Revisiting the Topoi of Petrograd’s House of Arts: The Role of the Kitchen “Club” in the Creation of a Collective Narrative

Margarita Nafpaktitis, University of Michigan

Petrograd’s House of Arts (1919-23) loomed large in the imaginations of writers affiliated with it during its brief existence. This is borne out by the rich body of texts in which the House plays an important role, texts that include not only memoirs (Xodasevič, Roždestvenskij, Odoevceva), but also novellas, poems, and short stories (Forš, Xodasevič, Grin). When read together, the texts function as a collaborative, multi-voiced narrative, which maps deliberate metaphoric value onto the interior spaces of the House of Arts. The narrative construes these spaces as points on a moral-artistic, spatio-temporal compass, which serves to indicate the cardinal directions a member of the creative intelligentsia could choose in attempting to (re-) establish his or her identity during a period of dynamic political, social and cultural change.

According to many accounts, in the evenings, the kitchen of the House of Arts was transformed into a “club” for its residents. In the process, the kitchen became a paradigm for other of the House’s shared, non-public spaces. In the kitchen club, creative people in a communal living environment interacted with one another as much out of necessity and/or contingency as out of choice. It was a room whose original uses had been supplanted, augmented, and/or subverted by changing times. It was a site of contestation (literal and figurative), hosting ongoing, impromptu debates between the House’s residents, mostly writers. The kitchen club debates engaged questions that were critical at the time of the House’s existence: Do we have a usable past? How do we create a literature for the future? Should we write about the here and now? Can (or should) one’s talent even be constrained by space and time? The social, intellectual, and metaphorical functions invested by the collective narrative’s collaborators in the House of Arts’ kitchen reshape the room as a matrix out of which the rest of the narrative is constructed. 

In my discussion, relying on primary sources and conceptions of space set forth by Lotman, Halbwachs, Bachelard, Lefebvre, de Certeau, and others, I will attempt to reconstruct the kitchen as a critical site for negotiation of identity and as a reflection of the ways writers chose to inhabit the House of Arts at a time when attitudes toward culture were being radically reconfigured. In the process, the House of Arts will emerge as a commodious trope for its times; a liminal space at the interstices of public and private, past and future; a transitional site where writers attempted to construct the terms for their participation in society.

Selected Bibliography

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life.

Форш, Ольга. Сумасшедший корабль.

Грин, Алекскандр. Крысолов.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory.

Ходасевич, Владислав. Дом искусств (memoir). Баллада (poem).

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space.

Lotman, Jurij. Universe of the Mind.

Одоевцева, Ирина. На берегах Невы.

Рождественский, Всеволод. Дом искусств.