"Architecture Was My Occupation..." THE ORIGINAL ARCHITECTURAL TALENT OF VASILY POLENOV

Yelena Kashtanova

Article: 
HERITAGE
Magazine issue: 
#3 2019 (64)

“I love all the arts, they all are very dear to me; architecture was my occupation,
poetry and sculpture were my delight, and painting and music are my life.”

Vasily Polenov[1]

Given how deeply immersed Vasily Polenov was in “all the arts”, it is hard to distinguish through which form exactly he channelled his love for the beauty of architecture: his highly emotional response meant that such elements were always mutually connected. It would be fair to say, however, that Polenov is one of the most “architectural” artists: he seems unable to envision the main themes of his art - whether they are realized in landscapes, historical compositions or sketches, in his Gospel series or theatre designs - without architectural forms.

Polenov inherited his talent for architecture from his maternal great-grandfather, Nikolai Alexandrovich Lvov (1751-1803), an architect, composer, writer and engineer, whose work he knew well. This can be clearly seen both in drawings by the 16-year-old Polenov, which were perhaps his earliest attempts to embrace the study of architecture, and in the fact that much later, when he was designing his own country residence, he “recalled" Lvov's favourite structure of the pyramidal cellar, thus signalling the “artistic presence" of his great-grandfather in the creation of his own home.

Polenov could have watched an architect at work during the construction, in 1855, of the house on his parents' estate of Imochentsy in the Olonets Governorate (present-day Karelia). The architect concerned was Roman Kuzmin (1811-1867), who was also responsible for the unusual design of the Voskreseniya (Resurrection) Church at the Polenovs' Olshanka estate in the Tambov Governorate, which was built in 1860 (its structure resembled that of the main Christian shrine in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in its form of a rotunda with a gallery around its central part). It is possible that Kuzmin's unexpected and bold architectural designs would later inspire Polenov in his own unconventional architectural gestures.

There are, broadly, three areas of Polenov's architectural accomplishments: the churches at Abramtsevo, in the small town of Kologriv in the Kostroma Governorate, and in the village of Byokhovo in the Tula Governorate; his own Borok estate by the Oka River near Tula; and an urban project, the House of Theatre Education in Moscow. Whereas in his early youth he filled his sketchbook with pictures of medieval castles, his travels after his graduation on the stipend he received from the Academy of Arts, and the time he spent in Italy, Germany and France would strengthen the artist's interest in, and love for the architecture of Western Europe. That may have become a source of new inspiration for Polenov, but his love for, and understanding of the Russian Middle Ages remained undiminished.

Polenov had his first chance to apply his architectural talents at Abramtsevo, the Mamontov family estate, when plans for the Vernicle Church (Church of the Saviour Not-Made-by-Human Hands, “Spas Nerukot- vornyi’’) were being conceived in 1881-1882. Polenov energetically set about preparatory work, as recorded by Yelizaveta Mamontova in a letter: “My study has now completely become a picture gallery, all around are Vas. Dm.'s [Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov's] sketches of different churches, iconostases, etc."[2] Polenov was fascinated with the aesthetics of the Russian North, and one of his first design proposals featured a church in the form of a wooden chapel: he had seen many churches like this in the Olonets district, where he lived for a long time at his parents' country seat. Polenov's initial sketches of the church include a drawing of structures modelled on the churches of Novgorod the Great, principally the 12th century Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour on Nereditsa Hill (“Spas-na-Nereditse"). This sketch already features a distinct vision of the future church, and the artist's sketchbooks that are held at the Abramtsevo Museum also include sketches of this particular Novgorod church.

The Vernicle Church (Church of the Saviour Not-Made-by-Human Hands, “Spas Nerukotvornyi”), Abramtsevo
The Vernicle Church (Church of the Saviour Not-Made-by-Human Hands, “Spas Nerukotvornyi”), Abramtsevo
Modern photograph

In the 1880s, Polenov began to look for models in the architecture of historical periods that stretched back earlier than the 17th century, the era that was an almost universal source of inspiration for architects of the second half of the 19th century. No other architect at that time was bold enough to engage with the styles of previous eras as freely as Polenov.

The publication in 1910 of Vladimir Kurbatov's article “On the Russian Style for Modern Buildings" was a key event in defining this process, pioneering as it did the phrase “neo-Russian style".[3] Kurbatov wrote about the Abramtsevo church, which “was enthusiastically conceived by a builder for whom the Novgorod churches were indeed the ideal... The neo-Russian (and not pseudo-Russian) style came into being when a Russian artist looked with admiration at the architecture of Moscow, Novgorod and Yaroslavl."[4] Kurbatov refers to the Vernicle Church at Abramtsevo as the first neo-Russian structure, but attributes its creation to Viktor Vasnetsov, whom he saw as having essentially pioneered the new art movement (Vasnetsov was indeed Polenov's collaborator on the project). Vasnetsov himself had clearly pointed to his sources of inspiration in Old Russian architecture: “I was fascinated with the Kremlin and the Moscow churches.", “my drawing turned out to be more Moscow-like than Novgorodian, but the family jury chose my sketch with several amendments."[5] The influential architecture scholar Maria Nashchokina proposed an explanation for the decision of the Mamontov family jury that was to judge the Abramtsevo project: “A viable and stylistically coherent version of the ‘National Romantic' [Nordic Modern] style did not take root in Moscow... This is why the ancient Pskov and Novgorod motifs incorporated into the architectural idiom of the neo-Russian structures were regarded as something peculiar."[6]

In Polenov's interpretation, a “national style" meant engaging with the motifs of Novgorod and Pskov and the romantic image of bygone days, drawn from the Russian Middle Ages, that afforded freedom of artistic imagination. While working on the church at Abramtsevo, Polenov tested for the first time the concept of the innovative neo-Russian style: extraordinarily flexible in terms of aesthetic explorations and realization, he later applied it in projects such as the unrealized church design for Kologriv and the Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo on the Oka River.

It should be noted that Polenov, always an artist of an independent mind, undertook church projects like these only when he was allowed full creative freedom. That had been the case at Abramtsevo, and the same condition was essential when Polenov came to design a church in Kologriv in 1893. Another important element for the artist about that project was the opportunity it offered to repay a debt of gratitude to his godfather, Fyodor Chizhov: an industrialist, railway magnate and financier, a friend of Nikolai Gogol and the painter Alexander Ivanov, Chizhov had written a number of articles about art, but most importantly he was a trustee of the Polenov family. In his will Chizhov designated most of his legacy for the construction and maintenance of vocational schools in his native town of Kostroma and its surrounding region, appointing Savva Mamontov and Alexei Polenov, the artist's brother, as his executors. There was a plan to build a church in the vicinity of an agricultural vocational school in Kologriv, for which Mamontov asked Polenov to design the building and interior, where copies of Alexander Ivanov's biblically themed works would be displayed. Throughout his life Polenov revered the creator of “The Appearance of Christ Before the People", and he certainly could not turn this offer down. He entrusted the copying of the works to his sister, Yelena Polenova, and his students, Alexander Golovin, Sergei Malyutin, Vasily Meshkov and Yeghishe Tadevosyan. In addition, Golovin and Polenov were to paint icons for the iconostasis, as well as creating, together with Yelena Polenova, ornamental murals for the church.

Yelena Polenova described the project's initial stages in detail: “At that time Vasily was often seeing Savva Ivanovich [Mamontov] to discuss the Kologriv church - Savva trusted this project to Vasily with a whole brigade of his apprentices. Artistically it is a very interesting enterprise. They came up with what I believe is a very ingenious solution. Instead of building a stand-alone church, they want to build a big space, to be used as a refectory, with an altar and all the church paraphernalia at the end section of the hall. On weekdays the church section would be closed off from the rest of the room with panels, which would be removed during church services, thus making for a very capacious church space. They are thinking of placing on the walls of the hall large murals with biblical stories painted from the sketches of Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, both because Ivanov was a friend of Fyodor Vasilievich [Chizhov] and because Fyodor Vasilievich greatly apprec i ated his artistic credo. The murals will be executed by Vasily Dmitrievich's apprentices under his guidance. As for the iconostasis, it too will be produced partly by Vasily himself, partly by other artists...’’[7] Perhaps this “ingenious solution", as agreed with Mamontov, was inspired by the refectory at the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan, the hall that is home to Leonardo da Vinci's mural “The Last Supper", which the artist could have seen during his visits to Italy.

Polenov's sketches give a good idea about the unusual design of the church. As with his previous assignments, his vision drew on the medieval architecture of the Russian North - the old towns of Novgorod the Great and Pskov: the Church would have one dome and one apse. In a sketch for its exterior decorative elements, the jug-shaped columns of the porch suggest 17th century Muscovite architecture, while the shapes of the windows and their arrangement on the walls evoke the Romanesque style of medieval Western Europe. In such a way Polenov was able to achieve a harmonious combination of his favourite elements of different styles.

The sketch of the three-tier iconostasis is especially noteworthy: on its upper tier, on either side of the central icon, Polenov initially placed his own landscapes - on the right, Golgotha, on the left, an Oriental landscape, which much later he would include in his series of paintings “Scenes from the Life of Christ", under the title “He settled in Capernaum, on the Sea".

Polenov's idea to introduce landscapes into the decoration of the church came to him after he had seen the interior of a Russian church in Paris, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, in 1873: “The church in Paris was built to the architect Kuzmin's design [the same Roman Kuzmin who had worked as an architect for Polenov's family]. It consists of semi-circular apses with painted images, and there are paintings by [Alexei] Bogolyubov there. I don't know whose idea it was, but landscapes in a church look original and beautiful."[8] Since that time onwards the “idea" became Polenov's: there can be no doubt that the Kologriv church was envisioned as a synthesis of the arts - architecture, painting, the applied arts - but, regrettably, it was never built.

The efforts that Polenov put into its design were not in vain, however. Ten years later, while working on the Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo on the Oka, Polenov creatively revised his earlier sketches to produce a cardinally new design, which nevertheless not only featured his old favourite asymmetrical layout, with its laterally positioned belfry, but most importantly was distinguished by his free treatment of its architectural prototypes. In the requisite official document, the “Explanatory Note to the Church Construction Project Composed by the Moscow Architect Pavel Shchetinin’’, the sources of Polenov's inspiration are clearly indicated: “The church is designed in the Old Russian North and Byzantine style, its layout and fapade modelled on the 12th century Spas Nereditsky Church near Novgorod the Great and the St. Lazarus Church (?) in Novgorod of the same period."[9]

The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village. 1906
The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village. 1906
Photograph. © Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve

The small Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo, on a high bank of the Oka, seems in perfect harmony with its setting. The first draft for its construction is dated 1903, and the sanctification of the church took place on October 22 1906. The singularity of its structure is emphasized by the wide dual-slope roof over the main quadrilateral part and the porch, and by a belfry with a tented roof on its northern side: the belfry closely resembles tented-roof prototypes to be found in Suzdal, although this could also be a “reminiscence" of the architecture of the North, with its wooden churches with tented roofs. In addition to the carved wooden iconostasis, the main adornment of the altar comprises the four massive pillars that support the drum with windows, made of “Tarusa marble", which was what Polenov called the local construction material, limestone. (In ancient Novgorod and Pskov limestone had also been widely used in construction.) The capitals of the pillars are adorned with carved lotuses, an element that relates the Byokhovo church to the 6th century Chapel of St. Helena in the lower level of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Polenov had initially envisioned this element inside the church: he outlined the column on the reverse of a sketch for the Byokhovo church in 1903 and himself participated in the carving: “Over these days I have started carving leafs on the capital of the column and am managing it quite easily, the stone is very pleasing to work with..."[10]

In a letter to his friend Leonid Kandaurov the artist explained why he was undertaking the construction of a church: “Our church, which recognizes painting, music and poetry, is already a temple of art as much as it is a house of prayer, and therein lies its enormous power and importance - in the past, as well as in the present and the future."[11] It was for such reasons that Polenov, as he worked on the Byokhovo church, asked his artist friends to send their paintings for its interior, a request that was heeded by Ilya Repin, Mikhail Nesterov, Alexander Golovin and Yeghishe Tadevosyan, as well as by his wife, Natalya Polenova (“I'm toiling away on the ‘Annunciation', and don't know if I will have time left for the Evangelists," she replied to her husband).

However, the peak of Polenov's architectural explorations, the highpoint that reveals his worldview and aesthetic credo, came with his design for his own Borok estate. The main house is in the style of National Romantic style (Scandinavian moderne), while the artist's studio, which is known as “the Abbey", represents a classic French fusion of the Romanesque and the Gothic. The artist was very fond of Germany, especially its small towns with their half-timbered, or Fachwerk, houses, and his use of this style for the outbuildings on his estate - the Admiralty, the Fachwerk barn, the cowshed, and stables - was in part a reminiscence of his travels in Germany (“What I find interesting in Bavaria and in the Munich museums is the so-called Bauerngotik [peasants' gothic]").[13] For all that, he used a local building material, limestone, yet the combination of these different elements turned out to be most harmonious, unusual, beautiful and functional. Repin wrote about his friend and his achievements with the highest regard: “I infinitely regret that I haven't visited them at Byokhovo. There must be so many things to see on his estate, beginning with the home and the outbuildings. He's really quite an impressive architect!.. No surprise that the Byokhovo peasants have started calling him ‘Vasily Dmitryevich, the builder'. He built the church for them as well and, as always the case, it turned out cheap and splendid."[14]

From the early 1880s Polenov had been looking to acquire a piece of land near Moscow and, after lengthy searches, he found a location which was entirely in keeping with his sense of harmony. Polenov built up his own personal artistic world in the architectural space of his country seat, “composing" his estate as if he were painting pictures on his favourite themes. He deliberately wove his most cherished images into its design: the exterior of the Big House resembles his parents' home at Imochentsy; the cosy western terrace with its nasturtiums, leading to the flower bed of the Esplanade, recalls his family estate of Olshanka, while also conjuring up associations with his painting “Grandmother's Garden" (1878); the Petrovsky pond on the estate is like that in “Overgrown Pond" (1879); while the gates to the estate - both that at its entrance and the one leading to the Oka - evoke his painting “An Old Gate. The Village of Veules in Normandy" (1874).

The Big House at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1892
The Big House at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1892
Photograph. © Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve

Feeling his dreams to be coming true, Polenov was both designing and building a home for his large family and creating a museum. On most occasions he referred to “his museum" as the artistic section of his residence: only in such surroundings could one live a life of creativity to the full. Reflections from a much later era, by the eminent journalist Pyotr Vail writing at the end of the 20th century, help to explain the “inner impulse" behind Polenov's country seat: “A person's connection with the place where (s)he lives is mysterious but obvious. Or, to put it differently, unquestionably real but mysterious... On the lines where the artist organically intersects with the place where (s)he lives and works, a new, previously unknown reality arises."[15]

According to the artist's wife Natalya, Polenov referred to the style of the Big House (completed in 1892) as “Scandinavian National Romantic".[16] Always sensitive to artistic trends, Polenov was one step ahead of other Russian cultural figures in his choosing to look back to “northern roots". Maria Nashchokina has highlighted the affinity between such national romantic movements, the National Romantic style in Finland and the “neo-Russian style" in Russia: “Like the Nordic National Romantic style, the neo-Russian style used Nordic archaic aesthetics, emulating the ascetic monumental forms of the ancient structures of Novgorod and Pskov and the villages of Karelia and Arkhangelsk."[17]

It was significant that in 1894 the Finnish architects Yrjo Blomstedt and Victor Joachim Sucksdorff went on an expedition to Karelia in search of a “true Finnish style". By coincidence, that was the same year that Savva Mamontov sponsored the trip taken by the artists Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov to the Russian North to study the region's nature and culture, and these painters would later come to be known as “northern Impressionists". Since Polenov considered himself a “native" of the Russian North, he was already familiar with Karelia's wooden folk architecture. In Karelia, the homes of peasants included several sections - the main house and its accessory structures - under one roof, a principle that Polenov applied pertinently when he connected his own Big House with its outbuildings by a roofed passage.

The architectural style of the Big House was strongly influenced by English country cottages with their free planning, multi-level lay-out and use of wood. Polenov was familiar with the activities of England's Arts and Crafts movement, the main principles of which, formulated by its founder William Morris (1834-1896), inspired the Abramtsevo artists as they attempted to elevate the work of the craftsman to the realm of art. For Polenov, perhaps the most valuable elements in Morris were his love of medieval aesthetics and his conviction that art was a panacea for all troubles. Just as Morris's Red House in Kent exemplified a new aesthetic approach to the private home and its interior decoration, the Big House at Borok became for Polenov a platform where he could put into practice many of the ideas that he had been nurturing for years. But whereas the Red House was to a great extent an artistic experiment for Morris and his artist friends, almost a manifesto for the Arts and Crafts movement, Polenov set no such grand goals for himself. Although Polenov did indeed create a museum in his house, he was never keen to attract public attention, which may explain why his estate was ignored by contemporary architectural critics. A photograph of the Abbey studio appeared in the press only in 1914, when Polenov was visited by a correspondent of “Zarya" (Dawn) magazine on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

Chronologically the Borok estate came between Morris's Red House (1859-1860s, architect Philip Webb) and the Darmstadt Artists' Colony (1899), at which Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse, no less fascinated with the style developed by English Arts and Crafts movement, granted his architects the opportunity not only to design and build homes but also to decorate their interiors. Polenov became acquainted with the work of the Darmstadt artists at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where the interiors of several rooms were on display, and thus knew of the closeness of his own already realized artistic ideas with the stylistic experimentation of the German artists in their invention of a new style.

The most celebrated Darmstadt architect, Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), following a particularly successful exhibition in 1901 (Darmstadt, May-October 1901) came to Moscow to take part in the famous Exhibition of Architecture and Art Industry of the New Style, which opened at the end of 1902. The show was regarded as almost a response to the Darmstadt Art Colony Exhibition exhibition, which had been something of a revelation for Russian architects; they enthused about Olbrich's ability to work with wood, apparently oblivious to the fact that wood had always been the material of choice in Russian architecture and interior decoration.

Russian architectural critics heaped praise on the Austrian architect: “If you look closely at this amazing structure [the house of Ernest Louis in the Darmstadt colony - Ye.K), with its lines that are simple to the point of sketchiness, its austere and august silhouette, its highly original lateral fagades, you involuntarily fall under the spell of its creator's bold and powerful talent! Creating such a brilliantly simple structure and conveying through it all that fills your soul - this challenge is one achievable... only by the greatest talents, because only artists of the highest calibre possess such power of expression."[18]

The Big House at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1910-е
The Big House at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1910s
Photograph. © Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve

If we disregard for a moment the reference to any specific building in that citation, its words might equally be applied to the Borok estate... It can only be regretted that critics ignored such a gem of the new style of moderne as Polenov's estate: the Big House there, like the ensemble as a whole, remains one of its kind in Russia.

The Big House is distinguished by the restraint of its composition, its main section with two storeys, and above them a third level, a loft, or mansard storey with roofs of different heights and sloping gradients, which helps to highlight the independence of the different parts of the building. Comparison of early versions for the design for the Big House reveals how Polenov moved towards simplicity in the exterior fagades.

The layout of the house combined open spaces with secluded nooks that were set close to steep spiral stairs: such a solution pre-supposed stairs in the most varied locations around the house, which created the impression that it had more floors than was actually the case.

In the Big House, the entire space of the ground floor is treated as both residential and artistic (“museumlike"). The decor of the rooms in the “artistic section of the living quarters" combines furniture created by the artist with murals, decorative sculptures and ceramics. The compositional centre of the Big House is its library, a room initially intended as a picture gallery, which also made it the spiritual and conceptual centre of the building. A sense of upwards direction dominates the library, a development of the vertical that emphasizes the profound connection between the main idea and medieval aesthetics. This upward movement is enhanced by the stained-glass panels in the windows' upper sections, the iridescent light from them becoming a prominent feature of the library.

The impression of consistency in the interior decoration of the ground floor is achieved by the repetition of the colour of the window frames in its rooms - they are black, thus creating the effect that the scenery outside is like a painting - and, of course, by the stylistic uniformity of Polenov's furniture design.

Produced in 1883, the gothic cabinet in the library was the first item that Polenov created when he tried his hand at furniture-making and it represents one of the most memorable examples of his “poetic" approach to style. In its design Polenov not only reproduced certain details of European medieval furniture but also introduced elements intended to create complex associations with it: the glass in the cabinet's upper section is decorated with MaHwerk - a Gothic lacelike tracery stonework ornament in the form of tongues of flame within a circle. The doors of the cabinet are round pieces of “crown glass" in lead frames, another element of medieval origin. But the piece's structure also resembles that of the Russian double-tiered postavets crockery cabinets, with their upper tiers supported on stand-alone balusters. Polenov's work on this cabinet was guided not by any desire to faithfully reproduce elements of gothic architecture or furniture - rather, he wanted to create something that offered a commentary on them.

The study, the room with the strongest personal touch of Polenov, is in large measure a self-portrait of its creator. It accommodates one of the most original and creative pieces of furniture that Polenov produced, the gothic cabinet for music sheets, a complex “architectural project" that he executed in 1885. In its design, Polenov combined different varieties of wood, including oak, ash, elm, walnut, birch and maple. Such use of the decorative properties of different woods through their combination in single pieces of furniture, an element that deliberately emphasizes the opulence and diversity of such decoration, only became widespread among furniture makers in the early 20th century.

As a piece of furniture, the big cabinet with a complex structure first appeared in the late 16th century, and Polenov's example of the form has a pronounced resemblance to a medieval fortified castle. The artist decorated it with a special type of bas-relief carving, later to be termed “Abramtsevo-Kudrinskaya", with gothic floral pokerwork ornaments. The lower section of the cabinet features a protrusion, or sitting ledge, an unusual element that recalls medieval interior decoration, where benches were built into the walls.

Polenov also designed the massive oak door leading to the dining-room, which was something of a “home museum" that featured folk art alongside works by Yelena Polenova and Vasily Polenov themselves, as well as other Abramtsevo artists. Although it features various furnishings in most original combinations, the interior of the dining-room is nonetheless harmonious.

All the axial lines of the ground-floor rooms converge at a single point at the foot of the stairs, thus enhancing the impression of movement along a vertical path, and also highlighting the interconnection of all the rooms on the ground floor. Similarly designed by the artist, the stairs with their unusually low balcony connecting the two halves of the house lead to the first floor, where Polenov's studio had initially been sited.

Polenov's drawings include many sketches for details of the decoration of the interior, which itself reflects ideas about the importance of private life and individual freedom, while also representing a brilliantly constructed setting for the everyday theatre of life.

Visible as it is from the entrance gate, Polenov's studio, “the Abbey", became what might be called the “visiting card" of the estate; it certainly comprises the essence of the artist's architectural explorations. Polenov completed its construction in 1904, and its name first appears in a letter that he wrote to Ivan Tsvetaev on October 27 of that year: “We're still in the country, where I built for myself this summer a studio, which somehow has turned out to be like an abbey. Nevertheless, I'm inexpressibly happy: the window is huge, the light wondrous. I've been dreaming about it all my life, and now I somehow can't believe [that it is here]."[19] His lifetime dream had come true, and Polenov was now living in a castle... The special name that he gave the studio had particular connotations for an artist who was also an architect. The first meaning of its name evoked a place of seclusion and work, like that once found in the medieval monasteries. “An artist must be alone," Polenov would often say. “Always try to create this loneliness for yourself - come home only to sleep, and keep your studio elsewhere."[20] Escaping the bustle of the Big House, Polenov would later make his studio into a living space too, highlighting the other meaning of its name - as a fortified, protected residence of the Middle Ages.

“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate
“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate. Modern photograph

Polenov considered the Abbey's lay-out and the designation of its spaces carefully. Its huge north-looking window provided the diffused light that was necessary for a painter, while it could easily be converted into an auditorium by the addition of a stage, the flanks of which were adorned with two stone columns of Tarusa limestone. It had an unusually high ceiling, which was needed because Polenov did a great deal of work for the theatre as a stage-designer: by stretching a canvas from wall to wall, it was possible to paint the backdrop set, while a special opening in the ceiling, reached through a loft, gave the opportunity to view a large canvas from slightly further away.
The interior of the Abbey is noteworthy for its combination of brick walls with wooden ceiling beams, with wooden support columns and log walls on the second floor. The loft was always used as a storage for stage props, sets, and costumes, while a narrow spiral staircase led to the tower, where the family's archive was kept. Distant associations with the styles of the Romanesque and Gothic give the artist's studio a special romanticism.

Another “architectural dream" of Polenov, although it was never realized, deserves mention - the mills that were to be built near his estate. Polenov would much later describe what he had wanted to achieve, in a 1926 letter which deserves to be quoted almost in its entirety: “When we moved here and I took a good look around, I was surprised to find that there were no mills in the vicinity, although there was lots of space around. I have long been interested in the miller's trade. Where we lived in the North there were lots of small mills around the rivers and lakes, and it was there that I first became familiar with watermills. In the south, in the Tambov Governorate I first saw a windmill up close... it had been built by my grandfather Voyeikov, who modelled it on the mills of France.

“It was then that I was beginning to build my Big House, doing the construction work on my estate, as well as the school, the studio, the church, and the amateur theatres in Moscow and Tarusa. All this was consuming so much of my time, attention and resources that the project for the mill simply slipped out of my mind.

“At the same time, the experiences of that year, that is how our peasant neighbours treated us, included so much companionship, even friendly warmth meant that I wanted to return their kindness by doing something material, something useful for them. Now I have a certain sum available and I can begin building [the mill] and realizing my cherished dream."[21] Already in 1918 Polenov began making sketches for different types of mills, selecting a version that would best fit into the Oka landscape. But his age and ill health prevented the artist from creating a fully-fledged, man-made landscape comp I ete with medieval mills, whether resembling the French moulins or the German Muhlen.

В.Д. ПОЛЕНОВ. Vasily POLENOV. The Polenov House of Theatre Education on Medynka Street in Moscow. The realized design of the building. 1915
Vasily POLENOV. The Polenov House of Theatre Education on Medynka Street in Moscow. The realized design of the building. 1915
Pencil on paper. 17.8 × 19.8 cm. © Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve

Polenov's love for Europe and the Middle Ages was realized most fully in his final architectural project, the House of Theatre Education on Medynka (now Zoological) Street in Moscow, which opened at the end of December 1915. The artist believed that theatre was the basis for a synthesis of the arts: “The stage is that amazing platform on which all arts blend together. There you have poetry, music, painting, sculpture, choreography and architecture, and all the decorative arts can be added as well, along with pantomime, athletics, and the like."[22] The architectural style of this edifice escapes any easy description: it is a unique structure - a house-cum-ship, a house-cum-stage set, with the same “derivatives" from European Gothic that were Polenov's signature - that perfectly matched its
intended function (as the site of studios for theatre and costume designers, storage facilities for scenery and props, a theatre library and a performance hall).

The repertoire of the House of Theatre Education included “Anne of Brittany", a production based on the French writer Eugenie Foa's novel for children which Polenov himself translated and adapted for the stage. He duly created the sets for the performance, too. One of the sketches representing the realized version of the building carries a suggestive inscription in the artist's hand: “Breton-style of the 15th century (Anne's Childhood) Top: Small private house for sections No. 3)". The drawing applies equally to the stage set and to the architectural structure itself as a whole: it is a striking example both of the artist's creative manner of thinking and of the interpenetration between life and theatre. For Polenov, theatre was the main instrument for introducing art to the people: “What is needed is a balsam that can raise someone above his unsightly reality, bringing him comfort and hope for a better future - in other words, that can heal the wounds of his soul."[23]

What remains of Polenov's work as a designer, whether of buildings or objects of applied art, including those projects in which he participated but was not a central figure, is far from considerable. However, what matters is that what has survived exemplifies the artist's favourite idea - that people have an aesthetic need to live in a beautiful environment.

 

  1. Vasily Polenov letter to an unidentified recipient, Borok Estate // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54, folder 245.
  2. Yelizaveta Mamontova letter to Natalya Yakunchikova, 1881 // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54, item 10914.
  3. Kurbatov, V.O. ‘On the Russian Style for Modern Buildings’ // “Zodchiy" (The Architect). 1910. No. 30.
  4. Ibid. P. 311.
  5. ‘Viktor Vasnetsov's Reminiscences about Savva Mamontov' // “Viktor Vasnetsov: Letters. Journals. Memoirs. Opinions of His Contemporaries". Moscow, 1987. Pp. 243-244.
  6. Nashchokina, M.V. “One on One with the Muse of the History of Architecture". Moscow, 2008. P. 143. Hereinafter - Nashchokina.
  7. Yelena Polenova letter to Yelizaveta Mamontova, April 27 1893, Moscow // Sakharova, Yekaterina. “Vasily Polen- ov and Yelena Polenova. An Artists' Family Chronicle". Moscow: 1964. Pp. 489-490. Hereinafter - Sakharova.
  8. Sakharova. Pp. 106-107.
  9. Explanatory Note to the Church Construction Project, Tula Governor- ate, Aleksinsky Uyezd, Byokhovo Village // State Archive of Tula Region. Fund 743, inventory 1, folder 2072, sheet 4-4 reverse.
  10. Vasily Polenov letter to Natalya Polen- ova, August 10 1906 // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54, inventory 1, folder 745, sheet 1.
  11. Quoted from: “Grani" (Facets). 2001, No. 198. P. 91.
  12. Natalya Polenova letter to Vasily Polenov, October 10 1906 // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54, inventory 1, folder 4562, sheets 1-2.
  13. Vasily Polenov letter to the Seeshaupt family. July 19 1872 // Sakharova. P. 77.
  14. Sakharova. P. 697.
  15. Vail, Pyotr. “Genius Loci". Moscow, 1999. P. 2.
  16. Journals of D.V. Polenov, the artist's son. The Polenov family archive. Nashchokina. P. 145.
  17. Nashchokina. P. 145.
  18. M-ov P. ‘The Darmstadt Exhibition of 1901' // “Zodchiy" (The Architect). 1903. No. 33. Pp. 373-374.
  19. Sakharova. P. 647.
  20. Polenova, N.V. Journals of the Artist's Daughter // The archive of Yekaterina Polenova.
  21. Vasily Polenov letter to an unidentified recipient, 1926. Memorial documents. No. 15 // Polenov Museum. Published for the first time here.
  22. “Vasily Polenov. A Notebook". Memorial documents. No. 351. P. 22 // Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve.
  23. Vasily Polenov letter to Zinaida Alexeevna (?), 1914 // Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54, folder 246.

Illustrations

The Big House on the Borok estate. 2018
The Big House on the Borok estate. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village. 1906
The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village. 1906
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve (The Vasily Polenov Memorial Art and History Museum and Nature Reserve, Tula Region)
Maria POLENOVA. Church in Olshanka, a Village in the Tambov Governorate
Maria POLENOVA. Church in Olshanka, a Village in the Tambov Governorate
Sketch. Oil on canvas. 21 × 31 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Paolo TRUBETSKOI. Portrait of Vasily Polenov. 1901
Paolo TRUBETSKOI. Portrait of Vasily Polenov. 1901
Charcoal on cardboard. 64 × 52 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
В.Д. ПОЛЕНОВ. Восточный и западный фасады церкви. 1893
Vasily POLENOV. East and West Façades of the Church. 1893
Sketch of the church of the agricultural vocational school in Kologriv, a town in the Kostroma Governorate. Pencil, watercolour, ink on paper. 34.2 × 50.8 cm. Artist’s inscription above: Façades, East and West.
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. Plan of the Church. 1893
Vasily POLENOV. Plan of the Church. 1893
Sketch of the church of the agricultural vocational school in Kologriv, a town in the Kostroma Governorate. Watercolour, lead pencil, ink on paper. 34.2 × 50.8 cm. Artist’s signature on the lower right-hand side: Vasily Polenov, 16 May 1893. Titles of the compositions for the walls inscribed by the artist
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village
The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo village
Modern photograph
Vasily POLENOV. The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo Village. 1903
Vasily POLENOV. The Holy Trinity Church in Byokhovo Village. 1903
Watercolour on paper. 34 × 24 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1900s
“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate. 1900s
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
The Fachwerk barn at Polenov's Borok estate. 2015
The Fachwerk barn at Polenov's Borok estate. 2015
Modern photograph
Vasily POLENOV. Sketch of the Façade of the Artist’s Studio, “the Abbey”. Early 1900s
Vasily POLENOV. Sketch of the Façade of the Artist’s Studio, “the Abbey”. Early 1900s
Watercolour and pencil on paper. 10.8 × 20.8 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. The Polenov Family Estate at Imochentsy. 1873
Vasily POLENOV. The Polenov Family Estate at Imochentsy. 1873
Pencil on paper. 7.8 × 11.3 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. A Small Pond. 1886
Vasily POLENOV. A Small Pond. 1886
Oil on relined canvas. 22.4 × 31 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
The Petrovsky pond on the estate. 2018
The Petrovsky pond on the estate. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Vasily POLENOV. An Old Gate. Veules, Normandy. Sketch. 1874
Vasily POLENOV. An Old Gate. Veules, Normandy. Sketch. 1874
Oil on canvas. 24 × 30 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Entrance gate of the estate. 1910s
Entrance gate of the estate. 1910s
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Panoramic view of the estate. 2018
Panoramic view of the estate. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Article in the “Zarya” (Dawn) newspaper published on the occasion of Polenov’s 70th birthday. 1914
Article in the “Zarya” (Dawn) newspaper published on the occasion of Polenov’s 70th birthday. 1914
“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate. 2018
“The Abbey” at Polenov’s Borok estate. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Vasily POLENOV. Façades of the Big House. Sketch versions. Early 1890s
Vasily POLENOV. Façades of the Big House. Sketch versions. Early 1890s
Ink, watercolour on paper. 49 × 35.8 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Interior view of the library. 1900s
Interior view of the library. 1900s. Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Interior view of the library. 2016
Interior view of the library. 2016
Photograph by P. Bulygin
Cabinet for music sheets in the study of the Big House. 2016
Cabinet for music sheets in the study of the Big House. 2016
Photograph by P. Bulygin
The library window with stained-glass panels. 2017
The library window with stained-glass panels. 2017
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Interior of the diningroom of the Big House. 2018
Interior of the diningroom of the Big House. 2018
Photograph by P. Bulygin
Interior of the library
Interior of the library
Modern photograph
The library fireplace
The library fireplace
Photograph
Vasily POLENOV. Stair Banister. Sketch drawing. Early 1890s
Vasily POLENOV. Stair Banister. Sketch drawing. Early 1890s
Ink, watercolour, pencil on paper. 35.6 × 34.3 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. Detail of Stair Banister. Sketch. Early 1890s
Vasily POLENOV. Detail of Stair Banister. Sketch. Early 1890s
Watercolour and pencil on paper. 35.2 × 22.3 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. Detail of Stair Banister. Sketch. Early 1890s
Vasily POLENOV. Detail of Stair Banister. Sketches. Early 1890s
Watercolour and pencil on paper. 22.3 × 36 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Staircase in the Big House. 2018
Staircase in the Big House. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Staircase in the Big House. 2018
Staircase in the Big House. 2018
Photograph by Yury Kononov
Vasily POLENOV. A Watermill. 1918
Vasily POLENOV. A Watermill. 1918
Watercolour and pencil on paper. 21.5 × 19.2 cm. Artist’s inscription above: A watermill with one set of millstones. First publication
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. A Mill. Sketch
Vasily POLENOV. A Mill. Sketch
Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard. 5.5 × 9.3 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. A Windmill. 1918
Vasily POLENOV. A Windmill. 1918
Watercolour on paper. 34.4 × 23.6 cm. Artist’s inscription below: A French-style mill 1918. First publication
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Vasily POLENOV. A Windmill. 1918
Vasily POLENOV. A Windmill. 1918
Watercolour on paper. 34.4 × 23.6 cm. Artist’s inscription below: A French-style mill 1918. First publication
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Laying of the foundation stone for the House of Theatre Education
Laying of the foundation stone for the House of Theatre Education
Centre right, standing: Vasily Polenov. Moscow. May 7 1915. Photograph
Vasily POLENOV. The House of Theatre Education. Study. 1915
Vasily POLENOV. The House of Theatre Education. Study. 1915
Oil on canvas. 5.3 × 8.5 cm
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve
Guests attending the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone for the House of Theatre Education
Guests attending the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone for the House of Theatre Education
First row, adults standing, centre: Vasily Polenov. Moscow. May 7 1915. Photograph
The House of Theatre Education on Medynka Street. Moscow. 1915
The House of Theatre Education on Medynka Street. Moscow. 1915
Photograph
© Vasily Polenov Museum-Reserve

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