Father and Son – the Pasternaks

Leonid Pasternak painting of his sons Boris and Alex

Leonid Pasternak painting of his sons Boris and Alex

Thinking about father – son relationships led me to the Pasternaks, starting with the son, Boris.  Boris is seated to the left in this painting, done by his father. One wonders whether Boris and Alex were as angry as the father has painted them, or whether the father only imagined them to be resentful about sitting for the portrait. Father-son relationships are often hard to figure out. They’re about perceptions.

The name Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960), the Nobel Laureate who declined the award in 1958, is etched in the annals of Russian literature.

So is the name of his father, Leonid (1865-1945), the revered Russian painter and illustrator, friend of Rainer Maria Rilke and Leo Tolstoy, among others. Leonid’s drawings illustrated Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Resurrection.  

Can you see the father in the sons, and the sons in the father who painted them?

Photo of Leonid Pasternak, Russian painter.

Photo of Leonid Pasternak, Russian painter.

Why, then, would the sons’ father leave them behind?

In 1921 when Leonid Pasternak left Russia for eye surgery in Berlin, he took his wife and two daughters, Lydia and Josephine, leaving Boris and Alex behind in Russia. He never returned. He, his wife, and the girls remained in Berlin until 1938 when he fled from the Nazis to England. The sons remained in Russia.

According to the Pasternak Trust, “Leonid Pasternak was the friend and illustrator of Tolstoy.

Leonid Pasternak illustration in Tolstoy's Resurrection.

Leonid Pasternak illustration in Tolstoy’s Resurrection.

His portraits include studies from life of writers (Tolstoy, Gorky, Rilke, Remizov, Hauptmann); musicians in performance (Scriabin, Chaliapin, Busoni, Rachmaninov); other distinguished contemporaries including Einstein, Hoffman, Gordon Craig and Lenin.

“Sketches of family scenes – his wife at the piano, and their four children reading and playing – are among his most intimate and charming works. His landscapes stretch from the Black Sea to the Bavarian Alps and Palestine.” – Excerpt from The Pasternak Trust.

Although Leonid never returned to Russia, it was his brush that painted Boris into life as a painter whose brush was words, and one can imagine it was his mother’s music that lulled him to sleep even as an adult His mother was a concert pianist.

“‘What is history?” wrote Boris in Doctor Zhivago.

“Its beginning is that of the centuries of systematic work devoted to the solution of the enigma of death, so that death itself may eventually be overcome. That is why people write symphonies, and why they discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves.”

 

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (English translation by Nikolay Nicholayevich, 1957), Chapter 1, Section 5.

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