Gely Korzhev’s Biblical Cycle: HARD STEPS TOWARDS TRUTH

Ksenia Karpova

Magazine issue: 
#3 2016 (52)

The current large-scale retrospective of Gely Korzhev is part of a series of innovative projects in the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition programme aimed at acquainting viewers with the work of major Soviet and post-Soviet artists. Works from Korzhev’s biblical cycle, on which the artist worked for a quarter of a century - from the mid-1980s until his death - are an essential part of the show: this ambitious project became the major undertaking of the final years of Gely Korzhev’s long artistic career.

During his work on the biblical cycle, even perhaps a little before he started on it, Korzhev with drew from any kind of public activity in society, becoming almost a recluse. The artist later commented on his circumstances at that time: "I turned to working on the biblical cycle when contemporary life as such has lost its appeal for me. Although the tales from the Bible have many unexpected similarities with what is going on today, the major attraction for me was the fact that they are absolutely devoid of politics. There is struggle, there are opponents and friends... But there is no politics."[1]

By the end of the 1980s, his longstanding official work with the Union of Artists, which Korzhev had headed in his middle age, and his teaching activity at the Stroganov School and the Academy of Arts had given way to solitary creative work in his studio. "Father was determined to let everything else go except for working on the ideas that he sought to embody in the studio. His public activities only got in the way of that,"[2] Anastasia Korzheva, the artist's daughter, has explained.

By addressing the biblical stories, Korzhev was following his own long contemplations on spiritual, moral and philosophical problems, and he was extremely forthright in his work. The depiction of the Gospel and Old Testament scenes in the arts has a long history, and its own iconographic tradition. Despite the rich diversity of his interpretations - from idealized images of biblical characters belonging to a divine, sacred world, to portraits of saints who had the features of Korzhev's contemporaries and were depicted in an environment familiar to him - the artist always fulfilled his major task of making the content of the Holy Scriptures intelligible and understandable to viewers.

Korzhev managed to develop a deeply personal system of imagery, one which was also powerful and versatile, and the artist's works reflect his worldview, aesthetic preferences and artistic influences. Korzhev's biblical cycle bears involuntary reference to the great works of different eras, including the paintings of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Caravaggio, as well as the works of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) and the Pre-Raphaelites. Korzhev had an affinity with 19th century art in his intense search for artistic truth, in the novelty of his conceptual content and realistic interpretation of the Gospels. While drawing on various pictorial traditions, the artist does not rely on any one of them exclusively, but rather rethinks traditions and reveals a new contemporary interpretation.

Following in the footsteps of the 19th century artists, Korzhev chose to represent his ideas in the form of a cycle of paintings, thus continuing the tradition introduced into Russian art by Alexander Ivanov. Korzhev would add text descriptions explaining the ideas behind some of the images he created, in a way similar to Vasily Polenov, Ivan Kramskoi and Nikolai Ge. His sketches can often be mistaken for independent works due to their size and degree of elaboration. Korzhev himself noted that "sketches are, foremost, a factor of the artist's diligence". "A large painting often puts pressure on the viewer, while a sketch is always favourable in its freshness and 'immaturity'. The viewer can explore it calmly, thus learning about the progress of the work,"[3] the painter said.

The dramatic events of 1986, the year in which Korzhev's mother and father both died, in a way led him to exploring the biblical theme. "The pain of losing my parents kept me from painting for a very long time. I would only make sketches on biblical themes, which resulted in a whole series," Korzhev said.[4]

The biblical cycle was the result of Korzhev's long experiments with composition and interpretation of images. Through his sketches we are able to follow the artist removing or adding certain meaningful elements, changing the colours and spatial balance, and reaching a final version. Some of the paintings were created over very long intervals - the cycle itself would take almost 25 years to be completed, during which time the artist continued to develop other themes, like the famous series of the surreal "Mutants (Tyurlikis)" begun in the 1980s, his allegorical series about Don Quixote (from the 1990s) as well as one of the most important subjects in his career - that of war.

A very private person who almost never allowed anyone into his inner world, in the biblical cycle Korzhev embodied his emotions and thoughts with remarkable frankness - each of the paintings communicates tremendous, unbearable, severe spiritual tension which requires an intensive emotional and intellectual response from the viewer. These works stand out among the Russian artistic heritage of the second half of the 20th century for the unprecedented degree of emotional openness which the artist allowed himself. He has created probably the grandest in scale series of works on biblical themes in the Russian fine arts of the turn of the 20th century: the series was recognized as unique immediately after it was first shown to the public.

"The Bible through the Eyes of a Socialist Realist" was the title chosen by the artist for the cycle. In a sense it is provocative: though addressing biblical themes, the artist remains aware that he belongs to a Soviet culture which excluded any religious discourse. Anastasia Korzheva recalls her father as seeing "Jesus Christ, his disciples and Mary more as historical characters. He was not a man of the Church, but all his life he tried to follow the commandments - perhaps that is why the inner turmoil and suffering of the characters in his biblical cycle is so tangible."[5] This perception of the biblical stories as historical rather than mythological events was largely due to the artist's contemporary socio-historical environment which influenced his worldview, fostering a very individual interpretation of biblical scenes and images: the stories were "seen" through the eyes of someone who had lived most of his life in the atheistic reality of the Soviet Union.

Korzhev started by liberating himself from the established canons of biblical iconography and embracing the prism of contemporary reality, as if he himself had witnessed the events depicted. We could put it differently and say that he was perceiving reality through biblical images - and rightfully so, because real life, the world of real people and their feelings and experiences had been the artist's major source of inspiration throughout his entire artistic career. Not surprisingly, the canonical biblical narratives in Korzhev's works are easily recognized by viewers.

The very first picture of the cycle, "Annunciation Day" (1987), does not match the standard iconographic type. The scene of the Archangel Gabriel visiting Mary is depicted in a very austere environment: a simple room devoid of any background details. Instead of a traditional Mary, humbly receiving the glad tidings, Korzhev depicts her lying fallen to the floor, prostrated by grief, stunned by the sudden realization of her unborn child's fate. The painting was not intended to evoke peaceful contemplation, rather to expose and explain the dramatic meaning of the event concerned - an approach that was common for the artist. Korzhev has shifted the emphasis and, instead of painting the moment of Gabriel's unexpected visit, he depicts the one that follows: most probably, the angel is only present in the painting so that viewers would recognize the story.

In his later sketches Korzhev puts an even greater emphasis on the distance of time, placing the angel in the background ("Annunciation Day", 2010) as a trace of the past in contrast to Mary, whose figure is tangible, material and clearly still in the present.

The earliest artistic interpretation of this scene that is similar to that of Korzhev can be seen in "Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)" (1849-1850) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His Mary, a very young girl, is clinging to the wall in fright, numb and terrified. The young heroine's feelings and inner turmoil were the artist's primary concern.

The comparison is not accidental given the fact that, among other things, both artists were reinterpreting the same source - the art of the Quattrocento. For example, Korzhev painted his "Annunciation Day" of 2000-2005 imitating early Renaissance frescoes. His interpretation of the images of Christ, Mary and the disciples make them seem as real as the actual protagonists. To enhance the sense of verisimilitude, the artist often introduces still-life motifs, such as the images of everyday objects - earthenware pots, field bags, bast shoes, as well as portraits, as in "Autumn of the Ancestors (Adam and Eve)" (1997-2000) and "Mary with Child" (1999). This approach helps Korzhev to bring the biblical images tangibly closer to the viewer and make them more understandable.

"Recovery of Sight" (1999), to which the artist himself admitted feeling very attached, holds a special place in the biblical cycle: in it Korzhev sought to interpret the meaning of spiritual enlightenment. As in many other paintings of the cycle, he almost halts the action to prolong its culmination, almost like a slow-motion scene in a film. We don't see the conclusion of what is taking place, we only watch the process.

The artist does not seek to make his characters' appearance close to any classical ideal of beauty. On the contrary, in "Hard Steps towards Truth" (2000) he portrays the apostles as looking like vagabonds. Other such cases of bringing evangelical images "down to earth" can be found in art history, including in the works of Diego Velazquez, who was one of Korzhev's favourite artists. As Korzhev him self recalled, to him the most important element of working on "Hard Steps towards Truth" was "conveying the smell of fish and sawdust, as many of the disciples were engaged in ordinary work before meeting Him".[6] The composition of the painting is deeply meaningful - the artist places all the characters at the edge of the painting, choosing a low horizon. Due to this choice the viewer almost becomes involved in the action, and the characters feel almost as if they could be touched. The disciples come together in one common movement towards the centre of the painting, towards Christ. The whiteness of His body and clothes makes the figure stand out, visually forming a summit of an inverted pyramid, made up of the figures of the apostles. Velazquez would often apply a similar V-shaped composition to his works. Christ is not separated from the crowd but is part of it; He covers His eyes from the sun with His hand, which interrupts the closed nature of the composition, diverting the viewer's attention beyond the painting.

"Hard Steps towards Truth" has something in common with the famous painting "The Appearance of Christ Before the People" (1837-1857) by Alexander Ivanov, whose creative concerns were close to Korzhev; he once wrote in an article, "the theme of premonitions, people's hopes and dreams became the theme of Ivanov's painting."[7] We discover this idea developed further in Korzhev's painting - while Ivanov's characters are still hesitating about their choice, Korzhev's apostles have become conscious followers of the Saviour. The artist equates a severe test of endurance, crossing the desert beneath the scorching sun, with the most profound inner spiritual work of a man on his journey to the truth in a form that is clear and comprehensible to viewers.

Christ's earthly path, full of human deeds, love for the people, mercy for the distressed and faith in the spiritual growth of man, is strong evidence that, although the journey to truth is a hard one, it is possible for all. The search for a personal approach to the development of the biblical theme is what brings Korzhev's works close to the art of the second half of the 19th century - particularly to Ge, Kramskoi and Polenov. By diverging from the traditional way of depicting scenes from Scripture and history, and placing the religious story into a historical context, these masters continued the tradition started by Ivanov. While each of these artists had his own individual approach to the interpretation of biblical scenes, they share certain traits - for instance, they perceive biblical personages as historical figures, focus on human emotions rather than mystical aspects of the stories, and are very accurate in conveying the inner state, thoughts and feelings of their subjects.

The feelings that Korzhev's characters experience are a reflection of real stories about the relationships between real people. For him, the images of biblical characters, and the very history told in the Bible are a universal mirror of life, the mirror of life's most hidden truths.

The painting "Autumn of the Ancestors (Adam and Eve)" (1997-2000) depicts Adam and Eve in age. "Expelled from Paradise, doomed to live a mortal and wandering life on earth, they have kept a great human love, which has helped them overcome everything and gives them the strength to go on living,"[8] was the artist's explanation of his conception. "Deprived of Paradise" (1998) is one of the most emotionally powerful paintings of the biblical cycle: Korzhev brings the dramatic expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise into a world of emotions and experiences more comprehensible to the contemporary viewer. The composition of the picture somewhat resembles a still from a big Hollywood film: the hero carries the heroine in his arms over a parched, cracked, battlefield-like land. The two characters are separated from the landscape in the background by a huge distance; nothing links them to it. The composition of the painting echoes its title almost literally: paradise is lost, the wellbeing and happiness that it brought are gone. The future is full of uncertainty and unceasing trials of life.

Paintings depicting the Passions of Christ comprise an essential part of Korzhev's biblical cycle. In his own distinctive style he draws upon Ge's "Passion Cycle" (18841894) which embodies an image of the preacher of morality who is painfully living through the sufferings of the people. The viewer is nearly terrified by the overwhelming psychophysical state of his characters, yet Ge finds a way to create an image of Christ which speaks about the possibility of awakening even for the most lost of souls.

Korzhev develops a similar idea, though he remains more dispassionate and tries to steer away from conveying the agony of physical suffering. Nevertheless, the flayed body of the Saviour carrying the cross to Golgotha ("Carrying the Cross", 1999), the accurately and naturalistically drawn swollen veins ("On the Cross", 1999), and the weakly hanging and unnaturally bent hand of the dead Christ which expressively conveys the lifelessness of the physical shell ("Mary in the Cave", 2003), leave a daunting impression. The enlarged scenes begin to recall a frame from a film that captures a moment of tension and dynamics, and the brightness and fullness of the image.

The painting "Last Hours on Earth" (2000-2012) depicts the scene of the nailing to the cross. The figure of the crucified Christ is in the centre, the two thieves at his sides. Korzhev has deliberately cut their figures to create the impression that they have accidentally come into view. The figure of the Christ "cuts" through the painting diagonally in Korzhev's famous "inverted" perspective, as if rising towards the viewer. The very movement of the cross rising off the ground is emphasized by the snow-white wrap draped over the body of Christ. Creating an additional diagonal, the wrap does indeed "nail" the cross to the canvas. The hammer, nails, tunic and spear, placed across the edges of the painting, are drawn only in fragments - as symbols evoking the theme of the "Reflections on the Passions". Through forming a single circle of composition they "spin" the image, pulling it into a vortex motion, making it more dynamic.

In this work Gely Korzhev refers not so much to the theme of suffering as such, but rather to the motif of the dialogue between Christ and the penitent thief. This conversation with the criminal who realized that an innocent man was suffering next to him can be related to what unfolds in Ge's "Passion Cycle".

Korhzev's artistic kinship with Ge is also apparent in "Temptation" (1996), an interpretation of the latter's famous painting "What Is Truth? Christ and Pilate" (1890), but with new characters. A woman stands turned away from the viewer, her back barely covered by the flowing fabric of her gown. Bathed in bright light, she casts a shadow on the figure of an artist who is standing as if cornered. His hand is firmly pressed against his chest, emphasizing an overall paralyzing numbness.

Korzhev's "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" (2009) was dedicated to the theme of Christ's temptation by Satan during his fast of 40 days in the wilderness, and also has several references to Ge's work. As if quoting Ge's "Golgotha" (1893), Korzhev draws Satan's figure cut-off and with a pointing gesture. The Roman sandals and gown in which the tempter is clothed chime with the image of Pontius Pilate from Ge's painting "What Is Truth?" Thus, Korzhev combines the two stories - temptation and the conversation between Christ and Pilate.

Unlike the artists of the second half of the 19th century, Korzhev does not give prominence to landscape motifs when working with biblical themes. In the paintings that Korzhev created inspired by his travels through Syria, Lebanon and Spain, the landscape is transformed into a nominal background for the major scene played out in the foreground. This technique elevates the biblical plot above the everyday, making it more significant and universal.

Some of Korzhev's sketches have points of iconographic connection with Alexander Ivanov's landscape motifs - for instance, the small "Biblical Landscape" (2005), in which the artist makes an unexpectedly philosophical interpretation of an insignificant landscape. Korzhev's paintings also have a connection with some of Ivanov's still-life sketches; some of the compositions have an arch figuration suggesting an architectural form ("Golgotha", 2001). It should not be forgotten that Ivanov's watercolour sketches served as preparation for the implementation of a future monumental task in terms of perspective - the ornamentation of the walls of the "temple of humanity".

Gely Korzhev's biblical cycle is the result of the artist's lasting and complex inner work and spiritual dialogue with various artists and painting traditions of the past that remain relevant though being "re-thought" and filled with new content. The paintings were kept in the artist's studio for many years, and only revealed to the public in the exhibition "The Bible through the Eyes of a Socialist Realist. Gely Korzhev" at the Institute of Russian Realist Art in December 2013. Displayed again as part of Korzhev's retrospective exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, they retain their remarkable power.


  1. Gely Korzhev. Recorded in 2012. Hereinafter - Conversations.
  2. Anastasia Korzheva. Recorded in 2012.
  3. Gely Korzhev. Recorded in 2012.
  4. Gely Korzhev. Recorded in 2012.
  5. Anastasia Korzheva. Recorded in 2012.
  6. Gely Korzhev. Recorded in 2012.
  7. Korzhev, G.M. 'Alexander Ivanov. The Appearance of the Messiah' // "Young Artist", 1993. No. 4. P. 15.
  8. Gely Korzhev. Recorded in 2012.
Father and Son. 1990.
Oil on canvas. 80 × 75 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Carrying the Cross. 1999
Carrying the Cross. 1999.
Oil on canvas. 120 × 120 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Annunciation Day. 1987
Annunciation Day. 1987.
Oil on canvas. 91 × 150.5 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Annunciation Day. 2000–2005
Annunciation Day. 2000-2005.
Oil on canvas. 102 × 116 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Recovery of Sight. 1999
Recovery of Sight. 1999.
Oil on canvas. 120 × 120 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Golgotha. 2001
Golgotha. 2001.
Sketch. Oil on hardboard. 56.5 × 76 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Hard Steps towards Truth. 2000
Hard Steps towards Truth. 2000.
Oil on canvas. 160 × 200 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Last Hours on Earth. 2000–2012
Last Hours on Earth. 2000-2012.
Oil on canvas. 170 × 215 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Autumn of the Ancestors (Adam and Eve). 1995
Autumn of the Ancestors (Adam and Eve). 1995
Oil on canvas. 140 × 100 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! 2009
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! 2009.
Oil on canvas. 141 × 170 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Mary with Child. 1999
Mary with Child. 1999.
Oil on canvas. 120 × 120 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Mary in the Cave. 2009
Mary in the Cave. 2009.
Oil on canvas. 150 × 150 cm. Collection of the artist's family
Deprived of Paradise. 1998
Deprived of Paradise. 1998.
Oil on canvas. 130 × 160 cm. Private collection





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