THE CREATION OF Arkady Plastov’s "Bathing the Horses”. MARKING THE 125th ANNIVERSARY OF THE ARTIST’S BIRTH
“Bathing the Horses” is one of the most important works that Arkady Plastov (1893-1972) accomplished in the decade of the 1930s. Created for the 1938 “Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army”, it was effectively a commissioned work, but nevertheless remains one of the most genuine and honest paintings of its period. Like the artist’s “Harvest Feast”, it reflects Plastov’s almost instantaneous evolution into a master of painting in oil. The story of the painting, along with its creator’s quest to capture its artistic quintessence, is particularly relevant for understanding the foundation and development of Plastov’s artistic vocabulary in the late 1930s.
Two aspects of Plastov's work on “Bathing the Horses" deserve special note: his impressionist manner, the fact that he treated his subject as a motif (it is no accident that he used this word when describing this particular painting: “this motif - nude bodies, water, sunlight, and horses - is my life's dream"); and his concurrent work on sketches in the classical and neo-classical manner, involving study of the plastic and existential principles of world art.
Bathing the Horses. 1938
Oil on canvas. 200 × 300 cm. Russian Museum
There are, in fact, two separate original paintings titled “Bathing the Horses". The first, from 1938, initially shown at the “Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army" and now at the Russian Museum, is replete with allusions to antiquity. Its palette is dominated byjewel-like tones of dark silver and ochre, and the deep, greenish waves clearly evoke the sea; the composition includes a full-length “self-portrait" and a clearly recognizable image of one of Plastov's favourite models, the young and beautifully whitetoothed Pyotr Tonshin. The other painting, usually catalogued as a study for the painting “Bathing the Horses" (1937, 66.5 x 99.5 cm, in the Plastov family collection), is actually an original work in its own right, based on sketches made en plein air, with a variety of models' poses and a clear allusion to Pyotr Klodt's sculptural composition on St. Petersburg's Anichkov Bridge.
From the point of view of their composition, colour scheme, artistic objectives, relationship with reality, choice of subject, and, last but not least, their semantics, these are definitely two distinct paintings, two different approaches to the theme. Each version of the painting has its own story, its archetypes, and its painterly and semantic values. As for the preliminary sketches and studies, they also fall into two main categories. The first group includes the “impressionist" ones made from nature in Prislonikha, Plastov's native village, and during his trip to a unit of the Red Army Caucasus Military Division based in Armavir, while the other one of preliminary compositions are Plastov's studies in a neo-classical manner.
Plastov was quite young when he first turned to the motif of bathing horses - his earliest watercolour composition on the subject dates back to 1913. His first art teacher, Dmitry Arkhangelsky, mentioned a work by Plastov known as “Bathing Horses in the Pond" in an article published at the end of the 1920s.
Plastov often drew and painted horses throughout the 1920s and 1930s; he had considerable knowledge of them, including the way they moved and their different gaits. Thus, he worked quickly and easily when creating this new composition. There is no doubt that “Bathing the Horses" belongs to a series of Plastov's works in which the horse occupies a central role: among such pieces are “The Feast of SS Florus and Laurus" (1915-1920), which was followed by “Bathing the Horses", then “Night Pasture" (1940) and “Celebration Day" (1954-1967), as well as his illustrations to Leo Tolstoy's novella “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse".
Naturally, the artist could not fail to see “Bathing the Horses" in the wider context of the Russian and Soviet visual arts of his time, which included the work of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, notably his “Bathing the Red Horse" (1912), as well as Pyotr Konchalovsky's “Bathing the Red Cavalry" (1928), painted for the “Exhibition on the 10th Anniversary of the Red Army" that was shown at Konchalovsky's 1932 solo exhibition (we know that Plastov visited that show). About the latter, the art historian Alexander Morozov wrote: “In the 1920s Konchalovsky did create a number of large-scale, multi-figure compositions that could technically be considered ‘exhibition paintings', for example ‘Return from the Fair', ‘Shoeing the Bull', right through to ‘Bathing the Red Cavalry'... However, all these works remain outside the social context of their period. This is a phenomenon that does not fit with the tradition of Russian realist painting; it is also hardly compatible with the ambitions of the so-called ‘theme-based' Soviet art." Plastov was clearly familiar with the neo-classical allusions of Konchalovsky's work, and it is possible that Konchalovsky's example of taking an “official" subject and stripping it of the social context of its time to make it into something eternal, played a role. If that was the case, Plastov indeed managed to outperform Konchalovsky, since even the title of his painting, “Bathing the Horses", is devoid of any social or political overtones.
Another important work that provides context for Plastov's painting is Valentin Serov's “Bathing a Horse" (1905). Plastov considered himself a student of Serov and admired his work, while the fact that his “Bathing the Horses" and Serov's original painting at the Russian Museum have a similar palette endorses such kinship. It should also be noted that in 1935 the Tretyakov Gallery had organized a solo show of Serov's works, which Plastov saw and to which he referred in his correspondence. “An exhibition of Serov's [paintings] has opened here. I have already been to see it several times. There is a great deal that I have never seen before, and some works that I saw back in 1912. I seize so much from it and grow stronger and stronger."
As for the 1938 Red Army anniversary show, Plastov wrote in his autobiography: “When I learned the theme of this art exhibition, I felt a bit dejected. Everything was either beyond my ability, or of a kind that other painters would tackle most beautifully. I decided to suggest my own subject. ‘Bathing the Horses'."
Plastov began working on the painting in the winter of 1936. On February 13, he wrote to his wife, who was in Prislonikha: “The theme that I'd suggested - ‘Red Army Cavalrymen Bathing Their Horses' was approved." In his letter of March 2 1936, he described his work on a study for “The Fair", and wrote that he “drew the second, sepia study (for the ‘Red Army' [exhibition - translator’s note]). Here is an exceptional theme. The thought that, God willing, I will get to paint it makes me feverishly happy. This motif - nude bodies, water, sunlight and horses - is my life's dream. If I do [translator's italics] get to paint it, I should make it life-size, with some brushstrokes as if they'd been made with a broom; if I am lucky enough to work en plein air this summer, I could create something that would make my reputation. I get carried away as I look at the brown [sepia] study imagining the possibilities."
From the very beginning, this motif and its painterly quintessence dominated over the subject matter, which was, in turn, determined by the precise demands of the composition, and not by any expected “narrative". Neither version of the painting has any clear visual indications of its time or of historical reality.
Every letter that Plastov wrote in March and April 1936 mentions “Bathing the Horses", which he was painting during the same period as he was working on “Harvest Feast". The artist's wish was to go home to Prislonikha and paint from nature: “At home, if the weather is good, I could paint the much-needed studies of horses in the open air." However, the artist's main focus was on determining the composition.
“Yesterday and the day before that, I transferred the drawing to canvas. I am talking about my sketch for the ‘Red Army'. This morning I began to paint, using watercolour-like liquid paint. The result is quite interesting. In fact, in the last three days I have been trying to work out the nude figures of the Red Army soldiers, using myself as a model. I assume the required pose in front of the mirror and draw, with really considerable difficulty, but the drawing works out all the same." There is a recognizable self-portrait in both the study and the Russian Museum version of the painting. “I am painting ‘Bathing the Horses' for the Red Army. So far, so good. It is curious how in the process I discover that I do have some strengths."
Plastov's interest in drawings of classical subjects and in the neo-classical style provide important context for his work in the 1930s. Among them are multiple series of compositions depicting architecture, with ruins of triumphal arches, sculptures of Titans, dilapidated and balancing structures that recall Giovanni Battista Piranesi's “architecture on paper"; in them, the artist expressed his feelings of the fragility, impermanence and unease that mark human existence. Plastov also created a series of distinctive caprichos, where the realities of his everyday world, such as women bathers or cattle grazing by the water, are set against fantastical views of spectacular architectural ruins, giant buildings that are falling apart, as well as erupting and extinct volcanoes, and variations of popular mythological motifs and stories of legendary heroes. Some examples are “Hercules and Antaeus", “Hercules Kills the Centaur Nessus", “Heroes Erect a Column in the Temple of Nike as She Crowns Them", and “Orpheus and Eurydice". “Heroic" landscapes and Cyclops-like figures seem to illustrate Plastov's important and telling words: “Colours and shapes that are saturated with passions and rage invade my imagination, they scream and roar right next to all the saccharine righteousness." Clearly, Plastov's creative spirit did not fit the “Procrustean bed" of the limitations that his time imposed on his artistic expression. As the artist's wife Natalya wrote in her unpublished memoirs: “To contemplate the fact that these [classical compositions - T.P.] were created at the same work-table as the designs for agricultural posters and other visual propaganda for the collective farms is to understand how the artist suffered, and how original and unanticipated talent was being destroyed by the brutal realities of life that had no place for Homer and Ovid. At the same time as he painted these studies, the artist worked on images of his native village, its snowy winters, homesteads with horses and cattle, and powerful, surging torrents in springtime. These unfinished works represent the real, true Plastov; even today I am not sure whether it is his major masterful paintings or these smaller, modest and subdued genre scenes of ‘peasant life' that are dearer to the heart."
There is no doubt that Plastov worked on his studies for “Bathing the Horses" at the same time as he was creating his mythological scenes - such factors as the similarity of media and the same kind of paper, the plasticity and the “archaic" palette of clay and terracotta can be noted. Thus, “Bathing the Horses" should be seen as part of those “mythological studies", alongside the depictions of cattle at watering places and the women bathers in his “Cyclops" compositions. Plastov's studies for “Bathing the Horses", painted in Spring 1936 in watercolour and sepia, are a free and formal attempt to develop a subject that is directly connected to his compositions on mythological themes. The familiar pond and hills near Pris- lonikha are transformed into ancient, mythical landscapes. The male figure standing on a horse's back bears a clear resemblance to the artist (“I am my own model"). At this initial stage, Plastov was not focusing on painterly goals, but rather on creating multi-figure groups: three men on horseback in the background, the torso of a rider with his arms lifted - all these fragments attest to the artist's interest in the sculptural forms of Ancient Greece as well as the work of Michelangelo. The figure in the centre with his back to the viewer is an obvious reference to Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Sketch for the painting “Bathing the Horses”. Bathing the Horses. No. 15. 1937-1938
Oil on canvas. 26.3 × 38.5 cm
In Plastov's art of the 1930s, water and bathing signify an important motif, impressionist in both substance and painterly approach. Water, innately changeable and key in defining how light and air exist in the painting, transforms the very nature of the visible world as it refracts, splits and reflects light, providing the artist with innumerable and unexpected visual experiences. In the 1930s the “water and bathing" motif in Plastov's art found expression in a variety of themes, from “Bathing the Horses" to his “painting of childhood", “Troika" (1938).
It is significant that the sketches that Plastov made in preparation for painting “Bathing the Horses", both during his trip to the Caucasus and then back in Prislonikha in 1936-1937, share the same painterly goals with his series “Bathing Children", which did include some sketches of children with horses. Both sets of sketches represent the artist's study of the nude form with reflexes of the water, green trees, and the sun on the wet skin.
Plastov's 1936 visit to the Caucasus via the River Volga - he was, in fact, travelling on professional assignment - was a pivotal moment in shaping the composition of the future painting; it was not so much a chance to gain new visual experiences and sketch from nature, but rather to rediscover space and its metaphysical essence, and plunge into the powerful currents of life. As a result, the painting (now in the Russian Museum) features the sea, not a pond, and the Russian Red Army soldiers are transformed into immortal, eternal heroes. The mountains of the Caucasus, the Urup River, the cavalrymen bathing their horses - all of these visual impressions became sketches and studies essential for Plastov's work.
The artist wrote various letters through August 1936 which included descriptions of what he saw (the fact that he never sent them gives them something of the quality of diary entries): “... the current is insane, could roll you any moment, and the water is too deep for a horse to stand. The water is warm, transparent and soft. [The men] started bathing their horses. A great number of riders filled the river. And standing on this flat riverbank I saw right away the mistakes I had made when I painted my initial study. I knew exactly what I had to do now. In a hurry, I began sketching; I could not believe that something that had seemed to completely escape from me was happening in front of my own eyes, without any effort on my part. The sky was blue, the air was warm, and the soothing water was even warmer. I sketched three mediocre portraits of the Red Army men that were close by."
In another letter, he described the surrounding landscapes: “This morning I went to the cliff to see the Caucasus mountain ridge. On my way to join the regiment, my fellow traveller, a lieutenant, a squadron commander, had mentioned that on a clear morning one could sometimes see the mountains, Mount Elbrus in particular. You will, Nata, understand my excitement, the indescribable, unmatched excitement I felt when I peered into the pinkish morning expanse; suddenly, like a faraway cloud, the conical peak of Elbrus appeared, with a craggy mountain ridge to the left. The sight was nebulous, undefined, barely there, but a kind of exalted feeling of tenderness came over me, and I quietly doffed my hat. I did draw a small watercolor study."
He wrote about other impressions, too: “Alas, I did not experience the same intoxicating pleasure from swimming as I had 23 years ago in Batumi, when for the first time I plunged into the crystal, emerald waves. It was certainly different back then. The tide was high, but the water was crystal clear, the waves were not too strong, and the sky was clear. The morning was quiet and somehow fragrant, sea foam did not splash over my face, and the unbelievably blue water underneath me was glowing and deep; also, I was 20 years old, and both my body and soul were still nimble. To my great sorrow, [this time around] I realized that I had long lost my aptitude for spontaneous perception, and should something reach my senses, it was through the dim glasses and bad ears of a worn-out man [my emphases - IP.]."
It was during this trip, free from the demands of everyday life and the expectations of society, that the artist felt truly liberated: “These days there are moments when I feel like I have no past, no baggage of the kind that a shattered, worn- down man carries with him."
On February 10 1937, Plastov wrote to his wife that his study for “Bathing the Horses" (the impressionist version of 1937) was approved, accepted “with pleasure and without a single correction." However, Plastov was still working on his “Celebration at the Collective Farm" and so was unable to start painting his new work on a large canvas. It was only on November 26 that he wrote: “Today I finally brought out the canvas stretcher for my ‘Bathers'."
“I am slowly painting my ‘Bathing'; I wish so much that I could show you how it is taking shape. God willing, you will come here and see it," he wrote on December 17. “Quite unintentionally, I ended up changing the background, and the sky turned out wonderfully well. Do you remember? A thunderstorm is approaching from the left, and on the right the hills disappear into a wall of rain, just as it happens when the rain moves through..., as they say at home. Light and shadows shift on the water, including the background with the horses on the right, and push the figures in the forefront into bright light. The interaction of light and shadow, transparent streaks of rainwater, the fog of rain droplets that covers the trees at the bottom of the mountains - all of these create a kind of humid, warm atmosphere and an enthusiastic, joyous mood. I am so happy that I have finally found the key to this composition, if that's the way to put it, it would be wonderful to really capture this heavenly atmosphere of these Caucasus foothills. As far as I can remember it, of course."
It is fair to say that the final version of the Russian Museum painting - with its well-considered colouristic scheme and clear connection to the artist's compositions on classical subjects - is built upon deliberate colour illusions and sculptural effects. Thus, Plastov strengthened the left-hand side of the painting's foreground (a step that was necessary for creating the classical effect of attracting the viewer's gaze) by accentuating the glimmer of the water and creating a contrast between this background and the figure of the man standing on the horse's back, right beneath the thunder cloud. This kind of shaky construction, a man standing on a swimming horse, a moment of unsteady equilibrium, is typical of Plastov's neo-classical compositions of the 1930s: it is this technique that created the dramatic, anxious mood. The contrast between the male figure standing on the back of his horse at the bottom left-hand corner of the painting and the glimmering water intensifies and sustains the painting's semantic tension; it is a tension that continues through the elliptical line that goes deep into the painting's background until it disappears in the lower right-hand corner, as if brought to a halt by the hand resting on the back of another horse.
Plastov built his painting on the harmony of movement, as represented in the composition, and the static, monumental sculptural quality of the male figures, which are, by turns, dynamic and vibrant. The effect is achieved through the use, in parallel, of dynamic perspective and sculptural forms that have been perfected over many centuries. Here, the motif of the nude human body took on a meaning that was different from Plastov's “impressionist" version of this painting (and those studies that showcased the artist's aptitude for painting from nature). It seems that for Plastov the sculptor, it was imperative to show the human body as seen from various angles, delighting in its incomparable grace. Perhaps this was, indeed, the artist's main goal. At the same time, he skillfully imitated impressionist techniques to convince the viewer that all the contre-Jour effects, reflections, and shadows were real, while in fact this was a masterfully constructed illusion, where the light, the sky and the water were all relative, no matter how well they were executed through the use of colour and light.
Some of the details in this painting seem to appeal to the viewer's historical memory and were meant to suggest particular connotations. Indeed, the group of horsemen coming down to the water beneath the cloud of a storm evokes the artist's impressions during his trip along the Volga, those which he was so eager to record: “Those low hills, bare and boring, bring back memories of Kyrgyz horsemen and the Pugachev Rebellion." The feeling of unease that this part of the painting stirs up creates a very important overtone that is in sharp contrast, both literally and figuratively, to the figures in the foreground. Thus, Plastov was able to create a painting that fully incorporated his artistic talents, while avoiding any themes that he found objectionable; even the title that he gave to the painting, “Bathing the Horses", was not changed.
Plastov saw his painting as finished, both in terms of its composition and painterly manner, which was considered one of the most important values of European art. In a letter to his wife of March 28-April 1 1938, he mused on its possible reception: “It would be fine if they just simply rejected it, but what if [they demanded] revisions? That would be really bad. The painting's surface, the layers of paints are structured in such a way that making changes, painting over, or removing anything would only make the painting worse, to say nothing about its composition."
The exhibition opened on May 6 1938, and Plastov's timeless work stood in stark contrast with most of the other paintings at the show. The catalogue included short annotations on each separate exhibition space, with Plastov's painting mentioned in the annotation to Hall 12: “Arkady Plastov's ‘Bathing the Horses' is one of the best works at the exhibition. Its subject matter is simple: Red Army cavalrymen are bathing their horses in a river. However, the way the artist has treated it reveals his impressive powers of observation; the painting is masterfully executed.".
It may seem surprising - and even run against what we think we know about the period - that this painting, despite its absence of any ideological message, received almost universally good, even glowing reviews from both viewers and critics. The feeling of freedom that Plastov experienced and translated into his art must have trickled down to those who saw it. A colour reproduction of the painting appeared in the fourth issue of “Isk- usstvo" (Art) magazine of 1938. In an article titled “Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army and Navy", the critic S. Razumovskaya called Plastov's painting “one of the best works at the exhibition". Her praise was fulsome: “And lo and behold - Plastov, like the [mythical hero] Ilya of Murom, has risen up, got to his sturdy feet, and stood tall to instantly claim his place among the best Soviet painters..."
* Arkady Plastov’s works reproduced in this publication, with the exception of those in museum collections, are from the collection of the artist's family.
- The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (RKKA), or simply the Red Army, was officially founded on January 28 1918; from February 1946 until its dissolution in December 1991, it was known as the Soviet Army.
- Morozov, A.I. ‘The Unknown Konchalovsky' // “The Unknown Konchalovsky". Moscow, 2002. P. 16.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, January 17 1937. All letters cited here are from the Plastov family archive.
- Arkady Plastov, “Autobiography". Unpublished, the Plastov family archive.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, February 13 1936.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, March 2 1936.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, April 13 1936.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, April 16 1936.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, November 24 1935.
- In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a robber in Attica, who stretched or amputated the limbs of travellers to make them conform to the length of his bed. “The ‘bed of Procrustes', or ‘Procrustean bed' has become proverbial for arbitrarily - and perhaps ruthlessly - forcing someone or something to fit into an unnatural scheme or pattern." (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Natalya Plastova, “Memoir". Unpublished manuscript. The Plastov family archive.
- All excerpts taken from letters that Arkady Plastov wrote, but did not send, in August 1936. The Plastov family archive.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, February 10 1937.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, November 26 1937.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova, December 17 1937.
- Excerpts taken from a letter that Arkady Plastov wrote, but did not send, in August 1936. The Plastov family archive.
- Arkady Plastov letter to Natalya Plastova. March 28-April 1 1938.
- “Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army and Navy" catalogue, 1938. P. 13.
- Razumovskaya, S. ‘Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army and Navy' // “Iskusstvo" (Art). 1938. Issue No. 4. Pp. 21-22.
Russian Museum. Detail
Watercolour, whitewash on paper. 19.5 × 47.5 cm
Watercolour on paper. 16.5 × 24.6 cm. Dated by Dmitry Arkhangelsky, Plastov’s teacher
Watercolour, whitewash on colour paper. 25 × 32.5 cm
Watercolour, whitewash on paper. 34.5 × 25 cm
Watercolour, pencil on paper. 25 × 48 cm
Oil on canvas. 66.5 × 99.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 52 × 34.3 cm
Oil on canvas. 52.5 × 34.7 cm
Oil on canvas. 35.5 × 52 cm
Oil on canvas. 34 × 50.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 35 × 49.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 51 × 34.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 49.5 × 34.7 cm
Oil on canvas. 34 × 50.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 34.5 × 43.3 cm
Oil on canvas. 34 × 26.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 34 × 30.7 cm
Oil on canvas. 25 × 31 cm
Oil on canvas. 26 × 33 cm
Pencil on paper. 29.2 × 33.6 cm. Goncharov Regional Museum, Ulyanovsk
Pencil on paper. 31 × 35 cm
Oil on canvas. 50 × 34.5 cm