Konstantin Korovin: His Paintings and Theatre Work at the Tretyakov Gallery

Lydia Iovleva

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

November 23 (December 5, in the "New Style") 2011 was the 150th anniversary of the outstanding Russian painter of the late 19th-early 20th centuries Konstantin Alexeevich Korovin (1861-1939). In anticipation of this momentous anniversary, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg agreed to team up for a project in which each party organised a Korovin exhibition so that the two shows would share essential elements but vary in details: the two museums, the main keepers of the great artist's legacy, exchange his best works but each presents its own version of the exhibition and prepares its own publications to accompany it.

Neither museum pursued the objective of collecting everything related in one way or another to the oeuvre of the great Russian impressionist but each wanted, to the greatest extent possible, to highlight the diversity of his creative interests: Korovin's "pure" paintings, his landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, where his impressionist aesthetic is at its best; his theatre work, that is stage design — sketches of the costumes and sets, and sometimes the sets themselves, the art of theatre, to which Korovin was committed throughout his life; and finally, his monumental and decorative projects, the area where Korovin's contribution and experience is far less known to the general public, although this contribution and experience was very important and interesting. These three sections have been the mainstay of both shows — in St. Petersburg and in Moscow — but each features different exhibits. The Russian Museum held its exhibition in summer and autumn 2011, while the Tretyakov Gallery hosts its show from the end of March until late August 2012.

The Moscow exhibition features nearly 250 pieces from 25 museums (including the Tretyakov Gallery) from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and those around the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Belarus. These are different institutions, mostly art museums, but many exhibits at the Korovin anniversary exhibition come from theatre museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg — the Bakhrushin Museum (Moscow), the Bolshoi Theatre Museum (Moscow), the Museum of Theatre and Music (St. Petersburg), and the Mariinsky Theatre Museum (St. Petersburg). Such participating institutions make quite a diverse group.

Konstantin Korovin was a painter by vocation and, one can even say, by birth. It is with good reason that he has been called the greatest exponent of Russian impressionism.  Indeed,  analyzing Korovin's oeuvre and reading his memoirs, one is led to believe that almost from the very beginning of his career, as well as in his approach to the world — to nature and people — the artist tried to capture first of all his impressions, his fleeting experience of things seen. When he began to study at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1875, he was seen by many as "different from others", "foreign" and, taught the techniques of painting in the open air by Alexei Savrasov and Vasily Polenov, he was a decorative artist, fond of "colour spots" as a painting method.

It was precisely this innate quality of Korovin's gift that caught the eye of Savva Mamontov, who was on a quest for "new theatre". Thanks to Mamontov Korovin would remain practically all his life as a reformer, as well as Russia's greatest stage designer. But Korovin's impressionism, too, is idiosyncratic. There is no doubt that it is directly related to what may be called classic French impressionism of the second half of the 19th century. Korovin was fond of the art of the French impressionists just as he was fond of Paris — this centre of all "-isms" of the 19th century where he spent long periods of his life, lovingly imaging its bustling squares and boulevards, its colours, its daylight and especially moonlight or artificial night time lighting. Korovin almost never painted other cities, not even Moscow. Russia for him was a mostly rural country close to nature, and he loved it immensely. Korovin is undoubtedly an impressionist. His paintings are impressionist images akin to freeze frames, captured moments, and his compositions, accordingly, are focused on a foreground suffused with light and air, with carefully crafted reflections of colours. Korovin enthusiastically used, especially in his mature years, the technique of broken brush strokes, but wide ones rather than small, and his brushwork became ever more decorative over the years.

At the exhibition in Moscow, as well as at its St. Petersburg counterpart, Korovin's paintings have been displayed in a manner intended to highlight their "evolution" — from the early pieces to the later ones, from painting in the open air to impressionism and decorative impressionism, but the 1900s-1910s, the period when both Korovin's talent and public recognition were at its pinnacle, can be divided into categories according to the subjects of his pictures: picturesque views of Paris and France, heartrending landscapes of rural Russia, portraits, excellent romantic nocturnes, nocturnal moonlit landscapes, luxurious still-lifes, Gurzuf and Okhotino, where the artist had summer houses, Udomlya and, finally, several pieces created in exile (1923-1939), which remains the least studied and the saddest period in his life.

Both the Moscow and St. Petersburg shows have a special section featuring large mural pieces and studies for them created by Korovin as he worked on assignments for the Russian National Exhibition of Industries and Art held in 1896 in Nizhny Novgorod (at the Tretyakov Gallery) and its Parisian counterpart, the 1900 World Fair (Exposition Universelle) (at the Russian Museum).

The commission to design and create the layout for the Far North section at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition was secured by Korovin through Savva Mamontov, the artist's friend and major patron. Korovin's work on this project has been covered in many articles devoted to both him or Mamontov, including some articles in our exhibition catalogue. These articles also focus on the famed and important expeditions to the Far North undertaken by the Russian artists (Valentin Serov, Nikolai Dosekin and, most importantly, Korovin himself) organised by Savva Mamontov, and on the great success of the paintings and accompanying sketches brought by the artists from the North. In fact the Russian painters "discovered" the northern nature, its austere environment combined with a limpidity and combination of light and air in its colours such as they had never seen before. But the most interesting is the history of the creation, existence and public viewings of both the Paris and Nizhny Novgorod murals in museums is most interesting. The history of the 1900 Parisian murals is simpler: after the enormous success of Russia's pavilion, or rather pavilions, and its exhibits, Korovin received plenty of medals and other awards, including the Legion of Honour (Ordre national de la Legion d'honneur) from the government of France. Shortly after the World Fair in Paris closed, all the murals were sent to the Russian Museum of Emperor Alexander III (now the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg), where they are held to this day. The anniversary exhibition at the Russian Museum offered these items for public viewing almost for the first time in their history, and the show caused quite a sensation.

As for the Nizhny Novgorod murals, their road to the Tretyakov Gallery was not smooth. When the exhibition closed in 1896, Savva Mamontov, the pieces' de-facto owner, had them stored inside the Yaroslavl station in Moscow, then recently rebuilt to Fyodor Schechtel's design (the station, too, was a brainchild of Mamontov, who masterminded the construction of a northern railway reaching Arkhangelsk). The pieces remained there until 1961, when after the latest in a series of renovation and expansion projects the board of the Moscow-Passenger station of the Yaroslavl railroad decided to get rid of them on account of their uselessness and even decrepitude, and sent them to the Tretyakov Gallery for good. For a long time the murals were kept in the gallery's store-rooms spread on frames specially manufactured for the purpose. In the late 1990s-early 2000s the Tretyakov Gallery began renovation of the murals, which required much work from the gallery's renovators and considerable resources. Four murals out of ten had been renovated by the time the exhibition opened. These four pieces will be on view alongside the relevant sketches and studies in a specially designated area at the show. We hope that the public will duly appreciate both the innovative approaches Korovin applied to this sort of creative activity, which was all but forgotten in Russia by the end of the 19th century, and the efforts and craftsmanship of the restorers who preserved the murals for posterity. The Nizhny Novgorod murals are on public display for the first time, at least for the last 7080 years. Because of difficulties of transportation the Tretyakov Gallery does not exhibit the Parisian murals.

Concluding this review of Korovin's decorative murals exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery, one feels obliged to mention another of his monumental compositions that is little known to the general public.

The exhibition features Korovin's frieze mural titled " Old Monastery", on display for the first time in 50 years. Experts argue, with good reason, that Korovin accomplished this piece (which may have been a commissioned work) specially for a show of Russian art organised by Sergei Diaghilev in 1906 in Paris. The catalogue of that show lists under No. 234 a Korovin piece titled "Une Ville du Nord (fries)", unfortunately without referencing its measurements. There is also some evidence to support this version: the special "graphic", that is linear, manner typical for the "World of Art", and the use of distemper, which was also a favourite of the "World of Art", instead of oil paints. One should remember that the late 1890s and the early 1900s was the period of Korovin's closest involvement with the "World of Art" group and Diaghilev. Nothing is known about the piece's history before 1946, when it was acquired by the Tretyakov Gallery. The mural was transferred to a new canvas especially for the show and "set right" by the gallery's restorers.

Finally, the theatre section ("Theatre") was envisioned as one of the most sensational features of the Moscow exhibition. Scores of Korovin's celebrated water-colour sketches of sets and costumes are held at theatre and art museums both in Russia and abroad. They are quite often featured at exhibitions focused in one way or another on the history of Russian theatre. The Russian Museum's show featured them, and so does the Tretyakov Gallery's. Korovin's original costumes for different productions have survived and been shown at exhibitions, albeit less frequently. But stage sets as such normally do not have a long life. Usually they disappear when the related production is finished, and Korovin once had a truly dramatic experience: in the spring of 1914 the Maly Theatre's storerooms in Moscow, the depository of nearly all sets of the Imperial Theatres, suffered a fire which destroyed nearly every piece created by Korovin and his assistants. But along with such dramatic events life sometimes comes up with magic surprises as well.

When he lived in Paris as an emigre, Korovin was often offered commissions to design opera or ballet productions realised by private theatre companies similar to Diaghilev's, by quite a few of Russian theatre masters, with a cast centred around a famed performer — a singer like Feodor Chaliapin, or a ballerina like Anna Pavlova. Such theatrical undertakings were short-lived, and as the 1930s drew to a close, their numbers were thinning and poverty and privation was tightening its grip over Korovin.

One of Korovin's last theatrical works was a production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Golden Cockerel" in 1934, realised by a theatre company called "Casino" in the French town of Vichy. The production did not go unnoticed, but in general it was not a good time for Russian opera in Europe. Nevertheless, the wealth of the materials created in preparation for the Vichy production — the sets and costumes — survived and was deposited in entirety in the collection of Grigory Ivanovich Raisov (Steiner), a lyric tenor singer who enjoyed popularity in the early 20th century and like Korovin lived outside Russia since 1919. After Raisov's death this colossal array of stage items was inherited by his daughter, and later, already in 1980, went to auction in Paris, to be bought, also in its entirety, by a remarkable individual, Alexander Lyapin, a true and unselfish friend of Russia and a grandson of the illustrious Russian landscape painter Vasily Polenov. Lyapin's generosity is well known among the staff of many Moscow museums, and in 1986 he donated the entire theatrical collection he had acquired (418 items in total) to the Bakhrushin Museum.

The catalogue of the Moscow exhibition contains an article about this truly miraculous story, written by a researcher from the Bakhrushin Museum Galina Devyatova, and I sincerely thank her for the opportunity to use several facts.With the kind consent of the Bakhrushin Museum's management, some items from this treasure trove enjoy their first ever public display at the Tretyakov Gallery's exhibition. In this case too, we hope that the Moscow public and all visitors will duly appreciate both the sets, produced with the direct participation of Korovin, and the gigantic efforts the two museums involved had to take in order to bring and to array the huge sets within a non-theatrical space poorly suited for this sort of display.

Preparing the exhibition "Konstantin Korovin: His Paintings and Theatre Work. Dedicated to the Artist's 150th Anniversary", the Tretyakov Gallery's experts and curators did much work compiling a database of his certified genuine works (using X-rays, ultraviolet photography, macro-photography, chemical tests of the paints used by the artist, analysis of reference signatures, etc.). All items loaned for the exhibition by private collectors were examined against the obtained data, and most of Korovin's works held at the gallery were scrutinised, and the signatures, captions and date attributions of several frequently re-printed pieces were re-read or corrected — including "A Chorus Girl" (its date changed from 1883 to 1887), and "Northern Idyll" (dating changed from 1886 to 1892). The most interesting results of these investigations are displayed at the exhibition.

As a companion piece to the show, the Tretyakov Gallery has released a comprehensive and colourful catalogue, prepared by the museum's researchers and highlighting the complete array of the diverse exhibits on view. We hope that the exhibition "Konstantin Korovin: His Paintings and Theatre Work. Dedicated to the Artist's 150th Anniversary", that opened at the Krymsky Val building of the Tretyakov Gallery, will become a special occasion for all lovers of Russian art and a noteworthy event in the cultural life of Moscow in 2012.





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