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  • Writer's pictureJeb Brack

The Cossacks Reply to the Art Museum

The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Sultan

Paul Porfirov, late 1800s

In the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum

This is my second-favorite piece of art of all time.

Even before I learned the story behind it, I loved it, and in the five years since moving to Cincinnati, I viewed it every time I visited the museum. It is so expressive and evocative that I made up my own stories about it, which turned out to be close to the truth. You can read about it in detail here if you like, or just use your own imagination for a minute. This is a group of battle-hardened soldiers who probably can't read or write, gathered around a scribe as they dictate a letter to the Sultan. Obviously, the letter is insulting, probably obscenely so. Look at their expressions: the guy to the immediate right of the scribe is crying, he's laughing so hard! Can't you hear them all shouting suggestions for the next sentence, each more villainous than the last? Even the scribe is grinning, trying to get it all down. Follow the link to Wikipedia and you can read the result for yourself. It's a masterpiece.

Two weeks ago I visited the art museum and walked by the gallery where the Cossacks reside, only to find that the painting is gone, swapped out for a couple of smaller and (in my opinion) far inferior works. For the rest of the day, in my head, I composed letters to the CAM and its officers very similar to the one the Cossacks wrote, with every intention of posting it here. But I am not a Cossack; the CAM is not the Sultan; and this is not the Ukraine in the late 1600s. The invective they employed is out of place in this situation (although I hope to use the insults "Babylonian scullion", "Macedonian wheelwright", and "the crick in our dick" on somebody someday--probably when they can't hear me say it).

I'm a reasonable man. I know that the CAM has a larger collection than they have room to display it. I know that there are other works that deserve to see the light of day. I know there are people (sad, misguided people) who don't like the Cossacks and would prefer to view something else. I can even (barely) wrap my mind around the concept that I'm not the most important patron of the museum, and so my opinion doesn't count more than anyone else's.

I don't care. When I saw that painting was gone, I felt like my guts had been kicked out. It was my favorite piece in the entire museum, and my second-favorite piece in the world. (This is my favorite, if you care.) Without it, a familiar and pleasant place felt less welcoming and caring. It was like losing old friends. Luckily, the painting is not destroyed, only in storage, so I hold out hope that I will see it again one day, but in the meantime my message to the CAM is that you have made a terrible mistake, and I hope you correct it. I paraphrase the Reply of the Cossacks:

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife! Now we'll conclude, for we don't know the date and don't own a calendar; the moon's in the sky, the year with the Lord, the days the same over here as it is over there; for this KISS OUR ARSE! with the whole Zaporozhian host.

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