A Lesson in History

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“Two small busts of Lenin, when added to my still life drawings, gave them a complex and contradictory iconographic charge.  ”

Around ten years ago, I was learning how to draw and looked around my apartment for handy subjects. I found two small busts of V.I. Lenin gathering dust on a shelf in my husband’s study, one ceramic bisqueware and one bronze. The bisque sculpture came from a former colleague who was cleaning out his office; the bronze was purchased in a London thrift shop for £2.50, sold by a shopkeeper who didn’t know what it was. Still, a beginning art student, I hadn’t drawn heads yet and thought I’d try it with one of these. I botched my first attempt so badly that I gave up trying to draw faces, at least for a time. Instead, I began inserting these heads into still lifes, hiding them inside of, behind or under everyday objects and avoiding frontal views. I was mainly following an urge to draw the physical qualities of things—the look of metal, glass, paper, etc., but I liked what happened when I included a peek at one of the Lenins. 

Even after I got better at faces, I continued to play hide-the-Lenin, looking for settings that challenged my drawing skills while also providing places to slip in one of the heads. Thus, two unwanted objects became for me interesting (and interestingly equivocal) iconographic assets: effigies of a leader who stood for a compelling vision of emancipation and anti-imperialist struggle and whose face can still call up memories of a belief system that dominated a sixth of the globe—and because of that, a leader who stood for what once most terrified the capitalist class. But these same little heads are also the detritus of what would become probably the greatest debacle of a Left ideal—images of hope that turned into junk-store discards.