Boris Kustodiev: Guardian of Folk Beauly
The Tretyakov Gallery thanks VNESHTORGBANK for their financial support in the organization of this exhibition.
Despite the artist's interest in a whole range of important areas of world art and his lack of any narrow-minded nationalism, Kustodiev's work is imbued with such love for all that is typically Russian that he may truly be called a national artist.
THE ART OF BORIS KUSTODIEV APPEARS, paradoxically; TO APPEAL BOTH TO THE CASUAL VIEWER AND TO THE EXPERIENCED ART SPECIALIST.
IN HIS PAINTINGS, KUSTODIEV CREATES A BEAUTIFUL UTOPIA, A LAND OF POPULAR WHIM AND FOLK FANTASY. HIS WORLD IS FILLED WITH IMAGES THAT ARE SO VIVID AND SO CONVINCING THAT THEY HAVE BECOME A PART OF EVERYDAY LANGUAGE: WE SPEAK OF "KUSTODIEV BEAUTIES", "KUSTODIEV FAIRS" AND "KUSTODIEV WINTERS". HIS ART WAS LIKE THE FINAL BURST OF A GLORIOUS SUNSET SPLENDOUR OVER A RUSSIA WHICH WAS DISAPPEARING FAST, NEVER TO RETURN.
ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE AVANT- GARDE 1910s, KUSTODIEV WAS ABLE TO FIND HIS OWN UNIQUE AND DISTINCTIVE STYLE, BRINGING THE PERFECTION OF NEO-CLASSICAL FORM TO TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY RUSSIAN ROMANTIC ART. THE EXHIBITION ORGANISED BY THE RUSSIAN MUSEUM TO CELEBRATE THE 125th ANNIVERSARY OF THE ARTIST'S BIRTH CLEARLY SHOWS KUSTODIEV'S TALENT AS A SCULPTOR, THEATRICAL DESIGNER AND GRAPHIC ARTIST. ITS TRANSFER TO THE TRETYAKOV GALLERY ALTERED THE EXHIBITION ONLY A LITTLE, ALLOWING THE MAIN THEME OF KUSTODIEV'S WORK TO EMERGE. WE WITNESS HIS ONGOING DIALOGUE WITH RUSSIAN CULTURAL TRADITIONS, THE LEGACY OF THE OLD MASTERS AND THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN CONTEMPORARY ART.
Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan, on the Volga. His childhood memories of the hustle and bustle of the noisy trading town with its colourful markets, and constant stream of goods remained with him all his life. His father, a seminary teacher, died early and Kustodiev entered the seminary, yet was unable to "put down any roots in the spiritual area". He showed a "lay" interest in art from an early age. His first mentor in the arts was P.A.Vlasov, to whom the artist always remained grateful. In 1896 Kustodiev enrolled in the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, immediately receiving lessons from Ilya Repin, whose favourite pupil he soon became. His first serious test came with the opportunity to work alongside Repin on the "Meeting of the State Council". Making portrait sketches from life, the young artist produced work to rival that of his teacher.
The career of a brilliant portrait artist was now open to him, and Kustodiev did create a number of outstanding portraits such as the "Portrait of Ivan Bilibin" (1901) and the "Portrait of the Engraver Vasily Mathe" (1902). The path he chose to follow was, however, different.
In 1903, the artist married Yulia Proshinskaya, a typist and recent graduate of the Smolny Institute. Proshinskaya dreamed of becoming an artist and attended courses at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. The couple had two children, Kirill and Irina. Yulia and the children, particularly Irina, the "baby", became frequent sitters for Kustodiev and his favourite models: the artist frequently painted Irina as a baby in her mother's arms. As Irina grew older, her father began to compare her to Titian's daughter Lavinia, calling her "Putya Borisovna" in affectionate jest. "Putya" was a name used for plump, buxom women. In her excellent memoirs, Irina writes of her father with tender affection and entertaining humour.
In 1905, Kustodiev had a house and studio built near Kineshma, in which he and his family were to spend the large part of the following decade. Designed in neo-Russian style, the house, or "Terem", witnessed many joyful family occasions. These were reflected in a series of informal paintings, such as "Morning" (1904) and "Lilac" (1906), which offer an interesting interpretation of impressionist ideas.
Through the beginning of the century, Kustodiev visited a number of European countries, broadening his artistic knowledge and discovering for himself the Old Masters: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velazquez and Rubens. He also became well-acquainted with the work of contemporary French artists, from the Impressionists to Cezanne.
In 1910, in a letter to Georgy Lukomsky, a well-known "World of Art" figure, Kustodiev wrote: "Recently I have been breaking up and re-examining all the old values. Or, to be precise, the old values (the Old Masters, the Greeks, Gothic art, the Italian primitive artists) have become new, and I must learn everything afresh. This means studying long and hard, extremely diligently and, above all, discarding that which I have been taught." Viewed through the prism of European art, the landscapes and towns of the Volga appeared before Kustodiev in a new light.
He dreamed of creating a typically Russian canvas, which would encompass Russian life and the Russian soul in their entirety. Continuing the traditions of such artists as Surikov, Nesterov, Ryabushkin, Arkhipov and Maliavin, Kustodiev brings a triumphant, festive note to Russian romantic painting. He could be called the true successor to the ideas developed by the young Nikolai Sapunov, who died in the early 1910s.
Market days, folk festivals and fetes fascinated Kustodiev, who saw them as manifestations of the creative spirit inherent in "the artist's people". Like his contemporary, the poet Alexander Blok, Kustodiev perhaps felt that, "the people are the crowning glory of the land, its rarest and most beautiful flower".
At first glance, Kustodiev's paintings are reminiscent of folk drawings; closer study reveals them to be stylised and sophisticated, mingling an idyllic view of Russian life with subtle irony.
Interestingly, these canvases are both personal and majestic.
Kustodiev's paintings not only depict festive occasions - they are themselves an occasion. A jubilant celebration of art, they present a truly enchanting, vivid and magical spectacle. The artist's technique is remarkably diverse. Precise, neo-classical forms in Kustodiev's paintings somehow assume a luciferous quality more often associated with Impressionism. Fragments of smooth, enamel painting blend harmoniously with thick impressionist smears, smoky sfumato and decorative patches of colour. The ornamental lines of Art Nouveau encounter a precision of shape and form reminiscent of Ingres.
The popular ideal finds particularly monumental embodiment in Kustodiev's images of merchant women. Kustodiev saw them as real Russian goddesses, triumphing over the entire world and absorbing all its juices and colours. The excessive luxuries enjoyed by the merchant class represent a popular dream blown out of proportion by the artist's ironical touch.
"Belle" (1915) is one of Kustodiev's greatest achievements, fusing folk and classical elements. As the artist's daughter Irina reminisced: "... with this painting, he was finally able to find that distinctive style which had so long eluded him. Always mindful of Pavel Fedotov and the lesser-known Dutch painters, whom he greatly admired, he attempted, like them, to captivate the viewer, drawing attention to this or that significant detail. The main source of inspiration here though were perhaps Russian lubok woodcuts, street signs, toys made by local craftsmen and Russian folk dress and embroidery."
Still drowsy after her midday sleep, the merchant Belle emerges from under her blanket, casting it off like a pearly oyster shell. Despite her corpulence, this hefty Russian Venus seems as light as a fluffy white cloud, as dainty as the rosebuds flitting across the sky-blue wallpaper and bursting into bloom on the chest.
This image of a popular ideal was indeed an ephemeral one, as Kustodiev himself felt. "The merchant has already left us, he is no longer here," the artist pointed out. "But the image is fixed, it remains with us as if canonised and we merely needed an icon, a canon, of this way of life and this merchant in particular."
As Kustodiev's first biographer Vsevolod Voinov wrote: "The conversation turned to Kustodiev's 'muse' (Belle). Boris Mikhailovich said that plump women such as she were far from his ideal, yet when he was painting, svelte and shapely beauties simply did not inspire him." This observation reveals Kustodiev's original vision, which shunned the principles of naturalism. His was a certain speculativeness, which allowed him to detach pure elements of form from the reality of nature.
Kustodiev began to enjoy wide acclaim from the mid-1910s. He now exhibited his work with both the St. Petersburg "World of Art" group and the Moscow Union of Russian Artists (SRKh). This situation reflected a certain duality present in his life: although living in Petersburg, he felt a stronger spiritual connection to the wide-open spaces around the towns on the Volga and the quiet streets of Moscow's Zamoskvorechye with their multitude of little churches. This brought him closer to the Moscow-based Union of Russian Artists. Yet he had other traits in common with the "retrospective dreamers" in the "World of Art" movement, in particular Konstantin Somov. The two shared a sense of combined realism and fantasy. Kustodiev's work contains features of many Russian towns, and yet the Kustodiev town is unique - it has no specific geographical location.
In the midst of a heated debate, he would exclaim: "All my paintings are mere illusions! What is a painting, after all? It's a miracle! All one has to start off with is a canvas and set of paints, and yet somehow the result detaches itself from the artist and takes on a life of its own!" Kustodiev detested naturalism; at the same time, his works abound with such well-observed and colourful details that it is difficult to believe they are pure fantasy.
Wherein, then, lies the key to this mystery? Is it to be found in the phenomenal visual memory often written about by Kustodiev's biographers, or in some visionary gift the artist may have possessed? Kustodiev admitted to Voinov that he "often saw his own paintings in a dream, but the faces - tiny, as they were in the paintings - would be moving, alive." Kustodiev felt himself to be the creator of a new and as yet unknown art.
The artist's connection with the new "World of Art” group was also a result of the Symbolists' desire to escape from languor and over-refinement by delving into folk traditions. This impulse was brilliantly reflected in the work of Kustodiev and Petrov-Vodkin, who also became close to the "World of Art" group at that time. Kustodiev's "World of Art" group portrait, begun in 1916, was however never finished.
Fate was preparing to deal Kustodiev a severe blow. For several years, he had been aware of a spinal cord tumour which required him to undergo a number of serious operations. As a result, the artist finally lost the use of his legs and was confined to a wheelchair.
His family and, most of all, his wife, did all they could to help him live with his difficult condition. Of her mother's constant selfless efforts, his daughter Irina wrote: "What love she must have felt, what a strong sense of duty and loyalty she must have possessed, in order to devote fifteen and a half years to helping and supporting her disabled husband!"
From this moment on, Kustodiev's biography becomes almost an epic. The artist bore his misfortune like a hero. Shunning all false pathos, he remained lively, witty and affectionate. Far from being a torment, the long months spent in hospital resulted in a creative breakthrough. Despite his physical suffering, Kustodiev was seized by a passionate desire to sketch and produced studies for many of his best paintings, including numerous versions of the famous "Shrovetide Carnival". Throughout the whole decade his creative energy was such that it caused him to exclaim: "If only one could create a painting through will alone!" Unable to paint from life, he synthesizes memories and impressions, drawing heavily on his extraordinary powers of visual recall.
His paintings assume an amazing stereoscopic quality. These are panoramic, almost cosmic views, and yet not a single detail escapes the artist's hypermetropic gaze. His far-sightedness is combined with a remarkable clarity of perception. Fairground tents and roundabouts seem as dear to his heart as the domes of churches. "The churches in my paintings are my signature," he used to say. "They're so typical of Russia." Sometimes, amongst the peddlers, merchants and cab-drivers, Kustodiev's tiny double, with his characteristic light beard, can be seen.
The cycle of folk life is connected in Kustodiev's work with the change of the seasons: each has its own unique picturesque formula. Kustodiev had a reproduction of Bruegel's "Hunters in the Snow" hanging in his studio. He valued "Bruegel's exceptional ability to portray people within nature and the fusion of figure and landscape; his wonderful ability to render the moods and glory of nature, within which the 'little manikins scuffle about'." In Kustodiev's canvases, the seasons appear in all their glory. At times, their beauty has a magical, fairytale quality. Winter dons frosty robes of silver, whilst autumn sprinkles the surroundings with a golden shower of birch boughs from its horn of plenty. Spring floods and overflows, and summer brings tall grasses and colourful flowers, sparkling rainbows, glowing sunsets and merry haymaking.
Kustodiev's favourite season was clearly winter. The brilliantly white snow and sharp frost cause life's energy and motion to be felt even more acutely, to bubble up and gush forth, disturbing the serene slumber of nature.
Then, suddenly, an irreversible change occurred that rocked Russia. Life would never be the same again. What feelings did this provoke in Kustodiev, so thoughtful and meditative an observer of folk life?
His beloved "old Russia" was disappearing, never to return: the harmony of history had been disturbed. Yet the artist firmly believed that his people's way of life, their lively habits and eternal traditions were impossible to rupture, just as it is impossible to force a man to renounce life, love and the joy of living.
These beliefs are reflected in "Little Blue House" (1921). Perhaps Kustodiev's most idyllic work, this portrays the inevitable cycle of human life, yet here childhood, love and death appear in harmony and at peace with each other. Beside the house, bathed in the sun's parting rays stands Kustodiev's favourite tree, a silver poplar. Its leaves are a delicate turquoise, putting the viewer in mind of the tree of life itself.
For the nature-loving artist, confinement in the Petersburg flat which was also his studio was painful. From time to time he was able to escape, yet Kineshma, it seemed, was too ambitious a project: Kustodiev gave his "Terem" to the local peasants. A school was opened in the building, only to be burned down in World War II.
Kustodiev found solace in the love and care of his family and friends. Although times were hard, his flat was always filled with guests and alive with music and the laughter of children. The artist was surrounded by cats and kittens, dogs and other animals.
His most important work from the 1920s is the portrait of Chaliapin (1921). The idea for this portrait came about when Chaliapin paid Kustodiev a visit to discuss a project for the theatre in which they were both involved. It all began with a joke: much taken with the singer's magnificent fur coat, in which Chaliapin cut a dashing figure and reminded Kustodiev of his favourite model, the merchant, Kustodiev asked him to pose. "It's a stolen coat," Chaliapin replied, abashed. He had received it in lieu of payment for a concert, he explained, and like the "bourgeois scoundrel he was, he just couldn't choose a poor one, but had to choose one of the best!" "In that case," Kustodiev replied with typical playful humour, "we shall mark the occasion by committing it to canvas, Feodor Ivanovich. How curious, after all: the renowned actor and singer is not above pinching a fur coat!"
The portrait was to become something of a farewell to the world Kustodiev loved so dearly. First and foremost though, it was an unparalleled feat of creation. By this time, the artist was almost totally paralysed. He painted with the aid of a special hanging mechanism which allowed him to move the enormous canvas. Transporting the majestic figure of Chaliapin to the heights of a Russian Mount Olympus, Kustodiev brought together all the rich elements of a Russian celebration in which his creative imagination had always abounded.
In those years of cold and hunger, many came to Kustodiev to draw on his optimism. Another "World of Art” member, the well-known graphic artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky wrote: "One was instantly struck by his calm, gentle manner. Still more amazing was his total lack of bitterness or sentimental regret concerning the past and that which had been taken from him forever. It was as if he believed that everything born in his imagination really did exist somewhere in the world." This quality set Kustodiev apart from the other "World of Art" members, who pined for the past and were full of bitter irony.
Many of them subsequently left Russia, never to return. In 1924, Kustodiev indignantly refused to consider this alternative. "I am a Russian," he exclaimed, "and however difficult things may be for us all right now, I will never leave my homeland!"
Kustodiev never sought official titles. Once, detecting a hint of bitterness in his daughter's voice, he said: "Don't worry, Irina my dear, it's all right: I've been a 'people's' artist for ages!"
Irina's memoirs contain an interesting point about the family name. Kustoda was an Old Church Slavonic word meaning "guardian" or "custodian". Irina's father used to tell her that when, during church services, the deacon would read out the passage about the stone at the entrance to Jesus' tomb, and the guards - s kustodeyu - he would always feel that everyone was looking at him in the knowledge that the passage referred to him.
Perhaps there was a reason for this. After all, through his art, Kustodiev succeeded in creating an ideal repository for the priceless treasures of folk beauty and wisdom, keeping them safe for generations to come.
Tempera on cardboard. 100 by 85 cm
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Oil on canvas. 125 by 151 cm
State Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 83 by 136 cm
State Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 141 by 185 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 120 by 120 cm
State Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 52 by 89 cm
State Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 88 by 106 cm
Issak Brodsky Studio and Memorial Museum St.Petersburg
Lead and colour pencil, zinc white on paper. 38.7 by 30.5 cm
Oil on canvas. 80.8 by 106.7 cm
Oil on canvas. 215 by 175 cm
Branch of the Leningrad State Theatre Museum
Oil on canvas. 71 by 88.8 cm
Byelorussian State Museum of Art, Minsk
Oil on canvas. 97 by 80 cm