As a kid spending every summer holiday in the village, I developed a particular emotional attachment to Overgrown Pond by Vasily Polenov. It was not that I loved this painting too much – no, ‘love’ would not even begin to describe it. I lived with it. The picture was hanging above my bed, it occupied my vision and my breathing space, captured my imagination and those brilliant hot dreams covered in sweat and mosquitos. Waking up or falling asleep, fighting insomnias in the half-dark of a midsummer night, I kept looking at the painting even in those moments when my eyes were fully closed or else staring at the ceiling or the white edges of my blanket. I grew up with that painting.
Which might not seem much to you if you see it in a reproduction or maybe in its original form in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. The colour is mossy green, every last shade of it. You see a pond, some wild vegetation growing about and – most crucially – you notice a barely visible woman reading a barely visible book. ‘What’s the name of the book?’ I wanted to know, in those days when reading lost to football and The Headless Horseman was the only book I loved (but loved dearly, with the kind of intense devotion only a child can give). Well, I never found out, like I could never discern the face of the woman or even understand what attracted me to her.
But then the village was no more, city swallowed it with jobs and schools and new people, and it took years for me (as well as a near-religious experience in Tretyakov Gallery) to recover that painting. Not the copy we had in the village, but a new, better one. Over my head, right where it belongs.