"I know the story of a certain resolute ball, which was tossed around from one corner to the other, until one day it leapt up to heaven!"
(This is my impression of a portion of the inscription on this photograph of Alexander Vertinsky from 1918, in costume as a dark Pierrot.)
I have become obsessed lately with Vertinsky, wondering how it was that he invented himself as an image of compassion and refinement, without becoming cloying and sentimental. How did the young rebel, who was once kicked out of an exclusive school in Kiev, become a cultural icon?
Here is another post of mine about Vertinsky, for the curious.
Although Vertinsky (born in 1889) became an actor in the theater at an early age, he considered literature and poetry to be his natural habitat. He wrote, "I approach my own creativity not as an artist, but from the point of view of a poet; what attracts me is not just performance, but the process of choosing the words that correspond to my own inner motif."
From what I have read, it seems Vertinsky's world-view was nurtured in the home of Sofia Nikolaevna Zelinskaya, where the cream of literary and artistic Kiev gathered, including Mikhail Kuzmin, Vladimir Elsner, and Mark Chagal. Vertinsky tried his hand at writing short stories and poems; he wrote theater reviews of Fyodor Chaliapin and other famous characters, and began to make a name for himself in the literary scene of Kiev. At around 1910, Vertinsky moved to Moscow, where he felt the need to carve a niche for himself among the Moscow intelligentsia. He began playing small parts in plays, and he began attempting to perform Alexander Blok's "Balaganchik" (The Puppet).
Don't click here unless you want to be pleasantly surprised.
Blok became and remained one of Vertinsky's favorite poets, throughout his lifetime. Later, reminiscing, he referred to Blok's writing as "the verses that created our world." Her remembered Blok's poetry as "infecting not just one heart with dreams of a Beautiful Lady." It was not that Vertinsky copied Blok, but some of Blok's poetic images created such an impression on him, that his entire perception of the world at that time became as it were, through Blok's eyes.
In 1914, Vertinsky left for the front to serve as a volunteer as a nurse on a medical train, where he served until 1915 when he was wounded. It was recorded in a book on that train that Vertinsky bound 35,000 wounds during that year. After his return to Moscow, Vertinsky began singing "Songs of Pierrot" in the Theater of Miniatures. In the character of a "black" Pierrot, he performed his own lyrics and often composed his own music.
Vertinsky's version of Pierrot, he claimed, originated on the train where he tended to the wounded and where the medical corps performed small concerts for wounded soldiers. He felt it necessary to hide behind the thick pancake makeup, because of his own lack of confidence while appearing in front of crowded audience. The mask of the sad clown (Pierrot) seemed to be most fitting for the role of a comforter, which Vertinsky had chosen for himself and made his own.
Vertinsky became his own genre, the embodiment of a culture that was soon to be swept from the scene by the Revolution and all sorts of isms. He subsisted as a living time capsule, a source of inspiration for generations. After years of traveling and performing around the world (he adored Paris and New York), he voluntarily returned to Russia (then the Soviet Union) and was then forced to play censored concerts in freezing halls. He somehow managed to retain a unique spirit and integrity, although he was fully conscious of the divide between his ideals and his surroundings. He never caved in to mediocrity or cynicism, but instead, it seems to me, managed to retain the same message that he attempted to convey to the soldiers on that train: "...here I am, shy and sensitive, dreaming my unattainable dream, but I am present for you in this moment in this mask, behind which there might lurk some substance for the wounded listener to discover."
Much of this information is derived from sources such as this:
Novy Istorichesky Vestnik, 2001