature. Some even generously ascribe to him a talent for playing the piano. But whatever his critics and fans might say about Nestor Vasil'evich, his own body of work attests to his genuine devotion to the arts. In approximately half of his plays, Kukol'nik concentrates on the theme of the unjustly ignored artist: Torkvato Tasso (1833), Dzhakobo Sanazar (1834), Dzhulio Mosti (1836), Ioann Anton Leizevitz (1839), Meister Mind (1839), Domenikino (1838), and Improvizator (1844), to name a few. He also explores the same theme in a number of stories which show real talent, the best of which is "Psixeja." His stories are no worse than those of the majority of his contemporaries who treat the same theme; the plays fare less well. And true to form, Kukol'nik inserts an autobiographical element in the best of the plays, Torkvato Tasso: he appears as a poet of genius, an heir of the great Tasso himself. But if Kukol'nik ever did perform a service to the "great cause of art," he did so in his criticism and journalistic endeavors.

Contemporary critics such as John E. Bowlt, Elizabeth Valkenier, and Vadim Vacuro acknowledge Kukol'nik's positive contribution to the arts as a critic and collector of anecdotes. In 1836 Kukol'nik began to publish the ambitiously full and competently edited Xudozhestvennaja gazeta in order to acquaint the Russian public with their own art and music. His activity in this enterprise won him an honorary membership in the Imperial Academy of Arts and induction into the Obshchestvo Pooshchrenija Xudozhnikov. Kukol'nik continued his agenda of educating the Russian public with art and music in many articles, reviews, and especially his publication of Illustracija (1845-48), a periodical devoted to Russian art. He even edited a lavishly illustrated book, Kartiny russkoj zhivopisi (1846) in which appeared his article, "Russkaja zhivopisnaja shkola." Kukol'nik worked as hard, if not harder, to introduce serious music of the west and Russia to his readers.

Though it may be more amusing to concentrate on the memoirs and snigger at the ludicrous aspects of Kukol'nik's life and art, a shift to a serious investigation of his pronouncements on art and music is long overdue. Such an evaluation of his journalism and criticism surely will finally produce a more balanced and fair artistic legacy for Nestor Vasil'evich Kukol'nik.