The Moment of Truth. On the return of the Geneva collection of Nikolai Ge’s drawings to Russia

Nina Markova

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#3 2011 (32)

In May 2011, with the financial assistance of VTB Bank, a set of Nikolai Ge’s drawings was returned from Geneva to the artist’s homeland: the collection is an important fragment of Russian cultural heritage that vanished from Russia into exile more than 100 years ago. This is a landmark event which had been eagerly anticipated by Russia’s museum community for more than 20 years.

In terms of its comprehensiveness and cohesiveness, the Geneva collection is unique. It is the largest presently-known collection of Ge’s graphics: 55 paper sheets with 70 drawings, including pictures on the reverse sides of some of the sheets. These drawings reflect the most essential aspects of the great master’s art, and are indispensable for understanding the magnitude and originality of his gift for drawing. Ge’s drawings held in different museums of Russia and Ukraine (the Tretyakov Gallery, Russian Museum, and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Leo Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, the Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod, the Museum of Russian Art in Kiev, and the Art Museum in Dnepropetrovsk) — and some of them are very fine pieces — only complement the Geneva collection, which comprises the artist’s most important graphic works.

The collection offers a comprehensive survey of Ge’s inimitable individuality as a “seeker of Truth”, an associate of Leo Tolstoy and a proponent of his ideas. The creative relationship between the writer and the artist influenced many of the pieces from the Geneva set, which includes 12 superb drawings — originals of illustrations for the short story “What Men Live By” (1886)1. Narrated very realistically and with a clear simple language, the story of an angel who questioned Divine Providence and as punishment was cast down to earth, was adequately rendered in pictorial form. Ge depicted individual episodes of the story with a focus on detail typical for a realist artist, carefully and delicately elaborating the colour schemes. The drawings are suffused with light which lends a special precious quality to the originals and proved impossible to reproduce in prints. Another large series consists of sketches of illustrations for Leo Tolstoy’s “The Gospel in Brief” (1886-1888), a publishing project thwarted by the censors and left unfinished. These coal drawings on huge sheets are very different in style — very expressive, with dynamic strokes, some of them with a complex composition.

Sketches of Ge’s paintings displayed in the room dedicated to Ge at the Tretyakov Gallery form a separate group: “Messengers of the Resurrection” (1867), “Peter the Great Interrogating Tsarevich Alexei at Peterhof” (1871), “Christ and the Disciples Going into the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper” (1889) , “Conscience. Judas” (1891), “‘What Is Truth?’ Christ and Pilate” (1890) , and “The Judgment of the Sanhedrin: He Is Guilty!” (1892). 17 pictures were produced in the course of work on “The Crucifixion”, the centrepiece of his “Passion” series. Ge spent many years working on the theme, starting in 1884 and creating, besides many unfinished versions, four completed compositions. The drawings from the Geneva collection — drafts and sketches from nature — were made in 1892-1894. At that period Ge relentlessly worked on sketches and study drawings for “The Crucifixion”, frequently changing the idea of the composition and never abandoning his sketch work or slowing down even when he had painted what he thought was the definitive version. Within a short time he created cardinally different compositions: naturalistic and with a symbolist touch; dramatic, and harmonious and enlightened; realist, and shockingly expressive and grotesque, the latter qualities unknown in the artistic repertoire of the 19th century. Coal and sauce were two of the main instruments Ge used to create this polyphonic suite astonishing for its unbelievably effortless workmanship, applying all his temperament and all the force of his spiritual excitement to convey the idea that took hold of him. The set of study drawings for “The Crucifixion” is a series marked by great artistic cohesion, an object of art on its own terms. These pictures are the pinnacle of Ge’s artistic powers and one of the most momentous and inspired contributions to the history of Russian art of the late 19th century.

The peregrinations of the Geneva collection could have provided material for a dramatic novel rich in suspense. Such a novel would offer everything — extraordinary characters, paroxysms of passion, unbelievable turns of plot, and an unexplainable, sometimes seemingly fantastic chain of events which ended happily.

Ge the younger was a very good son. While denying the ideas on which he had modelled his life under his father’s influence, he remained loyal to his father’s memory and art. He organized several exhibitions of Ge’s art: soon after the move, in 1903, first in Paris and then in Geneva, and later, in 1928, on the centenary of Tolstoy’s birth. Together with the 1894 version of “The Crucifixion” and the portraits, he also displayed drawings — illustrations for “The Gospel in Brief”, “What Men Live By”, and “The Repentant Sinner”. In 1904 he published the “Album of Artwork of Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge” containing prints of 230 paintings, sketches and drawings2 — it took almost three years to prepare the publication: “At the start I did the collecting, and Mei [the photographer] photographed everything that I knew could be found in private collections and museums, and later I travelled across Russia for two years to locate pieces whose whereabouts were unknown ... Having taken about 340 photographs, I decided to print the Album.”3 Money for the publication was donated by the Moscow entrepreneur and collector Kuzma Soldatyonkov and Leo Tolstoy’s younger son, Mikhail; Nikolai Ge made a financial contribution himelf as well. He was also working on his father’s biography4, planning to include in it prints of the pieces that for different reasons were left out of the album.

It would be stretching the truth to say that Nikolai Ge the younger had a happy life outside his homeland. He lived in need, leasing a plot of land and subletting it and driving cattle from Switzerland to Russia. Already by the mid-1900s the family had broken up. In 1912 the uncompromising Zoya, now released from police surveillance and not embracing her husband’s newly acquired taste for “deals” and “fortune making”, returned with her children to Russia, and Ge became a French citizen. Their younger son Kolya succumbed to mental illness and died in hospital, while their older son, 26-year-old Ivan, was conscripted in 1914 into the French army and suffered on the battlefield a tragic and absurd death under the heels of a regimental horse5.

Growing old and lonely, Ge was given a home in Geneva by his friend Beatrice de Watteville, whose children he privately tutored. In 1929 he wrote a will bequeathing to Beatrice, on the condition of a life annuity, all of his property, including his father’s works, Leo Tolstoy’s letters and his 2,000-tome library. M-me de Watteville’s old castle Gingins in the canton of Vaud became a kind of museum of Ge’s art: his pictures, including the 1894 version of “The Crucifixion”, were hung in one of its halls, and were made available for public viewing in 1936. Ge even invited Leo Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana Sukhotin-Tolstoy, with whom he remained close and continued to exchange letters, to visit. During the last years of his life, he spent summers in Gingins and winters in Paris, where he taught Russian language at the Sorbonne. He was a chairman of the Dante Society in Geneva, an organization popularizing Italian culture which he knew well since childhood. He wrote articles for local periodicals and treatises on social and political topics. He was buried in a country cemetery near Gingins in 1938, his remains resting under a tombstone with a quotation from the book of Daniel, in French: “Ceux qui auront ete intelligents brilleront comme la splendeur du ciel”6.

When Beatrice de Watteville died in 1952, her castle and its contents were sold at auction, including Nikolai Ge’s paintings, sketches and drawings, his archive and library. According to surviving documents, all this was priced at a paltry 2,002 Swiss francs. In 1956 the Swiss publishing house “Librairie Nouvelle”, which became the owner of the artist’s legacy, offered the Soviet Union to chance to buy it for its museums for a modest sum. The Soviet Ministry of Culture, however, did not respond to this proposal with enthusiasm: although the regime had changed, Nikolai Ge — the religious artist and moralist — was as unwelcome as he had been in Tsarist Russia. The Ministry bought only Nikolai Ge the younger’s correspondence with Leo Tolstoy, which was then deposited at the Tolstoy Museum. After that the artist’s legacy vanished leaving no trace, as did Ge’s last picture, the 1894 version of “The Crucifixion” — its location remains unknown to this day.

Coincidentally, the future owner of the collection was born on the day of the auction.

A student of architecture in Geneva, who earned extra money by buying up cheaply from flea-markets paintings, prints and old books and re-selling them with a slight markup, during one of his visits to the market noticed paintings by an artist unknown to him. The pictures were laid out on the ground, with passers-by paying no attention to them, and at times even stepping on them. “Grasping the worth of the ‘unknown’ master who certainly didn’t deserve such neglect I bought this collection,” the collector remembered later7. What attracted him in these pieces? He says that it was the great sincerity of the unknown master. Ge’s pictures were lucky: they fell into the hands of an extraordinary individual, one who loved art whole-heartedly. Now he is a prominent art dealer credited with several highly commercially successful transactions on the art market. But are there many young men who, at the age of 20, would be so educated, insightful and sharp of eye as to spot amidst the mounds of rubbish for sale something that may have “lasting” value? A decade of work as a clown, work on the side as an artist, and participation in many major music and art festivals, do not seem to match the image of a dealer either.

For over 30 years the owner kept his chance purchase as a treasure — it literally became a part of him. For a long time he did not know whose works he had saved from destruction. But even back then he was aware that the pictures represented a whole which should not be destroyed by selling them off piece by piece. He learned the artist’s name only in 1988, from a couple of visiting friends who were natives of the USSR — the philologist and professor at Geneva University Simon Markish (son of the famous poet Peretz Markish) and his sister, a ceramics artist from Kiev, Olga Rapeh-Markish. From then on the owner worked hard to explore the artwork he had chanced upon, and traced its history and documents connected with Ge’s legacy. His main goal was to draw the attention of specialists to the collection, “to publicize the very existence of this series — and may other researchers continue the quest”8.

Viktor Tarasov9 was the first to tell Soviet readers the story of the Geneva collection, and his initial publication spread the knowledge of it among Soviet art scholars. Concerned about the future of the collection, the owner also spoke about his willingness to sell it to one of the Russian museums. The Soviets too indicated their interest in the proposal, which seemed more likely to be accomplished given the approaching centenary of Ge’s death in 1994. Yet, in a nation that was falling apart, as previously there was neither the finance nor the political will to return the artist’s legacy to his homeland. Institutions interested in the Geneva pictures included not only major Russian museums such as the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum but also other museums and auction houses outside Russia. However, the price asked by the owner, all too aware of the value of his possession, was too high, not least because he insisted that the collection be bought in its entirety.

In 1994 18 drawings from the collection were displayed at the exhibition “Artists Read the Bible” at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, after which the owner donated to the museum one sheet with two sketches — one on each side — for the “Crucifixion”.

Since the news about the re-emergence of Ge’s paintings first appeared, the Tretyakov Gallery had made it a point of honour to return the artist’s works to his homeland, to the museum which had they left many years ago. The senior researcher at the department of painting of the second half of the 19th century and Ge specialist, Natalya Zograf, and the head of the graphics department Mirra Nemirovskaya, wrote requests to the Ministry of Culture to draw its attention to the collection — but to no avail.

In 2010, in the run-up to a Ge exhibition marking the 180th anniversary of his birth, the gallery’s researchers again brought up the issue of purchasing the collection. Several employees of the museum were sent to Geneva so that they finally could see the entire collection, evaluate its condition and make up an inventory in order to prepare documents for purchase. There was a steely determination to bring this decades-long story to a closure, and an awareness that the moment was critical — now or never! — because , in the best circumstances things would remain after the exhibition, as they had been before, and in the worst, the collection would be sold off piece by piece and disappear. There was the feeling of undertaking a bold initiative without any financial backing — the sum asked by the owner for his collection was all but unrealistic for a museum, while there were no sponsors in sight. As before, assistance from the state was out of the question — private sponsors were the only hope.

But the world was in the grip of an economic crisis and structures which might be in possession of the necessary sum were tightening their belts. And anyway, who nowadays would trouble themselves over such questions as, “What is truth?”. Who, in an age of mass consumption, would be willing to donate such a huge sum to the museum? Who would be interested in the strange artist who rapturously drew with coal Gospel images on enormous sheets, not in compliance with the official canon of the Church but according to Tolstoy’s precepts? Back then, at the turn of the 20th century, truth-seekers from all over the world stood in line to meet with the philosopher from Yasnaya Polyana who held sway over people’s minds, whereas in 2010 the centenary of Tolstoy’s departure from Yasnaya Polyana and his subsequent death was barely noticed by the general public. In a world of glitz and glamour, who would be interested in black-and-white drawings that were unfit to adorn a house or please the eye, but were instead disturbing and requiring from the viewer serious efforts of heart and mind?

The accomplishment of the purchase of the collection by the museum can be called a moment of truth — a modicum of the huge, all-encompassing truth which the artist Nikolai Ge so ardently sought and tried to convey in his images. This truth consists in the existence of divine justice, because while history made sharp turns, divine justice safeguarded the works of the artist who was its loyal servant, and because divine justice arranged for the return of the work to the artist’s homeland through a chain of seemingly accidental events. The Geneva collection should have returned to Russia — and finally it would do so. It makes little sense to argue whether the price paid for this was high or low, and who benefitted the most — the seller or the buyer. The truth is that there are treasures that are not defined solely by their price tag. Certain individuals from the world of finance, which is quite immune to the excitements of art scholarship, appreciated the importance of the return of the collection. They realized that the laurels of art philanthropy cannot be bought for three rubles at the Cheremushkinsky Market and sometimes require far bigger expenditures. As a reward, the plaudits being accorded to VTB Bank for their help in sponsoring the return of Ge’s drawings are of the highest calibre — this deal undoubtedly became the purchase of the century, a landmark cultural event of modern art history. As for the owner of the collection, his concern about its future prevailed over financial considerations, so the sum eventually paid was less than the sum initially requested.

At one time Ge, tired of harassment by the censors and a lack of understanding, predicted that his “Crucifixion”, chased away from Russia, would return to its homeland by way of the West. One would want to hope that now, on the wave of public interest in the artist’s personality and art caused by the acquisition of the collection and the forthcoming exhibition, a miracle will occur and his key painting will emerge from oblivion. But even if the “Crucifixion” has not survived, the master has returned — in the form of dozens of drawings reflecting the artistic and spiritual milestones which Ge created while working on his last composition and which can be described, with sound basis, as one of the greatest achievements of graphic art of the second half of the 19th century.

“True masterpieces, those that humankind needs, such as Ge’s pictures, do not perish but win recognition following their own course,” wrote the artist’s wise friend Leo Tolstoy10. The masses of viewers visiting Ge’s anniversary exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery now have the chance to ascertain the truth of this statement for themselves.

 

  1. A short story with collotype illustrations was published in 1886: “What Men Live By" by Leo Tolstoy with Nikolai Ge's illustrations. M.Panov’s collotype workshop. Moscow: 1886.
  2. “Albom khudozhestvennykh proisvedenii N.N.Ge" (Album of Artwork of Nikolai Ge). Moscow: 1904. (Further in the text referred to as the “Album"). The album was prepared already in 1903, but the accompanying text was heavily censored. So, in 1904 Ge published a new, expanded and corrected text, which was inserted into unsold copies of the album.
  3. N.N.Ge-son - V.V.Stasov. August 18, 1903 // Nikolai Nikolaievich Ge. Correspondence... p. 205
  4. Apparently, these plans were not realized. Yet, Ge was actively engaged in Tatiana Sukhotin-Tolstoy's work on the first version of her memoir about Nikolai Ge, which appeared in the 11th issue of the “Vestnik Evropy” (European Messenger) magazine in 1904.
  5. As a tribute to his memory, Ge the younger passed the 1892 version of “The Crucifixion", which was initially deposited for safekeeping in the Museum of Luxembourg (Musee du Luxembourg) in Paris, to the church in the small town of Saint-Pierre where Ivan Ge was buried. In 1981, the painting was sent from that church to the Musee National dArt Moderne (National Museum of Modern Art) in Paris, and then to the Musee d'Orsay, which holds it to this day.
  6. “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament". Daniel 12:3.
  7. Lazebnikova, Irina. ‘Provenans: «bloshinyi rynok Zhenevy» [Provenance: Geneva’s Flea Market] ’. In: “Russkoe Iskusstvo [Russian Art]", 2005, No. 3. Pp. 118-119.
  8. Ibid., p. 121.
  9. Tarasov,Viktor. ‘Nikolai Ge iz Chateau de Gingins, chto bliz Zhenevy (Nikolai Ge from the Chateau de Gingins, near Geneva)'. In: “Tvorchestvo” (Creative Pursuits). 1991. No. 12. Pp.2-4.
  10. “Nikolai Ge" P.201.

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