In Osip Mandelstam’s “Journey to Armenia” (1933) – his last major work published during his lifetime – the author describes visits to Moscow museums to view the works of French artists, the Impressionists in particular. Claude Monet’s “Lilacs in the Sun” (1872), of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, most likely inspired the poem “Impressionism,” written in May 1932.
In it Mandelstam conveys the key features of Monet’s painting: the color and texture of the paint, the application method, and the play of light and shade which forms the basic contrast in both the painting and the poem’s structure. While the first half of the poem concerns itself with the overwhelming presence of lilacs and summer’s sultry heat, the second half delves into the shade’s details: Monet’s swing, the veils, the bumblebee in the lilac.
A new translation by Ian Probstein of “Impressionism” appears in a selection of Mandelstam’s poetry edited by Ilya Bernstein and published by the Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse as part of their Eastern European Poets Series. The collection is available through the publishing house’s Online Chapbook Archive, which allows out-of-print chapbooks to be read via the UDP website.
Born in Warsaw, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in imperial St. Petersburg by his leather merchant father and music teacher mother. After his first collection of verse established him as a noteworthy Russian poet, Mandelstam left Symbolism behind in favor of Acmeism, a mode of expression based on humanism and intuition.
Despite increasing political pressure and publishing bans, Mandelstam continued to write; however, after a series of arrests, exiles, and illnesses, he disappeared into the Soviet work camps and was reported in 1938 of having died of heart failure. Since his death, Mandelstam has come to be recognized as one of the Russian language’s greatest poets.