RUSSIAN IMRESSIONISM. REFLECTIONS AFTER AN EXHIBITION
WE COULD NEVER HAVE EVEN IMAGINED THAT WAYS OF RUSSIAN IMPRESSIONISM MIGHT BE MET WITH SUCH MISUNDERSTANDING AND EVEN ANTAGONISM. OF COURSE, WE HAD REALIZED THAT THE PROJECT MIGHT FALL OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM TOPICS WHICH OUGHT TO BE CONSIDERED "IMPORTANT" IN THE POST-SOVIET HISTORY OF ART. BUT, IN THE FIRST PLACE, THE EXHIBITION HAD BEEN DEVISED FOR A VERY IMPORTANT OCCASION – TO MARK THE CENTENARY OF THE UNION OF RUSSIAN ARTISTS. SECONDLY, IT WAS ONLY RECENTLY THAT THE ZEALOTS OF THE IDEA OF "IMPORTANT ARTS" REMEMBERED ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF PAINTING. AND, LAST BUT NOT LEAST, THE TRETYAKOV GALLERY DID NOT MEAN TO PRESENT THE RUSSIAN TRADITION OF PAINTING AS A PEAK OF PERFECTION. NOT AT ALL: THE PROJECT WAS MEANT TO COMPLEMENT OTHER EXHIBITIONS COVERING OTHER TRENDS, SUCH AS MOSCOW ABSTRACT ART 1950–2000 OR AVANT-GARDE ART ON THE NEVA RIVER AND THE LIKE.
Непонимание шло, таким образом, из искусствоведческой среды, в основном формирующей корпус критиков. И объяснимо оно, скорее всего, той особенностью нашего цехового самосознания, которую хочется назвать кризисом его историко-художественной составляющей. Как иначе понять явное несовпадение ожиданий и реальности, связанных с упомянутой выставкой на Крымском валу? Стоит напомнить прежде всего, что выставка, объявленная как посвящение столетию Союза русских художников, в части материала рубежаThus, there had been hope that Ways would be received with deliberation and measured appreciation; sadly, many art critics spoke about the show with unveiled irritation. Everything was thought wrong: Russian impressionism was thought not to be impressionism at all; its ways were believed no way but rather dead ends. And it seemed to smell of the outlived fusty socialist realism of Soviet tradition. But the general response proved to be quite polarized: the scepticism of art critics, who claimed to be moulding public opinion, was countered by the grateful attention of the public itself, as well as qualitative judgment of some prestigious contemporary painters. Thus, it was the art critics whose judgment provoked misunderstanding. That can only be accounted for by the type of their specific professional mentality, resulting from a kind of "crisis" of history of art. There cannot be any other explanation for the mismatch between what had been expected and what actually proved the aftermath of the show presented in the Krymsky Val Exhibition Hall.
Moreover, they should not have forgotten that our exhibition, announced as a tribute to the centenary of the Union of Russian Artists, did not include a single picture that had not been either exhibited in, or was very typical of, the Union's shows from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, their rebukes at the inclusion of "Lilac" by Mikhail Vrubel, or "The Girl's Dance" by Andrey Ryabushkin, or landscapes and indoor scenes by Valentin Serov, or even some canvases by Igor Grabar, seem groundless. Why this or that canvas was selected was a question that might have been put to those "Unionists" who initially did the job, not to the curators of the current exhibition. What is more important is that, although the selected pictures do reflect the practices adopted by the Union, their aesthetics seems really ambiguous and even sometimes controversial. This matter has, rightly, caused many disputes among historians of Russian art. Long ago scholars already agreed on the versatile nature of the artistic aspirations of the masters who belonged to the Union. In terms of form, genre, stylistics as well as orientation - from realism to modernism - they followed all the trends displayed in European art at the turn of the century.
Compared to the way of expression adopted by the academicians and more characteristic of the peredvizhniki, the "Unionists" gave preference to the tableau vivant impression accentuating the bright palette and the play of colours and lights that we see in reality. That made the "Unionists" look like trailblazers, modernists, "impressionists". Such characteristics could manifest themselves equally in a small plein-air study of a landscape or in a huge ornamental canvas. A wide range of genres and compositions allows a great diversity of implications: from lyrical avowal to poetic reverie, philosophic contemplation or religious apprehension, or some sort of analysis of a historical event, or a symbolic perception of the riddles of the universe. That accounts for the great variety of the works and names brought together at the Union's exhibitions: Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, the Moscow and St. Petersburg schools of painting, realism and symbolism, Alajalov alongside Sergey Ivanov and Mikhail Vrubel, Victor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Nesterov alongside Philip Malyavin, Stanislav Zhukovsky, Igor Grabar and Konstantin Yuon.
That was what we intended to say in our exhibition, which was originally named The Living Tradition and dedicated to the centenary of the Union of Russian Artists. That explains its particular interest in works painted in the period 1890-1920, around 1950 and, partly, in the years 1950-2000. Our assumption was that a creative dialogue with the tradition of the Union, multifaceted as it was, had been going on up to the generation of the Soviet painters of the 1960s, who started in the late 1940s and were still active in the 1970s-1980s (some are still working today). The authors of the project did not mean to touch upon the prospects of the Union's tradition living on through future generations of Russian painters.
We were rebuked for opening our exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery after the show of Russian impressionists at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and that of the "Unionists" at the Museum of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and, consequently, for being a weak copy of both. Critics, nevertheless, failed to see that only our exhibition focused on an in-depth comparison of the old and new meanings of the words - the tradition of the Union of Russian Artists. By ignoring that fact, critics were effectively saying that "the new" was artistically bankrupt. It was no surprise, therefore, that one of the most blatant commentaries (full of errors and slurs, by the way), published in Kultura by a fictitious critic Pavel Kinin, bore the headline: The Way into a Blind Alley.
The idea to change the exhibition's original name came close to the time of its opening. Partly, it was meant to make the name appeal to the public; in a way, the idea worked, since, despite the hot summer weather, the number of visitors exceeded 27,000. But the last-minute decision left us with a critical situation on our hands: the Gallery had to display, beside its own exhibits, those of their American partners from Minneapolis who claimed to have been dealing with Russian impressionism for about one hundred years. We were also involved in all kind of arguments with anyone who believed Russian impressionism should look quite different, who claimed that the pictures on display were not related to impressionism in any way, and that the whole movement constituted a road to nowhere.
Logically, any such argument should sound strange. But we accept the challenge. Why the phenomenon in question can be considered impressionism seems to have been explained above. The means and principles, both in form and style, as well as the innovatory language which the "Unionists" turned to in their works to convey their impression of the world, placed them among the followers of the impressionist movement. Our adversaries should be reminded of a well-known fact: Russian painters were directly encouraged towards this new "language" by the French impressionists. This influence is most conspicuous in Ilya Repin's and Vasily Polenov's canvases painted after their stay in Paris in the 1870s and in the works of the young Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin from their European and postEuropean periods. Their impact on each of the Soviet painters whose pictures were displayed at the exhibition can be formally confirmed by their artistic biographies. A key role in the succession of the tradition, as is also well known, belonged to such outstanding academicians as Sergey Gerasimov, Nikolai Krymov, Vasily Pochitalov, Vera Favorskaya and Ivan Chekmazov.
A few words must be said about the extent to which Russian impressionism resembles its French prototype. Is it possible for a creative art to be the spitting image of a model born in another culture and derived from another background? Why should Russian art have its own Eduard Manet, in the figure of, say, Valentin Serov? And moreover, was Serov able or willing to act as a second Manet? Does it not sound absurd to try "to include Russian art in the world art context" in the form of some kind of replica of the French, Italian, German or American models? No serious Russian critic would put the question this way. This is rather the empty talk of the new Russian art-business, pursuing the idea of world integration. Of course, the Russian branch of impressionism would bear fruit - and did so - but only of a kind marked by national identity.
Our national background made impressionism look more rustic and peasant-like or provincial, akin to "cherry orchards". Least of all was it urban, or connected to the metropolitan bohemia. It was not the heat haze of summer that Russian plein-air strived for, but rather the grey pea-soup sky of autumn. The bright colours of the Crimea, the sunny Paris-blue skies of spring and the bespeckled fancy of a fair were reserved for rare moments of joy and festivity. Besides, the Russian art of "impression" has never been far removed from Russia's social problems and spirit: the "impressions" have always been a reflection of the artist's apprehension of Russia's destiny. As an important part of the painter's individuality, that apprehension is most likely to be visible in his works. It might have echoed the powerful aspiration for national identity brought about by the peredvizhniki, as well as by the entire Russian cultural community of the 19th century. As for personalities such as Valentin Serov, Anton Chekhov, Sergei Rachmaninov and some outstanding painters of the Union, the revolutionary and social attitude of others turned in their works into a personal attachment to the lares and penates, to one's birthplace, to the Russian landscape. The beauty of the cherry orchard symbolizing the old family seat will never fade in the memory of Ranevskaya, the heroine of Chekhov's play. Similar memories are evoked by Serov's landscapes of Domotkanovo, in pictures by Stanislav Zhukovsky or Sergei Vinogradov or in "Wind in the Trees" by Arkady Rylov. Those memories become sweet reveries in Vrubel's "Lilac". The same penetrating nostalgia seizes the viewer again and again when looking at the graceful white willows or rustling bluebells of the canvases of Sergei Gerasimov, or at the riot of colour in the hot summer field of Arkady Plastov's "Haymaking".
That sentiment led to the peculiar brushwork which was characteristic of the masters of the Union and their disciples. Most of them rejected divisible brushstroke, or divisionism. That could make one think that their manner of painting looked archaic, resembling the academic paintings of the realists. On the contrary: they adopted another attitude which was based on a spatial vision of colour, rather than on perspective drawing. It was for that reason that the true peredvizhnik Grigory Myasoedov criticized the brushwork of Serov's "girls", calling them "infected with syphilis". Notwithstanding that criticism, Russian impressionism remained inclined to "natural motif (the personified "symbolic form" of nature), which was thought to be more important than the choice of a brushwork technique or the brushstroke applied. The ambition of the brush effectively used to dissolve in the natural blend of the cherished image. This attitude can even be found in the works from the 1900s of Igor Grabar, the most consistent adherent of divisionism among the "Unionists", and makes the modernism of Russian-made impressionism even more inferior to its French original. Russian painters managed to catch up later, in the 1900-1910s, with the breakthrough of the Russian avant-garde. With the "Unionists", nevertheless, as well as with their followers, the imperative remained the priority of the "natural motif" - particular and carefully chosen as it was for each of them. That principle was to be followed both in the 1910s, and in the 1930s, and in the 1950s.
Here Russian impressionists come out with a paradox that contemporary art critics actually fail to see. Although its devotion to nature nearly places Russian impressionism in contraposition to the avant-garde - and gives Russian impressionism a kind of rigid simplicity - our national school surprises the world with the lasting freshness of its imagination and ingenuity of forms, even with some unexpected extravagance at times. Remember the dissident painter in "The Thaw", the novel by Ilya Ehrenburg: the phenomenon of the first years after Stalin's death was meant to be an epitome of Korovin's principles of painting. For those who believe that the symbol of aesthetical nonconformity was chosen by Ehrenburg wrongly, as nothing but fiction - how appropriate it would sound today: the blind alleys of impressionism! We should recall the not-so-distant period of the late 1940s, which was marked by the rabid persecution, initiated by Stalin's regime, of exactly impressionism. In 1946, Nikolai Punin, the most articulate critic of 20th century art, made his statement "Impressionism: the Problem of a Painting" at a conference in Leningrad. Its message was that the creative method in question could allow for the regeneration of Russian national painting, for impressionism, as the speaker saw it, taught the painter to "be sincere and advanced". The works of Eduard Manet consituted a timeless school of innovation, being not a model, or "ice doctrine", to follow, but a direction for the painter on the way to his own "new ideas and new impressions".
Of course, here we mean "new" in terms of socialist realism, or Soviet-made Russian art, inculcated with official ideology. Here is another paradox of the Union's aesthetics: such pillars of official Soviet art as Alexander Gerasimov or Boris Ioganson were nourished by the Moscow school of the Union of Russian Artists. But some of their works, showing their authors' impressionist origins, illustrated the artist's ambivalence towards a totalitarian regime; the context was equally grotesque and dramatic, since their niche in the Soviet Temple of Fame with its accompanying titles of People's Artist, was bought at the cost of a denial of their impressionist past and concealed under the colossal "topical" canvases painted for the official All-Union exhibitions at the Manezh. Still, if we forgot for a minute Gerasimov's series of Stalin portraits, and take a look at his "A Terrace after Rain", the latter undoubtedly betrays an acute nostalgia for Korovin's landscapes, which even the Communist President of the Soviet Academy of Arts was not able to hide. The small "impressionist" pictures, rather studies, of Russian villages or northern provincial towns painted by the Tkachev brothers, V. Gavrilov, V. Stozharov and other graduates of the Surikov College, which appeared in the mid-1950s or early 1960s, introduced something new to the tastes and standards of the Stalin "classics" and helped Russian art cast off the totalitarian ideology.
If there is anybody today to whom it needs to be explained why that kind of painting looked fresh and new, we can recall at least two, but key, points. The hopes, to say nothing of ideals, which the Soviet people were allowed to cherish were strictly regulated. Despite that, younger artists of the political "thaw" began to speak about a Russia that was completely forgotten in the prospects of a future Communist paradise. The young rebels turned to those human values, and social and historical events, which were incompatible with the Bolshevik mentality. They did not see their heroes depicted against a background of official newspaper slogans or pompous parades. They saw them as ordinary people placed in everyday situations, with the painter among them. True socialist realism seems to be always uniformed and fully buttoned-up. For every true Soviet painter the monumental canvas shown at a large-scale exhibition was like a uniform complete with every glaring and pompous touch. Against that monster, those who began in the 1960s moved towards small-sized, low- key canvases, or simply studies, painted in a free manner. The artistic merits of these pictures were measured by the degree of sincerity in the choice of a "natural motif"; that is, how well the choice matched the author's individuality, and how adequate to both was the manner of painting itself. That was an attempt to value a work of art by the personality of its author, and not by his loyalty to the ruling regime.
The significance of such a change in the artists' mentality is difficult to overestimate. Nevertheless, this new mentality could hardly be called universal or irreversible for all those involved in Soviet art of the post-Stalin era. Our exhibition was graphic proof of that: the same young rebels of the 1960s who used to demonstrate their inclination for free-style painting came to like the monumental canvases of the kind known as the "Manezh-like" pictures in the years of "stagnation". The free-thinking and non-conventionality of the young gave way to a "healthy" conformism. Many young talents who previously had appeared quite daring chose to join the art officialdom of the Painters' Associations or the Academy of Arts, the latter known as the last resort of a Marxist-Leninist ideology in art. Nevertheless, the liking for monumental pictures that the pioneers of our national "thaw" in art demonstrated should not be viewed as a retreat at the onset of dogmatic socialist realism. That demonstration might also be a challenge, a kind of revenge that an artistic movement, such as impressionism, recently suppressed as it was, may long for.
It will be enough to mention here that such a policy of repression was very cruel, and that many people suffered. Not only were many bright ideas extinguished, but the lives of many were ruined. Among them was Nikolai Punin, who was arrested soon after he made his statement at the Leningrad conference, and died in the GULAG. An equivalent death, in society, awaited other outstanding figures of Russian art: master teachers such as Sergei Gerasimov and Alexander Osmerkin were scornfully rejected by the major art colleges. But as if in defiance of all that, as soon as Stalin died, small canvases painted in what seemed to be an irrevocably denounced and forgotten manner started to appear.
It seems natural that the authors of such works were able to learn from the traditions of Russian impressionism: Serov, Korovin, Sergei Gerasimov, Plastov and others of the Moscow school of painting. Thus, Russian impressionism of the 1960s-70s had to plough its way through genre pictures, family portraits, landscapes and studies, including those of nudes, by V. Tzyplakov, A. and S. Tkachev, V. Nechi- tailo, while avoiding their mainstream (official, topical, historical, revolutionary and patriotic) canvases. Nothing displays the contrast better than Vasily Nechitailo's pure Manezh-standard portraits of Lenin and his large-scale "A Nude. Masha." The latter was part of our exhibition of Russian impressionists at the Tretyakov Gallery.
Our exhibition showed that many artistic motifs, which have been in the Russian artistic tradition for decades, still appeal to people - and they were far from just "cute", smooth brushwork, or "trendy" parlour affectations. Nothing of the kind: what caught the eye at the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition were the landscapes by Sergey Gerasimov, Serov and Korovin. Viewers were fascinated by the scarlet red robes of Arkhipov's, Bragovsky's and Gavrilov's women. And Malyavin's shawls and sarafans, of course. How attractive they looked, those intense red spots against a pale background, especially outlined against blue shadows on white snow, as in Gavrilov's "Young Mothers" or in Zverkov's "The skiers". Visitors lacked words to express their feelings on seeing the dusk, throbbing with mystery, of Ryabushkin's "Girl's Dance", or the figures of workers yielding to the heat in performing their ritual task in Plastov's "Haymaking". Eduard Bragovsky's blue contrasting with Mikhail Vrubel's lilac: they seemed so far away from each other, but still seemed to have something in common. Didn't Boris Ugarov's "Heading for Homeland" recall Serov's intonations? Or Stozharov's northern themes? Zverkov's canvases were not at all in disharmony with Sergei Ivanov's "Family". And the landscapes by Sidorov and Glebov looked so familiar, simple and dignified at the same time. Wasn't it the same land depicted on the canvases, one that had only changed its historical appearance?
There is something else upon which to dwell. Through our colleagues from the Russian Art Museum in Minneapolis, USA, who were very kind to offer more than twenty items from their collection for display, we came to realize that the Russian art of which we are talking has been exported in quantity to the countries of the West for many years. Whether in overseas private apartments and houses or as part of prestigious public collections abroad, Russian paintings have found themselves new homes. Moreover, it becomes clear that such canvases of Plastov, Nechitailo, A. and S. Tkachev, Bragovsky and Zverkov, found in these exotic environments, are no longer perceived as belonging to Soviet art. The Party leaders, Manezh exhibitions and right-or-left-wing movements are forgotten. The paintings are appreciated for what they are, following people's natural interest in life, culture and art. That is what contemporary Russian critics should come at last to understand. Naturally that does not mean that art critics, or anybody else, should stop admiring avant-garde art.
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