"HIS DISTINCTIVENESS... IS INTACT"*

Eleonora Paston

Magazine issue: 
Special issue. IVAN POKHITONOV. THE ARTIST SORCERER

* Abridged version of the article published in the "Tretyakov Gallery" magazine No.1 2010 (26). Pp. 64 - 75.

THE SOLO SHOW OF IVAN PAVLOVICH POKHITONOV, TITLED “THE ARTIST-SORCERER", DEDICATED TO THE ARTIST'S 160th ANNIVERSARY, IS BEING HELD AT THE TRETYAKOV GALLERY IN THE “YEAR OF FRANCE IN RUSSIA", AND ITS MIRROR EVENT, “RUSSIA IN FRANCE". ALTHOUGH UNPLANNED, THIS OVERLAP IS EXTREMELY NATURAL. IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND ANOTHER ARTIST OF THE SECOND HALF OF THE 19th-EARLY 20th CENTURIES WHOSE OEUVRE REFLECTS RUSSO-FRENCH CONNECTIONS AS NATURALLY AS POKHITONOV.

Some of his contemporary critics even questioned his identity as a Russian artist. One of them, writing under the pen name “Sad Jardin”, opined in an article in 1918: “...For us, Russians, Pokhitonov is essentially a French artist; and not only for us. It will be the French section to which his art will be assigned. by future art historians”.1 Pokhitonov, on his part, wrote in 1896 in a letter to Pavel Tretyakov: “Whatever you may think, I am a Russian artist above all and it makes me sad to think how small and barely noticeable is the mark I’ll leave behind in my homeland.”1 These words are a veritable cri du coeur of an outstanding artist who wants to be understood and recognized by his fellow citizens. Pokhitonov, with his congenital distaste for what he called “self-contained systems”2, was, as Leo Tolstoy called him, a “natural-born” artist whose “distinctiveness is intact”3.

The exhibition features the painter’s landscapes, pieces mixing landscape and genre, still-lifes and portraits from the funds of the Tretyakov Gallery and the collection of Otar Margania of Moscow, who responded to the Gallery’s proposal to take part in the anniversary show. The works on display showcase the universe of an artist who had a deep appreciation of the beauty and poetry of nature, and a faculty for conveying, through images, all the diversity and richness of the scenery of different countries, the poetry of everyday life of Russians, Frenchmen and Belgians.

Pokhitonov arrived in Paris in 1877, at the age of 27, to study art professionally. There he joined a circle of resident Russian artists, writers and public figures who founded a Society for Mutual Assistance and Philanthropy of Russian Artists the year he came to the city. Pokhitonov became actively involved in the Society’s activities. He became familiar with different art trends and carefully studied landscapes by the artists from the Barbizon School. The nonpareil talent of Pokhitonov, who was highly sensitive to the smallest nuances in nature, as well as his uniquely keen eyesight, which made it possible for him to take up miniature painting, then popular in Europe, and his great industry, outgoing manner and kindliness attracted to him the Society members. The sculptor Ilya Gintzburg wrote in his “Memoir”: “...For all his admiration for the French landscape artists, he more than the others remained Russian in soul. His modesty and simplicity prepossessed everyone in his favour”4.

From the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s Barbizon and its environs became Pokhitonov’s favourite painting site. The show features one of his landscapes created in Barbizon - “After a Sunset. Barbizon” (1889, Tretyakov Gallery) - an emotionally expressive image of the transient state of nature in the light of the setting sun.

The artist had a special gift for deeply understanding the life of nature and its close connections with the life of people, which enabled him to create deeply realistic and at the same time affectingly poetic and lyrical landscapes. It needs to be said that these qualities were also characteristic of Russian lyrical mood-focused landscapes of the 1880s-1900s, like the works of Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Polenov and Isaac Levitan. But Pokhitonov’s pieces, very small in size - so-called “mignons” - had the elegance typical of miniatures, as well as the austere beauty of composition and the richness and pinpoint precision of colour design characteristic of French art. It was these features of Pokhitonov’s artwork that the critic Sad Jardin pointed to: “... He has ... an infinite sobriety, wonderful sense of proportion, extreme accuracy, inner integrity, limpidity and light - both artistic and moral, if we may say so. And these are typical French qualities. They indicate Pokhitonov’s close affinity with the Barbizon School, whose masters, incidentally, he knew in his youth, when he came to Paris”5.

Working at this time mostly in France, Pokhitonov did not sever ties with his homeland, and returned there regularly in summer. During one such visit he created a piece “Wedding in Matryonovka” (1880, Otar Margania’s collection). The painting features a crowd of merrymaking villagers in holiday clothes “inscribed” within the setting of an endless steppe in Kherson - the scene looks like an islet of happiness amidst the course of the villagers’ plain living. The artist left but a few multi-figure genre compositions - this one is an early specimen and, perhaps, the closest to the genre pieces of the “Peredvizhniki”.

A Wanderers (“Peredvizhniki”) show in 1882 featured Pokhitonov’s portrait by Ilya Repin, which captured very accurately not only the sitter’s appearance but also his inner world, his “pure, kind soul”6, as Repin described him. This is the impression Pokhitonov and his art produced on many who came into contact with him.

The present show features several landscapes made by the artist during his travels in Pau, a community in the southwest of France by the river Gave de Pau. The earliest among them was created in 1885, “Early Spring. Pau. Laundrywomen on a Bank of the Gave de Pau” (in the Tretyakov Gallery). The painting that the artist considered his most “satisfying” piece features a plain carefully-balanced composition with an elaborately-arranged foreground, middle-ground and background, which produces a strong sense of the depth of the clear far-reaching open space softly lit by a vernal sun. The several hunting scenes created by Pokhitonov at different times in Russia, France and Belgium never fail to attract the attention of the viewers. These pictures portray the soul of the artist emotionally, as a keen hunter and a person in love with nature, their images evoking the mood of Turgenev’s “Notes of a Hunter”, Pokhitonov’s favourite book.

In 1892, Pokhitonov went to Italy, staying there for eight months in the town of Torre del Greco at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, where he painted many landscapes depicting the beauty and natural diversity of the “land of the noontide”. The show features two pictures from Italy - “Vesuvius” (Tretyakov Gallery) and “A Slope of Mount Vesuvius” (Otar Margania’s collection, Moscow). Pokhitonov’s plein air painting reached perfection at that time, the artist conveying not only the sunlight and the play of reflexes from the rays of sun, but also the fluctuations of a light-filled air.

In summer 1893, Pokhitonov moved to Belgium, where he first settled in Jupille near Liege, and later in a suburb of Liege named Bressoux, not far from Jupille. In 1894 he created two works now at the Tretyakov Gallery: “Trou-Louette. A Winter Day. Manured Field under Snow” and “Trou-Louette in Winter”. The exhibition also features two pictures from Otar Margania’s collection: “The Artist’s Garden in Bressoux, a Suburb of Liege” and “Snare for Sparrows. (Effect of snow)”. In these pictures every little inch of the image of the snow is painstakingly crafted. With an unbelievable thoroughness and affection that the artist conveyed not only the resplendent dazzlingly white mantle of snow shining in the light of the morning sun, as in the paintings “Trou-Louette in Winter” or “The Plain of Bressoux under Snow”, but also the crumbly, dim-grey, damp melting snow, which street cleaners shovel aside from a street on a grey drab day, as in the picture “Snow in Pau” (1890, Tretyakov Gallery).

Pokhitonov combined romantic pantheism with the thoroughness and objectivity of a natural scientist. Living in a suburb of Liege and able to constantly watch his surroundings at different times of a day or a year, the painter studied the slightest changes in the life of nature. With the ease of a magician, he could convey in his paintings the bracing freshness of frosty air, the coolness of a springtime breeze, and even the smells of a garden in summer heat or in autumn. One such picture, “A Suburb of Liege” (from the late 1890s, Otar Margania’s collection), depicts the marks of nature’s autumnal withering on a summer-like bright, sunny day with grass and shrubs still green.

The landscapes created in Bressoux most often depict people doing their unhurried everyday work, as in the picture “Trou-Louette. Early Spring” (1895, Tretyakov Gallery). Sometimes the landscapes are void of people while having a lived-in look thanks to individual details that indicate the proximity of human beings. These details include a clothesline with clothes in “Trou-Louette. Autumn Evening” (1895, Tretyakov Gallery) or a section of a fence in a garden in “Trou-Louette in Winter” (1894, Tretyakov Gallery). But what is essential for the sense of a human presence in the pictures is their overwhelming mood resonating with the emotions of human beings.

In the 1890s, Pokhitonov focused ever more frequently on genre pieces, with human images getting larger. People’s faces, poses and gestures became more pronounced, their occupations and emotions easier to guess. These new qualities, in such paintings as “Laundrywomen” (1894, Tretyakov Gallery) and “Springtime. Landscape with Two Figures” (1890s, Otar Margania’s collection), lend an additional sense of vivacity and authenticity to the scene.

Pokhitonov painted not only the suburbs of Liege, but also views of a health resort La Panne in Belgium. The artist normally came to that town in the summer, and lived and worked there for long spells of time in the 1890s, 1906-1913 and in the early 1920s. He captured his impressions from La Panne in numerous landscapes distinguished by the tender play of pearly colours of the sea and the velvety sand coast, the finest gradations of infinitely changing colours of the sky, and the mutable colouring of the sea, thus reaching a special limpidity and transparence.

With the passing of the years Pokhitonov began to think increasingly more often about his Russian identity as an artist and to feel the need for a more active involvement in Russian cultural life. In the late 1890s he felt he wanted to stay in his homeland for a longer period of time and came to Russia in 1901. In 1902, he bought a small estate called Zhaboshchizna, several dozen kilometers outside Minsk. Images of peasants’ steady-paced work continued to be one of his key subjects, and the focus of two of his “autumnal” landscapes - “Outskirts of Zhabovshchizna” (1904, Tretyakov Gallery) and “At the Edge of a Village. Early Autumn” (early 1900s, from Otar Margania’s collection). Pokhitonov also focused on his another favourite genre, winter landscapes. These include “In Winter” (1900s, Tretyakov Gallery), an image of trees whose snow- and hoarfrost-coated limbs look more like lace, as well as the landscape “Snow” (1904, Otar Margania’s collection) featuring an immense vastness of the fields under a pure white snow blanket. His attention was also captured by vernal thaw-holes in the soil and the first tender shoots of grass growing through them, as well as buds swelling on trees: “Early Spring. Thaw-holes”, “Thaw near a Cowshed, a Watering Hole, Springtime” (early 1900s, all in Otar Margania’s collections).

By that time, some of Pokhitonov’s works had already been acquired by different museums and private collectors. Miniature painting was gradually gaining popularity in Russia. In 1904, Pokhitonov was awarded the title of full member of the Academy ofFine Arts, and in 1905, after having displayed his works at the “Peredvizhniki” shows for many years, he became a member of the group.

In the summer of the same year the artist visited Leo Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, creating several views of the place, as well as the writer’s portrait, and many portrait sketches. Tolstoy and Pokhitonov talked a lot, discussing vital issues of politics and art.

In January 1906, the painter left Zhabovshchizna and returned to Belgium, settling in Jupille. He continued to work a lot, with street scenes, such as “Bowling” (1910s, Otar Margania’s collection, Moscow), becoming one of his themes of choice at that time. In “Bowling” the artist captured poses and gestures with the precision of a genre painter. At that time he often preferred to concentrate only on views from his country home, like “View of Koksijde. La Panne” (early 1910s, Otar Margania’s collection, Moscow).

“Apple Trees in a Garden in Jupille” was one of the last paintings Pokhitonov accomplished before returning to Russia in late 1913, where he stayed when war broke out. Residing in St.Petersburg, he visited Zhabovshchizna, his homeland in Kherson, and the Kuban.

The style and motifs of Pokhitonov’s pictures were now gaining popularity in Russia. In 1911, the Lemercier Gallery displayed some 60 of his works, and in 1915 and 1917 Pokhitonov exhibited his works at the “Peredvizhniki” shows; in 1916, the 3rd Show of Sketches and Pictures featured 11 of his pieces. One would think that the artist’s old dream had come true and his oeuvre had found its niche in Russian cultural life. But the force of circumstances would again drive him away from Russia.

In 1917, after the February Revolution, he left St. Petersburg for Ukraine, and then moved to the Kuban, before leaving Russia for good in 1919. In the year of his departure he lived in a Cossack village, Goryachi Klyuch. Filled with joy and appreciation of the sweetness of life, the landscapes accomplished in the village depict people working in a garden, a kitchen garden or a field. The images have not a single sign of the deprivations suffered by the artist.

In Belgium, Pokhitonov settled in Brussels with his family in the early 1920s, and he focused on landscape views of the city’s suburbs. The paintings from that series such as “Side-street in a Distant Borough. Boitsfort”, “Springtime Works in La Hulpe” (early 1920s, Otar Margania’s collection, Moscow) manifest the painter’s keen interest in Impressionism. The Impressionist influence shows itself in the way the artist renders colour, light and air, and in his concentration onplein air effects.

The artist worked right up to his death: he died in Brussels at the age of 73.

In a letter to Pokhitonov in 1896 Repin wrote: “I always admire your magnificent pictures - they will forever remain on the scroll of our art. I believe they clearly reflect your pure, kind soul.”7 This judgment draws a line under the debate about the artist’s national identity. He was undoubtedly a “natural-born” Russian artist with a perfect grasp of the newest achievements of European art, which translated into his own original painterly technique.

Ivan Pokhitonov’s emotional and finished par excellence artworks are becoming increasingly popular, and the jubilee exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery enj oyed unprecedented success and received great acclaim.

 

  1. Translation of selected excerpts from the article in Russian signed "Sad Jardin”, 1918. Catalogue of posthumous show of Pokhitonov in 1925. In: Ivan Pokhitonov. "The Artist-Sorcerer”. On the 160th anniversary of Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov's birth. 1850-1923. Moscow, 2010. P. 159.
  2. More information in: Markevitch, I.B. "Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov”. Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov. 18501923. Catalogue. Moscow, 1963. P. 7.
  3. Zilbershtein, I.S. "The artist Ivan Pokhitonov visits Leo Tolstoy. Finds from Paris”. //''Ogonyok'' magazine. 1978. No. 37. P. 20.
  4. Grebeniuk, V.A. Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov. Moscow, 1973. P. 10.
  5. Translation of selected excerpts from the article in Russian signed "Sad Jardin”, 1918. Catalogue of posthumous show of Pokhitonov in 1925. Op.cit. P. 159.
  6. Zilbershtein, I.S. "The artist Ivan Pokhitonov visits Leo Tolstoy. Finds from Paris”. //''Ogonyok'' magazine.. 1978. No. 37. P. 20.
  7. Zilbershtein, I.S. "The artist Ivan Pokhitonov visits Leo Tolstoy. Finds from Paris”. //''Ogonyok'' magazine. 1978. No. 37. P. 20.

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