The Levitan Memorial Museum in Plyos - Historical Highlights

Olga Nasedkina

Magazine issue: 
#3 2010 (28)

In June 2010 the town of Plyos marked its 600th anniversary. 50 years ago, in 1960, the day for the festivities was set on August 30, which coincided with the centenary of the birth of Isaac Levitan, the illustrious landscape artist. Many artists from Moscow and the city of Ivanovo responded to the artist Boris Prorokov's call to donate their paintings to Plyos. The new picture gallery, an establishment operated on pro bono basis, was opened in 1961; initially it was accommodated at a Plyos agricultural college, on Sobornaya Hill, in a building which before the revolution was occupied by a governmental agency. Later, in 1962, the gallery moved to the Voskresensky church near Torgovaya Square, not far from a boat quay.

Exhibitions were put up and taken down: lacquered miniatures from Palekh and Kholui; Russian painting; objects from peasant households; Ivanovo artists' works; gifts to the museum... Meanwhile, there was already a new idea floating around — to organize a museum of Levitan in the house where the artist once rented an apartment with his friends Alexei Stepanov and Sofia Kuvshinnikova. The home, once belonging to a Plyos merchant Andrei Solodovnikov and "nationalized" after the Bolshevik revolution, had been through different states; like many other merchants' mansions, it housed, at different times, a plant producing matches, a boat and furniture repair workshop, an orphanage, and finally, communal apartments. The house with the mezzanine had to be repaired, and its residents had to be offered new lodgings. Eventually, thanks to the ministrations of community leaders from Plyos and the surrounding towns and the help of advisers from the Tretyakov Gallery, plans for the new museum were set in motion. Alla Vavilova, a former head of the municipal library who had served as a pro bono director when the museum was still a picture gallery, was appointed its director.

On August 25, 1972 the museum received its first visitors — they saw an exhibition consisting of three sections. The first room had on show reproductions — still black-and-white in those days — of Levitan's works and photographs relating to his life and work. The second room was assigned to paintings by Levitan and his contemporaries, from the funds of the Ivanovo Regional Art Museum. The mezzanine accommodated the memorial section reproducing the interior as it was when Levitan lived there. The historical furnishings and accessories were put together relying on the memoir of the home's last owner, a granddaughter of the merchant Solodovnikov. For all its modest look, the museum became immediately popular.

Over the intervening years, the museum has received nearly four million visitors, with endless guided tours, lectures, music nights, traveling exhibitions, consultations. The never-ending search, squeezed in between endless guided tours, accumulated some remarkable gifts. A distinguished Moscow collector Felix Vishnevsky, to mark the opening of the museum, donated "The Volga", one of the versions of Levitan's composition "After Rain. Plyos". After Vishnevsky's death his son Yevgeny Vishnevsky, made a gift of a whole collection of pictures transferred to the Levitan Museum back in 1975 for temporary use. Levitan's pieces in the collection included the paintings "Lake in a Forest" (late 1890s), "Roses" (1894) and "Ravine with a Fence" (late 1880s), and the watercolour "Peasant's Farm" (1886); the collection also contained works by Pyotr Petrovichev, Vasily Perepletchikov, Alexei Savrasov, and Leonard Turzhanky. Every year the museum bought and received as gifts paintings, sketches, household objects, and objects of applied art. Levitan's personal belongings were introduced into the artist's memorial room in 1984. The effects, handed to Alla Vavilova by the wife of Levitan's nephew Adel Lurie-Birchanskaya, included a faience palette, a folding rule, a palette-knife, the bone knob from a walking stick, a set of writing implements with an ink pot, and a paperweight with a pen-wiper.

On one occasion the Moscow collectors Stanislav Vernikovsky and Yevgenia Smirnova, who were vacationing in the Theatre Union rest home, paid a visit to the museum. They listened to a tour guide, talked with Vavilova, and offered to present the museum with works of Alexei Stepanov and Manuil Aladzhalov. Later the museum bought or received as a gift pictures created by artists from Levitan's circle: Vasily Polenov, Sergei Vinogradov, Nikolai Meshcherin, Vasily Baksheev, Witold Byalynitsky-Birulya, Stanislav Zhukovsky, Alexei Korin, and Sofia Kusvhinnikova.

"There was so much worry and anxiety while we negotiated in Moscow the purchase for the museum of a piece by the 'great person of the Russian forest' Ivan Shishkin!" — Alla Vavilova told a reporter from the "Rabochy Krai" newspaper in March 1986. "And finally we are happy to inform you that visitors to the museum can view Shishkin's painting 'Meadow on the Edge of a Forest. Siverskaya'. So far, only a handful of the town residents — those who attended the meeting with the museum staff — have had a chance to see it. This picture brings to mind the artist's congenial words: 'I found this nook and want you to enjoy it too'. Soon, a new piece is to enter the collection — a painting by Rufin Sudkovsky 'Bank of a River. A Boat'. This artist ranks among the leading seascape painters such as Ivan Aivazovsky and Alexei Bogolyubov."

The documents of the museum's purchasing commission allow to realize the scope of the amount of yearly acquisitions made by the museum, which in 1982 became a branch of the Plyos Open-Air Museum of History, Architecture and Art. In the same year the Levitan Museum marked the first decade of its existence. In 1987 alone the museum acquired 15 paintings, including pictures by the Korovin brothers Sergei and Konstantin, Sergei Miloradovich, Stanislav Zhuk-ovsky, Konstantin Makovsky, Nikolai Dubovsky, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Arkady Rylov and other artists; it received a gift of a number of Alexei Stepanov's sketches of animals donated by Valentin Morgunov, grandson of the famous animal painter.

The museum was adding more and more pieces by Levitan to its holdings as well. In 1988, to celebrate the centenary of Levitan's first visit to Plyos, the museum organized a festival for residents and guests of the town — a spectacle featuring a steam boat, performances by Ivanovo actors and musicians, exhibitions of modern art, and flower shows. To celebrate this anniversary, the Levitan Museum put up a display of its "commemorative" acquisitions of Levitan's artwork from private collectors: the "Crimean Landscape" (1887), the sketch "Cow" (1900), and the croquis "Little Pool by a River" (1880s). "Little Pool by a River", an image suffused with a green sunlight, became a gem of the collection; like the "Crimean Landscape", the "Little Pool" was traced due to the help of an art scholar, the author of a monograph about Levitan and an expert on Russian art Vladimir Petrov, whose assistance and advice the museum staff regularly used in assembling the collection.

Festivities at the museum to mark the artist's birthday became a tradition. Every year on August 30 at 3 p.m. the museum opens its doors to the visitors. The floor is graced with flowers in clay jars — a sight that Levitan liked so much, — music is performed, poems recited, romances sung. The museum receives gifts. One visitor may bring a basket of apples, another — home-made pies. On the occasion of the artist's anniversary, his relatives from Moscow and Paris — the progeny of his sister Teresa, Mrs. Birchanskaya by marriage — come to the museum.

Today the Levitan Museum has 22 works by the artist on display, as well as finished pieces and sketches by Alexei Stepanov and Sofia Kuvshinnikova. The present-day exhibition features only works owned by the museum, including pieces created in Plyos, such as the already mentioned 1889 "The Volga" from Felix Vishnevsky's collection, the croquis "Autumn. Mill", donated by the Ministry of Culture in 2003, and the study from 1888-1890 "Sunset by the Volga". The images capture fleeting, fickle states of nature: the transition from rain to sun, from summer to cold autumn, from evening light to the deep dark of night. The shakiness, the mutability, the light rhythm of the movement — everything is remarkable. Levitan's friends noticed some novel and fresh overtones already in his first sketches from Plyos — something that was not "learned by rote", as they put it, "something un-Levitan-like". They probably referred to the motifs that are considered today as the most recognizable, most "Levitanesque" — the landscapes capturing the moods of nature, the states of its soul.

"Our life in Plyos was so good," recollected Levitan's student, friend and lover Sofia Kuvshinnikova. "Even Levitan stopped moping." And Anton Chekhov noticed that the pieces the artist created in Plyos "even started to have a glimpse of a smile".

And indeed, the town where Levitan spent three happy, extremely productive summers — the small, quiet town by the Volga discovered by a pure chance — became "the birth place" of the true masterpieces of landscape art, such as "Birch Grove", "Evening. Golden Stretch of Water" (both of 1889, Tretyakov Gallery), "Quiet Abode" (1890, Tretyakov Gallery) and about other 200 works (including sketches, drawings and studies), many of which are held today at the Tretyakov Gallery.As for the collection of paintings at the Levitan Museum in Plyos, it went on growing little by little until, in 1997, it became big enough to establish a new Museum of Landscape, housing the artwork of Levitan's teachers, friends and students, many of whom not once followed him to Plyos.In the year of the 150th anniversary of the landscape painter's birth, the Levitan Museum has been restored; the paintings are framed anew thanks to benefactors' contributions, and the first, "biographical" room has got many new items on display. Now the museum offers to its visitors, in addition to the traditional exhibition, an illustrated digital catalogue of Levitan's works alongside his life story with a special emphasis on the artist's stay in Plyos, the cozy little town by the Volga that occupied so important a place in the art of the great landscapist.





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