Stunning Museum at American University Reveals Tolstoy’s Other Half

For Washington art lovers seeking a stellar venue away from the National Mall, the search may end in the heart of Tenleytown at American University. Housed in the 30,000-square-foot Katzen Arts Center is a museum so impressive that it’s difficult to think of it as an academic by-product. And if Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the museum, has his way, it won’t be.

The vision for this soaring, dynamic space—featuring three floors of galleries, a café and sculpture garden—is to be ranked with Washington’s other world-class museums. Open for a little more than two years now, the American University Museum already holds its own with any art space in the city—indeed, surpassing many.

In keeping with the university’s image as a Washington-based global university, the Katzen Arts Center is committed to showing the work of both local and international artists, and collaborations on exhibitions have already taken place with 12 embassies.

As Rasmussen noted, because the museum is part of a university, viewers get a double dose of free expression—artistically and academically. For instance, in November and December, Fernando Botero’s controversial “Abu Ghraib” series will be on exhibit, and at present, two American University law professors are doing legal work at Guantanamo Bay. Rasmussen observed that while many venues in Washington show art that is “abstract, cool and intellectual,” little of it is actually contentious. The American University Museum clearly hopes to challenge the status quo.

But not everything has to be contentious or controversial. Before the widely anticipated Abu Ghraib show, viewers can get a sampling of the Katzen Arts Center’s diversity through “Song Without Words: The Photographs of Countess Sophia Tolstoy.” This touching and provocative exhibition pairs the great Russian novelist’s wife’s photographs with her journal entries.

You don’t need to be a Tolstoy devotee to appreciate this fine display. As Rasmussen explained, the exhibition is “loaded with information and pathos that anyone can relate to,” noting that this is one type of interdisciplinary project—using international, literary and historical elements—that the museum seeks to promote.

The exhibit’s prints are made from the original photographs in the Tolstoy museum in Russia, and the complicated project involved providing the Russian government with indemnification through the U.S. State Department to ensure that legal claims would not be asserted against the photographs.

The photographs cover a period of time from 1890 to 1907. Sophia Behrs left her childhood home in 1862 at the age of 18 to marry Leo Tolstoy, who was in his 30s. During the course of their 48-year marriage, she had 13 children, managed the family estate, and pursued her own interests as a musician, painter, critic and photographer.

Her mission was to record the Tolstoy family for posterity. To do this, she worked with a large portable Kodak camera and 13-centimeter-by-18-centimeter glass plates. Sophia photographed her husband on every possible occasion, in various states of health, when he was alone or with guests.

In 1895, for instance, she started a project to photograph their wedding anniversaries. Sophia dressed in fine clothes for these pictures while her husband dressed like a peasant, even though he came from a family of old Russian nobility. She also spent many hours photographing her children, then her grandchildren. In addition, pictures were taken of the stream of guests and constant activity at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate, as a parade of sculptors and painters came to depict the famed Russian author.

Sophia photographed avidly until her husband died in 1910, producing about 1,000 photographs. Her work includes several self-portraits, the style and composition of which were ahead of their time. These images also bear witness to the tumultuous years of decline in pre-Soviet aristocratic Russia.

But more than a visual historical record, the exhibition represents a personal diary—with journal entries on panels to accompany the photographs. A picture may say a thousand words, but the verbal part of this show is as compelling as the images.

For instance, in a passage from July 15, 1897, Sophia writes: “I long passionately for music, and to play myself. But there’s never any time, and besides Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] is always working or sleeping, and every sound disturbs him. I try to convince myself that true happiness comes from fulfilling one’s duty, and I force myself to copy out all his writings and do all my other duties, but sometimes I weaken, and yearn for some personal happiness, a private life and work of my own, rather than constantly toiling away for others as I have done for the whole of my life.”

A few years later in 1902 she writes: “I was lying in bed today wondering why a husband and wife so often find a certain estrangement creeping into their relations, and why relations with outsiders are often so much more pleasant. And I realized that this is because married couples know every single aspect of one another, both the good and the bad.”

Perhaps philosopher could be added to Sophia’s credit as a photographer.

Song Without Words: The Photographs of Countess Sophia Tolstoy through Oct. 21 Katzen Arts Center at American University 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 885-1300 or visit www.american.edu/museum.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.