Mark Antokolsky: " I have done everything I could..."

Lyubov Golovina

Magazine issue: 
#2 2004 (03)


Mark Antokolsky was born into a Jewish family, the son of an inn-keeper in the town of Vilno, in the district of "Antokol" - which explains the origin of his surname. The mere fact of being born outside the Pale of Settlement boded no good, not to mention the accompanying poverty. Antokolsky's childhood was so unhappy, that when he decided to write his autobiography, he began it with the time of his studies at the Academy of Art, omitting his earlier years. "My childhood was too dismal - oh, it was so dismal that it makes me shudder to remember it, and it is too painful to write about it. I was the unloved child, and oh, what a beating I got!"

Antokolsky's father wanted his son to become an inn-keeper - like himself - or to enter any other "good" business: the artistic abilities that herevealed at an early age were simply despised. The boy's first experience in painting the newly-whited stove ended in a thrashing. Soon the artist's father lost any hope of making something out of the boy, and sent him to the shop of a braid-maker, where he was supposed to learn the art of making gold and silver ribbons. But soon the young Antokolskyhad changed the shop of a braid-maker for that of a wood-carver, and the owner of that shop, Tasselkraut, became his first real teacher and mentor.

Within a year he was making frames in another shop owned by another wood-carver, Gimadra. It seemed he could not break this vicious circle, but fate gave him a chance: one day he saw a reproduction of the famous painting by Van Dyck "Christ and Madonna", and carved it in wood. The wife of Vilno's General-Governor was greatly impressed by this work and gave Antokolsky a letter of introduction to her St. Petersburg friend, Baroness Edit Raden - a maid of honour of Grand Duchess Helen Pavlovna. It was a happy turn in the artist's fate.

On November 4 1862 Mark Antokolsky was enlisted at the Academy of Arts as a non-affiliated student because he was still poor at drawing. To overcome the lack of experience he studied hard, first under the tutorship of professor N. Pimenov, and after his sudden death, with I. Reimerce. The process of education was classical: studies of antiques and copying, but when on vacation Mark Antokolsky visited his native town Vilno, he modeled genre scenes. Soon, at the Academy exhibition of 1864-1865, he presented his 'A Dress-maker" and "The Miser". Antokolsky was awarded silver medals for both works, and in addition a special stipend of 29 rubles for "The Miser".

Antokolsky studied at the Academy of Arts for seven years. In November 1867 he wrote to a certain Barel: "I am working the whole day, and I am still enthusiastic about my work. I started to do clay, and - thank God! -was first in the exam. All the sculptors might become my secret enemies, but I am indifferent." ("Istoricheskii vestnik", 1905, 12, p. 987). His success lent him wings, but the constant shortage of money really held him back. He was ready to do anything to support himself: he worked in a wood-shop, carved the numbers on ivory billiard balls - forjusta few kopecks -modeled Cupids in the style of Poussin, and such like occupations. During the first years of his studies in St. Petersburg he got a 10-ruble stipend from the special fund of the banker I. Gintsburg "to support indigent Jews".

But he had other problems - Antokolsky suffered from his illiteracy: he was really more a clever than an educated person. Antokolsky not only wrote in Russian with many mistakes, he very often spoke incorrectly which made his communication with others troublesome. In one of his letters to Vladimir Stasov, Antokolsky mentioned the fact of having been treated badly: " is not proved that the one who writes correctly, thinks correctly."

There was another factorthat complicated the life of the sculptor -a certain law (later abrogated by Tsar Alexander II) according to which Jewish societies had a right to "trap" all Jews who had no passport (even those who did not belong to that very society or province), and recruit them. For years this threat was a nightmare to the sculptor.

In summer, 1868 Antokolsky, terribly afraid to fail his general examinations at the Academy of Arts, left St. Petersburg for Berlin. In case of failure, he could have been recruited.

"Something that is far away is always alluring...," Antokolsky wrote in one of his letters. "It seemed to me - my imagination was working feverishly - that there everybody was a brilliant scientist, and connoisseur of art... Oh, I'll be fine there..." Having got leave until October 1, he left Russia. But Berlin was a complete disappointment: the same academic routine, nothing new. In November 1868 Antokolsky returned to Russia to face the same problems he had tried so hard to avoid, as a non-affiliated student without any perspective or material support.

"My situation was getting worse every day, I was at a spiritual low, I had no courage: no present and no future. I could not stay at the Academy, and I could not get anything there." In this situation Antokolsky reached the decision to take part in the competition and make a statue of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Again he faced troubles: as a non-affiliated student he had no right to participate in a competition organized by the Academy for its regular students. But the possibility of victory was a real temptation - it gave an official status as an artist, and exemption from recruitment. There was a way out, however - to obtain the title of honoured citizen. According to Russian laws, receiving the title opened an opportunity to choose the profession of an artist. Antokolsky submitted an application to the Board of the Academy, simply begging them to regard his case as exceptional. He was lucky this time too. In April 1870 he received the personal title of "honoured citizen". Having settled one problem, he still had others. Now he had no place to work - no studio. The title itself did not give him the right to occupy any of the Academy's rooms. The sculptor worked in one of the classrooms, which he had to vacate at the beginning of classes. Again he had to beg for a working place; in the end he was given a small room on the third floor into which the clay model of the statue moved.

The room was too small and cold, and damp, and all this badly affected his health, so that he had to interrupt work often. In spite of all these difficulties the statue was completed. This work became a turning point in his creative activity: such was his fate that Antokolsky gained popularity for his works on everyday Jewish scenes, but he became famous for depicting Russian historical subjects.

The statue of Ivan the Terrible was no doubt an innovation for its time. It opened up new horizons, becoming another argument in favour of the grandiose theme being embodied in a plastic form. Antokolsky had many opponents, but also friends, among them the well-known Russian art critic Stasov, who defended the sculptor whenever and wherever he could. In one of his letters Antokolsky wrote that he paid no attention to all the critical remarks, pointing out that the more they annoyed him, the better it was for his work.

unfortunately the sculptor became ill because of these awful working conditions, and could not exhibit his statue of Ivan the Terrible at the Academic exhibition which opened in November 1870. So Antokolsky set himself an incredible task - to make the professors of the Academy come to his studio to see the statue. Quite naturally his requests were not considered; the Academy was absolutely determined to punish this upstart.

But it seemed nothing could stop the sculptor - he decided to appeal to Prince Grigory Gagarin, Vice-president of the Academy. The latter - taken unawares - agreed to visit Antokolsky. The statue of Ivan the Terrible impressed the Prince, and he recommended the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna - at that time President of the Academy - to see the statue for herself. The day after her visit to the sculptor's studio the Academy received an order to prepare for a visit by Tsar Alexander II. The sculpture produced such a great impression on Alexander II that he placed a commission for the Hermitage. The reaction of the Academy was immediate. The Emperor was informed that, according to the decision of the Board of the Academy, "the talented artist will be given the title of Academician". Thus again Antokolsky had broken all the rules -he received a title otherwise only given after the award of four silver and two gold medals, as well as a six-year stay abroad on an Academy grant pension. It was a remarkable success, compounded by the fact that he received 250 rubles from the Academy to complete his work.

In 1871-1872 he made a bronze cast of the statue, and in 1875 one in marble for Pavel Tretyakov. After the statue of Ivan the Terrible was exhibited in London in 1872 he made a copy in plaster for the Kensington Museum collection. But his situation was far from stable: the money he received was spent quickly, and there was a group of art critics who were hostile to him and whose criticism was for the most part insulting - he was accused of having made a paraphrase of Houdon's "Voltaire". However, such critical voices were relatively few: the majority of art critics praised him and appreciated his work. Antokolsky's joy was boundless. Nevertheless, he soon faced material, and - worse - health problems. His physician Sergei Botkin insisted on an immediate trip to the South, to Italy. But Antokolsky had no money. Again he had to ask for support, applying to the Academy of Arts and the Ministry of Education. Happily, the Emperor assigned 4,000 rubles, and Tretyakov paid his trip to Italy. At the end of August 1871, Antokolsky left St. Petersburg for Vilno, and in October he arrived in Rome.

Another milestone in Antokolsky's creative evolution was the statue of Peter I. The idea occurred to him when he was working at his Ivan the Terrible. Antokolsky wrote that he wanted to sculpt two absolutely opposite characters from Russian history. He considered the two Tsars as figures alien to each other, but together composing something of a "whole".

Antokolsky forgot himself while he was working; it seemed he never got tired, he paid no attention to discomfort - his studio in Rome was no better than that in St. Petersburg. The low small windows did not let in sunlight, and in the corners of the damp room there was grass growing. When the statue of Peter I was completed it was exhibited in Moscow, at the All-Russia Polytechnic Exhibition, then it traveled to St.Petersburg to the Academy of Arts.

The reaction of the public and the critics was confusing - more "contra" than "pro". The majority of the art critics considered this work a failure, even Stasov, his friend and major apologist. There were no commissions, and the statue of Peter I for years stayed in the yard of the casting shop of the Academy of Arts. When the statue was transported to Italy - where the sculptor was living - it was so terribly damaged that Antokolsky was ready to throw it away and to start again. It was a hard and long process to restore the statue, but in 1878 - five years after its creation - the bronze statue of Peter I was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where it was a great and stunning success. Its popularity abroad stimulated its appreciation in Russia. By the order of the Russian government, the statue of Peter I was erected at Peterhoff in front of the Monplaisir Palace in 1883. Stasov admired it for its expression and live force. Anton Chekhov initiated its erection in Taganrog to mark the 200th anniversary of the town founded by Peter the Great. Bronze versions appeared in Arkhangelsk in 1911, and in St. Petersburg in 1909 (from 1938 the statue has been in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery), in front of the barracks of the Preobrazhensky Regiment in 1910. Before his death in 1902 Antokolsky only saw the one at Peterhoff.

With the images of Ivan the Terrible and Peter I Antokolsky managed to embody the dark and the light sides of Russian history and of human nature as well:"Rus' loves Ivan the Terrible, but I don't. I love only those who suffer for their ideals, for love of humanity... That is why after Peter and Ivan I do not glorify strength, anger, destruction; I glorify the sufferings of mankind. In that I am a sick child of my time."

Antokolsky, a man of outstanding social temperament, under the pressure of circumstances became a philosopher and an advocate of the ideas of martyrdom and non-resistance.

"On the one hand, neurasthenia, decadence, and on the other hand, the stock exchange, rough materialism, and in the middle - so-called progress. This progress created materialism, and materialism killed the ideals. As for myself, I realize that I'm weak-willed, but I have done everything I could to become an independent artist and to work - first of all - for my own self; the situation might be better in a while."

Antokolsky's desire to be isolated from everything and everybody; to realize to what extent his work was interesting not only for his compatriots but for the whole world, and finally, his inclination to move away from national subjects, was regarded negatively by his friend Stasov, who wrote in one of his articles that Antokolsky had stepped onto a new path - neither Russian, nor Jewish, but alien to himself, to his nature and talent. The renowned art critic ascribed these metamorphoses to the "European impact".

Antokolsky became more and more involved in the problems of humanity - he created impressive "cosmopolitan" (as Stasov put it) images of Christ, Spinoza, Socrates and other "friends of mankind". Like many of his contemporaries, Antokolsky regarded the very process of creative activity and artists as embodiments of moral principles: "We, artists, are mediators between Man and God, we make people cry and touch their souls, we make them happy, and stimulate and awake the good in them."

Antokolsky himself was far from ascetic: he did not experience the impact of Leo Tolstoy, though many of his contemporaries did. Antokolsky regarded Tolstoy's philosophy critically. He stated: "Somebody sent me a book - a kind of a catechism of the world's brotherhood. 253 questions and answers... This is a kind of decadence, this is catechism, the world's monastery with nuns, only this is some ideal materialism, making fire and water equal, this is life without poetry, this is an embalmed mummy... I want to live a full life. I want laughter, joy, I want the sky, the sun, and flowers, I want everybody to be happy, healthy and true... Oh, my God, how foolish I am to wish all this, nobody wants me to."

Antokolsky managed to combine creative and social activity. Having moved from Rome to Paris in 1877 the sculptor was involved in the charitable activity of the "Artistic Society". He assisted Russian artists who came to Paris, and busied himself finding studios for them, selling their pictures, and - if he could - lending them money. In spite of all this, some compatriots were still sceptical of him.

At the end of his life Antokolsky again faced merciless reality. In 1901 - a year before his death - he had to sell his collection of antiques, and even some of his own works.
Antokolsky lived 59 years - not a very long life, and one with its definite ups and downs, its failures and triumphs, attacks from those unfriendly to him and support from his close friends. He lived abroad but he worked for Russia, and he dreamt of returning there. His dream came true only after his death.





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