"Russia’s Soul”. GERMANY, BONN, 16 MAY - 26 AUGUST 2007
by Ilya Repin © Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
The exhibition series “The Great Collections” (Die gros- sen Sammlungen) is a highlight of the exhibition programme of the Art and Exhibition Hall of Bonn in Germany. It offers German viewers a chance to see part of the collections of some of the outstanding museums of the world, among them: in 1992 - the Museum of Modern Art in New York; in 1995 - the Museo Archeologico Nazi- onale from Naples; in 1997 - the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; in 1998 - the Musee du Petit Palais in Paris; in 1999 - the Prado in Madrid; in 2003 - the Imperial Collection from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and others. Each exhibition was exclusively prepared for the Bonn exhibition halls and focused on the substantial highlights of each respective collection.
Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery has been one of the most important international partners of the exhibition hall in Bonn since its opening in 1992. Its distinction - as one of the world's most important collections of Russian art - predetermined its participation in an exhibition series that is equally valued by the public and art critics. All involved agreed to link the exhibition to the Tretyakov Gallery's anniversary that was celebrated in 2006: 150 years ago Pavel Tretyakov, whose name the gallery marks, bought the first two contemporary paintings of Russian artists, thus laying the ground for establishing the first Russian national art gallery. That widely celebrated anniversary encouraged it to make a generous gesture: 150 prominent icons, paintings, drawings and sculptures, some of which left Russia for the first time, were sent to be shown in Bonn.
It's quite natural that the historical core of the gallery collection and the personality and activities of Pavel Tretyakov comprise the focal point of the exhibition titled "Russia's Soul”. With a focus on the history of the gallery and its foundation the organizers pursued various objectives: in the first place, to present the complex panorama of Russian cultural history of the 19th century. The German public is familiar with that mainly through literature, but the diversity of its artistic expressive means is still little known. Therefore, the most significant stages of Russian national painting, which was influenced both by shared European traditions and by the native Russian artistic tradition, were of special interest. The works shown serve as a medium to enhance connections of Russian artists, collectors and intellectuals with various European cultural centres. The same intention was clearly seen in the cultural entrepreneurial activity of Tretyakov. The 19th century, named also the "century of nations”, highlighted the need for similar phenomena in other countries: in the context of European art the extraordinary activity and energy of the Moscow gallery's founder was especially notable.
Pavel Tretyakov, collector and art patron, was undoubtedly a unique personality in Russia, but far from the only such figure of his time. The last third of the 19th century up to the October Revolution in 1917 was a period when Moscow was seized by an unprecedented painting fever. Two generations of rich merchants pursued collecting with great passion: a high demand for new art in new elite circles reached a European scale. At the turn of the century the economic magnates Ryabushinsky and Botkin, Mamontov, Ostroukhov, all connected through family relations, created a vast network of precious private collections in Moscow. The only art capital which could compete with Moscow at that time was Paris. That city's great popularity within Russia captivated the imagination of the legendary art collectors Ivan Morozov and Sergey Shchukin, whose long-term interest in the French impressionists and unique collections of Matisse and Picasso produced a sensation.
The cultural preferences of Pavel Tretyakov were shaped in the early second half of the 19th century, in an epoch when Russian literature, music and theatre were searching for realistic ways of expression, and the discussion about Russian national culture reached its climax. He was a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, an admirer of their literature, and of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. But it was the new cultural trends in painting, formed by a young generation of artistic realists, which interested him most. The followers of the new trend called themselves the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions (the "Peredvizhniki”, or Wanderers), as they wanted to spread their ideas beyond St. Petersburg and Moscow through traveling ("peredvizhnie”) exhibitions. Their message - that art should contribute to social history - and the emphasis on the old Russian tradition resulted in something unprecedented in Russian art. Neither before nor later did art produce such a great influence on Russian society - both in Russia and other European countries. Tretyakov preferred intense genre paintings, landscapes, and portraits by Repin, Kramskoy and Levitan to established academic authors. Nevertheless, he strived to fully represent the development of Russian painting of the 19 th century in a national museum: "I take what, in my humble opinion, I believe to be important for a complete picture of our painting.”
The indispensable pieces were chosen most scrupulously. Tretyakov tried to obtain masterpieces of contemporary art, and managed it quite well thanks to his consistent collecting strategy. The fact that his top competitor in the race for the best paintings was Tsar Alexander III himself, gives a good notion of the social circles in which Tretyakov was moving. "I must admit,” wrote the painter Ivan Kramskoy in 1873, "that this is a man of some devilish artistic sense.” Due to this faultless sense, he was, like no one else, able to distinguish the signs of his epoch. With the new self-consciousness of the emancipated Russian bourgeoisie he took an active part in the elaboration of the national cultural tradition. As a follower of the neo-Slavophile trend, he created a portrait gallery of individuals who, as Ilya Repin put it, "are dear to the nation”. The great artist was talking about the portraits of "... the best sons who were of special benefit to the nation thanks to their selfless work for the good and prosperity of their homeland, who believed in its better future and fought for this idea”. Thus, Tretyakov expanded the idea of the "Gallery of Forefathers”, which was so popular in Europe in the 19 th century. As a result, portraits of significant representatives of Russian business, culture and politics appeared in the course of many decades. In this respect the exhibition offers the portraits of Leo Tolstoy and Modest Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Serov. Simultaneously Tretyakov intently followed the discussion about regenerating old Russian iconography. The discussion sprang up among art historians and private collectors in the last decades of the 19th century. Icons, which had been for centuries perceived as objects of merely spiritual value, were finally acknowledged as possessing an aesthetic significance and thus became essential for Tretyakov's pioneering collection.
When the collection was handed over to the city of Moscow in 1892, it included 2,000 objects, among them primarily masterpieces of the greatest Russian artists of the 19th century. Works of academicians were represented on a par with the "Peredvizhniki”. Tretyakov was the patron of the collection until his death in 1898. After that the responsibility for administering the museum was given to a Board of Trustees. Besides the city authorities and prominent artists and art historians, one of its members was Tretyakov's daughter, Alexandra Botkina. The exhibits of the municipal, later the state Tretyakov Gallery were continuously expanded and today the collection includes about 150,000 objects - from icons of the 11th century to significant examples of modern art. In its effort to give a representative sampling of Russian art history and invite visitors from all around the world, the gallery has remained true to the legacy of its founder.
Tretyakov's portrait by Ilya Repin (1901) dominates the entrance of the gallery. In the first room, named "St. Petersburg Century”, there is a small selection of court portraits from the 18th century. They mark the beginning of a new stage in the development of Russian art of the new times: they represent the imperial, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, which maintained tight cultural relations with the main cities of European art under the aegis of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Paintings by the trio constellation of Fyodor Rokotov, Vladimir Borovikovsky and Dmitry Levitsky adhered not only to the contemporary trends of European painting, but also to the specific process of the development of Russian society of its time.
The distinction of the Russian artists compared to the common European romantic and Philistine themes is evident. The small intimate images of interiors and everyday scenes by Pavel Fedotov and Alexei Venezianov, or the ingenuous and peaceful portraits by Orest Kiprensky capture the life philosophy practiced in those times: a retreat into privacy. Italian landscapes by Sylvester Shchedrin or Mikhail Lebedev convince us that the Russian artists were no exception and shared the common "Italian excitement” of the era, able to live and work for long periods in Rome, Naples and on the Amalfi coast thanks to the grants available from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
A focus on representation is the essence of the realistic painting of the second half of the 19th century, so valued by Tretyakov. Revealing scenes from the life of Russian society of the time by the "Peredvizhniki”, melancholic landscapes, and intense portraits serve as an expressive evidence of a rebelling art which strived for veracity and which became, with the passage of time, an absolute synonym for Russian national art. Vasily Perov, Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoy, Alexei Savrasov, Isaac Levitan and Vasily Polenov were the favorite painters of Tretyakov and their most widely recognized works represent them in the exhibition. One of the paintings deserves special attention: it is the monumental "Religious Procession in the Kursk Province” (1880-1883) by Ilya Repin; it is the first time that it is exhibited in Germany. Paintings by Vasily Vereshchagin, Vasily Surikov and Viktor Vasnetsov, which transmit an intense atmosphere, prove that at that time historic painting with episodes from Russian history was very popular. Moreover, they prove that Russian art at that time faced a serious controversy concerning the role of art in society, and the definition of art as a medium of national identity.
The strong, peaceful beauty and deep spirituality of the 25 icons displayed (dating from the 13th to the 17th century) uncover the roots of Russian aesthetics which has been carefully preserved right up to the 21st century. The oldest icon, "Deesis: the Virgin Mary, the Saviour, St. John the Baptist” dates back to the 13th century and is one of approximately 30 works from all over Russia which miraculously survived the Mongol invasion in 1 237. This set of works is the acme of the exhibition, and at the same time the key to understanding the deepest layers of Russian culture. That is the reason why these works are not a mere historic introduction, but represent the core of the great cultural tradition that united all Russian artists.
The last years of the 19th century are distinguished by numerous artistic trends and movements. Realistic painting was replaced by new trends throughout Europe: post-impressionism, symbolism and modernism. The exhibition ends with works (dated about 1900) of the two great protagonists and the two antipodes of Russian symbolism: Viktor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Vrubel. Vrubel is especially considered to be the pioneer of Russian modernism, an artist who existed in many cultures and different levels of consciousness simultaneously, and who strived to adorn and rearrange an entire living space: he drew and painted, designed theatrical decorations and houses, worked with the plastic arts and majolica. His comprehensive search opened the way for the cultural vanguard of the coming decades. But these images are the subject matter of a completely different exhibition...
"Russia's Soul”. The title of the exhibition arouses many different associations and mind games, awakening curiosity and even yearning. A yearning for a veracity which is daily threatened by a certain unscrupulousness in the epoch of globalization.
© Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
© Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
Moscow. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 76 by 99 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 64.2 by 57.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
© Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
Oil on canvas. 175 by 280 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
© Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
© Photo: Peter Oszvald, Bonn
Oil on canvas. 135 by 80 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 115 by 212.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery