The Language of Shapes and Colors: Tolstoj as a Modernist Artist

Ksana Blank, Princeton University

The paper is based on Baxtin's theoretical assumptions regarding the "physicality of the body." As he argues in "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity," we can't fully experience our outer body; only the outside other is able to construct our image. Baxtin proceeds to the literary analogy: when the image of a hero is reflected in the conscience of the "author-contemplator," it becomes aesthetically finalized.

I argue that in Tolstoj's works, the role of the finalizing other belongs not so much to the author as to other literary characters. The creative vision of the "heroes-contemplators" allows them to construct other characters' images. While Dostoevskij's works are a prime example of verbal dialogism (Baxtin, Problems of Dostoevskij's Poetics), in the works of Tolstoj, one finds dialogic relationships on the visual level—in the characters' perception of one another.

Otherwise generous in the description of details, Tolstoj is extremely parsimonious when it comes to his characters' appearances: he emphasizes Mar'ja Bolkonskaja's luminous eyes, Pierre Bezuxov's corpulence, and Hélène's marble white shoulders, but gives no other details. These features singled out by Tolstoj become filled with meaning when they enter (or escape) the field of vision of other characters. Thus, only those characters who are able to perceive Mar'ja's spiritual beauty notice that she has luminous eyes. While looking at herself in the mirror and trying to see if her eyes are luminous, Mar'ja sees nothing (cf. Baxtin: by looking at oneself in a mirror, one can't be a real other).

The paper aims to investigate a particular category of portraitures in which Tolstoj's economy of means is most striking—when the characters' outer body is expressed by means of geometric shapes and/or colors. Such is the episode from War and Peace, in which Natasha tells her mother that Pierre Bezuxov is "blue—dark blue and red, and quadrilateral" [chetverougol'nyj], whereas Boris is "light gray and narrow like the dining-room clock."

As I demonstrate, this and other uncanny portraits, "drawn" by Tolstoj's characters, find analogies in Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist canvasses.

In his chapter devoted to the body as a spatial form, Baxtin provides an account of the history of the body. His survey ends with Romanticism. It must be noted that the appearance of Suprematism in the beginning of the twentieth century resulted in a drastic change in the aesthetic concept of the body. In search of a new face (lik) of reality, Malevich proclaimed that in the new art, shapes and colors no longer reflect objects and people, but express exclusively the "pictorial sensation" [zhivopisnoe oshchushchenie] which the artist experiences while looking at the world. In Suprematism, the body reflected in the eyes of the other (artist) looses its natural contours and coloring; the representation becomes nonobjective [bespredmetnoe].

The idea of the "pictorial sensation" helps us to formulate the nature of Tolstoj's characters' suprematist vision. Natasha's description of Pierre comes from the pictorial sensation that Pierre's image produces in her conscience. By saying that Pierre is "dark blue and red, and quadrilateral" Natasha summarizes the essence of his personality, thus finalizing his image.

Tolstoj's portraitist technique exemplifies Baxtin's concept of the self as reflected in the eyes of the other, but simultaneously disproves his claim made in Problems of Dostoevskij's Poetics that Tolstoj's method is monologic.