The World of Ilya Repin and His Contemporaries

Galina Churak

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#4 2005 (09)

"The World of Ilya Repin and His Contemporaries" opened in the Wuppertal Arts Museum on October 9. 46 canvases and 30 graphic works from the Tretyakov Gallery display Repin's painting and drawing, alongside 30 works by artists from his circle. With some such figures the artist had studied at the Academy of Arts, while with others he shared common interests through the group of artists known as the Wanderers (the "Peredvizhniki"). It can be said of the painters concerned, both as individuals and collectively, that they constituted an artistic group that thought in similar terms.

In 2001 and in 2003 major exhibitions of Ilya Repin were held abroad - first in Holland and then in Germany - presenting the powerful art of this widely popular Russian 19th-century painter comprehensively.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Repin, unlike many of his contemporaries and colleagues, enjoyed wide national fame in his lifetime and is still popular in Russia. However, his name does not mean much to European art lovers, nor can we say that Western viewers know a great deal about Russian art in general. Over recent decades a certain set of notions about Russian art has come to be formed, with an emphasis on icons and the avant-garde. Thus, it was surprising that first in Groningen, an old and large Dutch industrial and cultural centre, and then in Saar-brucken, the centre of Saarland on the border with Germany and France, and finally in Berlin, art-lovers were offered an exhibition of an almost unknown Russian painter. Any such solo exhibition is always a risk, even when held in the artist's native country but all the more so when it takes place abroad. Nevertheless, both exhibitions proved successful: not only was Repin and his artistic talent discovered, but also a wider sense of the art of 19th-century Russia emerged. Such was the context in which Repin's powerful, passionate and vigorous art presenting scenes from Russian life was seen, together with an entire portrait gallery depicting leading figures of Russian culture of the time. Thus, it is not at all surprising that a Repin exhibition is once again heading for Europe, and to Germany.

Preparing for this exhibition, the task was to avoid any chance inclusion of works and names: all the artists chosen were either Repin's friends or linked to him by longstanding, sometimes difficult and complicated relations. The appearance of names such as Kramskoy, Polenov, Vassiliev, Ghe, Bogolyubov, Shishkin, Maximov and Surikov is no doubt justified. The artistic atmosphere of late 19th century Russia was one which combined friendship and mutual admiration with disputes, agreement with discord; the exhibition brings together different personalities and works of art, presenting in a varied and vivid way a comprehensive picture of Russian "democratic" art from the times of the "Peredvizhniki". Nevertheless, it remains just a glimpse of the complicated spiritual world of late 19th century Russian artistic society.

Of course, Repin stands at the centre of the exhibition - it is impossible today to imagine Russian art of the time without him. His vivid artistic images reflect the life of Russian society of the late 19th century, while the portraits of his contemporaries, outstanding in their expressiveness, speak strongly about their spiritual worlds. A silent dialogue between the artist and viewer reveals an unknown country and a different era. Works included in the exhibition fully serve such an aim; "Barge-haulers Crossing the Ford" (1872), 'The Archdeacon" (1877), "Meeting" (1883) and "Not Awaited" (1884, in the original version) tell the viewer more about 19th-century Russia than hundreds of newspaper articles or any statistical research. Repin's pictures will no doubt win over viewers not only with their plots and passionate psychological insight, but also for their artistic power.

"You are a most ruthless realist," Kramskoy noted, talking to Repin. "But sometimes you capture the most tender and fine notes." These words apply most fully to Repin's portrait study of the actress Pelageya Strepetova (1882), in which the drama of her life and her talent as a tragic actress are shown most poignantly and convincingly. It is a clear-cut Russian character, with a tragic life-story and a great talent. The picture was selected for the exhibition since the actress was spiritually close to Repin: they shared a popular nature in their gifts, and in the characters and images they created. Repin admired Strepetova's acting and praised her expressive manner, which "touched human hearts so deeply".

Of course, Repin's best portraits were those of personalities who inspired him, people he appreciated and admired. Among them the portraits of Leo Tolstoy in both oil and pencil deserve particular mention. Repin was always overwhelmed by Tolstoy's spiritual power, and the two were friends for almost 30 years. Thus, portraits of Tolstoy occupy a special place in Repin's work, with
this exhibition showing "Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy Relaxing Amidst the Beauty of the Forest" (1891), "Tolstoy Ploughing the Field" (1887) and 'Tolstoy Reading on a Sofa" (1891). Repin adored the writer's face, and found every trait of his face and figure fascinating. All other faces, according to Repin, looked plain in comparison - and that despite the fact that Tolstoy had the appearance of a peasant.

Other portraits in the exhibtion also show artists and intellectuals who were close to Repin in spirit. There are portraits of Vasily Stassov, "an ardent youth of fifty odd years"; Vasily Polenov, one of Repin's closest friends from their years of study at the Academy of Arts; Ivan Kramskoy, Repin's first guru in art and life from the time of the artist's early years in St. Petersburg; of Victor Vasnetsov and Vasily Surikov, his colleagues and associates, who were members of the same artistic circle in Moscow; of the often anxious and troubled Nikolai Ghe; and of Pavel Tretyakov, the Gallery's founder who was also highly respected by Repin. Their portraits alongside some other masterpieces constitute the central core of the exhibition. The artists concerned, and those whose works are also included in the exhibition, belonged to a creative union which in fact forms the key content of the project. The period of St. Petersburg's Artists' Association, which was of decisive importance in the history of Russian painting, and especially for the young Repin personally, who was then a pupil of the Academy of Arts, is also covered. The exhibition includes Kramskoy's charming portrait of his wife Sofia Nikolaevna, "Reading", painted between 1863 and 1866.

One of the most significant episodes of Repin's biography was his trip along the Volga in 1870 in the company of the young Fedor Vassiliev. Repin was highly enthusiastic about this young man's talents and charm: later he would describe it in his wonderful book of memoirs, "Dalekoye - blizkoye" ("Distant Closeness"). The trip was important for Vassiliev as well, as it was the time that his artistic talent was maturing; after the trip he painted the remarkable picture "Volga Lagoons" (1870).

Another picture worth mentioning is Polenov's Normandy landscape "Fisherman's Boat. Etretat. Normandy" (1874), which recalls the times when young Russian painters would live and study in France over the summer months. They stayed in the small settlement of Veulles or by the sea, enjoying life and competing with each other in artistic achievements; they mainly painted modest and simple landscapes which were distinguished by their new "fresh" perception of reality. The place in Normandy was discovered and recommended by an older colleague, Alexei Bogolyubov, who had drawn a small-scale picture "Woods in Veulles. Normandy" there a few years earlier in 1871. Bogolyubov was obviously influenced by the French Barbizon school of painting, and tried to arouse interest in it among young Russian painters.

Living in Moscow in the late 1870s and early 1880s Repin communicated most intensively with his close friends Vasnetsov, Polenov and Surikov, and all were members of the Abramtsevo circle of artists. They often drew pictures, studies, sketches and drawings in each others' presence in Abramtsevo, a settlement near Moscow. Here, Repin drew a light and elegant landscape which may also be attributed as a genre picture, "Boundary" (1879). In the same year Polenov painted his "Abandoned Pond", while Vasnetsov drew a portrait of a girl, Dasha, who served at the Abramtsevo estate in the hospitable Mamontov house, titled "Wearing a Jester's Dress" (1889). Another portrait by Vasnetsov is of Mamontov's niece - T.A. Mamontova (1884), whom Repin had painted two years earlier.

Another individual dear to Repin's heart was the painter Vasily Maximov: Repin called him a "genuinely popular artist", the "core of the Peredvizhniks", and "a noble heart". One of his best works, "Sick Husband" (1881) was shown at the 1882 Itinerant Artists' exhibition, along with Repin's portrait of his wife Vera Alexeyevna "Rest", portraits of Anton Rubinshtein and Afanasy Fet, and a study "Humpback" for his big picture "Religious Procession in the Kursk Province".

After the sudden death of Kuindzhi, another member of the Association, Repin boldly wrote in an article about him that Kuindzhi was "an artist of genius", admiring the original way in which Kuindzhi would tackle the artistic tasks that he faced. Repin wrote that "the illusion of light was a sacred God for Kuindzhi, and that he, like nobody else succeeded in creating that wonder in his painting" ("Distant Closeness", Leningrad, 1986, p. 323). The exhibition presents Kuindzhi's landscapes "North" (1879), a subtly-rendered Russian "sfumato", and "Elbrus in Moonlight", a result of the artist's bold experiments with colour and a search for a way to tackle light.

The exhibition displays works by Ivan Shishkin, Nikolai Yaroshenko and, of course, Nikolai Ghe, all of whom were linked with Repin by their longterm creative and mutually enriching relations.

Repin was very close to Ghe, "an ardent preacher of the loftiest human needs"; they both agreed that "art is an expression of humanity's perfection". Repin appreciated Ghe's artistic passion, his noble principles and his uncompromising stand in art and admired the way his friend tackled biblical topics in his pictures. Repin himself worked persistently on biblical themes and images in the 1880s, producing numerous studies, sketches and drawings. Some of these were later used in larger pictures, and in the 1920s Repin moved closer to Ghe in the expressiveness of his artistic language. However, at first Repin was weary of Ghe's intentional "off hand" manner, as Repin saw it, and his seemingly unfinished works. Among Ghe's pictures Repin was particularly fond of "Christ and His Disciples Making Their Way to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper" (1888, in the Russian Museum), and even more of a study for it. However Repin noted in his book: "Pity that this excellent motif also was not developed thoroughly enough." ("Distant Closeness", p. 308). This study of Ghe displayed alongside the artworks by Vasnetsov, Maximov, Kuindzhi, Yaroshenko, Surikov, Polenov, and Repin himself adds a highly individual note of special lofty emotion to the exhibition.

The exhibition closes with the works of Valentin Serov, a painter of the next generation and the most talented of Repin's disciples. "Serov's art is like a precious stone: the more you study it, the more it draws you into the depths of its charm," Repin wrote after Serov's sudden and shocking death ("Distant Closeness", p. 327). Serov excelled his teacher in many ways. Remarkably, the teacher, too, was highly sensitive to his pupil's artistic discoveries. One of Repin's best portraits of the 1890s, "Autumn Flowers. Portrait of Vera Repina" (1892), naturally combines a firm realistic tradition, lively open air technique and an affirmation of the joy of life, which the young Serov boldly put forward as his artistic motto.

The works mentioned above are only a part of the exhibition, but suffice to give an idea of its conception. It can only be hoped that the pictures chosen will reveal for the German audience something of 19th-century Russia, even as it moves farther and farther away into the past, and that viewers will see how sincere and alive the art of the time was, and feel how deeply it continues to touch the human heart today as well.

The modern world overwhelms us with its speed, its open borders and the fantastic opportunities of the Internet, when it seems that the touch of a computer button can reveal all the secrets of the world. However, art - painting, music, books - still remains the only way to reach a genuine understanding of other peoples' lives, fates, culture and history.

Last year the Tretyakov Gallery showed the works of Vasily Kandinsky, the artist who defined the major trends of 20th- century art, in Wuppertal. Kandinsky's abstract works and Repin's sweeping realism might seem to stand worlds apart. However, we believe that this contrast reflects an important feature of Russian visual culture, namely its clearly-cut polarity, a sign of spiritual wealth expressed in art. Such contrasting figures make the picture of Russian art's development vivid, controversial, and very much alive. The present exhibition reveals much about a most interesting, important, and fruitful period in the history of Russian painting.

Illustrations

Ilya REPIN. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy Relaxing Amidst the Beauty of the Forest. 1891
Ilya REPIN. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy Relaxing Amidst the Beauty of the Forest. 1891
Oil on canvas, 60 by 50 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya REPIN. Self-portrait. 1887
Ilya REPIN. Self-portrait. 1887
Oil on canvas. 75 by 62.2 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya REPIN. Barge-haulers on the Volga. 1870–1873
Ilya REPIN. Barge-haulers on the Volga. 1870–1873
OIl on canvas. 131.5 by 281. Russian Museum
Ilya REPIN. Autumn Flowers. 1892
Ilya REPIN. Autumn Flowers. 1892
Oil on canvas. 111 by 65 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Valentin SEROV. Coronation. 1896
Valentin SEROV. Coronation. 1896
Oil on canvas. 43 by 64 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Ilya REPIN. Pavel Tretyakov at a Meeting of the Academy of Arts. 1896
Ilya REPIN. Pavel Tretyakov at a Meeting of the Academy of Arts. 1896
Pencil on paper. 35.6 by 22.2 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily MAXIMOV. Sick Husband. 1881
Vasily MAXIMOV. Sick Husband. 1881
Oil on canvas. 70.8 by 88.6 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily POLENOV. Fishermen’s Boat. Etretat. 1874
Vasily POLENOV. Fishermen’s Boat. Etretat. 1874
Varnish on canvas. 39 by 64.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai GHE. Christ and His Disciples Making Their Way to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. 1888
Nikolai GHE. Christ and His Disciples Making Their Way to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. 1888
Oil on canvas. 65.3 by 85.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery

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