ALEXEI ISUPOV BETWEEN RUSSIA AND ITALY
On the 120th Anniversary of the Artist’s Birth The 35th exhibition of “Russia’s Golden Map”
Alexei Vladimirovich Isupov dedicated his whole life to art and was shaped by his years at the Moscow School of Painting, and later absorbed a great deal from Impressionism and the work of the Italian Renaissance masters. But he kept his distinctive style and remained true to the idea that excited the generation of painters of the turn of the 20th century — “the embodiment of the great beauty of everything alive”.
The Tretyakov Gallery is hosting an exhibition of about 100 of Isupov’s works from the collection of the Viktor and Apollinary Vasnetsov Kirov Regional Art Museum as a part of the Tretyakov’s “Golden Map of Russia” project. The Kirov museum has most of Isupov’s artistic heritage that was brought from Italy, where he lived half of his life. Isupov’s art can also be seen in Russian provincial museums, while a number of his works are at the Tretyakov Gallery, as well as in Italian museums and private collections in Europe and the USA.
Isupov came of age as an artist during the first decades of the 20th century. He was born on March 10 1889 in Vyatka, into a family of a master iconostasis maker. Isupov’s interest in creative work was inspired by the work of his father, a woodcarver and gilder, as well as by his interaction with craftsmen and icon painters. His first teachers were his “Kazan workshop icon painter”, Anastasy Chernogorov, and Vasily Krotov, who came to Vyatka with a crew of Palekh craftsmen to paint the Trifonov Monastery’s Uspensky cathedral. Under their guidance, Isupov learned iconography and painting.
But his passion for independent creative work emerged under the influence of the Vyatka artist Nikolai Khokhryakov and his friend, the well-known landscape artist from Vyatka, Apollinary Vasnetsov. Soon Isupov’s work was appearing at the first Vyatkan art exhibitions. This compelled him to think of going to Moscow to study. But his parents opposed this decision, as they were not able to financially support their son; he had his way, however, and having earned some money from the sale of his sketches, in 1908, Isupov came to Moscow to enter the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He was cordially met by Apollinary Vasnetsov who saw an extraordinary talent in him and a huge desire to learn: Apollinary Mikhailovich “would invite the young man for a cup of tea — to pass evening hours in talks about art... those were like evening classes in art history...”.1
Apollinary Vasnetsov introduced Isupov into a circle of artists and helped him to find some work. While preparing for his exams, Isupov visited the school-studio of Ilya Mashkov and Alexander Mikhailovsky. The studio, one of the most conspicuous phenomena of Moscow artistic life, attracted young people with its frequent discussions and disputes about art. The school’s discussions strengthened Isupov’s desire to grasp the foundations of artistic mastery. He read and thought a great deal, and visited exhibitions and museums. He was delighted by the paintings by Mikhail Vrubel, Valentin Serov, Vasily Polenov, Konstantin Korovin. He liked Philipp Malyavin, whose paintings amazed him with their quintessence of light. Isaac Levitan’s canvases filled his soul with gentle sadness. He was interested in the work of the French painters from the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov that he saw at exhibitions.
The staff of outstanding artists who taught at the school — Polenov, Levitan, Serov, Vasnetsov, Korovin — created a special atmosphere at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. These masters helped the students develop an interest in new tendencies in Russian and European art and made them solve complex painterly problems. These artists’ own artistic quests shaped the development of their students. Among those creative young students was Isupov, who studied portraiture and genre painting under the guidance of Serov and Korovin, and landscape painting at Apollinary Vasnetsov’s studio. Isupov’s natural creative temperament helped him grasp various sides of his artistic craft. On his own, he studied drawing and painting by great masters. Great art nurtured him as an artist, shaped his tastes, and inspired him to work hard to achieve a confident and faultless drawing and precision in choosing a hue. According to the artist Vasily Meshkov, Isupov was respected at school for his huge industriousness and talent. “Take me, for instance,” said Meshkov, “you can say I was born with a palette, but looking at Alexei Isupov’s work, I always thought with a certain good jealousy: no, we are not even close to him. I, for instance, felt that I could not do what he did. ”2
Isupov’s art of that period was developing in accordance with the values of the Union of Russian Artists. The Union representatives were in their majority, landscapists and passionate fans of Russian nature. Already in his early work, Isupov’s outstanding painterly talent and his sensitive understanding of nature’s beauty became apparent. The work Isupov produced at the school’s shows the range of his perception of the physical world. For instance, in his landscapes “A Yard in the Province” (1910) he uses devices of tonal development of the landscape to convey the feeling of a humid atmosphere. He also painted “The Monastery” (1910) in alia prima style thus managed to achieve in it some intensive colouristic tension, and his “Northern Landscape” (1911) presents a certain epic mood.
After graduating in 1912, Isupov traveled across the Urals. In 1915 he was mobilized and sent to Tashkent. This Central Asian period was a richly creative time in his art: some of the artworks were a certain pictorial response to the misfortunes of World War I (“Easter Night” 1916; and “In the Field-ambulance”, 1917); though the landscapes revealed his lyrical talent to depict some “light harmonious mood that overwhelmed his soul filled with joy born by the poetic phenomenon of existence”.3
By the end of 1917 he was free from his military service due to his poor health condition. Isupov returned to Moscow, and there he painted Russian nature scenes: “A Peasant with Wagon” (1917), “Evening Landscape” (1918), “By the Monastery Mill” (1918), and “Old Moscow. Neskuchny Garden” (1918). While working on these pieces, the artist observed the state of the atmosphere, searched for precise tonal-colouristic relations in nature; depending on the illumination, he strove to maintain the natural colour of objects and the sharpness of shape, and bring to light the particularities of the spatial environment.
In May 1918 Isupov came to Tashkent again. His wife, Tamara Nikolaevna, remarked, “Turkestan was a wonderful place for Isupov’s true art. As an artist of the Russian school, he found there everything that he was looking for: the light, the sun, the shadows.... He became a brilliant, unparalleled creator of poetry, hues, and colours.”4
By studying various ethnic types — their everyday life, clothes, and household effects — he broadened the thematic range of his paintings. Isupov depicted noisy markets, teahouses, blacksmith shops, street scenes, and architectural landmarks. His palette also grew richer. In his paintings “The Market by the Samarkand Mosque” and “Samarkand” (1920-1921), Isupov masterfully conveys intense sunlight. The artist paints landscapes in brief quick brushstrokes that create the effect of vibrating air, light, and colour, and he achieves a sense of luminous overtones. Here the artist turns more consistently towards plein-air impressionism.
When he worked in Central Asia, Isupov did not limit himself to direct observations of surrounding life. His active work as an artist and director of the Art Department in the Committee for Restoration and Protection of Monuments of the City of Samarkand allowed Isupov to widen his knowledge of restoration, archaeology, and history.5 At the same time, Isupov painted a number of pieces, executed in tempera on wood that reflected his unique authorial interpretation of the icon painting tradition and the Oriental miniature painting technique. While mastering a new technique of tempera painting, Isupov strove to distribute colour in his paintings to achieve a harmonious combination of colour and a smooth, shiny painterly surface. He managed to feel the peculiarities of the decorative designs and patterns of the Orient; this sensitivity to Oriental decoration can be seen in his works “Elder Brother” (“Three Faces. The Uzbeks.” 1921), “A Woman Offering Tea and Fruit” (1921), and “Porcelain Salesman” (1921). This series of works was executed for the prospective edition of “Ulugbek” magazine6 in memory of an outstanding scientist-astronomer, the governor of Samarkand in the first half of the 15th century.
Upon returning to Moscow in 1921, Isupov had to work a great deal in order to overcome everyday burdens and financial difficulties. This was the hardest and most intensive period of his life — all about the struggle to survive. Like other artists, Isupov was forced to do the work that was demanded by the policy of the new Soviet state. He took orders to paint portraits of political leaders, as well as pieces on revolutionary themes and paintings that reflected the life of the Red Army. Isupov’s fellow countrymen, the artists Viktor and Apollinary Vasnetsov helped him to survive in difficult circumstances. On their recommendation, in 1924, Isupov became a member of the Committee for the Improvement of the Life of Scientists (KUBU), which to some degree made his financial situation easier in Moscow.
Soon, due to his health condition and following doctors’ recommendations, Isupov left for Italy in 1926. He settled in Rome, where he became known as Alessio Issupoff. There he began working right away. Isupov was free in his creative choices, his talent was not used for political purposes any longer. He traveled around the country a great deal, with ample opportunities to study the art of great masters in Italian museums. During his travels across Italy, Isupov painted landscapes, portraits, and sometimes just studies and sketches. He broadened his thematic range, creating works filled with poetic reminiscences and references to Russia. Isupov painted most of his landscapes on Russian motifs from his imagination, by memory, or based on the studies brought from Russia. (“The Port on the Volga”, “Landscape with a Female Figure”, both of 1935).
Isupov’s art was multifaceted during this period — he painted portraits, landscapes, still lifes, genre pieces, and works depicting animals. But in Italy he was best known as a portrait artist. His female and male portraits, and self-portraits are distinguished by seemingly improvisational painterly manner. But still, each of his portraits is well “directed” according to the creative tasks set by the artist.
The first portraits Isupov painted in Italy depict Italian women in national costumes (“Woman from Scanno”, 1928). Michele Biancale gave an unusual assessment of these works. He noted that “by depicting Italian women in black costumes, Isupov infused them with Russian sensuality, stripping them of specific peculiarities of local character, which imbued the image with a special expressiveness”7. The artist executed a series of female portraits in which he tried to bring to light their individuality, to find a peculiar movement, to catch an expressive pose or gesture. Isupov also worked on self-portraits. In working on portraits, he developed unique approaches, choosing complex angles in positioning figures — usually from a low point of view. In this way, he conveyed the dynamics of the composition development. He contrasted light and shadow in his spatial-plastic composition, and used plein-air impressionistic painting techniques. (“Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. At the Spinning Wheel”, 1930s, “Woman with a Tray”, 1942, “At the Mirror”, 1944, “Self-Portrait with the Dog Vatrushka”, 1943.) In his art Isupov paid much attention to drawing. Using pencil, charcoal, san-guine, pastel, Indian ink, and quill, he expertly executed many-figured genre compositions and turned to various themes: circus, ballet, peasant stories; he drew portraits, nudes, and animals. Isupov was fascinated by drawing, by the possibilities it held for freely and directly expressing the diversity of the physical world in artistic form. His sketches from nature took their place alongside his paintings and revealed the individuality of a great master.
Isupov led an active creative life in Italy, frequently participating in exhibitions, personal as well as national and international (his first solo-show took place in 1926). In 1928—1929 his paintings were exhibited in Rome and Milano, he was appreciated by art critics and connoisseurs. Isupov never lost his popularity during his lifetime, and in his paintings critics noted a “wide brushstroke, fine detail, striving towards the truth”. But mostly his pieces were loved for their “gentleness of colour”. No matter what Isupov was creating, his talent unfolded fully and powerfully, and was expressed in the harmonious and pure palette of his paintings, in the beauty and manifold forms of the physical world. Throughout his creative life, he was true to the traditions of the Russian school. To this day, Isupov’s art continues to excite with its sincerity and emotional truthfulness. He is truly an outstanding phenomenon in Russian and world art.
During his life abroad, Isupov never stopped dreaming of returning to Russia. He suffered from his separation with his Motherland. But the most difficult time for him was World War II, when he found himself living under Italy’s Fascist regime. He could not remain uninvolved, and actively helped the Italian Resistance. After the war, he continued his creative work, but in the early 1950s Isupov painted very little. He suffered from a disease, which was complicated by frequent bouts of depression. His wife remembered that he used to shut himself in his studio, and in the later years did not even visit the openings of his exhibitions. Isupov no longer believed that he would ever return to his home, to Russia.
Alexei Isupov died on July 17 1957, in Rome. He was buried in the city’s Testacchio cemetery next to the other renowned Russian artists Fyodor Matveev, Pimen Orlov, Karl Briullov, brothers Pavel and Alexander Svedomsky.
His wife Tamara Nikolaevna Isupova returned to Moscow in 1966, and according to the will of her late spouse she brought his legacy to Russia. She donated about 300 paintings and graphic works to Vyatka Art Museum, one of the founders of which was Alexei Isupov.
- Vasnetsov Vsevolod. Pages of the Past, Leningrad, 1976. P. 18
- Moskvinov V. N. Alexei Isupov. / Author's archive. Typewritten text, p.10
- In: Lapshin V.P. Union of Russian Artists, Leningrad, 1974. P. 140.
- The letter from T. N. Isupova to V. N. Moskvinov from July 7, 1964. // KAM Archive - Fund 5.
- He attended archaeological excavations, restored reliefs during monument restoration, and created watercolour illustrations to illustrate reports on the Committee’s restoration works.
- The album was not published.
- Biancale M. Alessio Issupoff. Rome. // RGALI [Russian State Archive of Literature and Art] — Collection 2598. — list 1, e.x. 310, l. 21.