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Sonia Warms Hearts
By Oleg Sulkin
Novoye Russkoye Slovo, July 30, 2006

            Some time ago I had the good fortune to meet one of the most interesting figures of the so-called first wave of émigrés from Soviet Russia – Boris Kostelanetz. A brilliant American federal prosecutor and attorney who took on the Mafia from the late 1930s to the 1950s, he remained a Russian at heart to his last breath. Although he had almost completely forgotten his native tongue, he still managed to sing me the ditty “Chizhik-Pyzhik” from memory. Boris died early this year at the age of 94. And now his daughter Lucy Kostelanetz has made a daring and admirable return to her father’s country of origin in the form of a documentary film. Lucy spent many years painstakingly reconstructing the biography of a little known Russian avant-garde painter and social activist, Sofia (Sonia) Dymshitz-Tolstaya (1886-1963), who was the sister of Lucy’s grandmother Rosalia. A recent pre-screening of the new film, Sonia, at Symphony Space on the corner of Broadway and West 95th Street in Manhattan was attended by members of the film crew, relatives and friends.
            The film makes an unexpected and stunning impression. To do something truly new in a documentary is a daunting task, but Lucy Kostelanetz, I would say, has pulled it off. And as often happens, the most effective approach proved to be the most seemingly elementary one: no post-modernist contrivances, no impassioned social advocacy, no surrealism, and no poetic flourishes. The film is as simple and compelling as truth itself. First of all, everything unfolds chronologically, although with an occasional flashback or transposition to remind us of a particular character, of which there are many. Secondly, everything is explained in detail and even with a certain naiveté, as if Lucy were sitting with an album of family portraits in her lap, patiently telling her houseguests about all her relatives. Here, see this portly gentleman with the incredible hair, puckering his lips? That’s Aleksei Tolstoy. Now, see this cocky daredevil in the great big shirt with the crazy look in his eyes? That’s Vladimir Tatlin… And of course the whole universe revolves around our heroine Sonia, which is why the stout writer, Count Aleksei Tolstoy (Sonia’s husband and friend) and the wild genius of Russian Constructivism Vladimir Tatlin (her friend and partner), who in other contexts would merit documentaries all to themselves, are here no more than significant figures in our heroine’s entourage. To prevent any confusion, still photos and video footage are given large, bold captions reminding us repeatedly who’s who.
            But just what is it that makes this movie about Sonia so overwhelmingly involving to watch?
A fascinating life story, for one thing, a life story interwoven with an era that saw the overthrow of the tsar and the birth of a new, Bolshevik order that would change Russia and the world forever.            Sonia was born into a wealthy Jewish family in St. Petersburg and became one of the most active figures in the city’s artistic bohemia, but unlike the émigrés Goncharova, Larionov, Bakst and Chagall, she remained in Russia and weathered the full brunt of every new post-Revolutionary convulsion. This lucky, gracious lady with the penetrating gaze belonged to the very most interesting circles of Soviet Russia’s cultural elite. Just one of the many chapters in her life, the few fleeting days and weeks that she spent at the poet Maksim Voloshin’s house in Koktebel, Crimea, would be worth a volume or two of personal memoirs. However tragic the sequel may have been, if Nikolai Gumilev himself dedicated a poem to you, you have every right to claim that your life was blessed and full.
            For whatever reason, certain Russian art critics regard Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya as a mediocre painter. What we see in the film completely refutes that view. Her altogether original, altogether underivative pre-Revolutionary experiments with form, color and materials, her collages, her works on glass, the subtle, shimmering and completely authentic portraits of her contemporaries in later life — all these reveal her to be a sensitive and thoughtful master, an artist of impeccable aesthetic taste and a truly distinctive sense of harmony. Until Russian museum curators or perhaps their foreign colleagues assemble a Dymshitz-Tolstaya retrospective, which would be a most welcome endeavor, this film by Lucy Kostelanetz can serve as a kind of touring exhibition.
            The film shows us Sonia reaching the middle of our life’s journey to find herself in the shadowy forest of the Stalin era’s mass psychosis, party purges, the Great Terror, World War II, the siege of Leningrad, famine, solitude, and ostracism. She goes on doggedly working even under the yoke of state-mandated “socialist realism.” Oppressed by this aggressive dogma, the elegance of her original forms yield to a rather heavy-handed figurativism. But she never sinks to banality and utter conformity.
Sonia’s final, white-haired years were sad, filled with solitude and many worries. But those who knew her in that last period of her long and turbulent life tell us that she remained cheerful and irrepressibly optimistic.
            It was not until after 1991 that the American branch of the Kostelanetz-Dymshitz family was able to begin reuniting the crudely severed lines in the life story of the entire clan, filling in gap after gap while on tourist visas. Boris Kostelanetz left Russia in 1920 leaving behind a great many relatives in various towns and villages. Some of them are seen in the film, reminiscing about their wonderful Aunt Sonia and the era that kept the émigré and Russian branches of the family apart. Particularly expressive is the writer Tatyana Tolstaya, the granddaughter of Count Aleksei Tolstoy, who holds forth in rapid-fire English.
            For Lucy Kostelanetz, who earlier directed two children’s films and worked for the New York State Council on the Arts, Sonia is a directorial debut in the documentary genre. She has accomplished a colossal labor of love in collecting materials about her great aunt, which include exceedingly rare photographs, archival footage, journals, memoirs, documents, works of art, and, of course, eyewitness testimonials, the most priceless finds of all. The film crew visited Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other places that figured in the life of Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya. Although the script itself is simple, this documentary tale about Sonia is as complex and dynamic in its execution as Tatlin’s famous Constructivist tower, which was so dear to her. The film includes montages of still photos, some of them ingeniously animated, eloquent juxtapositions of photographs, paintings and archival footage (created by Jared Dubrino, George Griffin and Matthew Lutz-Kinoy), and even a trio of new fonts by Todd Sines with the latter christened appropriately “Kostelanetz-modernist-bold.” The audio track is exquisitely recorded, and features a dozen and a half voices that bring to life various memoirs and documents and also provides English translations for Russian testimonials. Piano music by Skriabin, Prokofiev and other period composers is given a stirring performance by Brandt Fredriksen. Finally, and thankfully, the narration includes no glaring errors or overstatements of either general history or art history, which is no doubt to the credit of the film’s consultant Jane Sharp, a prominent expert on Russian art at Rutgers University.

Review translated from the Russian by Timothy D. Sergay

Photo: Sonia standing in the middle of her siblings, above her brother and mother, 1903.







© 2010 Lucy Kostelanetz Productions, LLC

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