The City Re-Framed: Revisiting Dobuzhinsky’s City Portraits

Lina Khawaldah, Indiana University, Bloomington

M. Dobuzhinsky has been called the “pictorial poet of the city,” and he is said to depict the modern city. Yet, most of the works devoted to him do not clearly justify these characterizations beyond the obvious. Despite the strong connection between of the painter and the city, the literature on Dobuzhinsky has provided mainly overviews of his life and of the overall qualities of his city portraits. The purpose of this paper is to discuss precisely how Dobuzhinsky achieves such image and vision of the city that the characterization “modern” is appropriate. A number of his city works, as well as a few of his province images will be regarded in greater detail, demonstrating the complexity of the seemingly straightforward images.

Dobuzhinsky’s work on numerous occasions has been linked to the city poetry of A. Blok, who has been placed in the broader European context of modernity by association of his city images with the 19th-20th century flaneur texts. The flaneur mode of seeing has been viewed as captured most successfully through cinema, which retains and (re-)creates the multi-dimensional experience on a flat surface. While a number of points of departure from the notion of the flaneur can be made, and while Dobuzhinsky’s chosen medium for self-expression is flat, two-dimensional, that very “flatness” serves to convey and enhance his own vision of the city, being both a statement and a means of representation. Dobuzhinsky achieves the manipulation of space through the use of architecture, frames (implied and visible), in combination with the frequently mentioned, but not discussed in its full significance, particular point of view present in a large number of his works. In addition to the frames depicted, and created by the lines present in the respective works, he creates implied frames, both erasing and emphasizing the distinction between interior and exterior, thus conveying the fragmentary nature of the modern city, reflecting the new ways of seeing and being within the urban environment.

The space manipulation creates an invisible observer, implied in the paintings, who is frequently to be imagined behind a window frame, which in turn is hinted at through the point of view. Its glass (if taken to be present) is significantly deprived of its reflecting qualities. In other instances, the precise location of the implied observer is difficult to determine. Thus, the possibility of the buildings, the street, or the city itself to be the possible spectator(s) is left open, which in turn tampers with the perceptions of the painting’s viewer.

Dobuzhinsky’s city portraits, as far as the city is to be identified with Petersburg, are to be definitely interpreted against the background of the Petersburg myth, but they certainly also belong to the overall European context of modernity, sharing the 20th century’s on-going fascination with the fragmentary, yet total experience of the new ways of seeing, first triggered by the illumination of the city in the 19th century.