Arkady Plastov. Reading Tolstoy
“Reading Tolstoy” is the first exhibition of Arkady Plastov’s art to bring together almost all of his works dedicated to Leo Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s literary heritage. In November 2015 the Leo Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, the Tretyakov Gallery and members of the artist’s family contributed works to the show in the Tolstoy Centre Museum in Moscow.
Throughout his life Plastov (1893-1972) never stopped reading Tolstoy, whom he admired as an unsurpassed writer and a great teacher. Both the artist's soul and his view of the world were in tune with Tolstoy's works: the untamed, elemental force of "The Cossacks" and the stark energy of "Polikushka"; the original, novel style of "A Landlord's Morning", Tolstoy's view of history and "the idea of the people" expressed in "War and Peace", as well as the authenticity of his "ABC" for little children, the short stories for "the common folk" - and the psychological and artistic perfection of "Kholstomer" (The Story of a Horse, sometimes translated as "Strider"). It was a surprise that Plastov, a descendant of priests and icon-painters and himself a former seminary student, did not reject Tolstoy's religious philosophy.
"I feel as if it has not been more than an hour since Tolstoy's lemon-yellow 'ABC' was opened in front of me to reveal its wondrous world of talking doodles. The tiny blue volume of Pushkin's 'The Captain's Daughter', Tolstoy's Zhilin and Kostylin and his short stories, and Koltsov's 'Still Asleep, My Fellow Man?' - all these literary works inspired my first feeble attempts at drawing illustrations,"1 Plastov wrote in his autobiography.
The artist's father Alexander Plastov, a psalm-reader in a rural church and "an avid reader", owned Tolstoy's "Books for Reading in Russian" (published during Tolstoy's lifetime in huge print-runs for the period). "We were all fascinated with Belinsky, Herzen, Dobrolyubov, Uspensky and Tolstoy. No one tried to prevent us [from reading them],"2 Plastov wrote about the time he spent at the Simbirsk seminary. When Plastov was a young man, Tolstoy's influence on public opinion was unsurpassed - as a philosopher and writer, he shaped the Russian nation's collective psyche and attracted the attention of the best minds worldwide. Chekhov said: "When Tolstoy dies, everything is going to hell." "Do you mean literature?" asked Bunin. "That, too..."3
Even the Russian socialists had to take account of Tolstoy's influence: it was no coincidence that Lenin wrote several articles about Tolstoy, attempting to explain and adapt the writer's views to his own concept of changing the world order.
Many of Plastov's works are filled with Tolstoy's perception of the Russian people and the writer's wider understanding of life: "Bathing the Horses", "Harvest", "Haymaking", "The Blind", "Death of a Tree". The artist wrote in one letter, in the very spirit of Tolstoy: "The old man I painted in 'Death of a Tree' has died. He was such a good friend to me. The perfect example of a true Russian peasant. One of those who will never be seen again in our Holy Rus' - an innocent child's soul in a strong man's body, a humble worker who could do anything and laboured 'til his last breath; and what a hard worker he was! A true peasant, as delightful as can be, to be understood only by those who still know something about it and have indeed thought about what the Russian peasant used to be like."4 Following Tolstoy and his great epic, "War and Peace", Plastov showed the Great Patriotic War of 1812 as a people's tragedy, a people's war and the people's victory.
Plastov began working on illustrations to Tolstoy's works in the early 1950s, already a seasoned and mature artist at the peak of his career, when many of his great paintings had already been accomplished. At the same time, the post-war decade was a complicated and intense period in the history of Soviet art, a stifling and reactionary time, with an almost poisonous lack of freedom. This was exactly when Plastov turned to Russian literature: between 1946 and 1956 he created a range of illustrations to texts by Nikolai Nekrasov, Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. "Through Chekhov, I do my best to commit to paper everything I have seen, known and loved since childhood - without conforming, intentionally or otherwise, openly and with a clear conscience - in a sense, heart-to-heart. To me, Chekhov is as enchanting and inexhaustible as life itself, so I was unable to resist my desire to create, to the best of my ability, visual images of this ultimate truth of life, the extraordinary, blessed power of sincerity that is at the core of Chekhov's life-long quest for the truth - something that puts him next to Pushkin and Tolstoy," he wrote in a letter from the 1950s.5
It was during the same period that the artist started painting images drawn from Tolstoy. In 1953-1954 he created a gouache drawing that he titled "Leo Tolstoy Meeting Blind Men". The early spring landscape is filled with moist air; we see the first green shoots of the winter wheat, and the black, rutted road. Tolstoy, on his black horse, comes across a group of blind men who are led by a small boy. Tolstoy reigns in his horse to stop and take a good look at them as they pass him by, unable to see either the rider or the bright, lustrous day...
It was almost impossible for Plastov, with his exceptional ability to see the world around him, to conceive of life without its colours and shapes: blindness was virtually unimaginable for him. He would return to this subject in "The Blind", a painting where a falcon (the symbol of superior vision) atop a post is shown as the antithesis of blindness. There is no doubt though that this work, as well as "Leo Tolstoy Meeting Blind Men", harbours a metaphorical meaning as well, which may be traced to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Parable of the Blind" (1598, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples): "If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit." The message of Plastov's painting is clear: the blind men pass Tolstoy by, while he sees everything, and fail to learn the true meaning of existence.
As for Tolstoy's novel "The Cossacks", Plastov was primarily interested in its depiction of the forces that rule the life of the people and the specific characteristics of the Russian national character. The artist created three illustrations: "Uncle Yeroshka", "Olenin and Mariana", and "Mariana". The composition of "Uncle Yeroshka" is that of a portrait: he is shown with a square grey beard, dressed in a red tunic with a cartridge belt, a dagger under his belt and a glass of wine in his strong hand; clearly, he is in the middle of an animated conversation. The viewer can see how happy the artist was to capture this image, which is so close to the subjects of his other paintings.
"Mariana" is also a portrait. We see a dark-haired girl standing in a long pink robe: she belongs to a female type that was also quite close to the artist's heart and appears in many of his works. Tolstoy wrote: "Mariana, on the contrary, was not pretty at all, but she was a true beauty. Her facial features would have appeared too masculine, almost rough, had it not been for how tall she was and how strong her chest and shoulders were, and even more importantly, had it not been for the grave but nonetheless tender expression of her long, dark eyes, with dark shadows underneath the black eyebrows, and her sweet mouth and smile..." Plastov's third illustration captured one of the most poetic moments of "The Cossacks", when Olenin meets with Mariana in the sundrenched vineyard.
For Plastov, both as a peasant and an artist, Tolstoy's novella "Kholstomer", his "story of a horse", was deeply moving. Horses have always been a major part of the lives of those who work on the land, their hardworking companions which are essential for survival, and the embodiment of abundance and happiness. In his autobiography, the artist wrote: "Our village was situated on a big Moscow-bound road; for as long as I could remember, endless processions of horse-carts stretched out in front of our house, while two- or three-horse carriages, driven by singing coachmen, rushed by. These horses were well fed, of different colours, and with long manes; their ornate harnesses were set with brass plates and tassels. There were horse-carts and sleighs, with all sorts of carved and chiselled traces and shaft-bows like in Surikov's 'Boyarynya Morozova'. Ever since then, the smell of tar, the neighing of horses, the creaks of horse-carts and bearded peasants have always put me in a sweet trance."6 The feast of SS Florus and Laurus, the blessing of horses, races, bathing them and watching them at night - all these experiences turned into a multitude of drawings, studies, compositions and, eventually, paintings, such as "Bathing the Horses", "Night Watch", and "Feast".
Plastov began working on his illustrations to "Kholstomer" in January 1953; with occasional interruptions, it took him more than a year to complete them. At about the same time, the artist came up with the idea for one of his most beautiful paintings, "Celebration" ("Races", 1954-1967), and started this work. His illustration "Kholstomer Passes Swan" is a close partial copy of this painting.
Their expressive plasticity and the beautifully defined lines of the horses in movement - dozens of albums with such preliminary drawings survive - made Plastov's works worthy of Tolstoy's brilliant text. The lofty philosophical message of Tolstoy's short novel appealed to the artist; typically for all his work, Tolstoy's writing is amazingly complex, expressive and demanding. "I could never understand what it meant that they called me a man's property. The very words 'my horse', applied to me, a living horse, felt as strange as saying 'my land, my air, my water' would... And he that could call the more things his own, according to this game they have established between themselves, is considered to be the happiest among them. And so people do not aspire to do what they think is good, but to call as many things as they can their own."
"Kholstomer" is an ode to a horse, and an ode to life. Plastov's illustrations show the horse's "nasty and majestic" old age as beautiful - according to the laws of his pictorial idiom, it appears in harmony with the world. To illustrate the novel's end - Kholstomer's death - Plastov creates a most lyrical image of "The Mother- wolf and Her Pups". Grasses and flowers seem to have been taken straight from his "Haymaking"; the powerful, expressive tree trunks represent Nature's calm triumph, a separate world beyond human control. Plastov creates a spiritual and harmonious ending to his pictorial interpretation of "Kholstomer". By contrast, Tolstoy's ending is ruthless and harsh: "Serpukhovskoy's dead body, the same body that used to walk, eat and drink, was put into the earth much later. Neither his skin, nor flesh nor bone proved of any use."
Plastov was extremely impressed with Tolstoy's later work, its stylistic clarity, precise language, and calm wisdom. As the artist created illustrations to Tolstoy's masterpieces, such as "The Willow", "The Prisoner of the Caucasus", and "How Much Land Does a Man Need?", there was no doubt that he was not only celebrating Tolstoy the writer, but also the kind of life that Tolstoy urged his readers to live - an honest, thoughtful, conscientious and pious life. Plastov created three illustrations to "The Willow", Tolstoy's exceptionally short (barely more than a page in length) story: "The Bee Swarm", "Reapers Under the Willow", and "Death of the Willow". To Plastov, this short narrative offered the story of the tree and of a singular flow of time: "The peasant, the one that had planted the willow, was long dead, but the tree was still there. Twice his oldest son cut its branches for firewood. The willow endured... Then the oldest son abandoned the homestead, the whole village moved away, and yet the willow was still there in the middle of the wide open field." This theme of a tree's life and ultimate demise would find its expression in one of Plastov's most famous paintings, "Death of a Tree" (1962), which builds on Tolstoy's thoughts.
"The land question" is one of the most important issues for the Russian people - and has always been, both in Tolstoy's and Plastov's times. However, in his parable-like short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Tolstoy poses this question in a philosophical, timeless context. The great master gives a decisive and clear answer that sounds like a verdict: "Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed." Both Plastov and Tolstoy thought it incredibly tragic that people remained blind to the true meaning of life and disregarded the values that come directly from their Maker in favour of what Plastov called a "persistence in earthly vanities".
The artist came up with two illustrations to the story's ending: "Pahom Running to the Hillock" and "Pahom's Death". He described them in a letter to his wife: "In the first one, we see Pahom greatly exhausted, with his eyes closed and head thrown back - barely alive, he is gasping for air as he runs toward the viewer. Clasping his shirt with his left hand, he runs through the steppe grasses and flowers, as it grows darker, and the round burning sun sets behind him, touching the flaming horizon. It does, I have to say, make an impression, even shocks the viewer, especially if one knows that in a minute this man will be dead, and his persistence in regard to earthly vanities would gain him nothing.
"The second one shows the very end. A narrow patch of thin grasses is in the forefront. We see Pahom to the left, lying with his head buried in the grass and his hands stretched forward. This restless man had never been satisfied with what he had, and there he is, asleep forever. To the right, a worker is digging... A bluish shadow narrows down to the horizon. Men on horseback are riding in a line - these are Kirghiz riders on the way to their wagons. The majestic amber sky rises above this scene; enormous, swirling, ruffled grey-blue clouds, purple at the bottom, hover over the scarlet stripe above the horizon... It is impossible to look at this watercolour without deep emotion. Even if the viewer is not familiar with the text, he still comes under the spell of the pictorial effects, and is filled with a certain sombre and exalted meaning."7
As the artist would write: ”A human being should feel the enduring, incredible beauty of the world every hour and every minute of his life. Then he will understand how amazing, how awesome is human existence, and become capable of anything - feats of hard work, valour in defending his Motherland, loving his children and the whole of humanity. And this is exactly what art exists to do."8
When in November 1952 these illustrations to Tolstoy's story were exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts, Plastov wrote: ”I find one thing interesting: how is it that some are not familiar with Tolstoy's 'How Much Land Does a Man Need?', such an appealing story, truly written 'for the people'. At best, it rings dull to them, certainly not the way the great Leo intended. or your humble servant, for that matter. However, those who do know this amazing narrative will not fail to be charmed by my humble attempt to create a pictorial image of the closing scene in this spectacular drama."9
As he read Tolstoy and became a follower of the writer's noble spiritual legacy, Plastov created the last portrait of the Russian peasant, a historical archetype of a social class that had been destroyed in the 20th century, and through his art preserved the vanishing images of a past Russian life.
- Plastov, A.A. "Autobiography". Plastov Family Archive, Moscow.
- "A.P Chekhov in the Memoirs of His Contemporaries". Moscow, 1986. P 490.
- Arkady Plastov. Letter to N.I. Sokolova, draft of January 18 1963. Plastov Family Archive, Moscow.
- Arkady Plastov. Letter to N.I. Sokolova, draft, 1950s.
- Plastov, A.A. "Autobiography".
- Arkady Plastov. Letter to N.A. Plastova. November 10 1952.
- "A.A. Plastov". Catalogue. Leningrad, 1977. P 21.
- Arkady Plastov. Letter to N.A. Plastova. November 22 1952.
Tempera on paper. 88 × 63.5 cm. The Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow4
Watercolour, gouache, and tempera on paper. 59.3 × 83.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Gouache and tempera on paper. 57 × 78 cm Tretyakov Gallery
Watercolour, gouache, and tempera on paper. 74 × 51 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Gouache and tempera on paper. 53 × 75 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Gouache and tempera on paper. 54 × 78 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Gouache on paper. 60 × 30 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Gouache on paper. Collection of the artist's family. Detail
Watercolour and gouache on paper. 63.5 × 86.5 cm. The Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Watercolour on paper. 64 × 87 cm. The Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Tempera on paper. 88.5 × 64 cm. The Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Gouache and tempera on paper. 88.5 × 50 cm. The Leo Tolstoy Museum, Moscow
Watercolour and gouache on paper. 63 × 86.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Gouache and tempera on paper. 41.6 × 59.5 cm. Collection of the artist's family