TREASURES OF RUSSIAN ART in the Collection of the Sukachev Irkutsk Art Museum
The 31st exhibition of “Russia’s Golden Map”
“Like England created London and France created Paris, Siberia created Irkutsk.
Siberia is proud of Irkutsk, and unless you have seen Irkutsk, you have not seen Siberia.”
The Irkutsk Art Museum named after Vladimir Sukachev (the Sukachev Irkutsk Art Museum) is sometimes called the “Siberian Tretyakov Gallery” or the “Siberian Hermitage” because of the richness and diversity of the museum’s collections: Russian art from the earliest time, Western European and Oriental art - paintings, drawings, sculpture, applied art; folk art, numismatics, archaeology, and other collections. The department of Siberian art spanning a period from the Palaeolithic age to the present day is unique. The collection has more than 20,000 items overall.
The Irkutsk Museum is one of the most famous regional museums in Russia. Russia has only two museums older than it — the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery. It was brought into existence in 1870, originated by Vladimir Platonovich Sukachev — an acclaimed public figure of the 1870s-1910s, an affluent and enlightened patron of arts, and creator of Siberia’s first art gallery. Stanislav Goldfarb in “Biographical Sketches of the People of Irkutsk”, published in the book “Irkutsk. From the Past into the Future”, noted: “With a huge fortune inherited from his relatives, the Trapeznikov family, who were Irkutsk’s biggest gold miners, he... [Sukachev] started to spend the Siberian gold widely on education and museums, publishing and artwork. Irkutsk owes a great deal to
Sukachev for all the Russian art masterpieces the city now possesses.”
It was no accident that such a large art centre arose in Irkutsk. Due to its fortunate geographical position, Irkutsk had long held a special place among all the Siberian cities. In 1731 it became the most important administrative centre in Eastern Siberia, and in the late 18th century the biggest religious, commercial, economic, academic and cultural centre of the region. Irkutsk was especially closely linked to Novgorod the Great, as Novgorodians were the first settlers of Irkutsk.
Icon painting was the art of the first Russian settlers. The first icons were brought to Siberia by Cossack “path-breakers”. The first Siberian icon painters were re-settlers from Novgorod, Sol Vychegodskaya, Ussolie, and Veliky Ustug, so the development of Siberian icon painting was connected above all to the Northern Russian art tradition. And the nascence of a distinct Siberian school of icon painting is dated to 1621, when the Siberian diocese, based in the city of Tobolsk, was founded. Icon painters from the Tobolsk bishopric worked all across Siberia. In 1727 an Irkutsk diocese was separated from the Siberian archdiocese to become an individual entity. The expansion of the diocese to the Pacific Ocean and the growing numbers of East Orthodox Church believers among the settlers in the 18th century had as a result an intensive construction of churches and monasteries. The 18th and19th centuries saw a rise of Irkutsk hereditary clans of wood-carvers, silversmiths, and metal workers: the Berdnikovs, the Rodionovs, the Startsevs, the Unzhakovs, the Fereferovs, the Kharinskys and others, whose fame went far beyond Irkutsk.
In the early 19th century Irkutsk was an acknowledged cultural hub, home to Siberia’s first museum, first public theatre and public library; it was also home to Siberia’s first academic centre — the Siberian (later Eastern Siberian) department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. “Not only in terms of wealth but in terms of general cultural level and moral qualities, the Irkutsk community is ranked, if not higher then probably as equal to the European part of Russia,” — such was an assessment of the significance of Irkutsk given in an “Essay edited and published by Vladimir Sukachev, a mayor of Irkutsk.”
“As one would have expected,” wrote Grigory Potanin in an article “Painting in Siberia” (“Sibirskaya Zhizn” (Life in Siberia), September 7 1903), “Irkutsk, of course, was the first Siberian city where private collections of paintings were brought into existence... But more often than not, people who got rich and left Irkutsk took everything with them. Most recently, a big collection of pictures was put together in Irkutsk by Sukachev. Sukachev is set to open a picture gallery in Irkutsk.”
Thanks to Sukachev Irkutsk found itself in possession of the artwork of prominent Russian 19th-century painters — Alexander Varnek, Leonid Solomatkin, Alexei Bogolubov, Vasily Maximov, Alexei Kivshenko, Ivan Aivazovsky, Konstantin Makovsky, Ivan Yendogurov, Leo Lagorio, Yuly Klever and other masters. The names alone attest to the high level of Sukachev’s collection. In 1897 his picture gallery was visited by a Frenchman Jules Legras — a professor of Russian literature from Bordeaux. In his memoir he wrote about Sukachev and his gallery, “[Sukachev] is an elegant Siberian man whom our Parisians are acquainted with. But probably only few of them visited his graceful picture gallery, which is one of Siberia’s curiosities. This gallery pleasantly surprised me, for during my travel across Siberia rarely did I have a chance to see art. The artwork at the Gallery is almost exclusively Russian: this is a patriotism which I hold in great esteem.” (“Vostochnoe obozrenie” (Eastern Review), 1899, No. 94. Re-printed from Jules Legras’ “Across Siberia,” Paris, 1899).
In the 1880s-1910s Sukachev’s private gallery, sheltered in a separate house on his Irkutsk estate, actually functioned as an art museum. Even after the Sukachev family moved to St. Petersburg in 1898 the gallery remained open to visitors, and the gallery’s works were shown at city exhibitions, and the city exhibitions themselves after a while started to be hosted by the gallery. All exhibitions were charitable. In 1920 the picture gallery was nationalized and together with a collection of historical artefacts formed a City Museum which opened the same year.
After 16 years (in 1936) the significantly grown art collection was made into an autonomous Irkutsk Art Museum. In 1990 Sukachev’s name was added to the Museum’s name.
Russian art forms the Museum’s biggest and most comprehensive collection. The collection of icons started to be put together in the 1930s, with the arrival of icons from Irkutsk churches, which were being shut down. Many valuable artefacts were picked by the museum staff when they scoured the nooks and crannies of the Irkutsk province (old settlements along the Angara and Lena Rivers), the Trans-Baikal area, and Krasnoyarsk region. Private collectors too made donations to the icon collection. The addition of a part of the famed collection of a Moscow doctor Valerian Vadimovich Velichko, in the 1980s-1990s, was an important event. Velichko’s items included artwork from the biggest art centres of Novgorod, Pskov, Moscow, and the Balkans.
Today the Museum possesses one of the largest icon collections in Siberia and the Far East. The backbone of the collection is formed by original Siberian icons, which were inarguably an important link in the chain of Old Russian artwork. The Siberian school of icon painting has diverse roots connected with complex migration histories, thanks to which Siberian artists were successively exposed to the influences of icon painters from the north of Russia and the Volga region, craftsmen of the Kremlin’s Armoury Chamber, and the Baroque.
The most valuable items include an icon “St. John the Baptist” dated to the 1670s which shows traces of influence of the Ustug workshop. The iconography of this icon is quite unusual: John is represented in a haircloth as Angel of the Desert, a crown on his head — such imagery is rare in the pictures of John the Baptist. The icon “Archangel Michael the Commander of the Fearsome Host” (1718), featuring Michael the Archangel riding a red winged horse, is remarkable for its expressiveness of colour. This defender of the Christian faith and patron of the Russian army was often featured in icons made by Siberian craftsmen. The school of Siberian folk icon painting, well-established by the 18th century, had a certain influence on icon painters working for churches and even on monastery painters. A typical example of this trend is an icon “Apostle Peter” dated to the second half of the 18th century and originating from the Surov village in the Ust-Kut region. The icon is marked by laborious work, its equilibrium of shape, and a subdued colour design.
Like many regional museums, the Irkutsk Museum began to put together its collection of artwork from the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries in Soviet times. The earliest additions, from the State Museum Fund, came in 1928. It was then that works of Fyodor Rokotov, Vladimir Borovikovsky, Vasily Shebuev, Karl Briullov and many other prominent Russian masters arrived in that remote land, Siberia. In 1938 the Tretyakov Gallery passed to Irkutsk portraits by a “Russian Italian” Pietro Antonio di Rotari and by an Academician and watercolour artist Pyotr Sokolov, an oil portrait of Karl Bruillov’s student Fyodor Chumakov, and four sketches by Vasily Polenov and Pyotr Briullov acquired at one time by Pavel Tretyakov. From 1948 to 1977 new acquisitions were mostly the purview of the Museum’s director Alexei Fatianov. The talented collector became highly influential not only at the State Fund and Moscow’s museums, but also with the nation’s pre-eminent collectors such as Felix Vishnevsky, Pyotr Kornilov, Nikolai Velichko, and Yuly Nevzorov.
The collection of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century through the early 20th century grew at a fast pace in the 1920s. Sukachev’s small collection grew into the biggest collection of Russian art that one can find beyond the Ural Mountains. One should also note such an important source of new additions to the Museum’s collection as the private collections of Irkutsk merchants and civil servants, as well as items previously stored at public agencies and colleges in the city, and the holdings of the Irkutsk Society of Artists where, in the early 20th century, some artwork brought from Moscow and St. Petersburg or from abroad for temporary exhibitions was left behind.
The 1870s and 1880s — a high period of the “Peredvizhniki” (the Wanderers Artist Society) art — are represented at the exhibition by an early sketch of Konstantin Makovsky “Street Musician” (1872, from Sukachev’s collection), and a genre piece “Abandoned Woman” by Fyodor Bronnikov (also from Sukachev’s collection), which secured for the artist admission to the “Peredvizhniki” group. Bronnikov’s picture is vaguely consonant with a piece “St. Petersburg Civil Servants Working in the St. Petersburg Harbour Neighbourhood” by Nikolai Bogdanov (from Sukachev’s collection), a little known genre painter from St. Petersburg whose works were featured at the “Peredvizhniki” exhibitions. The show features “Sokolniki Neighbourhood” (1882), a piece by one of Russia’s pre-eminent landscape artists Alexei Savrasov. Isaac Levitan once said that “Savrasov brought lyricism into landscape painting”, and this characteristic fully applies to the “Sokolniki” picture as well.
The part of the Irkutsk collection dedicated to items created in the first decades of the 20th century introduces the viewer to new tendencies in art, with a great expansion of the subjects covered and an enrichment of artistic means. The early 20th century was a high period of the biggest art group “Union of Russian Artists” (which worked from 1903 to 1923). The show features works of Union members such as Leonard Turzhansky, Stanislav Zhukovsky, and Sergei Vinogradov. Graduates of the Moscow art school taught by Savrasov, Levitan and Polenov, they inherited and preserved the best traditions of their mentors. Their art is marked by the fondness for “plein air” painting, and an eagerness to enhance the emotional aspect of landscape. Their landscapes are distinguished for their free-flowing, sketchy style with emphasis on colour strokes. Another thing they shared with their teachers was love for a quiet and unassuming Russian scenery.
The Museum’s collection of the Russian avant-garde of the first decades of the 20th century includes eye-catching and unusual pieces such as “Portrait of My Uncle” (1910s) by the artist and poet David Burliuk, who is called “the father of Russian futurism”. Or “Portrait of an Unknown Woman”, a piece created in the same period by Vera Yermolaeva, an artist undeservingly forgotten but held in great esteem by connoisseurs. This portrait reflects the obvious closeness of Yermolaeva’s art to the creative principles championed by Mikhail Larionov at that time.
A young Irkutsk artist Alexei Zhibinov (1905-1955) too can be ranked among the avant-garde artists. In Irkutsk he was taught by an artist Ivan Kopylov — a graduate of the Academie Julian in Paris, a private school where he developed a sense of colour, imagination, passion for artistic experimentation; and in Leningrad Zhibinov was mentored by the innovative artist Pavel Filonov. In the “Red Army” painting (1931) Zhibinov created a visual image of the time. In his picture the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war are represented as an elementary force overtaking the entire nation. Like his teacher Filonov, Zhibinov analyzes the world and breaks it down into component parts. Characteristically, the faces of all Red Army soldiers somewhat resemble the face of the artist himself.
The richness and diversity of the collection provides an opportunity to present the viewer with a sufficiently comprehensive panorama of Russian art starting from Old Rus’ and up to the 20th century. The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow for the first time hosts the most valuable part, albeit a small one, of the Irkutsk Museum’s collection.
Tempera, levkas, linen on wood. 107×49 cm
Tempera, levkas, linen on wood. 90×71 cm
Oil on canvas. 70×57 cm
Tempera, levkas, linen on wood. 125×43 cm
Oil on canvas. 78×62.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 78×62.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 64×50 cm
Oil on canvas. 68×96 cm
Oil on canvas. 75.5×56.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 31.5×24.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 52×71 cm
Oil on cardboard, lambskin. 36×25 cm
Oil on canvas. 190×135 cm
Oil on canvas. 96×96 cm
Oil on canvas. 84×68 cm