DISTINGUISHED VISITORS: A RUSSIAN CULTURAL PANTHEON IN LONDON

Rosalind P. Blakesley

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2016 (51)

The epochal exhibition “Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky” runs at London’s National Portrait Gallery until June 26, bringing the pride of Russia’s 19th-century cultural pantheon to the UK. Its British curator Rosalind P. Blakesley recalls the origins, development and ambitions of this major Anglo-Russian cultural collaboration.

1856 was a propitious year for the development of the arts in Great Britain and Russia. in London, a group of politicians, writers, historians and well-born supporters founded the National portrait Gallery. After a number of temporary homes, including premises in Great George street in Westminster, buildings managed by the Royal Horticultural society on Exhibition Road, and Bethnal Green Museum, the Gallery finally settled in 1896 in its current home in St. Martin’s place, next to the National Gallery, in a building designed for the purpose by Ewan Christian. Above the entrance of the Gallery are busts of the three men chiefly responsible for the Gallery’s foundation - Philip Henry Stanhope (the 5th Earl Stanhope), Thomas Babington Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle.

The same year as the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery, some 1,500 miles away in Moscow, the young merchant and industrialist Pavel Tretyakov began to collect Russian art. Tretyakov’s gallery gradually grew to become the greatest collection of Russian art in the country, housed in a growing number of additions to the family home in the merchant quarter to the south of the River Moskva. in 1892, in an act of extraordinary civic generosity, Tretyakov donated his collection (eventually renamed the State Tretyakov Gallery) to the city of Moscow. Eight years later, the painter and architect Viktor Vasnetsov was employed to design the collection’s first purpose-built home, complete with its iconic facade.

To speak of the National Portrait Gallery and the Tretyakov Gallery in the same breath is not to ignore the differences between them. The National Portrait Gallery’s founders had an explicitly patriotic and civic-minded agenda from the start. As Earl Stanhope made clear in his statement to the House of Lords on 4 March 1856, he proposed: "...a gallery of original portraits, such portraits to consist as far as possible of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history as warriors or as statesmen, or in arts, in literature or in science.”

Tretyakov, by contrast, was a shy and private man who initially collected Russian art for his own contemplation and enjoyment, as Ilya Repin’s posthumous portrait of the patron among his beloved paintings suggests. it was a private, rather than a state initiative. Over the years, however, Tretyakov became more ambitious for his gallery and, like the founders of the National Portrait Gallery, began to conceive a wider national purpose for his collection. Significantly, while continuing to buy Russian paintings of any genre, he also started to commission portraits of "individuals whom the nation holds dear”, which included doctors, scientists, writers, actors, artists, musicians and other prominent figures in the public sphere. These were originally hung together, creating a distinct portrait gallery within the larger collection. The portraits were later split up and interspersed in the galleries devoted to individual artists, which is how they are hung today. They nonetheless still constitute Russia’s most important assemblage of national portraits, and one of the most compelling portrait collections in the world.

The coincidence of the two galleries’ common foundation date and their shared richness in portraiture lies behind the new partnership between them which culminates in the exchange of two major loan exhibitions in 2016. "Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky” presents a selection of outstanding portraits from the Tretyakov Gallery’s collections at the National Portrait Gallery from March to June; and "Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery” is on show at the Tretyakov Gallery from April to July. First conceived many years ago and in detailed planning for half a decade, the two exhibitions celebrate the 160th anniversary of both galleries, and the world-class portraits that they both house.

The partnership has received tremendous support in both Russia and Great Britain, despite the difficult political relations between the two countries that have characterized recent years. The Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Olga Golodets, and Great Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale MP, attended the opening of "Russia and the Arts” in London on 14 March 2016, together with the British Ambassador to Russia, Dr. Laurie Bristow CMG, and the Russian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Dr. Alexander Yakovenko. "Russia and the Arts” is proving to be equally popular with audiences, attracting approximately 700900 visitors per day, which is double the expected numbers, and requiring a reprint of the catalogue within a few weeks of the opening date. The enthusiasm of this response confirms the importance of artistic collaboration especially during periods of political tension, with cultural interaction enabling forms of conversation, cooperation and mutual understanding to develop when such exchange is more difficult on the diplomatic stage.

The exhibition of treasures from the National Portrait Gallery at the Tretyakov covers some three centuries, and includes portraits of reigning monarchs as well as stellar British artists, writers and scientists - from Charles Dickens and Lord Byron to Sir Joshua Reynolds and Charles Darwin.

By contrast, the exhibition "Russia and the Arts” in London delves deep rather than ranging wide, focusing on a period of 50 years which enjoyed remarkable achievements in Russia’s creative and cultural life. it explores outstanding artists, writers, actors and musicians and the intriguing relationships that developed between them from the 1860s to the First World War - a period of great vibrancy in Russia’s written, visual and performing arts. it also includes portraits of some of the far-sighted and generous patrons without whom these artists’ work would not have seen the light of day. Russian visitors to the exhibition have been thrilled to see much-loved paintings hanging in groups and juxtapositions that are not possible in the Tretyakov, where the permanent display is arranged by artist. For example, it has been possible to compare the way in which different artists tackled the task of painting musicians, and Nikolai Iaroshenko and Valentin Serov’s contrasting portraits of actresses in their images of Pelageia Strepetova and Maria Yermolova respectively. There has also been much excitement about the fact that the portraits have been hung at eye-level in London, as opposed to their more elevated positions in the Tretyakov, which has enabled visitors to encounter familiar figures in much closer proximity, and to examine the paintwork in more detail than is usually possible in their permanent home.

"Russia and the Arts” includes portraits of Russian figures who are widely known and richly celebrated in the West, such as the writers Leo Tolstoy and ivan Turgenev, playwright Anton Chekhov, composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and singer Feodor Chaliapin. But it also features portraits of sitters who are less familiar outside Russia, among them the writers and critics Vladimir Dahl and Vladimir Stasov, the playwrights Alexei Pisemsky and Alexander Ostrovsky, and the great cultural patron and impresario Savva Mamontov. The aim is both to satisfy British visitors’ desire to see images of Russians whom they know and cherish, and to broaden their horizons by introducing them to other figures whose unparalleled contributions to Russia’s artistic and intellectual life deserve a much higher profile abroad. This is particularly the case with Russia’s great painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who tend to be overshadowed in the West both by Russia’s writers and musicians, and by the avant-garde artists who followed them. indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of staging "Russia and the Arts” has been alerting British opinion to the sheer talent of such artists as Ilya Repin, Vasily Perov, Nikolai Ge, Mikhail Vrubel and Valentin Serov.

A delegation from the National portrait Gallery, including the Director, Deputy Director, Head of Exhibitions and the curator of "Russia and the Arts”, first went to Moscow to present a specific proposal to the leadership team of the Tretyakov Gallery in 2012. They were aware that they were asking to borrow many of the Tretyakov’s greatest portraits, not least Perov’s portrait of Dostoevsky, which is the only portrait of the acclaimed writer to be painted from life. Yet the National Portrait Gallery’s representatives were greeted with nothing but enthusiasm and support from the Tretyakov side from the start. The Tretyakov’s director and curators recognised the ambition and potential of "Russia and the Arts” not only to convey the astonishing calibre of the Tretyakov collections to audiences in Britain, but also to explore various relationships between Russia’s most talented cultural operators in entirely new ways. The Tretyakov eventually agreed to lend all but one of the key works that the National Portrait Gallery asked to borrow - the only exception being Serov’s "Portrait of Nadezhda Derviz with Her Child”, which is painted on metal and therefore too fragile ever to travel abroad.

in return, the Tretyakov asked for equally important works for their exhibition "Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery”. The National Portrait Gallery is proud to be lending works as celebrated as the so-called Ditchley Portrait, which shows Queen Elizabeth i standing astride a globe of the world, and the painting of Shakespeare known as the "Chandos portrait” which is listed as the very first work to enter the collections of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

It has been interesting to see which of the Tretyakov’s treasures have attracted especial interest in London. Some paintings, such as Perov’s portrait of Dostoevsky, have been predictably popular. But there has been gratifying attention to portraits of less well-known figures, such as Nikolai Ge’s "Portrait of Alexander Herzen”, which was painted in Florence, where Ge was living, in 1867, and is the earliest portrait in the exhibition. Ge covered it with an image of Moses to smuggle it back into Russia, and Tretyakov spent several years persuading the artist to part with it, so keen was the patron to acquire it for his collection.

Herzen had lived in exile in Western Europe for many years and had settled in London in 1852, just four years before the National portrait Gallery opened there. it is reasonable to surmise that a man as educated, curious and cultured as Herzen, with his fascination for current affairs and the fine and literary arts, would have taken a keen interest in the foundation of the National portrait Gallery in the city in which he was resident, and may well have visited it in its early years. significantly, Pavel Tretyakov also travelled to England no fewer than nine times, making his first trip in 1860 and his last in 1897, just 18 months before he died. he made time to see many art works and exhibitions, including the international exhibitions in London in 1862 and 1872, both of which featured paintings from his collection. A known visitor to the National Gallery on Trafalgar square, Tretyakov is likely to have visited the National portrait Gallery next door and to have taken inspiration there for the development of his own collection.[1]

if the portraits of Dostoevsky and Herzen have been highlights among the early paintings on show in "Russia and the Arts,” many visitors have also been intrigued by Repin’s "portrait of Modest Mussorgsky”, which exemplifies the close relationships between Russia’s cultural path-breakers which the exhibition explores, as well as the urgency with which Tretyakov commissioned portraits. Hearing that the composer, a long-standing alcoholic, was seriously ill in hospital in St. Petersburg, Tretyakov dispatched Repin by train from Moscow to paint Mussorgsky before it was too late. The artist and composer holed up together in Mussorgsky’s hospital ward from March 2 to March 5 1881, with Repin feverishly painting the patient in his dressing gown as they discussed the shocking assassination of Alexander ii that had taken place on a St. Petersburg embankment on March 1. Repin had hoped for one final sitting but Mussorgsky died just over a week later, before this could be arranged. it is hard to imagine that the portrait could have been improved, conveying as it does the brilliant non-conformity that lay behind the composer’s self-destructive tendencies and defiant gaze.

Finally, many visitors have been delighted to encounter strong and vibrant portraits of women, among them Repin’s unforgettable portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt, and the portrait of the feted soprano Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel that her husband, Mikhail Vrubel, painted in 1898. Russia’s most celebrated Symbolist painter, Vrubel was an uncompromising artist whose vast mosaic panels had been sensationally rejected by the organizers of the All-Russian Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod two years before. in the portrait of his wife, however, Vrubel steered away from controversy with an exuberance of brushstrokes in lilacs, blues and greys bound together with the striking primrose sash. The face is left free of artistic flamboyance, providing a touching oasis of calm in this lively yet intimate work.

Contrary to the statements of many Soviet art historians, these and other Russian artists were not working in isolation from European trends, but were closely engaged with these. Witness one of the later portraits in the exhibition in which Serov, the finest portraitist of his generation, depicted the patron Ivan Morozov against a painting by Matisse, which was one of many works by the formidable French artist in Morozov’s vast collection of impressionist and Post-impressionist art. Serov’s own work was strongly influenced by his encounter in the Morozov collection with these starkly modernist works. Serov’s portrait of Morozov thus captures a compelling dialogue between Russian and Western painting - a dialogue that the partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and the Tretyakov Gallery embraces and aims to extend.

1. Andreeva, Galina. ‘Pavel Mikhailovich has been to England, as usual …’ // "The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine", 1 (2004). Pp. 29-35.

Illustrations

Nikolai Ge. Portrait of Leo Tolstoy. 1884
Nikolai Ge. Portrait of Leo Tolstoy. 1884
Oil on canvas. 96.2 × 71.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya Repin. Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky. 1881
Ilya Repin. Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky. 1881
Oil on canvas. 71.8 × 58.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya Repin. Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov. 1901
Ilya Repin. Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov. 1901
Oil on canvas. 111 × 134 cm. Tretyakov Gallery. Detail
Nikolai Kuznetsov. Portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. 1893
Nikolai Kuznetsov. Portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. 1893
Oil on canvas. 96 × 74 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
ILYA REPIN. Portrait of Ivan Turgenev. 1874
ILYA REPIN. Portrait of Ivan Turgenev. 1874
Oil on canvas. 116.5 × 89 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Osip Braz. Portrait of Anton Chekhov. 1898
Osip Braz. Portrait of Anton Chekhov. 1898
Oil on canvas. 102 × 80 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914
Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya. Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. 1914
Oil on canvas. 86 × 82.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Valentin SEROV. Portrait of Maria Yermolova. 1905
Valentin SEROV. Portrait of Maria Yermolova. 1905
Oil on canvas. 224 × 120 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait of Savva Mamontov. 1897
Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait of Savva Mamontov. 1897
Oil on canvas. 189 × 143.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1872
Vasily Perov. Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 1872
Oil on canvas. 99.6 × 81 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai Ge. Portrait of Alexander Herzen. 1867
Nikolai Ge. Portrait of Alexander Herzen. 1867
Oil on canvas. 78.8 × 62.6 cm (oval). Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily Perov. Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky. 1871
Vasily Perov. Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky. 1871
Oil on canvas. 103.5 × 80.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Valentin SEROV. In the Summer. 1895
Valentin SEROV. In the Summer. 1895
Oil on canvas. 74 × 94 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Konstantin Korovin. Portrait of Feodor Chaliapin. 1905
Konstantin Korovin. Portrait of Feodor Chaliapin. 1905
Oil on canvas. 65 × 46.1 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Valentin SEROV. Portrait of Ivan Morozov. 1910
Valentin SEROV. Portrait of Ivan Morozov. 1910
Tempera on cardboard. 63.5 × 77 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel. 1898
Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel. 1898
Oil on canvas. 125.3 × 76.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

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