We see how Komi culture enters the international mainstream in roundabout, contingent ways. In 1889 a young student from Moscow, whose ancestors had belonged to Mansi, Tungus and Buryat princely families, roamed the countryside around Ust- Sysolsk. He collected ethnographic data, made numerous sketches and presented his findings in an award-winning paper entitled Beitrag zur Ethnographie der Sysol- Wetschegda-Syrjänen – Die nationalen Gottheiten (“Towards the Ethnography of the Zyryans of Sysola-Vychegda – National Deities”), which was read at the Russian Ethnographic Society. Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) went on to become a pioneer of abstract painting and to propagate spirituality and spiritualism in art.
A relatively recent monograph caused a debate about the importance of he artist’s first confrontation with “pagan” beliefs and values for his subsequent artistic oeuvre and world view. Its author Peg Weiss speaks of the Komi expedition as the formative experience of Kandinsky’s life, a primeval confrontation of mystical proportions that informs and explains his art in its totality as well as particular paintings. One example is the figurative composition Pestraya zhizn’ (“Motley Life”) from 1907, with its pungent, synthetic vision of a confrontation between forces of light and darkness that could be read as a visual account of St Stephen’s Zyryan baptism.
Weiss’s critics have taken issue with the singularity of her approach and pointed out that there were many other sources for Kandinsky’s spiritual interests in the late nineteenth century. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, Charles Webster Leadbeater’s and Annie Besant’s Thought-Forms and Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy were all much used by the Russian elite as tinted glasses for observing provincial realities.
Rather than discouraging us from Finno-Ugrian interpretations of abstract art, or from abstract interpretations of Finno-Ugrian art, this polemics should alert us to contemporary patterns of behaviour. I have already given some examples of the easygoing syncretism in matters of the soul now in vogue among artists and political activists of the Russian periphery, with its long tradition of dvoeverie (“double belief”) or peaceful coexistence of seemingly opposite doctrines. It is, in fact, possible to observe a general tendency in Russian society for combining new and old without ever making a clear break with the past.
Eduard Grach and “Moscovia” plays Eshpai Toccata