TO STOP BLOODSHED?
IN A COLLECTION OF THE BESTKNOWN RUSSIAN PAINTINGS THIS ONE STANDS APART. ITS DISTINCTION IS OF A CONTROVERSIAL CHARACTER. PAINTED BY AN OUTSTANDING ARTIST IT HAS ACHIEVED A NOTORIETY OF THE KIND THAT ALSO MARKS "THREE BOGATYRS" BY VICTOR VASNETSOV, OR VASILY PEROV’S "TROIKA" OR FEDOTOV’S GENREPIECES. True, if the portrait of a personality is based on a common archetype of some kind, it inevitably provokes various associations which, among others, might be satirical or ironic. Such portraits usually generate popular logos and caricature. But here again "Ivan the Terrible" stands apart. Striking a high pitch of exaltation and stretched nerves, the canvas provoked a dramatic episode that happened over twenty-five years after the picture was painted. Some ninety years ago, on the eve of the Romanovs’ 300th anniversary celebration, Abram Balashev, a deranged Old Believer, lashed out at the canvas with a knife crying: "Stop the bloodshed! Stop the bloodshed!" The public was shocked, while the press exploded with an avalanche of letters-to-the-editor. The subject under debate went beyond scrutinizing the artistic merits of the picture or Abram Balashev’s abnormal behavior. As is usually the case with the Russian intelligentsia, a particular question grew into a discussion of matters of a wider aesthetic and ethical nature, which happen to be relevant even today, and take on new connotations at different times.
The story of how the idea of "Ivan the Terrible" was born is worth special note. 300 years passed after the dynastic tragedy in Great Duke Ivan's family - the full catalogue title of the canvas being "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan: November 16 1581" - when Russia was shocked by the assassination, (or 'execution', as it used to be called in Soviet times), of Emperor Alexander II, plotted and carried out by members of the "Narodnaya Volya" (People's Will) terrorist organization on March 1 1881. While that shocking act of violence encouraged Ilya Repin to begin this historic painting, it also prompted Vasily Surikov to take a different look at the topic of violence in his "Morning of the Strelets' Execution". In fact, the controversy, both direct and indirect and lasting many years, between Repin and Surikov reflected many basic collisions in the artistic views and ideology of the turn of the century. The significance of the matter makes us, more than once, come back to the two masters' difference of views. Ilya Repin, as a man of great talent, but quite often careless and irres-ponsible, dropped a revealing hint on this topic in his well-known book "Distant Closeness": "Adversity, watching deaths live [!], murder and bloodshed have such attractive charms that only a highly-cultivated [!] person can resist them. At that time all the exhibitions of Europe were full of pictures showing blood. And on coming home I, apparently infected by that flow of blood, started painting the bloody scene of "Ivan the Terrible and His Son". The picture enjoyed much acclaim". By "that time" Repin seems to mean the year 1883, when, together with the art critic Vladimir Stasov, he travelled around Europe visiting museums, attending art exhibitions, and admiring architectural ensembles. Incidentally, while visiting Spain, Stasov - as a "highly- cultivated person" - did not join Repin in watching bull fights.
The madman's access and the public discussion that followed in the early 1910s were far from accidental. Similarly, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's painting "The Washing of the Red Horse" in 1912 was later thought by the author himself to anticipate the coming World War I. Contemporary literary criticism showed a tendency for broad comparison and contextual analysis, to illustrate which one may cite a set of articles by Maximilian Voloshin compiled in the booklet "On Repin", which appeared in 1913 published by the 'Ole-Lukoye' Publishing House. Our further reference goes to these articles by Voloshin who was both a talented art critic and journalist as well as a brilliant poet and artist. Voloshin proved to be able to see in Repin's painting and in the story of its physical damage important implications of an artistic, social as well as psychological kind, the latter being both personal and public.
But giving the talented critic his due, we cannot help noting - sometimes with the air of proud superiority of those who happen to live in the era of postmodernism, sometimes with a kind of regret at being considered sophisticated cynics - some inaccuracy or wrench in Voloshin's conclusions. Nevertheless, let us start with what can be reckoned as his "hitting the bull's eye".
Being highly aware of the effect a work of art may produce on its audience Voloshin realized how adequately Balashev had responded to the painting which was created in such a high- pitched tone, and with a message of a kind that was sure to provoke such a response. Balashev was by no means an attacker, but a victim: he "rushed inside the painting". His radicalism of anti-violence happened to be attuned to Repin's liberal radicalism - that is how the author's position ought to be defined: Repin demonstrated his compassion for the tragedy of even that cruel ruler, since, according to classical liberalism, any person is worth esteem. It is worth mentioning another Repin-Surikov distinction: while the former was keen on brandishing the term "liberation", which he did not seem to understand clearly, and on showing off with a red buttonhole to declare his devotion to the principles of "liberte, egalite, fratemite", but who, nevertheless, had all the Russian court elite sitting for his portraits, the other was not used to abusing liberal terminology. He was not noticed rubbing shoulders with members of the Imperial family, either. Here it is also possible to spot the first indication of the difference in our modern response to the message of "Ioann", as it used to sometimes be called, and that of a century ago. While Balashev's reaction may be considered reasonably abnormal, other people who attended Tretyakov's gallery also showed signs of distress after viewing the picture: some ladies fainted, schoolboys used to stop, for a couple of days, treating their teachers properly and, actually, no one seemed willing to linger in front of the canvas. Balashev was said to have studied Surikov's "Boyarynia Morozova" for quite a long time before he moved to Repin's "Ivan". That partly explains why, when the picture was first exhibited, conservative politicians, including Emperor Alexander III and Procurator General Pobedonostsev, suggested that it be removed from public display.
Today the situation is completely different: the seat in front of "Ivan" is full of children with parents, while courting couples feel no discomfort of any sort. The first thing that comes to mind in how to account for such a wide emotional gap, for this drop in the sensitivity threshold, is the monstrous and emotionally negative experience of the atrocities of the two World Wars, as well as the other cataclysms of the last century. Another emotionally destructive factor is, of course, television - the modern substitute for the family fire. A painting of any kind is unlikely to be able to stir a person who daily swallows his evening meal accompanied by gory pictures of torn-off limbs and bloody bodies on television news or serials. It may sound commonplace but Maximilian Voloshin deserves to be given his due for anticipating the arrival of this monster, although he described it in the terms of the early 20th century: cinema in colour, updated by a gramophone. That mechanism of total exposure of the human senses and mentality was, according to the art critic, to be invented to achieve satisfaction of "the secret and shameful curiosity" about "the raw facts of life", the curiosity itself resulting from "the illusion of personal security" and being a product of civilization. The above quotation is important to bear in mind when we speak of present day Russia: if contemporary Russians can be said to have lost any illusions, the first is "the illusion of personal security". That might be another reason why "Ivan" has lost its intrigue and distressing effect. On the other hand, "the most important of all arts" (today the cinema is rather being defeated by television) was, and is, used by the authorities to support that illusion and thus encourage curiosity about what was formerly considered "secret and shameful". But this is the subject of another story...
It may seem appropriate here to move to an analysis of the artistic merits of the canvas. It is worth noting that in his criticism of the painting Maximilian Voloshin followed the correct, in methodological terms, assumption: a premature 'canonization' of a living author has, as a rule, a very perverse effect - it inevitably leads to worshipping the author's mistakes and misbeliefs. Such an assumption, in this particular case, happened to put Repin's works in a polemically bitter contraposition to the artistic trends followed by later generations of Russian painters. Thus, the most important and still relevant question is: where does realism become naturalism (Voloshin only puts it as a multiple-choice dilemma)? Do Repin's or the younger artists' works belong to realism? And further, which of them should be truly considered as Art?
Voloshin's arguments sound highly didactic. Criticizing Repin's naturalism and in an attempt to find the best definition for 'realism', the art critic - it seems more appropriate to refer to him as such here - agrees with the Medieval European 'realists', the adherents of neo-Platonic teaching of Truth and the objective existence of the World of Ideas projected onto Things. In this sense a picture designed in characters or symbols may quite often look more realistic than ones that tend to hit off the delusive appearance of Life.
Similarly, criticizing Repin's naturalism, Voloshin tended to see this notion rather broadmindedly as something far from a simple likeness. He also managed to spot a few 'unlikenesses': he compared the abundance of flowing blood which, by all medical standards, should have already clotted, to cranberry juice. The comparison might have prompted today's cunning makers of bloodbath thrillers not to spare the tomato ketchup, which looks more natural, in order to shock the audience. Also incorrect, from an anatomical point of view, was the position of the bodies, especially the position of Tsar Ivan's legs, which became the subject of a supplementary note to Voloshin's booklet, written by the then professor of anatomy at the Emperor's Academy of Arts. This "discovery" is rather associated with forensic medicine, and the critic could not miss the chance to try a kind of speculative investigation experiment that reached the killing conclusion: that the interposition of the bodies, the blood stains and the artefacts is impossible. In other words, Voloshin blamed a naturalist painter for his lack of naturalism, while the episode was meant to look like a scene from a period drama with a certain number of objects purposefully arranged on the stage according to the director's conception and not to the logic of life. Every controversial point was interpreted as "untrue to life for the sake of being obvious". Such a declaration may lead, when applied for an analysis of artistic trends, to finding naturalistic traits even in such 20th century art movements, which are far from seeking a visual resemblance, as the grotesque of expressionism, the chimera-chasing surrealism, and the extreme-seeking actionism or art installations, which were meant to bring on, consciously or unconsciously, some physiological associations. For this reason, it is not the exact reproduction of the minutest details, but the physiological message that ought to be considered the basic feature of naturalism. It seems appropriate to return to the difference between the two painters, Repin and Surikov. The latter, according to Voloshin, had been an eyewitness to both violence and public execution but thought it indecent to depict the mechanism of death on canvas. Graphically, there is the much- quoted story of how Surikov was advised, by none other than Repin, to "hang" a couple of the strelets in his "Morning of the Strelets' Execution", but he was unable to do so.
Following his criticism of the canvas one may notice yet another aspect of naturalism that was not, actually, stated clearly by Voloshin, so we shall undertake to do it for him. His article "On the Artistic Merits of the Damaged Painting by Repin" points to the peculiar way in which any character, including those of a work of art, is treated in Russia. The priority given to the ethical in the heart of any Russian results in what was defined as "the formula of desperate compassion" meaning that the Russian people's response to something fearful takes the form of a rather apocalyptic alternative: "You either come to terms with your conscience, or your conscience should make you punish yourself". And the small article "On the Meaning of the Catastrophe that Repin's Painting Has Suffered" gives an ample picture of what the artist has done. "Both Repin and Leonid Andreev [reference to the writer's short story "The Red Laugh"], in the same state of madness [as Balashev - V K], caused by an ecstasy of compassion, ripped apart the hearts of their readers". Obviously there is again an allusion to violence and physiology, but this time with an emotional and psychological connotation, that enables us to refer such artistic phenomena, "untrue to life for the sake of being obvious", to a psychological naturalism which is more traumatic for the human mentality. And it is not artistic generalization or disrespect for minor details, but purely psychological factors that draw the line between the naturalism concerned and the most outspoken realism. As a counterpoint to Repin's "Tsar Ivan", Voloshin cites Matthias Grunevald's extremely cruel painting of a dead Christ, which, nevertheless, leaves the viewer certain that Christ will rise from death!
At the same time, in an effort to be impartial, one should agree that there was some shabby reasoning in the criticism of the canvas. Too great a preoccupation with "unlikenesses" and revelation of the stage-like composition of the picture must have prevented the art critic from conceiving that Repin was very good at seeing the direction in which contemporary artistic thought was moving. His "Ivan the Terrible" demonstrated a new type of composition being established in Russian painting of the late 1880s. From anecdotal, narrative stylistics Russian artists were moving to a still picture impression of the object, this impression being conveyed both in the palette, mainly that of plein-air painting, and in the psychologically intense message. Repin meant the true story of the conflict and the assault and the wound to give way to a true story of despair, regret and forgiveness. That might explain why the "unlikenesses" became insignificant if looked at in this way. In line with this alternative concept is the historically untrue portrayal of the Tsarevitch that was quite unnoticed by the critics. Ivan's son is known to have inherited the cruel temperament of his father and God knows what tempests might have awaited Russia had he come to be crowned Tsar. Intentionally or not, the sitter for the Tsarevitch was Vsevolod Garshin, the author of short stories noted for his delicate, warmhearted, compassionate personality of a queasy conscience, whose suicide three years later was coincidentally caused by nervous depression over a family disagreement. Thus, to renounce the very idea of violence appears to be of prior importance for Repin here. Whether the artist succeeded in conveying the message is quite another matter... There is no denying that Voloshin's official opponent in the public dispute over the painting and the Balashev case, A. Toporkov, seems also to be correct in his reasoning. He, incidentally, argued that "through the appearance we can view the matter itself", what in this case means "the tragedy of man's life in general". The idea is acknowledged in some details, seemingly "untrue", such as the armchair that, according to Voloshin, could not have tipped over in that direction. Let the viewer do a double-take on the blurred whitish tissue of the seat framed by the dull gleam of the arms and in contrast to the purple cushion: he may see a widemouthed monster ready to swallow either prey - the father and the son. As for the stage-like effects, they resulted from the principles of composition taught at the Academy. Actually, the picture space was viewed as a stage with the foreground introducing the viewer into the composition, with the stage itself housing all the furniture and artefacts as well as the actors, and the background similar to the backcloth in the theatre.
However, Toporkov's statement is also open to dispute. Is there really a tragedy to be witnessed here, with its heart enlightening and elevating catharsis? Or is it just another piece of evidence of the imperfection of this world and man? This is, though, where we should look for the cause of Repin's failure to go beyond one-dimensional - and, thus, boring - naturalism. Although a century ago the message of this canvas used to electrify the audience, all the 20th century's temptations and agonies of public conscience and all its unconceivable experiments in art, have made "Ivan the Terrible" appear no more than a rarity illustrating what dead ends may sometimes await an artist in the maze of his creative ideas.
Oil on canvas. 199.5 × 254 cm
Oil on canvas. 199,5 × 254cm