"Dies Irae". Pavel Korin's "Requiem" at the Tretyakov Gallery

Natalya Alexandrova, Vera Golovina

Magazine issue: 
#2 2014 (43)


Today the cultural legacy of the Soviet period continues to gain more and more new details and elements, and new layers of complexity, although the approach to the visual arts of that period is in large measure still biased and often warped by the focus on the relationship between avant-garde trends and ideology. In this light, Pavel Korin's idea of his composition devoted to "the Church's last parade", which has survived in the form of a series of portraits and a huge blank canvas, appears especially meaningful. The most difficult and divisive questions related to this work, undoubtedly a landmark of 20th-century Soviet art, remain whenever Korin's two generally accepted masterpieces, "Requiem" and "The Passing of Rus'" are considered The focal point of the show is the series of 29 portraits, displayed for the first time together, and the immense (450 x 941 cm) canvas that the artist never touched, its size larger even than that of Alexander Ivanov's composition "The Appearance of Christ to the People".

This series of portraits and the blank canvas undoubtedly constitute a single work, although it is common knowledge that the history of 20th-century art in Russia was full of grandiose and unrealised ideas for such projects. While many projects conceived by great Russian artists in the 20th century never advanced beyond the stage of ideas, a closer look at this fact opens up surprising vistas with important implications for the distant future. This fully applies to Pavel Korin's unrealised "great work": nearly 90 years after the first portrait for the "Requiem" series was created in 1925, the Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val shows for the first time the series in its entirety to the public.

The view of the "Requiem" as an unaccomplished, unrealised project that is traditional in Soviet art scholarship, has always piqued viewers' curiosity, making them wonder why the artist never carried through his plans. What message did Korin want to convey in this work? If we look at the artist's entire work on it, spanning more than 30 years, can we see how his initial design was changing, expanding, and gathering flesh?

It should be recalled that, at the end of his life, Korin was one of those Soviet artists who were praised by Soviet officialdom and whose work defined the official artistic mainstream of that period. Pavel Dmitryevich Korin (1892-1967) was a People's Artist of the USSR, a full member of the Soviet Academy of Fine Arts, and a winner of the Lenin Prize, who created, after the end of World War II, such famous compositions as the triptych "Alexander Nevsky" and the "Portrait of Marshal Georgy Zhukov". He also designed, during the Stalin era, structures that are still popular today, such as the metro stations at Komsomolskaya (mosaics on vaulted ceilings) and Novoslobodskaya (stained glass panels), and lived through the Soviet 20th century as both a witness to and a participant in the tragic events, clashes and accomplishments of Russian history from the 1920s up to the time of Khrushchev's thaw.

Today it can be confidently asserted that, in working on his "Requiem", the artist developed, through trial and experimentation, artistic and narrative methods and techniques which in many respects influenced the artistic innovations of the young artists of the 1960s. First and foremost among them is Viktor Popkov, with his artistic phenomenon, and his typicality and at the same time singularity in the Russian cultural tradition. Addressing this phenomenon, Alexander Morozov wrote in his "Realism and Socialist Realism": "Pavel Korin and Viktor Popkov belonged to the group of artists who were torn apart by the desire to gain insights into the heart of existence, the denial of the possibility of such insights and the drive to incarnate images of perfection..."2 Pondering over the spiritual origins of art in the 1960s Morozov emphasised the affinity between Korin and Popkov: "Curiously, developing as an artist, Popkov was indirectly influenced by Korin. In the mid-1960s the old master's popularity reached a zenith when the public saw his 'Russia' series. The women featured in 'Memories. Widows' (1966-1968), the mature Popkov's first masterpiece, spontaneously evoked the characters in Korin's compositions. They were regarded as a powerful historical and national archetype without precedent in our painting."3

Relying mostly on a comparison of artistic techniques and objectives, Morozov has quite correctly intuited the affinity between the two artists. In the course of preparing the exhibition catalogue, researchers found in the artist's archive a photograph showing Popkov among those present at Korin's funeral at the Uspensky Cathedral at Novodevichy Convent.


There can be no doubt either that Korin also held sway over such modern artists as Dmitry Zhilinsky and Pavel Nikonov, who were associated with the best-known stylistic trends of the "new" art and the so-called "austere style" of the 1960s. In their interviews, printed in the "Pavel Korin. Requiem" exhibition catalogue, the two artists speak in particular terms about the subject.

Zhilinsky - a close friend and associate of Vladimir Favorsky, who held Korin in great esteem as an artist - spoke about Korin's influence on the young artists: "I remember how, after graduation, we came to Korin - Ossovsky, Korzhev, Sukhanov and myself - and told him: 'Pavel Dmitryevich, if you want to start the painting, we're willing to help...'"4 Zhilinsky's words show that even in the early 1960s the young artists believed that painting a composition on the canvas prepared for the work as early as the 1930s was a feasible idea. However, according to Zhilinsky, Korin refused. Today we can only speculate about the reasons for the master's refusal, but Zhilinsky's testimony makes it clear that after the war Korin could not bring himself to start the work, although he continued to reflect anxiously about it and, in particular, gave the last sketch for "Requiem" (1935-1959) the date 1959.

In his catalogue interview, Pavel Nikonov reflects on the possible reasons why the painting never materialised: "It has forever remained a mystery for me. What was it that prevented Korin from creating the composition? The canvas had been around for so long! As an artist, I know what a blank canvas is... Usually, after a year or two, you finally have a go at it... I guess there was no longer a need for the great work: every portrait... of a monk or a pauper became a condensed image of the Russia that had passed... Apparently, [Korin] was becoming ever more convinced that the subject had already been fully explored, although he might have not admitted it to himself, but intuitively, as an artist, he understood that the canvas was not needed."5 Nikonov believes that the idea of the composition forever remained for Korin an unattainable ideal, with the canvas some kind of evidence of that ideal.

Today, this piece of canvas, which took Korin so much time and effort to prepare, is featured at the centre of the display as an art object that is valuable in itself. According to the head of exhibitions at the Tretyakov Gallery Nina Divova, the artist placed an order for a single-piece, seamless canvas, which the canvas-makers managed to produce only after several failed attempts. The art restorer Stepan Churakov, who was Korin's student and is depicted by him in the double portrait "Father and Son" from the "Requiem" series, had similar memories: ". a special canvas stretcher was made, with engineering design by Yevgeny Vasilyevich Kudryavtsev, head of the restoration workshop at the Tretyakov Gallery."6 Churakov helped with stretching and priming the canvas. In his house-cum-studio Korin used to marshal his portraits in front of this "big" canvas, placing them low on the easels. The immense white canvas, with the portraits, some "one-and-a-half times life-size", lined up next to it, left an indelible impression on visitors and guests of the house on Malaya Pirogovka street. The art scholar Maria Reformatskaya recorded her impressions of what she saw in the studio back in the 1950s: "There was a huge untouched piece of canvas, its whiteness almost frightening; at some distance from it, there were tall and vacant stepladders, and on the floor, there were portraits, arranged diagonally but symmetrically, radiating from the centre like radiuses. And. you had the impression that 'Birnam Wood marched to fight you' in the form of the figures - black, grey, glaring at you intensely and sternly... The series of portraits and the white canvas were one whole... The intactness of the canvas implied the idea of reverential attitude to the great work, to the layers of the Russian tradition which showed through in the art of Korin, who viewed himself as both an artist and, in some sense, a missionary of art."7

Genrikh Guhn8, too, ventured the guess that transferring the portraits onto the canvas might have become a debacle for the artist: "The answer to the puzzle is that Korin's portraits, created as sketches for the picture, in fact were not sketches, but accomplished pieces, and pasting them together to form a new composition seemed a task... almost unfeasible. The sketches already contained an all-round message, and a particular lay-out would not have added anything."9 Perhaps Korin himself could see how eloquent the painted portraits were in proximity to the blank surface of the untouched canvas and how strongly this impressed viewers. The Tretyakov Gallery has in its archives photographs featuring the artist's original layout of the portraits near the canvas, and some of them are on display at the exhibition. It should be noted that working on this sort of lay-out the artist often appears to be one of the heroes of his series of portraits.

Korin's original lay-out of the canvas and the portraits within a single space influenced the arrangement of the exhibits at the show. The exhibition also features versions of the compositional studies and a distemper sketch of the "Requiem", which is believed to be the last piece ever painted for the project. Therefore, the attentive viewer can trace how the initial idea changed and developed as the artist continued to work on the portraits and sketches, although many painters believe that the last sketch is just a variant of the final version of the composition.

The first portraits in the "Requiem" series - "Old Man Gervasy Ivanovich" (1925), "Archbishop Vladimir" (1926), and "Metropolitan Trifon" (1929) - were undoubtedly painted from real people. After these portraits came the images of the old warrior, Archbishop Vladimir Sokolovsky, Metropolitan Trifon (Turkestanov) and others: as early as 1931, in the case of the second portrait of Sokolovsky, Korin changed his style to create a nearly metaphysical image. However, Korin later rejected this artistic idiom, close as it was to Moderne, and his subsequent portraits created in the 1930s are a stylistic combination of natural vision and emotional gesture. Perhaps this explains the bizarreness of certain of the human images, which in some of the "Requiem" portraits reaches a level of grotesque exaggeration. Apparently, the artist's ultimate goal was to represent a distinctive character in every portrait, at the same time bringing out what they had in common as participants "of the Church's last parade", which Korin interpreted as the Last Judgement.

The theme of the Last Judgement underlies one of the first compositional studies for the "great work", a sketch that Korin called "The Last Judgement in the Valley of Jehoshaphat" (1929). The Bible's Book of Joel contains the lines about the Valley of Jehoshaphat: "Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen, and gather yourselves together round about: thither cause thy mighty ones to come down, O LORD. Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about" (Joel 3: 11-12 KJV).

The composition of this sketch10 is highly reminiscent of Korin's artistic predecessors, such as Alexander Ivanov and Mikhail Nesterov, as well as some examples of classic Italian art. In 1931 Korin went to Italy11 on the invitation of Maxim Gorky, who had endorsed his work on the "Requiem". In Italy, fascinated by Michelangelo's and Signorelli's compositions themed on the Last Judgement, the artist pencilled a number of croquis drawings for his painting, fleshing out his vision of the "Exodus" against the backdrop of Italian landscapes. But Korin did not like these sketches either, and later discarded them. However, the theme of inclusion into the world-historical eschatological context, which emerged in these pieces, endured, forming a hidden narrative in his subsequent compositions. Later Korin spent some time working on a sketch which, now lost, was described by Stepan Churakov12: the artist transferred the action to Russia, where his characters solemnly walked against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains.

In the early 1930s Korin was again thinking of setting the action of his painting in the Moscow Kremlin. Gorky helped him to secure an authorisation to visit the Uspensky Cathedral, and in 1933 the artist took photographs and made sketches in its interior.

Only after that did the artist begin to sketch in a manner similar to the distemper sketch (1935-1959), which was to remain the project's last element. On September 19 1935 Korin wrote to Nesterov about his work on this sketch: "For a whole month, I've been, on paper, making inspection rounds and guiding my lame, blind and needy old men, with Mikhail Kuzmich [Kholmogorov] at the head, through the Kremlin's cathedrals and squares, and finally taking them inside the Uspensky Cathedral, where they lined themselves up, as on a military parade, against the backdrop of august edifices."13

During the preparation of this special project, the decision was taken to display at the exhibition the brief annotated biographies of all the personalities featured on the "Requiem" portraits, but in the end these texts were only printed in the catalogue14. Studying the printed sources and discovering missing details about Korin's models, the researchers gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of his vision. His gallery of portraits featured hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church who were responsible for its fortunes at the time of the Renovationist schism (like Sergius I of Moscow (Stragorodsky)), the spiritual leaders of secret communities of monks (like Fyodor Bogoyavlensky), the reformers who were detested by the church authorities and perished in the labour camps (like Antonin Granovsky), recently canonised priests (Ioann Rozhdestvensky, Sergei Uspensky), the keepers of spiritual traditions (the schema-hegumene Phamar), as well as the obscure holy fools (the blind Danila, who begged in the porch of the Dorogomilovsky Cathedral).

Their portraits, created for the "Requiem" series, captured the historical drama that Korin witnessed in the 1920s-1940s. The art of lofty ideals undoubtedly lost its importance in those years, as the spirit of the times dictated new rules, and perhaps Korin, attempting to remain honest in his art, did not believe it was necessary to go against those rules. And yet, the great artist left behind to posterity a unique art object, a modernist project of sorts whose concept grew from an initial idea in the vein of the historical compositions of the 19th century into an artwork imbued with postmodern cultural sensibilities. Today the "Requiem", striking a chord with aficionados of modern art, goes on provoking heated discussions, and stirring emotions both among professionals and the general public.

  1. "Day of Wrath" (Latin). "Remember 'The Day of Wrath'. What grandeur! Makes me want to paint a picture like that. The day of wrath, the day ofjudgement, which will turn the world into ashes" Quoted from Korin's notebooks, in "Pavel Korin about Art. Articles. Letters. Recollections about the Artist". Moscow: 1988. P. 13.
  2. Morozov, Alexander."Realism and Socialist Realism". Moscow: 2007. Pp. 156-158.
  3. Ibid. P. 158.
  4. "Pavel Korin. Requiem. Notes to the History of "The Passing of Rus'". Moscow, 2013. P. 242. Further referred to as Requiem.
  5. Requiem. P. 244
  6. "Pavel Dmitrievich Korin. 1892-1967. On the Occasion of the Centenary of His Birth". Moscow: 1993. P. 39.
  7. Requiem. P 251.
  8. Genrikh Gunkin was a writer, journalist, philologist, and a scholar of the Russian North.
  9. Requiem. P 41.
  10. "Pavel Korin. Requiem. Notes to the History of 'The Passing of Rus'". (Moscow: 2013), which was published for this exhibition.
  11. It was in Italy that Gorky suggested the title for the piece, "The Passing of Rus'".
  12. "Pavel Dmitrievich Korin. 1892-1967. On the Occasion of the Centenary of His Birth". Moscow: 1993. P. 40.
  13. "Pavel Korin about Art. Articles. Letters. Reminiscences about the Artist". Moscow: 1988. P. 39.
  14. "Pavel Korin. Requiem. Notes to the History of 'Passing of Rus'". Moscow: 2013.





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