THE STORY BEHIND A PAINTING

Natalya Korina

Article: 
HERITAGE
Magazine issue: 
#3 2016 (52)

March 16 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alexei Mikhailovich Korin (1865-1923), the academician and professor of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (MSPSA). He was destined to be an artist from early childhood: born into an old and venerable family of Palekh icon-painters, he devoted his whole life to art and left a remarkable artistic legacy.

As a brilliant follower of the Moscow school of painters and member of the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) group from 1895, Korin expressed himself in various artistic forms with equal depth and commitment. Apart from genre painting, portraits and landscapes, he was enthusiastic about book illustration and participated in the restoration of churches and cathedrals all across Russia and abroad - the well-preserved fresco paintings by Korin in the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, represent a unique example of late 19th-early 20th century Russian monumental painting of high historical and artistic value.

Recognized as one of the best drawing artists of his time, Korin headed the main art class at MSPSA for almost 25 years. He nurtured several generations of artists, including Martiros Saryan, Arkady Plastov, Pavel Kuznetsov, Alexander Gerasimov, Vasily Meshkov, Alexander Moravov, Boris loganson, Pyotr Kelin, Yakov Minchenkov and others. Korin also represented the Moscow Archaeological Society in the Special and Executive Commissions on the repair and restoration of the Annunciation and Assumption Cathedrals in the Moscow Kremlin.

One of the most significant moments in Alexei Korin's life came in 1892 when Pavel Tretyakov bought one of his works, "The Sick Artist". The painting was highly praised by critics and appreciated by the public and has been on permanent display at the Tretyakov Gallery for more than 120 years. "The Sick Artist" depicts an artist's studio, with the artist himself sitting in the middle of the room; surrounded by sketches, drafts and artwork, he faces a canvas on an easel. He is staring intently at his work with an expression of confusion and despair - he realizes that the painting he has started will probably never be completed. It seems as if his whole life has flashed before his eyes.

There are definite signs of a severe illness. The artist, only recently so full of passion and energy, and preparing numerous drafts for future paintings, now struggles simply to sit in an armchair. A pillow behind his back supports his weak exhausted body. His right hand with thin long fingers hangs helplessly; he's squeezing a handkerchief in his left hand (clearly he now can no longer do without it). Though exhausted, the artist is leaning forward trying to reach closer to the canvas. But in vain: here he is, alone with his art - the meaning of his life, the meaning of his whole existence - and unaware of what awaits him. His worsening illness won't allow him to work, to continue creating.

Behind the curtain a female figure sits at a desk in the other room. This character only seems secondary at first, but actually plays an important dramatic role in the scene: she embodies all the pain and sorrow felt by family and friends, desperate, yet unable, to help their loved one. It was Korin's clear intention to separate the studio into two worlds - the unique inner world of the master and the outer world, bounded by a curtain on the left and a drape to the right.

Such is the narrative behind the painting. The author succeeded in creating a complete image through believable modelling, depicting with utmost precision the state of a man in the thrall of a debilitating disease. Any viewer who takes a closer look at the painting will grasp the very special mood, the atmosphere of intense silence leading to the artist's moment of revelation: the artist's image itself leaves a lasting imprint in the mind. In the life drama unfolding on the canvas, the receptive viewer will discover and understand the overall idea behind Korin's work. The author's original concept is manifested through a variety of compositional, artistic and technical solutions and tools. Every fine detail of the painting is carefully considered; each piece has its place, fulfilling a certain semantic role. Colour bears an important role in the composition by adding not only expressiveness but also a symbolic emphasis to the painting, revealing the major idea of the work. The space of the painting is organized specifically so that the artistic images direct viewers towards some very definite associations and analogies.

Close analysis of this work reveals several compositional centres, with the artist himself the key figure of the scene, highlighted both by his position in the centre and by colour. All the weight of the drama he is bearing is clearly depicted on his face. The artist's right hand appearing almost in the centre of the painting reflects its semantic significance - it enhances the dramatic effect. The artist is leaning on the table with his wrist bent at a right-angle; the hand hangs lifelessly, parallel to the vertical axes of the painting. The author emphasizes yet again the hopelessness of the artist's position - his right hand is his main working-tool, his "instrument of life", and here we see it devoid of any creative and physical energy.

The second compositional centre directly behind the first one is the gypsum mask and foot fixed along a single line. In contrast to those two elements, the artist's figure is perceived as even less balanced, as if yearning to move. Through these compositional formulae the character's emotional, intellectual and psychological saturation is conveyed. But Korin looks deeper than merely portraying his life drama. His concern is with what the artist feels at his moment of revelation, as he faces the inevitable, the end of his life. Who is this artist? What is his role? What was the purpose of his art? The viewer is invited to think about the eternal, timeless values that form the essence of both earthly and eternal existence, together with the main character. The painter gives the answer using the universal language of symbols: through this language, closely related to the unconscious and to intuition, one is able to convey complex logical philosophy while overcoming the limits of language, culture, tradition and time. It also helps to correctly interpret the theme of the work.

The author intended all the objects visible in the studio and surrounding the artist to play an important role in the composition. Those highlighted in white carry a dual meaning. Placed along a diagonal, they become the focus of the viewer's attention, to be traced involuntarily, looking from one to another. Colour is used to create the desired semantic emphasis. The dialogue of white and red serves for the symbolic separation of the spiritual and material worlds: the white represents the spiritual realm, the red, in contrast, symbolizes earthly reality and vitality.

What's especially interesting is that the turn of the artist's head and his right hand follows that of the plaster mask and foot hanging on the wall. These compositional centres divide the space of the painting into two grounds, lying in parallel planes. The central ground with the artist sitting in front of the canvas represents the real world, while the background symbolizes the spiritual realm. The mask is the central attribute of Greek theatre, in which any performance was connected to festivals honouring the god Dionysus and played out in three acts: Birth, Life and Death. The mask inspired a sense of inevitability in the spectators - sooner or later everyone will be granted their part in the play of "Life". The mask represents dual images containing the Mystery of Being. In addition, "masks communicate a certain message, they contain an impersonal, intangible meaning that is revealed to the spectator suddenly, through involuntary, vague, immeasurable perception of something that we are not able to recognize. Unlike us, the 'eyeless face' seems to see deeper within it, to see through the depths of life."[1] The gypsum foot also has the symbolic meaning of the movement of Life. Looking closely at the mask hanging on the wall in the artist's studio, one notices that it is modelled on the main character's facial features. The mask has another symbolic meaning, that of an Egyptian death mask, where the geometry corresponds to the motionless contemplation of the Eternal Truths in front of the "wide-open door to Eternity". The author draws a parallel between the fate of the individual and the universal process, referring to their inextricable connection and turning to generalization of the fundamental philosophical concepts. The main character is not just a man moving through the circle of life - Birth, Life and Death, just like that of any other being in the world - he is also an artist, a creatorfor whom art embodies the meaning of life. Another parallel can be drawn here: the death mask and the painter standing before his canvas. The canvas, symbolizing Art itself, becomes that very "wide-open door to Eternity". Hence the main conclusion: Art opens a door into Eternity for the artist. True Art is immortal, the artist is gifted with the ability to connect with the eternal values and announce them to the world through his creations.

The easel on which the canvas is resting represents the third centre of the composition. Its vertical axis coincides with the right edge of the painting frame, forming yet another ground within a plane that parallels the first two, creating a union of three parallel planes.

In support of the idea that true art is eternal and timeless, on the right side of the picture there is a gypsum copy of a Greek hero set on a table next to a sketchbook and the easel, an image that has inspired painters and sculptors for centuries. It is yet another composite centre that creates a plane which is perpendicular to the other three and unites them. And in this space where the second - middle - ground represents the real world, the background symbolizes the spiritual world, while the foreground, which coincides with the right side of the painting embodies the world of Art: all three are united by Eternal values. We see the spatial geometric construction of the entire composition of the painting consistently revealing the main idea behind the work.

Korin's "The Sick Artist" was not only a meditation on Eternal Truths: its theme did not appear suddenly out of nowhere but had a very specific "addressee", and was inspired by a real-life drama. In 1891 Illarion Pryanishnikov - Korin's beloved teacher, close friend and uncle to his future wife, Serafima Ammosova - was stricken with tuberculosis. Pryanishnikov, who taught at the MSPA along with other great masters such as the brothers Yevgraf and Pavel Sorokin, Vladimir Makovsky, Vasily Polenov and others, played a very special role in Korin's development as an artist.

Pryanishnikov's disease that led to his death in 1894 caused much grief not only to his family, but also to his numerous friends, colleagues and students, with many recollections left by his contemporaries about that tragic period. The heavy emotions caused by Pryanishnikov's fatal illness enforced the idea of "The Sick Artist", in which Korin expressed the life drama of the artist.

In 1890 Pryanishnikov created a painting titled "In the Artist's Studio", for which the newly-weds, Serafima Ammosova and Alexei Korin,[2] posed as model and artist. In his own work, Korin continued this theme of the artist's life, undertaken by Pryanishnikov, in placing Pryanishnikov's characters in a different time. One can easily imagine that Korin's was the same studio featuring the same objects and characters, but some years later. And while the first - Pryanishnikov's - painting corresponds to the beginning of the life of an artist, illuminated by the fire of creativity, the second portrays its ending, when the artist comes to an understanding of his final destination. Thus, Korin has completed the theme started by Pryanishnikov by adding a summarizing, philosophical meaning to it.

The loss of his beloved friend and teacher haunted Korin throughout his life. He would return to this theme over the years, as is evident in his other works related to the tragic event: "Requiem for Illarion Pryanishnikov" (1900), "Funeral" (1912) and others.

In 1892 Korin's "Sick Artist" featured at the 20th Exhibition of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions (the Wanderers). By the time the painting was created, Korin was already famous: in December 1890 he was awarded second prize at the annual competition held by the Moscow Society of Art Lovers for his portrait of a young woman.[3] In December of the following year his "Portrait of Nikolai Medyntsev" won first prize at the same event.[4] Another first prize was awarded to Korin for his "Portrait of an Elderly Lady", exhibited in public in 1892.[5] Moscow and St. Petersburg reviewers had paid notice to many of his other works, most prominent among them "Morning in the Monastery Cell" (1889), for which Korin was awarded the title of what was termed a "class" artist, as well as "Early Spring", "The Village of Lazarevo" (1890), "Failed Again" (1891) and other paintings.

"The Sick Artist" immediately gained recognition, receiving the highest number of votes in the ballot at the 20th "Peredvizhniki" exhibition. The painting was widely discussed in the press, by Korin's fellow artists and his elder colleagues from the Society. Ilya Repin wrote to Leo Tolstoy: "Korin's painting 'The Sick Artist' before the canvas is an excellent piece of art."[6] He later wrote to Pavel Tretyakov: "Korin's 'Sick Artist' before the canvas is a wonderful thing, one of his best; full of expression, expertly well-drawn and painted."[7] Soon after that, on March 13 1892, Tretyakov would buy the painting for his gallery, and the Moscow magazine "Artist" purchased the right to reproduce it.[8] Korin's close friend, the artist Vasily Baksheev, remembered the work in his memoirs years later: "Korin has one of his paintings displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery, 'TheSick Artist'. An excellent work of art. It is not just a physical portrait but a sophisticated image of an artist who is living and breathing art, who feels deeply connected to his work. Despite his sickness, he is completely immersed in it. Painting, creating artistic images filled with thoughts and ideas is his vision of the meaning of life."[9]

The work became a success not only because it was painted with such mastery. The major reason it was so highly recognized was that it expressed a certain quest, representative of the whole of Russian culture of that time. It might have given the impression of a genre painting, but in its essence the painting represented an entirely new phenomenon and served new tasks. While the artists of the 1860-70s mainly focused on the viewer's prior knowledge of what was being communicated, they later would turn to "visual thinking" when expressing and conveying an idea. The artist now involved the viewer in the process of perceiving the work of art which evokes visual and sensual associations. The painting's pictorial structure is built considering primarily the viewer's emotional perception, the sensations that occur in one's subconscious or mind when contemplating visual images. The comprehension and understanding of these images is intuitive. Hence, new technical and painting techniques appeared, blurring the boundaries between genres. Peculiar to Russian philosophical thought of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, ontologism - "a real penetration into being itself" - was also present in the Russian artistic culture of that period. Mankind becomes the major artistic theme, and understanding of the world through that prism becomes art's major task.

The fate of the painting itself was happier than that of its creator. While working on "The Sick Artist", Korin seemed to feel a premonition of his own destiny - in the early 1920s he would experience a similar life drama. If we bear in mind the tragic fate of most of his "Peredvizhnik" colleagues who chose to stay in Russia after 1917, this image of an artist facing his canvas in despair becomes a generalizing one. It brings together all those artistic figures who remained faithful to their ideals, their art and their homeland.

 

  1. Julien, Nadia. "Slovak simvolov" (Dictionary of Symbols). Chelyabinsk, 1999. P 497.
  2. Korina, Natalya. 'New Trends in Russian Art in the Works of Illarion Pryanishnikov. Honouring the 170th Anniversary of the Artist's Birth (1840-1894). "Artist" Magazine. No 1. Moscow, 2011. P. 20-27.
  3. The awarding of prizes at the painting contest. - "Moskovskiye Vedomosti" (Moscow Gazette), 1890, December 11, 342.
  4. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, f. 9/114, l. 1.
  5. On, N. On the contest for the awards at the Society of Art Lovers. - "Moskovsky Listok" (Moscow Page), 1892, December 23, 856.
  6. "Ilya Repin and Leo Tolstoy. Correspondence". Moscow-Leningrad, 1949. P 50.
  7. Repin, Ilya. "Correspondence with Tretyakov 1875-1898". Moscow-Leningrad, 1940. P 157.
  8. Letter from Vasily Konstantinovych to Yegor Khruslov dated April 8 1892. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, f. 9/320, l.2.
  9. Baksheev, Vasily. "Memories". Moscow, 1963. P. 65.

Illustrations

ALEXEI KORIN. Self-portrait. 1915
ALEXEI KORIN. Self-portrait. 1915.
Pastel on cardboard. 62 × 50 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexei Korin. Photograph, 1888
Alexei Korin. Photograph, 1888.
From the archive of Alexei Korin’s family
Serafima Ammosova. Photograph, 1890
Serafima Ammosova. Photograph, 1890.
From the archive of Alexei Korin’s family
ALEXEI KORIN. The Sick Artist. 1892
ALEXEI KORIN. The Sick Artist. 1892.
Oil on canvas. 78.2 × 109 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
ALEXEI KORIN. A Boy. Study for the painting 'The Sick Artist'. 1890
ALEXEI KORIN. A Boy. Study for the painting "The Sick Artist”. 1890
Oil on cardboard. 31 × 22 cm. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Portrait of Nikolai Medyntsev. 1891
ALEXEI KORIN. Portrait of Nikolai Medyntsev. 1891.
Oil on canvas. 130 × 101.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
ALEXEI KORIN. The Village of Lazarevo. Study
ALEXEI KORIN. The Village of Lazarevo. Study.
Oil on cardboard. 24.5 × 40.7 cm. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Ilya Repin. 1901
ALEXEI KORIN. Ilya Repin. 1901.
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Portrait of the Artist Denisov. 1887
ALEXEI KORIN. Portrait of the Artist Denisov. 1887
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. On the Boulevard. 1897
ALEXEI KORIN. On the Boulevard. 1897.
Pencil on paper. Private collection
А.М. КОРИН. Комната художника в имении Марьино. Начало 1900-х
ALEXEI KORIN. The Artist's Room at the Maryino Estate. Early 1900s
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 60.5 × 49 cm Private collection
ILLARION PRYANISHNIKOV. In the Artist's Studio. 1890
ILLARION PRYANISHNIKOV. In the Artist's Studio. 1890
Oil on canvas. 49 × 42.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
VLADIMIR MAKOVSKY. Portrait of Illarion Pryanishnikov. 1893
VLADIMIR MAKOVSKY. Portrait of Illarion Pryanishnikov. 1893
Oil on canvas. 87 × 70 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
ALEXEI KORIN. Requiem for Illarion Pryanishnikov. 1900
ALEXEI KORIN. Requiem for Illarion Pryanishnikov. 1900.
Oil on canvas. 32 × 42 cm. Komi Republican Art Museum
Funeral of Illarion Pryanishnikov. Photograph
Funeral of Illarion Pryanishnikov. Photograph.
From the archive of Alexei Korin’s family
ALEXEI KORIN. Reading. 1901
ALEXEI KORIN. Reading. 1901.
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Serafima Korina on a Bench. 1903
ALEXEI KORIN. Serafima Korina on a Bench. 1903.
Oil on canvas. 49 × 34 cm. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. City Landscape. 1901
ALEXEI KORIN. City Landscape. 1901
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. In the Studio. 1902
ALEXEI KORIN. In the Studio. 1902.
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Zamoskvorechye District. 1901
ALEXEI KORIN. Zamoskvorechye District. 1901.
Pencil on paper. Private collection
ALEXEI KORIN. Unknown artist
ALEXEI KORIN. Unknown artist
Oil on canvas. 21 × 11.5 cm. Private collection

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