June 12th, 2016

Unsung Masters of Russian Photography, part 8 (Elena Mrozovskaya)

Princess Olga Konstantinovna Orlova (nee princess Beloselsky-Belozwersky) wearing a Kokoshnik for the 1903 Ball in the Winter Palace. Photograph by Elena Mrozovskaya.

The portrait of Princess Olga Orlova taken by Elena Lukinichna Mrozovskaya is a remarkable image in many ways. The first thing that strikes us is probably the costume, especially the fantastic, bejeweled kokoshnik she’s wearing, then the magnificent gown dripping in pearls. Together, they frame the princess’s face, the only “natural” element in a Byzantine display of wealth. And that is probably the point: the portrait is not about personality, but about status. And fantasy.

Mrozovskaya took the photograph at the infamous Ball of 1903 held in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The event, sponsored by Nicholas II and Alexandra, filled two long evenings with sumptuous music, dance, and food, while the nobles in attendance wore costumes, designed by Sergey Solomko to evoke the seventeenth century. Some of the costumes were actual, historic pieces brought in from the Kremlin, but pure archeology was beside the point. The kokoshnik worn by the Princess would normally be paired with a sarafan, or pinafore, which is not the case here. The costumes harken back to a Golden Age, accuracy be damned. The Ball was an evening of fantasy, in a sense the last hurrah of tsarist Russia. Inside the Winter Palace all was aglitter; outside the people starved.

Hundreds of photographs were taken to commemorate the Ball. Mrozovskaya’s is one of the most striking, perhaps because of the tension created between the porcelain-like face with its large eyes and the staging of the costume. More tomorrow!