The Russian Ending
Portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.
The black and white source photograph for The Wrecking of the Ngahere surveys a large ship in stormy waters as seen from the air. Water spills over the bow of the ship and the heavy swell almost engulfs the vessel from both sides. Frothing expanses of spume extend from the far left of the image. This image is one of several in the portfolio that depict disasters at sea; Dean’s fascination with often tragic narratives set on the ocean extends to her work in other media (see Disappearance at Sea, 1996, Tate T07455).
The Ngahere was a steamship that was wrecked off Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand in 1924. As Dean’s notes recount, the ship beached and sank in ‘disturbed water’ leaving ‘no chance of rescue’. The camera directions specify a ‘long shot’ to ‘watch her go (a matter of moments)’. Towards the bottom right of the print the word ‘rock’ is scrawled in large letters. Above and below it are lines that could be snatches of dialogue from Dean’s imaginary film: ‘the sea’s got her now – bye bye’ and ‘she’s come a croppa’. The scene is described as ‘The Russian Ending (rough misadventure)’.
The black and white source image for The Sinking of the SS Plympton depicts a large ship capsized in a still sea. The ship has beached dramatically on its side and only a portion of the hull is visible above the water. Dean’s notes provide historical detail about the incident in the photograph, which she calls ‘the classic Russian Ending’. The shipwreck took place in ‘treacherous waters’ off the ‘Scilly Islands’ where a ‘southwesterly blew her onto the rocks’. Text superimposed on the water immediately in front of the ship provides a mournful litany of the casualties: ‘all hands lost … all crew lost … all lost … lost at sea’.
Additional notes on the print approach the image as the template for Dean’s fictional film scene. The hull of the ship is marked with detailed measurements and the comment that, at over forty feet long, it is ‘quite a prop’. Camera directions encourage a ‘zoom in’ while sound notes call for a choir singing off-screen as the ship goes under. At the bottom of the print are instructions for a sentimental flashback sequence showing the Plympton’s launch, a ‘happy day’ despite the fact that ‘the bottle did not break’.
The photograph on which The Story of Minke the Whale is based depicts a whale beached in shallow waters. A large pulley has been attached to the whale’s mouth; it is unclear from the image whether this is a means of capture or of attempted rescue. A slightly out of focus group of people including two children stand on a boat behind the whale looking down at the vast expanse of the mammal’s flesh. The scene appears to take place in an estuary; land is visible beyond an additional boat in the water.
Dean’s notes describe the scenario as ‘a cheap Moby Dick’ set on ‘a fjord in Denmark’. Her fictional film places the blame for the whale’s death on the onlookers: ‘they killed her … poor Minke, killed for her blubber’. In the artist’s narrative, the ‘audience’s sympathy [is] with the whale’. Dean draws attention to sentimental detail that echoes her film’s tone, including the whale’s ‘last toothless smile’.
The grainy black and white source image for Ship of Death shows a waterlogged boat in a stormy sea. Water cascades over the sides of the vessel, and the violent pitch of the waves has rendered the mast a dark blur. In its impressionistic depiction of a tempestuous seascape the photograph recalls the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851; see A Disaster at Sea, circa 1835, Tate N00558). The image also relates to Dean’s own fascination with adventures and misadventures at sea (see Disappearance at Sea, 1996, Tate T07455).
Dean’s notations superimposed on the found image emphasise the fiction that the picture is the still from a film. At the top left corner are the words ‘last scene’ and the work’s title. A shrouded figure is highlighted with the legend ‘ferryman’. ‘Slow movement’ suggests a long camera pan across the scene. The bottom right corner includes more allusive references to the image. The water is labeled ‘Styx’ and an arrow pointing off towards the right bearing the words ‘exit’ and ‘Hades’ suggests the ship’s descent to the underworld. The phrases ‘bye bye’, ‘it’s over’, ‘whence they say that no man ever returns’ and ‘end’ reinforce the finality of the ship’s fate.
The photograph on which So They Sank Her! is based depicts a capsized ship. The large vessel is pictured on its side in shallow water; a propeller is visible on the far left of the image. Groups of men in heavy coats stand on the upturned side while several small boats congregate in front of the ship.
Dean’s notes provide a narrative contextualising the image as ‘a mutiny story’ dramatising ‘the sinking of a Royal Navy gunship’. The mutiny took place off the Isle of Wight in 1908. The men on the boat’s side are policemen, while the huddled masses in the rowboats are some of the captured mutineers. A solitary figure almost lost in the shadows is labeled ‘the ringleader’; he appears to be making his getaway.