January 01, 2011

Angels in the Kitchen

In the late 1920s, the Soviets set out to transform the way Russians ate by constructing enormous fabriki-kukhni for both meal preparation and dining. This attempt to institutionalize and collectivize family meals ultimately failed, but industrialization meant the gradual loss of the traditional Russian bakeries with their enormous wood-burning stoves. Thus it is with some nostalgia that we contemplate the bakery depicted in Pavel Filonov’s Untitled (Angels By the Stove). In this charming ink drawing from the mid-1920s, Filonov accurately depicts a Russian masonry stove — its wide maw, lower storage niche, and heavy damper for regulating the fire.   

By using quasi-religious imagery, Filonov reveals the Russian pech as much more than a structure for heating and baking. Russians considered the stove — and the bread it produced — sacred, a belief they expressed through their many stove-related rituals. And because fire represents life and strength, the stove was thought to hold mystical powers. In some parts of Russia, mothers would ritually insert sick children into the oven three times in succession, in the hope that the stove would cure them. In other regions, women crawled into a cold stove — the only sterile, hygienic place in the cottage — to give birth. Even the terms used to speak of the stove, such as “pechka nam mat rodnaya” (“the stove is our own dear mother”), emphasize the stove’s life-giving force, one that miraculously transforms simple dough into the staff of life.

Filonov’s angels make explicit the connection with the sacred. Yet, unlike typical angels, they do not hover. They are literally down to earth, hard at work in their long aprons and protective headgear, and were it not for their sizeable wings, we might not even recognize them as belonging to a different realm. The angel on the right mixes dough in a trough, while the one on the left inserts a loaf into the stove on a long-handled wooden peel. In the background, on a shelf beneath high windows, sits an array of finished loaves. The fact that this is a basement bakery makes the presence of the angels even more symbolic, and casts the sacredness of the act of baking bread into even greater relief.

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