Mixed Media: ‘The Master and Margarita’ & ‘Ansel Adams’

The Master and Margarita

Simon McBurney directed the Complicite Theatre Company in a ‘phantastic’ dramatisation of the novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov at the Barbican in London recently.

Bulgakov was writing in the USSR in the 1920-30s when Stalin ruthlessly pursued state capitalist industrialisation. Although Stalin personally liked the works of Bulgakov, the author faced prohibitions of his plays by Glavrepertcom (censorship committee) for concerning himself with the fate of intellectuals and Tsarists in the revolution and civil war. Bulgakov politically was a ‘liberal conservative monarchist.’

The Master and Margaritais a fantasy and political satire on Soviet society under Stalin and critiques the literary establishment, highlighting the corruption, greed, narrow-mindedness and paranoia in Stalinist Russia. Bulgakov looks at the relation of the individual artist to the state, censorship (‘manuscripts don’t burn’), the power of love, good and evil and human frailty. The novel was not published until 1966. Bulgakov was inspired by the play, Faust ,by Goethe, the opera, The Damnation of Faust, by Berlioz, and his ‘Margarita’ is modelled after Goethe’s heroine, ‘Gretchen’ in Faust. In his ‘Confessions’ for Jenny and Laura Marx of 1865, Marx lists Goethe and Gretchen as his favourite poet and heroine.

Bulgakov has ‘Professor Woland’ (Lucifer) with his demonic two-legged black cat ‘Behemoth’ (Biblical monster in Job 40:15) visit Moscow where he exposes greed, bourgeois behaviour and the superficial vanities of modern life. Bulgakov portrays Satan’s Spring Ball where the notorious in human history such as Caligula are gathered with ‘the kings, dukes, chevaliers, procuresses, jailers, executioners, informers, traitors, and spies.’ In 1935 Bulgakov attended the Spring Ball at the US Ambassadors home in Moscow along with senior Bolsheviks such as Bukharin. The Master and Margarita was the inspiration for the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil, and Salman Rushdie has credited the ‘magical realism’ of the novel as an inspiration for The Satanic Verses.

Bulgakov has a second plot involving the trial of ‘Yeshua Ha-Notsri’ (Jesus of the Nazarene sect) in ‘Yershalayim’ (Jerusalem) before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Bulgakov was inspired by the parable of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov focuses on Pilate’s words as he washes his hands in Matthew 27:24: ‘I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person,’ and the debate between Jesus (‘wanderer and mad philosopher’) and Pilate is drawn from Pilate’s question in John 18:38: ‘And what is truth?’ This Christian theme is explicit in The Master and Margarita with Pilate’s spiritual need for Jesus spelled out clearly at the conclusion of the play.


Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

The Ansel Adams exhibition, Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, was recently at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Adams’s photographic modernism was an attempt to create ‘extraction’ in photography, as opposed to the impossibility of applying painterly ‘abstract impressionism.’ Adams used f/64 focal lengths, small aperture settings, in order to give great depth of field, sharpness and clarity and pioneered a zone system for translating perceived light into specific densities on negatives and paper. The foreboding mountains, river and sky are menacing in his 1942 The Tetons and the Snake River. He was a believer in unfiltered visualization in the sense of Blake’s ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.’

Adamswas influenced by Emerson and his social responsibility to humanity and nature, and also Edward Carpenter’s Towards Democracy which advocated the pursuit of beauty in life and art. Adams wrote ‘I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.’ His landscapes are a form of worship, a pantheism like Spinoza’s ‘deus sive nature’ which led to his advocacy of wilderness preservation and environmentalism. His 1937 Clearing Winter Storm depicts Spinozist perception ‘sub specie aeternitatis.’ Adams is close to Wordsworth in his sonnet The World Is Too Much with Us which critiques the industrial revolution and materialism which places humanity out of tune with nature.

Adams’s ‘creative photography’ is Wordsworth’s ‘poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ His rock-pool photographs such as 1960 Rocks and Limpets, and 1969 Sea Anemones are ‘cleansed perception’ like Wordsworth’s ‘the earth, and every common sight/to me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light.’ Adams’s 1962 Stream, Sea and Clouds evoke the Wordsworth line of ‘a sense sublime/of something far more deeply interfused’ or in Adams’ own words ‘I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.’

Adams photographed US President Carter in 1979 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. As befits a transcendental artist his photograph of The Tetons and the Snake River was included on the golden record on the NASA Voyager spacecraft in 1977. In a 1983 interview in Playboy magazine, shortly before his death, Adams was outspoken in his opposition to the Reagan presidency.

Ansel Adams: ‘I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountain. Let our spirits be stars. Let our hearts be worlds.’

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