The sublime and the grotesque

As half the group headed off to the Museum of the Defense & Blockade of Leningrad this morning, and the other half went to the Russian Museum, I couldn’t help but think of Victor Hugo’s “Preface to Cromwell,” an essay which served as the primary articulation of Romantic theatrical theory (France, 1830). In that essay, Hugo rejects neoclassicism’s focus on idealized beauty and instead calls for the juxtaposition of the sublime and the grotesque. We can only understand and appreciate the beauty of human existence when considered in the context of all its potential ugliness, he declared. If theatrical representation was to reflect Truth (capital T intentional) then plays must show the many facets of human ugliness alongside the singular (according to Hugo, mind you) facet of the beautiful. The ideas articulated in this essay (which were already in practice in France) revolutionized 19th century theatre.

I had never heard of the blockade of St. Petersburg before this trip, nor had I considered the suffering it brought to this country. But a few days ago we visited a memorial to this event: during WWII, the Germans created a blockade around the city which lasted for 900 days, and over a million died of starvation and disease. A short reel of grainy black and white film footage from the time played on a small screen inside this underground memorial. The depth and extent of suffering this city endured was palpable. Today, upon their return from the museum, Kristi, Shelley and Amanda shared a few stories about which they learned; the suffering was overwhelming, almost unfathomable.

The fact that my colleagues were visiting this museum was on my mind as I walked through the galleries of the Russian Museum. Enormous and surprisingly uncrowded, the museum features the work of Russian artists exclusively. I saw portraits of the famous poet Anna Ahkmatova and the director Meyerhold. Both are artists we have discussed on this trip. The quiet in the galleries allowed me to get lost in the art, its beauty and my own thoughts and reactions to it. The size of the museum meant that it included coverage of several centuries worth of art, multiple artistic movements, and demonstrated the extraordinary beauty that humans can create.

At the Museum of the Defense & Blockade of Leningrad our group learned that despite the dire circumstances in St. Petersburg during the blockade, actors still rehearsed, music still played, radios still broadcast. The exhibit’s audio-guide ended with this reminder: People need art to remain human.



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