On Levitan's Landscapes and the Levitan Exhibition

Lydia Iovleva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2010 (28)

"A landscape serves no purpose if beauty is all it has.
should contain the life of a soul.
It should be a sound responsive to the stirrings of the heart –
it is hard to put it in words, it is so much like music"

Konstantin Korovin

"Levitan's landscape" is a term firmly ingrained both in art scholarship and in the minds of many art lovers. A "Levitan landscape" is different from an "Ivan Shishkin landscape" or even landscapes by Alexei Savrasov or Vasily Polenov, although it is very close to the last ones. Usually, a "Levitan landscape" is a simple image of an almost always deserted natural environment - a creek, a narrow pathway, groves rolling on into the depth of the picture in a somewhat diagonal direction, or copses. It is set in different seasons, except (largely) winter -Levitan's pieces almost never feature images of snowy winter -and usually depicts a transitional season or summer; there are blue horizons and a high limitless sky with a distinct life of its own, beyond the mental grasp of human beings.

All this imagery is suffused with the deepest lyrical emotion, always with a tinge of sadness, even when the artist depicts seemingly cheerful states of nature such as the bright light of the sun and blue shadows on melting snow ("March"), or the gold of autumnal leaves and the blue of the sky ("Golden Autumn"). Alexander Pushkin's metaphoric expression "I love the lavish withering of nature" is very close to Levitan's worldview, as it is perhaps to that of his close friend Anton Chekhov's as well. This shared state of mind undoubtedly was what brought them together.

Moreover, the concept of "Levitan's landscape" naturally includes a profound, hard to verbalize, and spontaneously tragic perception of Time — not the swift-flowing everyday time but time as eternity, in which there is no time as such. From an early age Levitan was keenly aware of, and sensitively alert to, the metaphysics of Time and Eternity making itself felt (especially strongly) in nature. In his art, he was forever "chasing after" eternity, and when caught, it painfully hurt the artist's psyche.

In 1886, in the Crimea, Levitan is not yet 26: "Last evening I climbed up a cliff and looked down at the sea from the top, and you know what — I started to sob, and sobbed violently; that was eternal beauty, that was where a human being felt his own utter nullity!"2

In 1889, on his first trip to the Volga region: "I'm greatly disappointed. I expected the Volga would give me powerful artistic impressions, but instead it looked to me so dull and dead that my heart ached and I thought, maybe I should go back? And indeed, imagine the endless landscape like this: the right bank, hills all along with sickly shrubs and steep slopes looking like lichen. The left bank... nothing but flooded woodlands. And above all this — a grey sky and harsh wind. Well, that's deathlike. I sit there and think, why did I come here? Wouldn't I be better off working near Moscow and. not feeling lonely face to face with a huge expanse of water that can simply kill you..."3

In 1896, Finland, Levitan is not yet 36: "Eternity, menacing eternity, where generations drowned and more generations will drown... So horrible, so fearsome! This morning I walked across the rocks; as everyone knows, they all were smoothed out in the Ice Age — namely, by boundless time… Oh horror of horrors – to use Hamlet's words, it 'makes your bones ache'."4

As everyone knows, the artist's sentiments, or reflections, about Eternity and Time were most fully conveyed in his picture "Eternal Peace" (1893-1894, Tretyakov Gallery), about which Levitan wrote to Pavel Tretyakov that, "all of my personality is in it, all of my psyche and all of my.. content".5 But Levitan's other, quieter and more lyrical pieces, too, invariably have his trademark "tinge of sadness". All of Levitan's lyricism, all of his reflection is marked with it — the Eternity of nature, that is Eternity in general, even in its smallest, most modest manifestations.

In this lies the essential difference between Levitan's mood-centred landscape and the unbridled spontaneity of Savrasov's lyrical landscapes, or the elegiac and serene lyrical compositions of Polenov.

That said, it is also worth noting that although such characteristics of Levitan's worldview were reflected in the artist's nature in a condensed form, he was not the sole representative of such a mentality in his time. In the 1880s and the early 1890s Russia experienced a "change of signposts" in economic, social (although not so much in political) and humanitarian areas, something to which the arts and people of art were especially sensitive. Two examples illustrate this well: Nikolai Nekrasov, whose poetry was so popular in the 1860s and especially in the 1870s, died in 1878 and although his immense popularity endured after his death, in the mid-and late- 1880s the tide of fashion changed its course to favour Semyon Nadson, whose sad muse, like Levitan's, was attuned to the themes of transience and the mortality of human "time"; members of St. Petersburg's Partnership of Artists in the 1860s read aloud at their gatherings the works of the positivist philosopher and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, but artists and the general public in the late 1880s and the 1890s avidly studied the oeuvre of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer6, with his idealist and pessimist perspective.

The group of such interested individuals included Levitan: "I lie for days in a forest," he wrote to Sergei Diaghilev, "and read Schopenhauer." Levitan was interested in the writings of the new "intellectual luminaries". As in Europe, a new trend was beginning to shape itself in Russia — Symbolism, with its interest in Ages and Eternity, with its sense of mortality and the transience of all living things, with dreams and day-dreams about an inconceivable elevated Beauty which is identical both to God and the devil, about lonely Demons who are fallen angels, and other similar ideas. Symbolist motifs first took root in Russian poetry and literature, and then in the late 19th century, spread to the visual arts (in the work of Mikhail Vrubel and others).

All this should not be taken as an implication of Levitan's conversion to Symbolism, or even his incipient Symbolist leanings. Precisely at this point the ending of the phrase from his letter to Diaghilev becomes pertinent: "You probably think that my future landscapes will be soaked in pessimism, so to speak? Don't worry, I love nature too much."7

Undoubtedly, Levitan in the late 1890s was at a crossroads: ".apathy, the gnawing feeling of apathy," he wrote in 1897, "took hold of me. I've almost abandoned work, my dissatisfaction with old forms — so to speak — with the old artistic understanding of things (I mean painting), the absence of new points of departure cause me much suffering."8 Levitan was thinking things over and experimenting: the "Peredvizhniki" (the Wanderers, or the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions) were in deep crisis, the "World of Art" association, which Alexander Benois and Sergei Diaghilev tried to lure him and his fellow artists to join, was at an early stage, its direction not yet fully established. Naturally, young artists, including Levitan, were looking to the West, analyzing and focusing most of their attention on the experience of the French Impressionists.9 "Being among worthy people, in a city like Paris, where the life of the arts is at a high point, is all you can dream of," Levitan advised his younger friend, the artist Alexander Sredin. "You cannot fall asleep here, your mind is always awake, and the artistic self grows. Seeing so much great artwork — this alone gives you a better understanding. You relish Monet, Cazin, Renard, while we have Makovsky, Volkov, Dubovskoi, etc."10

It is hard to say how Levitan would have evolved had he lived longer, but he died precisely at the turn of the century, in 1900; he chose to keep his loyalties with the "Peredvizhniki" society that had nurtured him, while also taking part in many Russian and international shows organized by Diaghilev or Benois, the leaders of the "World of Art", although such "dualism" was frowned upon by both groups. As fate willed, Levitan remained an artist of the 19th century, his art honourably rounding off the century's trajectory, most of all in the area of Russian landscape painting. "No one before Levitan has reached such astonishing simplicity and clarity of motifs as Levitan has in recent time, and I don't know whether anyone else will in the future," was the verdict of Anton Chekhov11.

The current Levitan exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery12 is dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the birth of this outstanding Russian landscape painter. Levitan was lucky in some sense — his art has never been under-appreciated, neither by his contemporaries nor by the generations that followed, neither by curators of major museums nor by private collectors. Pavel Tretyakov alone bought more than 20 pieces from the artist during his lifetime. The collection of Levitan's art in the Tretyakov is among the biggest of individual artists. Nor has he been lacking in attention from organizers of exhibitions. After his memorial exhibition in 1901, there were several solo shows — in 1938 and in 1960-1961, which usually travelled to several cities across the Soviet Union, with Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev among the most common destinations. There is a museum dedicated to Levitan in the town of Plyos near Ivanovo.

Nevertheless, every exhibition was different in terms of its goals and objectives. For instance, the 1938 and 1960-1961 shows aimed at similar goals — to bring together the maximum quantity of Levitan's works, both authentic and of dubious authorship, in order to sort out his immense legacy and to separate the important from the peripheral. An immense amount of work went into these projects, and sometimes there were funny incidents along the way, such as the one which happened when the 1960-1961 exhibition was being put together: the organizers received a picture with a signature resembling Levitan's, which in fact was a creation of the Tretyakov Gallery's art restorer, as was confirmed both by him and the eye-witness testimonies of his colleagues. The piece was not a fake — it was initially created as a picture "in the manner of...", in the style of the adored artist, and only later, travelling from one private collection to another, the "manner" and "style" materialized into a signature. The organizers of these exhibitions amassed and processed an enormous amount of artefacts and information, and the shows generated a huge bibliography, perhaps the most extensive bibliography that any single Russian artist of the 19th century has earned. Among the numerous books, albums, and articles devoted to Levitan's art, especially noteworthy is the fundamental research by the distinguished art scholar Alexei Fedorov-Davydov, on which, nearly five decades later, all Russian (and international) Levitan scholars continue to rely.

The 2010 exhibition does not attempt to bring together and show everything that is in one way or another related to Levitan's art. Such a goal would be practically impossible to achieve in the present (economic, political, and other) circumstances. The exhibition organizers have chosen to showcase only the best part of the great landscapist's legacy, that which is kept mostly in Russian museums or museums geographically close to Russia (like Belarus) and in proven private collections. Undoubtedly, in spite of the extensive available literature and the solid track record of past exhibitions, many pieces are half-forgotten by art lovers, and we expect will now be re-discovered by them. There are real novelties: these include, first of all, several early pieces by Levitan, kindly on loan from the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem — naturally, such works were 50 years ago hardly known in the USSR. Even the most sophisticated art lover is certain to find discoveries in the section devoted to Levitan's graphics, especially among the gorgeous and little known pastels.

The show is divided into several major sections, organized around individual themes suggested by Levitan's art and its evolution: his apprenticeship, with clear influences first from Savrasov, then from Polenov; his formative years, with their search for a distinctive landscape motif, with his first experiments in plein air painting. Then on to the massive, splendid "Volga Suite". Next follow the 1890s with its explorations, breakthroughs and stunning diversity — the quest for a 19th-century traditional "pictoriality", and the related monumentality and generality (to the point of "historicity") of landscape imagery, alongside the "cheerful series" marked by its very subtle lyricism and artistic revelations, as well as still-lifes produced at a later stage (Levitan's response to the Impressionist separation of colours and variability of colour depending on light and air). Finally there is the grand (in every sense) painting "Lake. Russia", which absorbed much of Levitan's reflections during the last years of his life and which, nonetheless, definitely resolves the dispute as to which age — the end of the 19th century or the start of the 20th — can claim Levitan as its own. The artist made the choice himself: his art is the highest point in the development of Russian landscape art of the 19th century, and the honourable finale of its evolution.

  1. Korovin, Konstantin. "Selections from Notebook. 1888-1891". Department of manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 97/48. Sheet 1.
  2. Quoted from: "Isaac Levitan. Letters, Documents, Reminiscences". Fedorov-Davydov, Alexei, ed. Moscow, 1956. P. 27 (hereinafter: "Letters, Documents, Reminiscences").
  3. Ibid. P. 29.
  4. Ibid. P. 61.
  5. Ibid. P. 47.
  6. Quoted from: "Letters, Documents, Reminiscences". P. 89.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. P. 77.
  9. Not only artists, but collectors too. It was in the 1890s that Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov in Moscow started their collections, buying mostly French artists - Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including Symbolists.
  10. Quoted from: "Letters, Documents, Reminiscences". P. 96. (Claude Monet, Jean Charles Cazin and Renard are French Impressionist painters.)
  11. Ibid. P. 136.
  12. In the summer of 2010, the exhibition, with a slightly different assortment of pictures on show, was displayed at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.





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