Death and Resurrection. REPIN AND THE ETERNAL THEMES OF HUMAN EXISTENCE
Ilya Repin has often been associated, for critics and art-lovers alike, with his pictures focused on the "burning” issues of his day, as well as known for his large-scale historical compositions and the extensive series of portraits that he painted of his contemporaries. It seemed as if his life, so continuous in its artistic endeavour, could have no space left for other genres or topics. But recent scholarship has brought renewed attention to another facet of his work - his paintings on religious themes.
Repin was endowed with a special gift - he could work at the same time on several distinct compositions that were both artistically and emotionally different from one another. Thus, his “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" (1880-1891), with its merry “clatter and chatter", appeared simultaneously with the powerful emotional charge of “Ivan the Terrible" (18821885), as well as the subtly intricate and complex psychological nuances of “They Did Not Expect Him" (1884-1888) and the polyphonic “Religious Procession in Kursk Province" (1880-1883). His portraits, whether of his family - his wife Vera Alexeievna (“At Rest", 1882), his son Yury (1882), and his elder daughter Vera (“Dragonfly", 1884) - or of public figures such as the actress Pelageya Strepetova (1882), Anton Delvig (1882), the writer Vsevolod Garshin, Tatyana Mamontova (1883) and the collector Pavel Tretyakov, were equally diverse and profound.
However, it was in exactly those years, from 1884 onwards, that Repin was making sketches for his large Gospel-themed composition, “St. Nicholas of Myra Saving Three Innocents from Death" (1888, Russian Museum) - he produced several variants on this theme, one that clearly enthralled him - as well as creating a series of graphic pieces on biblical themes, including the single-figure compositions “Judas" (1885, Tretyakov Gallery) and “Christ" (1884, Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum). Although Repin engaged with such religious subjects throughout his long and full creative life, it has only been in in the last decade or so that researchers have begun to pay attention to the artist's religious compositions.
Repin's memoir “Far Away, Close By", which he began writing in 1916, contains a short chapter titled “My Delights", which describes the “most interesting moments" in the painter's life. They include his first “delights", from childhood, in music; his first half-childish love; and the “instant of devil-maycare happiness, like rapture in battle" that he experienced in a moment of complete blending with nature when caught in a rainstorm on the Volga. Finally there were the “delights" that the young artist felt working at his easel, experiencing his first creative insights and successes. These visual, emotional and sensual experiences of the world - Repin always felt such emotions keenly, even volcanically - were the crucible in which his art, style and poetics were shaped.
Another such moment of early “delight" was associated with his 1869 painting “Golgotha (Calvary)" (“Kiev Picture Gallery" National Museum), which the artist felt inspired to create after he saw a sketch on the same theme by Konstantin Flavitsky at a posthumous exhibition of that artist's work. Repin sensed that he wanted to produce a more impressive image devoted to this powerful subject. He recalled the immediacy of this impulse, which surely comes close to the psychological condition known as “Stendhal syndrome", in “Far Away, Close By": “And now... alone, in an extraordinary fit of inspiration, I was drawing and searching, imagining the Golgotha scene as real... Not only did I have a clear picture of Golgotha, but it seemed to me that I myself had already been there. In the grip of fear, I was swaying with the crowd, making way for the cross. The crowds of people who came running to the scene were at a distance. Amidst them, I felt lost to the point of self-abandonment in this dark and horrible tragedy. Everything inside me was ripping apart. I so wanted an outburst of sobbing, like in music." This powerful emotional energy swept through the composition of the sketch, with its torches burning against the black sky and splendidly traced dense crowd, as well as into the foreground group that watches as the cross is raised. It is an independent work through and through: Repin produced the sketch, which he never realized as a finished piece, without any external influences whatsoever.
Repin had first engaged with this theme at the age of 15; despite his youth, he had already won renown as a religious painter in his native town of Chuguev and its surrounding area, producing not only iconostasis images but also painting murals for local churches. The older craftsmen from the team of icon painters with whom he worked had singled him out as a talented artist. “How can one compare them with you? They are only artisans, while you're an artist!" Repin would later recall. “It was August 1861. I had just finished. a large painting, across the whole wall of a church in Malinovo (five versts from Chuguev) - Christ at Golgotha." Repin was copying Charles de Steuben's “Christ at Golgotha" (1841, Tretyakov Gallery), an image very popular at that time thanks to its widespread distribution as an engraving. (Some decades later, the painter featured a print of de Steuben's work on the wall of the room in his composition “They Did Not Expect Him", to emphasize the message of his mature work.) Repin returned to this subject in 1896 in a large sketch titled “Golgotha": its highly expressive image, focusing on the final moments before Christ's crucifixion, featured Mary devastated by grief alongside “her close ones". The space between Christ and the Mother of God is filled with figures of guards and gawking boys, while in the far distance a dense crowd has flocked to watch the execution; the narrative elements and plethora of details somehow diminish the tragic pitch of the event. It was a diminution for which Repin would compensate in one of his last paintings, from 1925, in which he once again addressed the Crucifixion theme that exercised so powerful a hold on his imagination. Thus, the full circle of this crucial subject, one with which Repin had first engaged at the very beginning of his creative life, reached its completion.
At the Academy of Fine Arts, composition drawing from Bible subjects belonged to the compulsory curriculum, and formed part of the examination syllabus, completion of which was necessary for those wishing to compete for the institution's Silver and Gold Medals. Among the works that Repin created at the Academy was a sketch, “The Angel of Death Kills the First-born of Egypt" (1865, Academy of Arts; “The Massacre of the First-born of Egypt", 1869, Russian Museum), that he submitted for the Minor Silver Medal competition. In 1865, in line with the then prevailing trend of questioning the Academy's traditional requirements, Repin accomplished his first version of the sketch, “painting from nature as it is". He described the experience in “Far Away, Close By": “And now I pictured in my mind how the Angel of Death flew at night to a first-born boy, sleeping naked in his customary way, how he seized him by the throat and pressed his knee into his victim's stomach, smothering him quite literally with his hands." However, the pieces that followed were already distinguished by their thoughtful earnestness and the young artist's awareness of the great significance of his subject. Repin's assignment, from which his composition “Job and His Friends" (1869, Russian Museum) would develop, derived from a story from the Book of Job, one of the Bible's oldest and, according to scholars, most poetic books. The Lord, exploiting Satan as his agent, puts Job, the virtuous, “perfect" and “upright" man (Job 1:1), through a series of tribulations, taking away from him all he had - his wealth, his children - and making him sick: “So... Satan... smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown. Then said his wife unto him, ‘Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God, and die.' But he said unto her, ‘Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?'" (Job 2:7-10). The biblical text describes the combination of the sufferer's unwavering love for the Creator, his audacity in asking God why innocent people suffer, and his humility and hope. Its story about the nature of suffering sends a message about the possibility of salvation coming through such tribulation.
God rewarded Job for his patience and fortitude, giving him twice as much as that which he had had before and granting him a life of 140 years. Job's suffering is seen as equivalent to that of Christ.
Without so much as a shadow of affectation, Repin majestically and solemnly conveys the profound message of the Old Testament story in his image: he had read the text closely and penetrated the depths of its ancient wisdom. The epic sweep of the mountain landscape, the precision of the composition and colour scheme, as well as the different emotional dynamics of the characters - all this met with approval among the members of the Academy's Board of Trustees and gained admiration from critics and art-lovers alike. The Minor Gold Medal awarded to Repin allowed him to compete for the Major Gold Medal, which brought with it the Academy's fellowship to continue his artistic training in Europe.
After his graduation from the Academy, Repin produced another important piece - perhaps one of his key works - “Raising of Jairus' daughter" (1871, Russian Museum), in which he tackled the New Testament story about one of Christ's miracles with extraordinary insight and emotional intensity. The artist filled the work with exalted but also very earthly and heartfelt emotions, rendering simultaneously the pain of loss and the anxious hope for a miracle that would bring the dead girl back to life. The artist's own childhood memories gave him a psychological foundation for the piece: as a young boy, Repin had experienced the tragic moments of his final farewell to his beloved older sister after her death. “There is a special gripping allure in tragedy. I experienced it creating my graduation work," Repin recalled in “Far Away, Close By". The artist's most intimate feelings - his childhood distress; the desire to see his sister raised from the dead - helped him convey the complex message of the Gospel story, based as it was on the idea of the triumph over death and the return to life. Decades later, Repin addressed the theme of the Resurrection of Christ in his 1922 composition “Christ and Mary Magdalene" (1922, private collection). His painting “Raising of Jairus' Daughter" captures the moment shortly before the miracle, when everyone anticipates it anxiously, their feelings stretched to the utmost. Its large areas of chiaroscuro and lack of finish in details and some areas of the composition were in accord with the artist's mood; the painting “absorbed" him “with its air of gloom", sending “shivers down my spine", as he remembered in his memoir.
The painting highlighted an important characteristic of Repin's art - his interest in capturing moments of extreme emotional intensity and borderline states of mind while conveying the extraordinary psychological strain experienced by the characters in his compositions. In “They Did Not Expect Him" (1884-1888, Tretyakov Gallery), the artist plunges the viewer into the most complex and finely nuanced psychological states that endure and evolve but do not reach any final point of significance, and thus remain open to a variety of interpretations. The pictorial drama “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan" (1885, Tretyakov Gallery) represents not the denouement of the tragedy but the lead-up to it, conveying the extreme tension experienced by the father and the dying Tsarevich, the heir to the throne. This early ability to create a mise-en-scene that captured a peak of emotional and psychological intensity remained a distinguishing feature of the artist's work throughout his life.
“Raising Jairus' Daughter" appropriately combined the young artist's professional skills, the lessons that he had learned at the Academy, including long hours spent copying Rembrandt's “old men" in the Hermitage, with the traditions of the Russian school of painting of the previous decades that he had assimilated no less creatively. The “augustly modest figure" of Christ in Alexander Ivanov's “The Appearance of Christ to the People", “full of calm determination, with overpowering force of gaze", enthralled Repin from the very first time he saw “this brilliant and most genuinely Russian painting". He wrote in a letter to Vladimir Stasov: “Every time that I am in Moscow, I come to this picture to pay homage to it (as a Muslim comes to Mecca), and every time it grows in front of me." When Repin first came to St. Petersburg in 1863, Nikolai Ge's “The Last Supper" astonished him with its “realness" of image, the anxious movement of light in the space of the tri clinium, and the brilliantly bold rendition of Christ “confused in spirit". These compelling impressions would endure and, in their transformation in the artist's mind, become an important element of his spiritual and artistic experience.
The balanced and harmonic composition of “Raising Jairus' Daighter", with its clarity of contours, fiery and unsettling colour scheme, energy of brushstrokes, and doleful and solemn rhythm of the figures, conveys the emotional power of the work, as well as demonstrating the young painter's craft and visual culture. It was not surprising then that the composition was recognized as the best fellowship competition entry in the Academy's entire history. “In the museum of the Academy's ‘gold graduation works' this piece is one of the most original and striking creations," Stasov wrote. Most unusually for an artist of that period, at the same time that Repin was working on “Raising Jairus' Daughter", he was also engaged with a piece of a totally different nature, “Barge Haulers on the Volga" (1871-1873, Russian Museum). That fact testifies not only to the breadth and power of Repin's talent but also to his complex, vibrant personality, which soon determined the polyphonic, whimsical and even paradoxical character of his ongoing artistic journey.
Whenever he approached stories from the Gospels, Repin would work with large series of paintings. In the 1880s and 1890s he created Gospel-themed drawings, distinguished by his distinctive vibrant temperament, including “Christ Among His Disciples After His Resurrection", “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery", “Christ and Nicodemus", “Betrayal in Gethsemane" and “Christ and Judas" (all now at the Russian Museum), as well as several other works. Both at this time and later, Repin painted sketches on New Testament subjects, selecting some of the most dramatic episodes such as “The Flagellation of Christ" (1883-1916, Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino) and “Night in the Garden of Gethsemane" (1896, present location unknown). The history of the latter series was a complex one: it included the creation of several versions of “St. Nicholas of Myra" (1888, Russian Museum) for a convent near Kharkov, as well as visits to his sister there (which plunged him into a very special mood), and also drama within his own family, essentially the breakup of his marriage. Finally, this period saw the completion of large-scale compositions on burning topics of the day such as “They Did Not Expect Him" (1884), “Arrest of a Propagandist" (1880-1892), “Confession" (1879-1885) and “Secret Meeting" (1883; all at the Tretyakov Gallery) - paintings in which Repin likened events and people from the contemporary life that surrounded him to stories and characters from the Gospels, elevating real-life occurrences to the level of universal moral ideals.
But in the 1920s Repin would create a special and distinctive series of large-scale compositions focused on the New Testament during the last period - one might even say, the concluding stage - of his life, both as an artist and a human being. Although this concentration on the New Testament stories undoubtedly grew out of his entire previous artistic and personal experience, it also had an absolutely self-contained artistic-visual and moral-ethical content.
The decade of the 1920s was far from the easiest period of the artist's life. Separated from Russia (now, of course, the Soviet Union) by the will of fate and living in the deserted village of Kuokkala in Finland, throughout those years Repin experienced not only financial hardships but also, and most importantly, a painful loneliness: his son Yury was the only member of his immediate circle to live with him. Following tradition, on Wednesdays the Penaty estate became a gathering place - but under such new circumstances, guests were rare, disparate and mostly uninteresting. “Now it's a desert," Repin wrote with bitterness. His self-portrait (Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino), created in the winter of 1920, reflects the artist's mood better than any other testimony. Painted on a piece of linoleum - the only material available then, procured by accident - the portrait became an artistic account of those tragic times.
“How do I live, what do I feel as an artist ‘in these dark days'? - Dark indeed, in every respect, even this unintended synchronicity with the darkest season, the coldest day, the frost. It's no longer possible to warm the studio in order to take a breath, forget oneself, have a moment of distraction, like an old drunkard... Dreary, dismal feelings chaotically and nonsensically swarm into my head. I wish I could up and go St. Petersburg: it has been more than a year since I last saw my daughters. Locked up, in exile, you live enslaved, constrained, with fingers benumbed by frost, brains compressed. But the heart is not a stone - you walk up to the studio; it's just +4°C. and.," Repin wrote in response to a letter from the newspaper “Rassvet" (Dawn) asking him to tell “how our greatest, most talented artist is doing and what he's feeling in these days of darkness". Life was filled with bizarre, wild news. Reports about the awful deaths and executions of Repin's closest friends would reach the Penaty estate. He even read, all of a sudden, his own obituary in a newspaper. “Like Mark Twain, I can say that the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," Repin responded. Art was the painter's salvation, his source of happiness as life continued. He created one portrait after another; he went
through the agonies of reworking compositions begun long ago - “Procession Carrying the Cross in an Oak Forest" (1877-1924, Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Kralove), “Black Sea Outlaws" (1908-1919, private collection) and “Pushkin by the Neva River" (1920s, Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino).
He did not draw ideas for new compositions from the transient realities of the day: rather the eternal values of human existence - life and death, faith and doubt, despair and hope - gained an ever stronger hold on him. Repin avidly sought a refuge from everyday life in art, and the Bible and the Gospels brought into being not only ideas for compositions but also, more generally, creative thought and higher feelings.
In 1918, Repin began working on a large composition “The Ascent of the Prophet Elijah", which he later destroyed. In the same year he began the painting “The Young Christ in the Temple" (1918-1920, Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino), of which only sketches survive. In 1921, he created the large painting “Doubting Thomas" (private collection). When his daughter Vera returned from Petrograd to Kuokkala in April 1922, she found a number of unfinished and more-or- less finished large-scale compositions in her father's studio. In a letter to Pyotr Neradovsky she described the painting “Doubting Thomas": “It's evening, lots of candles, all the disciples have candles - they are Jewish types, the flames of the candles are reflected in their eyes, a woman with a lamp shouts with joy. Christ stands in the centre and shows his wound to Thomas - the latter, blushing, turns away, lowers his heads and covers his face with his hands; he is ashamed. The crowd behind Christ presses forward, to take a look at him. Christ has curly brown hair." It is a gripping image, with its fervour and raw brushwork, the anxious flickering of the candles and what might be termed a “febrile" colour scheme. “Ah, it's quite a drama! And not without genre," Repin wrote to Kornei Chukovsky on June 15 1921, before proceeding to relate an emotional dialogue between Christ and Doubting Thomas, which played out in his imagination.
The visual style and expansive brushwork that characterize this and all the other pieces from the 1920s Gospel series distinguish them from the “classic" Repin of the 1880s. The compositions in question reflect the artist's different emotional state, which called for distinctive means of expression and an appropriate visual idiom: this is a different Repin. For decades, many Repin scholars had largely reiterated the assertion of the influential art historian Igor Grabar, who had said that Repin's artistic talent had been in decline since the 1890s; Grabar even termed this period “Downhill". Over the last 15 years, this “late Repin" period has begun to attract considerable attention, arousing interest and an eagerness to gain insight into the core of his artistic developments. The process has not always been easy: by the late 1910 and into the 1920s the artist had developed a visual vocabulary and style that differed from that of his classical period. On the one hand, it was in keeping with the keen sensitivity of Repin, who always responded readily to changes in the world around him. On the other hand, he was looking for a visual vocabulary capable of rendering the gripping images generated by his soul and imagination In his 1894 article about Nikolai Ge, written after that artist's death, Repin analysed Ge's last paintings from his “Passion of Christ" cycle and articulated his sense of their shortcomings of artistic form; he believed that they were hurt by their “hurry, carelessness of execution, ugliness and inconsistency of forms". Repin was uncompromising in his verdict on Ge's “The Court of the Sanhedrin": “This large sketch is like an unfinished drawing, carelessly painted." Now working himself on a story requiring a more expansive style than that of his previous works and an accompanying heightened expressiveness, Repin opted for the form of a large sketch to reflect his immediate, vehement, exuberantly emotional attitude to the subject that was absorbing his imagination.
In the following year, 1922, Repin created a large composition “The Denial of Peter" (present whereabouts unknown), which arguably has parallels with the earlier painted sketch on the same subject “Even If All Fall Away, I Will Not" (1896-97, Ivanovo Regional Art Museum). It was from such creative ideas, from such a mood, that the idea of “Christ and Mary Magdalene" grew during the two cold winters of 1920 and 1921.
“Like a hopeless drunkard, I could not hold back from the Gospel stories. And this happens every time during Holy Week. They assail me," Repin confided in a letter to his old friend Anatoly Koni. “And now it comes again - I'm already finished with the scene of the meeting with Magdalene near Christ's grave... There is no hand to grab me by the collar and protect me from these encroachments."
As was often the case with Repin, the inspiration for this idea came to him from beyond his immediate surroundings. The artist was rejoicing at the news that his old friend Koni was alive. “What a joy!... And this joy suggested the idea for my painting. I thought that Christ, too, rejoiced when he felt that he was alive, was strong enough to move the stone (or rather, the slab of stone) that had been put over the tomb's entrance, to leave his confinement." But when Repin set about working on the composition, he became drawn deeper and deeper into the multi-layered world of the Gospel parable, its every line of story suggesting complex ethical issues. “I wished to convey the joy of the Resurrection. But how difficult it is: still a long way to go, all my toil notwithstanding," he wrote about the main idea of the painting. Repin searched for a visual vocabulary to adequately convey the complex combination of, and struggle between light and darkness, the awakening of the forces of life, the joy of recognition, disbelief and hope, sin and saintliness.
Christ has risen this moment from his bed and removed the stone that blocks the way in to the tomb. His body is still wrapped in the burial shroud, his movements constrained; his hands move slowly, his figure, slightly tilted backward, is unstable. In this first instant after his Resurrection, He takes his first steps across the ground. His figure seems to emanate, as if from within, a cold noctilucous light, embodying the evangelical idea of a Christ who “showed the light", who brings “Light from Light". The soft shining of his figure irradiates Magdalene's face, dissipating the thick darkness of the surrounding night, illuminating the stone and the fantastical ornamentation of the tomb. The light from the figure of Christ combines with the morning awakening of nature. Earth is still in the grip of nocturnal darkness, the hills loom like thick impenetrable shadows, but in the sky, at the rim of the clouds, a gentle stirring of light is beginning. The triumph of life over decay and death - “trampling down death by death", as the Resurrection is referenced in the Paschal troparion - is embodied in the figure of Christ. His visage signals his disconnection from all things worldly, as well as his universal understanding and forgiveness. Repin's words about how difficult, regardless of all his efforts, it was to represent the joy of the Resurrection, are evident in the sense of how uneasily the images of the picture seem to be embodied in the canvas.
From his early pieces onwards, Repin would habitually introduce changes to his compositional arrangements; he discarded details, sought new lighting and, finally, elaborated the psychological dynamics of the characters as he painted them on canvas, skipping the stage of sketching. He worked on this Resurrection scene, “Christ and Mary Magdalene", in a similar way, too: he departed from his accustomed careful brushwork and meticulous crafting of details, elements typical both of other artists of his generation and of his own earlier artwork. His style now comes to be distinguished by sweeping brushstrokes and a densely layered “dough" of paints. In some areas of the composition the paints appear as one solid mass, while certain fragments, especially Magdalene's visage and clothing, are like an image in relief. There is a certain pictorial logic in the glimmer of the multi-layered paints, in the colour of Magdalene's fantastical vestments and headwear, in the stretches of paints that seem to “show out" one from beneath another. The intricate interweaving of colour, paints, uneven brush strokes and dim light evokes the work of a giant such as Rembrandt, the power of whose art Repin always admired. “How I go on boasting to you about how diligently I am proceeding, but truth be told, I am working little: I pull myself up, because after an hour and a half wrestling with obstacles in front of the canvas, I start to spoil, and turn back. Yes, how difficult it is to climb this ascending line, almost like climbing Vesuvius," Repin wrote in a letter at this time.
In those same months of 1921, he shared his most intimate creative “secrets" in his letters to Chukovsky: “Now at every single minute I leave aside the portrait of an entire scene in ‘The Great Men of Finland' [1922, for the Ateneum, Helsinki - G.Ch.] to take care of my Gospel scenes." As so often before, while working on new pieces Repin experienced, alongside his fascination, the doubts and agonies of an explorer of new creative paths. He was open to discussing his ideas, but could find no-one with whom he could do so in his immediate circle. He could communicate his creative joys and troubles only in letters to his friends, and these missives have become a valuable source of information about the psychological atmosphere and moral climate in which the “old master" was working, about the origins of his ideas and the process by which they came to be realized on canvas.
Close examination of the texture of the painting reveals how the artist changed the position of Christ's figure and retouched the gestures, while the figure of Mary Magdalene also went through a series of complicated metamorphoses. An X-ray of the image reveals elements of the artist's exploratory approach that would otherwise have remained hidden. The “reading" of the X-ray explains why Repin, in letters referring to this composition, called the work by different titles: “Christ and Magdalene", “The Joy of Resurrection", “The Morning of the Resurrection" and “Noli Me Tangere" (Touch Me Not). They correspond to different stages in the creation of the composition, each one taking shape on the canvas before being replaced by another version. In the X-ray, the clearest segment is the figure of Christ, his head turned almost to the viewer, with an expression of outright joy, even exaltation caused by this conquering of death. His hand is extended to Magdalene and the entire scene matches the lines from the Gospel of John: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." In his letters, Repin described another scene from the episode, too: “In Gethsemane Magdalene met him, took him for a gardener and asked him, ‘Rab- boni!' So surprised was she when she recognized him." But the artist discarded all these variants and selected the transformative moment when Magdalene witnesses the miracle of the Resurrection, when her feelings, still only half-realized, remain in disarray; he chose that instance of transition and instability that prefigured the further development of events and emotions.
It seems probable that Repin himself singled out “Christ and Mary Magdalene" from his last series of Gospel compositions. The painting would remain, unsold, in his Penaty studio until the artist's death. The painter's son Yury made a full- size copy of it during his father's lifetime, to which Repin introduced changes and corrections; on the advice of Vasily Levi, who helped Repin exhibit his works during the last years of his life, he even signed the composition with his own name.
The last New Testament image that Repin produced, in the 1920s, was “Golgotha" (1922-25, Princeton University Art Museum, USA). He worked on it in parallel with “Christ and Mary Magdalene", although the first work consumed much more of his time, and he finished the piece only in 1925. In this last composition, focused on the classic subject of the Crucifixion, Repin offered an unusual interpretation of the theme: there is no sign of Christ - his cross lies on the ground, but his body has already been removed. Nature in this dark, pre-dawn moment reinforces the deeply tragic effect of the scene. Chukovsky, who saw the painting in the Penaty studio, shared his thoughts with Repin: “I'm still in thrall to your ‘Golgotha' - I see every detail, as if I have only just visited the place: the blood, the wall, the stony soil, and the superbly arranged groups of ‘bestialized' dogs." In this composition, Repin strove for an absolute likeness of image, both in the overall picture and in its details. The dogs lick blood off the stony soil: in the Gospels, “dogs" are impure animals, while the word was also applied to the persecutors of the early Christians. In a letter to Chukovsky, Repin provided his own, more rational explanation: “In the Orient dogs in every town have the role of cleaners." Repin was also very particular about the small plaque nailed to Christ's cross. On several occasions the artist enquired of Chukovsky about the content of the inscriptions that the Romans left on the crucifixions, about the colour of the lettering. Repin wanted to be impeccably true to historical fact, and Chukovsky diligently fulfilled Repin's request, consulting “Finland's foremost Hebrew scholar" who confirmed that the letters were inscribed in red.
“Golgotha" was the last in Repin's series of New Testament images that he created in the 1920s, an undertaking that had begun, indirectly, back in 1869 with his painting on the same subject. The artist's works on the Bible and Gospel themes were not always Repin's best pieces, but he worked on them with full dedication, giving himself up completely to each developing project. Many of them brought Repin true joy and creative “delight". The marvellous Icon of the Saviour, made for the church in Abramtsevo, arguably belongs to the same series; now held at the Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum, the work is astonishing for the dramatic power of Christ's half-figure and visage. The drawing “Carrying the Cross" (1896, private collection, Helsinki), a study for an icon created for the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Jerusalem, is another expressive piece of work.
Working on other such projects, however, Repin would sometimes be plunged into utter despair, as was the case with the large-scale composition “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!", which he had great difficulty accomplishing. On each occasion that the artist engaged with such “eternal" themes, he did so with an absolutely clear purpose, belonging as they did to the deep ethical and philosophical thread that runs through Russian culture, comprising part of the mainstream of Russian art that begins with the work of Alexander Ivanov and continues through that of Ivan Kramskoi and Nikolai Ge. Vasily Perov and Vasily Polenov offered original interpretations of this strand, while it also held appeal for Repin, reflecting as it did the arduous spiritual journey of the Russian intelligentsia as it agonised over “questions of worldwide magnitude" relating to God and immortality, truth and the meaning of life.
In Repin's art, issues of modern life and such eternal themes did not exist as parallel realities but rather intermingled with and complemented one another, forming the single stream of a multi-layered creative process. The Gospel series that Repin created in his final decade was no isolated occurrence: as he wrote to Chukovsky in September 1921, the project continued a “kaleidoscope" of ideas, and reflected both his own state of mind and feeling and the thoughts of many of his contemporaries and predecessors. It is indeed a striking encounter between the contemporary and the universal.
- Repin, Ilya. “Far Away, Close By". Moscow: 1960. P. 5. Hereinafter - Far Away, Close By.
- Ibid. P. 430.
- Lyaskovskaya, O.A. “Ilya Efimovich Repin". Moscow: 1982. P. 16
- Far Away, Close By. P. 83.
- Ibid. P. 145.
- Ibid. P. 433.
- Ibid. Pp. 433-434.
- “Correspondence Between Ilya Repin and Vladimir Stasov". Vol. 1. Moscow- Leningrad: 1948. P. 38.
- Far Away, Close By. P. 299.
- Stasov, Vladimir. “Collected Works". In 2 vols. Vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad: 1937. P. 812.
- “Ilya Repin - New Findings: The Artist’s Articles and Letters, Reminiscences of His Students and Friends. Publications". Leningrad: 1969. Pp. 80-81.
- “Artistic Legacy. Ilya Repin". Leningrad, 1948. P. 313.
- Pyotr Ivanovich Neradovsky (18751962) was an artist and art historian. He worked at the Russian Museum from 1909, first as the custodian, then as the head of its art department. Together with Kornei Chukovsky he participated in the preparation of Repin's memoir “Far Away, Close By" for publication .
- See: ilyarepin.ru/tvorchestvo. Last accessed: January 1 2018
- “Correspondence Between Ilya Repin and Kornei Chukovsky. 1906-1929". Moscow: 2006. P. 133. Hereinafter - Chukovsky.
- Far Away, Close By. P. 320.
- Repin, Ilya. “Letters to Artists and the Arts Community". Moscow, 1952. P. 226.
- Ibid. P. 224.
- Ibid. P. 226.
- Grabar, Igor. “Ilya Repin: A Monograph". In 2 vols. Vol. 2. Moccow, 1937. P. 204.
- Chukovsky. P. 133.
- Repin, Ilya. “Letters to Artists and the Arts Community". Moscow: 1952. P. 224.
- Chukovsky. P. 193.
- Ibid. P. 198.
- Ibid. P. 191.
© Russian Museum. Detail
© Russian Museum. Detail
Oil on canvas. 133 × 199 cm.
© Russian Museum
Sketch. Oil on canvas.
© Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg
Sketch. Oil on canvas. 83 × 118 cm.
© Russian Museum
Lead pencil, bronze and watercolour on paper. 29.5 × 48.2 cm.
© Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino
Oil on canvas. 229 × 382 cm.
© Russian Museum
Sketch. Graphite pencil on yellow paper.
© Russian Museum
Graphite pencil on paper. 33.5 × 22.1 cm
© Russian Museum
Sketch. Lead pencil on paper. 29.8 × 41.1 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 215 × 196 cm
© Russian Museum
Graphite pencil on yellow paper. 22 × 35.4 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 62 × 91.5 cm
© Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Karelia, Petrozavodsk
Icon. Oil on canvas. 73 × 55.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 58 × 48 cm
© Nizhny Novgorod Art Museum
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 43.4 × 75.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Sketch. Oil on canvas. 45 × 61 cm
© Russian Museum
Graphite pencil on paper. 30 × 41 cm
© Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki
Oil on canvas. 48 × 102 cm
© “Kiev Picture Gallery” National Museum
Oil on linoleum. 78 × 94 cm. © Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino
Oil on linoleum. 75.5 × 94 cm
© Ilya Repin Penaty Museum, Repino
Oil on canvas. 212 × 141 cm. Private collection
Oil on canvas. 214 × 176 cm
© Princeton University Art Museum, USA