Farideh Lashai. Photo: Michael Nagle/New York Times.
NEARLY FIVE DECADES of artmaking confirms Farideh Lashai’s reputation as one of Iran’s most prolific artists, a deft and capable painter of gestural abstractions. She was also a moving and perceptive writer, as revealed late in her career with the publication of the autobiographical Shal Bamu (The Jackal Came, 2003). Her prose shares the fluidity and restlessness of her paintings: One story gives way to another, chronology is nonexistent, and vivid fragments of personal memory open onto collective history—“like reading a diary in high wind,” as one Iranian critic described it. Where her canvases had seemed—as with the work of most of her peers—fastidiously removed from ideological realities, her writing sketched precise and critical vignettes of its social context.
Shal Bamu is a story about matrilineal memory within patriarchal society. Lashai was born into a prominent family from northern Iran, and her book traces their entanglement in nearly every political uprising of the past century: the 1919 public hanging of a dissident reformer that her mother had witnessed as child, her brother’s politicization under the Shah in the 1950s, her own imprisonment for leftist student activism in the early ’70s, and the tumult of the Islamic Revolution of 1978 and the street demonstrations she joined while pregnant with her daughter. “I didn’t want this [bloody line of history] to pass from me to my daughter,” Lashai wrote. “I wanted it to end with my generation; I wanted the next to give their hearts away freely—to not have their sleep disturbed, like mine, with the memory of a body dancing on the gallows, fragments of an image once reflected in my mother’s eyes.”
In the past few years, until her death from the cancer she had battled for nearly two decades, Lashai created her most explicitly political artworks. Her landscapes became the background for stop-motion animations inspired by the iconography of familiar paintings, films, or books (Goya’s The Disasters of War, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). The projections turn her abstract landscapes into stage sets where human actors are present only as ghostly props. They are brave and surprisingly specific political metaphors, a completely new visual experiment begun in the fifth decade of her career.
“All this violence, how do we stand it?” she asks on the last pages of her book. Lashai’s writings and late animations are the key to understanding the resolutely quiet abstractions of an entire generation of Iranian artists who painted lyrical landscapes through revolutions, wars, and uprisings of every political stripe. Far from being mute, her work bears testimony to incalculable losses, to senseless historic events that for many years could only be communicated abstractly. Her endurance and courage will be missed.
Media Farzin is a New York–based art historian and critic.
Left: Aleksei German. Right: Aleksei Guerman, Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 150 minutes.
ALEKSEI GERMAN died on February 21 in his home city of Saint Petersburg at the age of seventy-four. Son of a famous Soviet writer whose work provided material for German’s films, and regarded by many as the greatest of contemporary Russian filmmakers, he completed only four solo features during his lifetime, all about Soviet history: Trial of the Road, a 1971 war drama (shelved until 1985) about a deserter to the Nazis who mysteriously surrenders to the Soviets; Twenty Days Without War (1976), about wartime life and love far from the front in Tashkent; My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982; released 1984), his masterpiece depicting everyday life and unglamorous crime fighting in a provincial town right before the Great Terror; and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), a hallucinatory rendering of the anti-Semitic persecutions of the early 1950s built around the event of Stalin’s death in 1953.
German has a reputation as an unlucky director because of his run-ins with Soviet censorship, his fierce perfectionism and personal vision (the post-Soviet Khrustalyov was panned at Cannes), and the inaccessibility of his films: Despite a recent traveling retrospective in the US, none of his films are available with English subtitles in any adequate home-viewing format. This is a pity, because German’s cinema rewards—indeed requires—repeated and careful viewing.
One of the most striking features of German’s films is their astonishing visual and sonic density, born of a hyperrealist drive to capture the micro-textures of Soviet life. Some of the inspiration for this “dirty” style surely came from the rich tapestries of grime offered by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), into whose roiling pre-modern lifeworld German himself would plunge in his final work, History of the Arkanar Massacre (whose release has been promised, with a soundtrack finished by German’s director son Aleksei, before year’s end).
Even in his first co-directed feature, The Seventh Satellite (1967; with Grigori Aronov), German insisted on personally shaving the faces of his actors to give them the desperate appearance of men taken hostage during the Red Terror episode (1918) of the Russian Civil War. He refused to use the cleaned-up images of mainstream Soviet newsreel as visual sources, turning instead to snapshots taken by nonprofessionals, to so-called “economic newsreel” (low-budget films mainly about local municipal construction and devoid of reenactments) or even, in the case of Trial of the Road, to captured Nazi newsreel, which made no effort to prettify Soviet realia.
This scenic realism is matched by an equally concerted obliquity of narration. Often casting against type—clown Yuri Nikulin as the melancholy Major Lopatin in Twenty Days; comic actor Andrei Mironov as the suicidal journalist Khanin in Lapshin—German also confused by refusing to guide our gaze to any privileged agents or images; by obscuring his actors, sets and dialogue with smoke, vapor, coughing and intricate volleys of noise; and on occasion (and especially in Lapshin) by thematizing our own perplexity through direct looks at or even addresses to the camera. In Khrustalyov, if the story is fairly linear and the images disconcertingly clear, the absence of explanation, the erosion of the onscreen world’s autonomy by sounds bursting in from outside, and the labyrinthine interiors combine to produce a paranoid space, akin (as an angst-generator) to the interminable palace occupied by Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.
It is between these poles of scenic realism and narrative decenteredness that German’s historiographical thinking and the bases of his achievement as the greatest cinematic chronicler of Soviet history are to be found. Watching a German film, we find ourselves suspended between history as already-periodized knowledge (“the Soviet 1930s”; “The Great Fatherland War”), and history as unfolding within an as-yet-unclosed present, freighted by the viscosity of everyday life and the burdens of unresolved trauma: German said of his protagonists in Lapshin that “they think they’re going to live.” German leaves behind a complex legacy, and one that should be central, despite his reputation as the creator of cinéma maudit, to our sense of Russian and world cinema. May his passing finally provoke a distributor to release subtitled versions of his films on Blu-ray, with the extensive critical commentary their formal and historical density needs.
John MacKay is chair of film studies and professor of Slavic languages and literatures and film studies at Yale University.
Left and right: Jean-Léon Destiné.
FAMED HAITIAN DANCER AND CHOREOGRAPHER Jean-Léon Destiné was also a phenomenal teacher; he was first invited to teach a one-week course in a special summer dance series at San Francisco State University in the mid 1980s. “African Haitian Dance” surpassed its target enrollment of thirty-five students. It was the beginning of what became a twenty-year relationship with the Bay area dance community. As a result of his teaching success, Destiné was invited for two additional summers. His classes reached hundreds of students—a number of them public high school and public university dance teachers. Without question, Destiné’s classes were the most popular of a ten-year series and marked a vibrant period for dance at this university.
Destiné’s teaching method was based on a series of movements related to specific drum rhythms. Elements of various traditional dance forms were the basis from which he developed his classes: mahi, damballa, perigol, petro, and others. Rene Calvin, master Haitian drummer, accompanied all of his classes. On at least two occasions Destiné presented lectures that brought into focus Haiti’s historical and cultural heritage. These lectures helped clarify much of the source material for his teaching, choreography, and performance.
Destiné returned to San Francisco after receiving a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This grant supported a work created for the former Wajumbe Cultural Ensemble (“Messengers of Good Omen”), for which I served as artistic director. The work, The Chosen One, followed a thematic line and design of a religious ritual; it included chants, songs, drumming, and other percussion. The choreographed ritual was based on Vodun-African religious tradition as it evolved in Haiti. It was followed by Combite, which depicted scenes of planting, harvest, and celebration. Destiné’s choreography and performance—reflected in his company’s concerts over the years—indicate why he received the Honneur et Merite, the highest honor Haiti has given to any artist.
It was sometime in the early ’90s that Destiné realized what he said was his dream of a lifetime, traveling to the country of Benin with the Haitian Society of New York to visit the general area to which many Haitians trace their origin.
Destiné returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 2004, 2008, and 2009, at the invitation of the Zeke Nealy Haitian Dance Camps. He was accompanied by dancers Nadia Dieudonne and Pineau Guerier and drummers Fanfan and Augustine Frisner, and several other Haitian artists.
Jean-Léon Destiné was one of the most popular and respected artists to come to the San Francisco Bay area.
Nontsizi Dolores Cayou is a professor emirata of San Francisco State University.