CLASSIC RUSSIAN ART FROM THE SOUTH URALS REGIONAL MUSEUM

Galina Trifonova

Article: 
RUSSIA’S GOLDEN MAP
Magazine issue: 
#3 2008 (20)

The Chelyabinsk Regional Museum of Arts was formed in 2005 through the merger of two art museums: the Chelyabinsk Regional Picture Gallery, the oldest museum in the South Urals region, and the Museum of Applied Art of the Urals, which itself, prior to 1978, was a part of the Picture Gallery.

The fast-paced formation of the culture of the present-day centre of the South Urals region — the region’s biggest industrial city, Chelyabinsk — was brought about by the quickened rate of urban development, begun in the 1890s when the Great Trans-Siberian Railway crossed Chelyabinsk. At that moment the city’s destiny was set — it became a major transportation hub linking the East and the West, and the North and the South. The technological change largely determined the destinies and prospects of the South Urals region and its main city.

In the Soviet period culture and art became intimately linked with (even dependent on) Chelyabinsk’s role as an industrial giant. The seeds of artistic selfawareness in the urban milieu were given impetus in the late 1920s-early 1930s, during the first years of the economy driven by the five-year-plans: this period saw the build-up of the industrial might of the country’s second biggest coal and iron producing area, the Urals and Kuzbass. Artists from Moscow and Leningrad came to the industrial construction sites in the Urals region, including the cities of Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk and Zlatoust. Their documentary-like drawings, portraits and paintings focused on contemporary subjects and the subjects of history and the Bolshevik revolution, and their landscapes were featured at an exhibition “The Urals Region and Kuzbass in Paintings” mounted in 1935-1936 in Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk, Ufa, and Chelyabinsk.

With works of Chelyabinsk artists added, the show was later made a traveling exhibition titled “The South Urals Region in Paintings”. In 1939 this exhibition formed the basis of the Chelyabinsk Picture Gallery, which let in its first visitors on June 6 1940. The community of museum founders included members of the local intelligentsia and artistic circles, a small group back in the 1930s: the first professional art scholar and first director of the gallery Leonid Klevensky (1984-1977), and the first generation of Chelyabinsk artists — Nikolai Rusakov, Ignaty Vandyshev, Valentina Chelintsova, Alexander Saburov, Alexander Sosnovsky, Tatyana Rudenko, Dmitry Fekhner, Pyotr Yudakov, Olga Perovskaya, I.A. Mochalov and others.

Modern art forms the bulk of the collection of the young South Urals museum. Some pieces were bought from their owners: the first piece to be acquired for the Russian classic art collection was Timofey Neff’s “Bathing Woman”. A number of paintings of old European masters, the most noteworthy among which are the so-called Florentine portraits of the late Italian Renaissance, formed the basis of the Western European art collection.

It was envisioned that a Russian classic art collection would become the foundation of the new museum, and thanks to the joint efforts of the Chelyabinsk Regional Union of Soviet Artists and the Picture Gallery, in May 1941 the Chelyabinsk museum received a precious gift from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg — 54 paintings and 52 graphic pieces, both originals and prints. The losses of the war period notwithstanding, these pieces to this day form the backbone of the Chelyabinsk museum collection: a “parsuna” (semiiconic, semi-secular painted image) from the Alexander Nevsky Lavra (monastery) with an image of the blessed prince Alexander Nevsky; a ceremonial portrait in Baroque style “Catherine II the Legislatrix in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice”, 1792, by Iohann-Baptist von Lampi, from a composition by Dmitry Levitsky; ceremonial half-length portraits of Great Princess Maria Fyodorovna and Count Pyotr Shuvalov, 1780s-1790s, by unknown artists; and works by Alexander Orlovsky, Alexei Venetsianov, Ivan Kramskoy, Nikolai Dubovskoy, and Nikolai Feshin.

World War II was a major ordeal for the young art museum in Chelyabinsk — the local authorities, who were forced at very short notice to look for houses to accommodate the evacuated people’s commissariats, industrial enterprises, Soviet citizens who fled from the occupied territories (during the war Chelyabinsk’s population grew threefold), hospitals that treated the wounded, hurriedly shut down all non-military institutions. In August 1941 the picture gallery was “liquidated”.

Its restoration began in 1946. The rebirth of the Chelyabinsk Picture Gallery began on February 2 1952 in a building in the style of rational Moderne (1912-1913, built by the architect А.А. Fyodorov), which the museum occupies to this day, although for over 30 years it has experienced a shortage of space for storing and exhibiting artwork. Interestingly, when the museum was being re-established, there were serious discussions about the possibility of opening in Chelyabinsk a branch of the Tretyakov Gallery with participation of the gallery researcher Esfir Atsarkina, and the above mentioned building was selected for the affiliate, because it was the best fit for an art museum in terms of its characteristics and location in the city.

The items transferred to the museum from Moscow in the post-war period increased the collections of Soviet and Russian pre-1917 art; items transferred from the Historical Museum, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Ceramics and 18th-century Kuskovo Estate formed the basis of the collection of Western European art; items from the Novosibirsk Picture Gallery formed the foundation of the Oriental art and applied arts collections; and locally acquired items formed the collections of South Urals regional art and crafts — ornamental iron castings, Zlatoust engraving on steel, and folk art. In the 1960s the collection of the oldest South Urals regional museum reflected the historical stages, artistic styles, currents, trends and creative endeavour of the artists who were central to and brought fame to the Russian and international schools of painting beginning from the 16th century. In the decades that followed the collections grew. The 19601990s saw the growth of the collection of art of the Urals region. Presently the collection of the Chelyabinsk Regional State Museum of Arts has more than 14,000 items.

For more than 50 years now the collection of Russian classic art has been the backbone of the main exhibition. For each of the stages in the history of art of the 18th to early 20th centuries the Chelyabinsk art museum has typical and characteristic artwork by Russian artists, as well as artefacts pertaining to Russian history.

Invariably, the centerpiece of the display of Russian paintings of the golden age of Russian culture is the “Portrait of Empress Elizabeth (Yelizaveta) Alexeyevna” made by a French artist Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1805 to the order of Count Stroganov, president of the Academy of Arts, for his palace in St. Petersburg. The twin portraits of Elizabeth and Alexander I were transferred from the Stroganovs’ palace to the Winter Palace in 1919, and later, in 1931, Elizabeth’s portrait for unknown reasons was sent from the Hermitage to the Tretyakov Gallery. In 1960 the royal portrait continued its journey eastward, to the South Urals region, where it finally found a home and became a compositional and stylistic focus of the Russian art display and an example of the grand ceremonial style of the prime period of Russian aristocratic culture.

Portrayed with an order of St. Andrew the First Called[1] on her chest, Elizabeth, with her irresistible beauty and personality, invariably attracted the attention of and inspired love in artists, patriotically-minded reformers and politicians, and poets; she patronized artists and was loved by the people. Her death was as mysterious as that of Alexander I, and there are many secrets and legends connected with her life and demise. Elizabeth was celebrated by poets — including Alexander Pushkin, and many portraits of her survive. It would not be an overstatement to say that the best painted image of Elizabeth is the portrait, from the Chelyabinsk museum, in Classicist style with elements of Romaniticism.

Unfortunately, because of its size (273 by 182 cm) and condition, the portrait could not be displayed at the “Golden Map of Russia” exhibition, and the same can be said about a large-scale painting “Hector Bids Farewell to Andromache” (1863) by Sergei Postnikov, a student of the great artist Alexander Ivanov, a piece which came to Chelyabinsk in the same year, 1960, from the Tretyakov Gallery.

Instead, viewers could see Dmitry Levitsky’s pieces — his self-portrait and portrait of his wife Nadezhda Levitskaya — and genre portraits of peasants by Vasily Tropinin and Alexei Venetsianov.

There was also a landscape by the marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky, with a subject and motif rarely seen in the artist’s works; Vasily Perov’s portraits; an old woman’s portrait — a surprise for many — a carefully and masterfully executed piece by Vladimir Shervud, who designed the building of the Historical Museum; a portrait of Baroness S.V. Stael von Holstein by Ivan Makarov, also received from the Tretyakov Gallery. Pictures by artists from the Makovsky family — Vladimir, Konstantin and Alexander - and Nikolai Bogdanov’s “She’s Late” (1889) became a surprising discovery for many. And what a delight it is to see the landscapes, portraits and still-lifes created by Russian painters influenced by the Moscow and French art traditions, such as Vasily Polenov, Stanislav Zhukovsky, Pyotr Petrovichev, Fyodor Malyavin, as well as the works of Valentin Serov’s student Nikolai Kuznetsov, Konstantin Korovin, and the Spanish artist E.A.-i-Camarasi, who was also influenced by Henri Matisse.

Connoisseurs of art were introduced for the first time to the art of the Chelyabinsk artist Nikolai Rusakov (1888-1941), who was Alexander Rodchenko’s friend at the Kazan art school and studied under Nikolai Feshin, and then under Konstantin Korovin at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (MUZhVZ). Rusakov who was active in the 1910s-1930s accumulated in his creative activity such aesthetic tendencies of his times as orientalism, decorativism of the art deco and moderne style, futurism, constructivism with its dynamics of geometric forms, colour and movement, alongside persistent searches for a symbolic image in pictorial decisions. Thus he managed to bridge the ancient Moscow artistic traditions and the new professional visual art of the young capital of the ancient South Urals.

There is the “parsuna” — a semiiconic, semi-secular image — of the blessed Prince Alexander Nevsky, which was created no earlier than 1724 and which the museum received from the Alexander Nevsky Lavra (monastery) in St. Petersburg, and a Cubo-Futurist portrait “Tatlin with Bandura (a Ukrainian mandolin-like string instrument)” (1915) created by Vera Pestel in Moscow. The latter was initially part of a museum of artistic culture under the aegis of the State Institute of Artistic Culture (GIN-KhUK) located on St. Isaac Square in St. Petersburg, later transferred to the Russian Museum.

These works demarcate the symbolical boundaries of the exhibition of Russian art from the collection of the Chelyabinsk Art Museum, a show spanning two centunes of the major classic period of this art. Introducing the audience to typical and inimitable pieces of the Russian artwork held by the South Urals museum, the show could have been symbolically named “From ‘Parsuna’ to the Avant-garde”.

 

  1. Galina Trifonova. On the typology and iconography of the portrait. In: Russia: the classic dimension. Three centuries of Russian artistic culture. Conference Proceedings, the “Shining Russia" exhibition (September 28-30, 1999). Chelyabinsk, 2000, pp. 26-33 (In Russian).

 

 

“...Everything was blooming and fluttering so mightily”

To the artists of the generation of Nikolai Afanasievich Rusakov (18881941) - the founding father of professional art in Chelyabinsk - Rusakov’s phrase quoted here can be applied as well. If we use Velimir Khlebnikov’s neologisms, Rusakov’s generation can be described as “mystery-viewers” and “sun-catchers” upon whom - like in the Renaissance epoque - “blessing was flooding”. But instead, the cruel 20 th century nipped their creative efforts in the bud, pluging the world into the depths of Dante’s Hell.

The artist’s life came to a tragic end in his native city in late 1941, when he was executed as an “enemy of the people” — the reason why his name was not even mentioned in the context of artistic culture until the late 1970s. Thanks to the efforts of Rusakov’s wife Malvina and his son, a Moscow architect, the most essential part of the artist’s legacy, such as oil paintings, water-colours and drawings, was preserved.

A study of his art and much renovation effort undertaken by a restorer from the Chelyabinsk Picture Gallery, Viktor Kochnev, made it possible to showcase the artist’s works at two exhibitions hosted by the Chelyabinsk Picture Gallery: one marking the centenary of Rusakov’s birth (1989/1990), the other his 115th anniversary (2004). The first monograph about the artist was published in 2004[1]. The collection of the Chelyabinsk Art Museum has over 100 of Rusakov’s works, bought or donated by the artist’s heirs. The exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery gave viewers an opportunity to come to know the artistic legacy of this outstanding Urals master.

A native of the Pisklovo village of Yetkulskaya stanitsa (Cossack settlement), in the Chelyabinsk province, Orenburg region, Rusakov studied under Nikolai Feshin at a Kazan art school (from 1909 to 1913), and then under Konstantin Korovin at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (19131917). Nikolai Rusakov’s artistic personality was formed by the overwhelming beauty accumulated in Russia by that time.

The World of Art artists had just left the centre stage as trend-setters, with the Symbolists coming into view, and then Mikhail Vrubel eclipsed everyone with his great tragic beauty and the effulgence of the netherworld, and the works of Matisse and Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne were already to be seen in Sergei Shchukin’s mansion.

“One year, we would worship Van Gogh, another, Cezanne,” so wrote about that period Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom Nikolai Rusakov met often: first in Kazan, when the Futurists visited it, then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, at the 35th anniversary show of students’ works, shortly after which Mayakovsky was dismissed from the school.

In Kazan Rusakov made friends with Alexander Rodchenko, and carried on the friendship in Moscow (attested to by their portraits of each other — Rusakov’s image by Rodchenko from 1912 and Rodchenko’s image by Rusakov from 1915, as well as the items discovered by Varvara Rodchenko in Rodchenko’s family archive — photo negatives of Rusakov’s portraits created by the experimental photographer Rodchenko in Moscow in 1926). Responsive to beauty, Rusakov was above all formed as a painter, a priest of the refined in art. Following the suit of many of his classmates and Paul Gauguin, in 1915 he traveled East on a Dobroflot ship.

The travel-inspired water-colours from a small album with dates and names of places visited during the voyage show the route followed: Turkey, Alexandria, Baghdad, India, Madura province, Burma, Poeh-Vietnam, Shanghai, and Kyoto. One of the water-colours, “Snake Charmers” (in the possession of Rusakov’s heirs in Moscow) bears a legible pencilled inscription on the sheet tucked in by the flapper, “prov. Madura (India) Snake Charmers. Tremulous ethereal sounds of pipe were pouring forth to the accompaniment of a guitar; it was a rosy evening. Everything was immersed in rosy light, everything was flooded with the scarlet passion of life. Here I was, a lone wanderer from a remote country — enthralled, I looked at the true beauty of life; there were no rotten European opinions here, what it was life itself, everything here was simple and natural [an illegible word], life was gushing forth as a pure crystalline jet. Everything was so bizarre, so strange, but everything was blooming and fluttering so mightily.”

The Orient then became a focal point of Rusakov’s art. After graduation from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, he became actively engaged in Chelyabinsk art life, organized workshops, taught, and joined the efforts to organize a union of Soviet artists in Chelyabinsk. 1938 saw Rusakov’s first solo show, in Chelyabinsk, dedicated to his 50th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the start of his career in art. Rusakov dreamed of displaying his artwork in Moscow, where so many of his contemporaries and classmates, including, first of all, Rodchenko, lived and worked — and this dream is coming true now, 120 years after his birth.

In 1939 at the national exhibition of Soviet artists, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Young Communist League (Komsomol) and hosted by the Tretyakov Gallery, the section of old masters featured only one of his pictures — a portrait “Markhaba, the Head of a Team Servicing a Complex Harvest-thresher in the Kaganovich Collective Farm (kolkhoz)” (1937) from a series “The Youth of the Country of Soviets”.

The “Russia’s Golden Map” show featured 22 of Rusakov’s works from the 1910s to the 1930s — oil paintings and water-colours — from the Chelyabinsk Museum collection. These works pithily and symbolically reflect the main time periods, themes, and images that epitomize the meaning of Rusakov’s art: a passionate love for life, rapturous delight in the beauty of nature and human beings, and the capacity to convey this beauty by means of plastic arts and through colour — the language of painting.

 

  • Galina Trifonova. Nikolai Rusakov. His life and art. 1888-1941. “Enthralled, I looked at..Chelyabinsk, 2004.

Illustrations

Unknown artist. Alexander Nevsky. After 1724
Unknown artist. Alexander Nevsky. After 1724
Oil on canvas. 89×71 cm
Alexei VENETSIANOV. Boy in a Red Shirt. 1845
Alexei VENETSIANOV. Boy in a Red Shirt. 1845
Oil on canvas. 75×60 cm
Dmitry LEVITSKY. Self-portrait. 1783
Dmitry LEVITSKY. Self-portrait. 1783
Oil on cardboard on wood. 20.3×16.3 cm (oval)
Vasily TROPININ. Lass with Plums. 1848
Vasily TROPININ. Lass with Plums. 1848
Oil on canvas. 75.5×62 cm
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. A Flock of Sheep (Pack of Rams). 1857
Ivan AIVAZOVSKY. A Flock of Sheep (Pack of Rams). 1857
Oil on canvas. 107×161 cm
Pyotr PETROVICHEV. In Neskuchny Garden. 1915
Pyotr PETROVICHEV. In Neskuchny Garden. 1915
Oil on canvas. 51.5×71.5 cm
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Pomegranates and Apples. 1916
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Pomegranates and Apples. 1916
Oil on canvas. 59×73 cm
Abram ARKHIPOV. Flowers on Veranda
Abram ARKHIPOV. Flowers on Veranda
Oil on canvas. 82×96 cm
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Portrait of the Artistʼs Wife. 1919
Nikolai KUZNETSOV. Portrait of the Artistʼs Wife. 1919
Oil on canvas. 60×49 cm
Alexander RODCHENKO. Portrait of Nikolai Rusakov. 1912
Alexander RODCHENKO. Portrait of Nikolai Rusakov. 1912
Oil on wood. 34.5×25.8 cm
Vera PESTEL. Tatlin with Bandura. 1916
Vera PESTEL. Tatlin with Bandura. 1916
Oil on canvas. 80×49 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Street in Logaut. 1926
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Street in Logaut. 1926
From the album “The Colonial Orient Today”. Watercolour on paper. 32.5×25.4 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Self-portrait in a Red Shirt. 1935
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Self-portrait in a Red Shirt. 1935
Oil on canvas. 74×56 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Oriental Debate (Oriental Scholars). 1917–1924
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Oriental Debate (Oriental Scholars). 1917–1924
Oil on canvas. 91×119 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. First Train. 1924
Nikolai RUSAKOV. First Train. 1924
Oil on canvas. 69×137 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Markhaba, the Head of a Team Servicing a Complex Harvest-thresher in the Kaganovich Collective Farm (Kolkhoz) 1937
Nikolai RUSAKOV. Markhaba, the Head of a Team Servicing a Complex Harvest-thresher in the Kaganovich Collective Farm (Kolkhoz). 1937
From “The Youth of the Country of Soviets” series. Oil on canvas. 119×98 cm
Nikolai RUSAKOV. These and Those. 1927
Nikolai RUSAKOV. These and Those. 1927
Oil on canvas. 101×155 cm

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