The Enigma of Alexander Ivanov. Bicentenary of the Artist
"Ivanov is a real enigma. On the one hand, is there a Russian who doesn’t know him? And on the other, no one among the Russians know him." These words, written by Sergei Diaghilev early in the 20th century, can be repeated today, as the country marks the 200th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
Indeed, Ivanov's personality and art have been appraised in very different ways by both his contemporaries and the generations that followed. Ivanov's fellow student at the Academy of Fine Arts, the engraver Fyodor Iordan, reminisced that he was "stubborn and unusual”. The poet Vasily Zhukovsky, accompanying Alexander Nikolaevich, the heir to the throne, on a trip abroad, remarked after a visit to Ivanov's studio in Rome: "Here is an artist with a big heart and enthusiastic about his art." Lev Kil, a general and an amateur artist who was the supervisor of the Russian artists in Rome, called Ivanov "an insane mystic". And Fyodor Tolstoy - an engraver, a sculptor and the Academy of Fine Art's president who had to judge over a conflict between Kil and the Russian artists on fellowship matters - wrote in his diary: "Ivanov is very clever and seems a sly devil." Alexei Bogolyubov, an artist and seaman who met the maestro in Paris on his way back to Russia, remarked on Ivanov's truly "maniacal" attitude to his master painting.
"A poet and a hard worker - an artist!" wrote Pyotr Vyazemsky admiringly, when he saw the "Appearance of Christ" in St. Petersburg. The poet dedicated to the artist a special poem, dated June 30 1858 (four days before Ivanov died).
After Ivanov's death the newspapers published several tributes to him. Thus, "Moskovskie Vedomosti" on July 5 ran an obituary signed by V.B. [Vasily Botkin? - L.M.], which read: "He who values and takes pride in the prominent individuals of our country, will realize the enormity of this loss. Alexander Andreevich died in his 53rd year, having finished a work he started long ago, his immortal picture 'The Appearance of Christ to the People' ... Besides a talent and a love for work, Ivanov had a vast intellect, enriched by the 30 years spent abroad and by reading all outstanding books on philosophy. He was a strong fighter in his life and he came out a winner from the fight ... What a leader he would have made to our young artists! Besides his virtues as an artist, Ivanov had a tender soul and a childlike open-heartedness."
The religious philosopher Alexei Khomyakov, who was later to acquire a number of Ivanov's remarkable pieces (including "Apollo, Hyacinth and Cyparissus"), wrote an article titled "Ivanov's Picture" (a letter to the editor of "Russkaya Beseda"), where he named Ivanov "an artist-saint". In the opinion of the progressive art critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Ivanov "with his aspirations ranked among the small group of choicest geniuses, who are steadily becoming people of the future". Ivan Turgenev, who travelled with "Signor Alessandro" to Albano and Frascati and met the artist in St. Petersburg, with the insight of a subtle psychologist, grasped better than others the complexities of Ivanov's inner nature. The writer recalled: "...there was something mystical and childish about him, a wisdom and fun, all at once; something pure, sincere - and secretive, even sly."
In the years that followed the numerous researchers and "interpreters" of Ivanov's art, each according to his or her abilities, and in the spirit of the times, tried to answer the question as to what exactly Ivanov's art amounted to. A brief biographical essay and a vast collection of the artist's letters was first published in 1880 by the artist Mikhail Botkin (a brother of the writer Vasily Botkin), in whose apartment on Vassilyevsky Island (on the Third Line, 13, Kranihfeld's house, now building number 8) Ivanov lived for the last months before his death.
Attempts to gain an insight into Ivanov's evolution as an artist were made by Nikolai Sobko, the author of the acclaimed "Artists' Bios”; by Alexei Novitsky; and by Nikolai Romanov, the custodian of the Rumyantsev Museum picture gallery, where the big painting and many sketches were kept from 1861 onwards. During the Soviet period the artist, who focused on religious themes, was almost completely ignored by scholars. The last publication, by Vsevolod Zummer, came out in 1928, in a small print run, in an issue of the Kharkov University Working Papers, and focused on "The Eschatology of Ivanov", a teaching about the ultimate destiny of the world and humankind. For nearly 25 years after that Ivanov's legacy was practically ignored. 1956, a critical year in the nation's history, coincided with the artist's anniversary and gave a new impetus to "Ivanov scholarship". A two- volume study by Mikhail Alpatov, "tracing the life and artistic trajectory of Alexander Ivanov", came out. The Tretyakov Gallery - the keeper of the largest (330 paintings and over 1,000 drawings) and most diverse artistic legacy of the artist - organized the first solo exhibition of Ivanov. In a foreword to its catalogue, Alexandra Arkhangelskaya expressed the totally unfounded opinion that the artist had broken with the Orthodox Church and lost his faith; she made much of his ties with the revolutionary-minded progressives. The article contains a telling appraisal of Ivanov as an artist who "in a symbolical, utopian manner raised the most pressing problem of social reality - the problem of liberating oppressed humankind." Art scholars of the next generation (Mikhail Allenov, Militsa Nekludova, Galina Zagyanskaya, and Eugenia Guseva) corrected this bias between the 1960s and the 1990s, as a wide range of books, albums and numerous articles treating Ivanov's individual works and themes appeared. In 1981-1982, to mark Ivanov's 175th anniversary, the Tretyakov Gallery mounted a large exhibition of his work (without publishing a catalogue) from the museum's reserves. The gallery's director Yury Korolyev was striving to show the inner workings of Ivanov's artistic mind.
Ivanov's exhibitions outside Russia, and his reception by international viewers comprise a special chapter in academic study of the artist. From the mid-1960s, his works began to be shown at various Russian art exhibitions - in Japan (19661967, Tokyo, Kyoto), the US (1978-1979, Minneapolis, Washington) and Germany. Especially noteworthy is the exhibition "Russian Art of the First Half of the 19th Century" in Baden-Baden and Hannover in 1981-1982. The catalogue had a special chapter and the show had a special section dedicated to Ivanov's art.
The show's German organizer Katarina Schmidt highlighted the relationships between the artists and writers of the time. In the case of Ivanov, special attention was paid to his uneasy relationships with Nikolai Gogol.
In the 1990s Ivanov's works were shown in Belgium (1996, Antwerp) and Germany (1999, Kassel). The catalogue included a Flemish translation of Milda Vikturina's article with a unique radiographic data concerning the "Venetian draft” and other studies for "The Appearance of Christ to the People". At the "Russian Art of the Biedermeier Period" show in Kassel a section dedicated to Ivanov contained 17 drawings, water-colours and oil sketches. In a foreword to the Ivanov section, the German art scholar Birgit Biedermann characterized the artist as "the last prominent exponent of the Russian academic school of painting".
2003 saw the majestic exhibition "The Grandeur of Rome": for Russian art historians, the most interesting feature of it was the section "Between East and West: The Major Figures on the Roman Scene". The show's organizers wanted to highlight the parallels between the works of Bryullov and Ivanov and the works of their contemporaries from Italy and other countries. Bryullov's majestic painting "Last Day of Pompeii" became a major event. The picture left Russia for the first time and found itself, 170 years later, in Rome again. The same happened with Ivanov's painting "Apollo, Hyacinth and Cyparissus". However, for a variety of reasons the master painting - "The Appearance of Christ to the People" - was not sent to the exhibition. The Italian organizers dealt with the problem ingeniously. They put up a canvas the size of the picture (540 by 750 cm) and displayed Ivanov's sketches (eight in all) of the individual characters ("John the Baptist's Head", "Boy Coming out of the Water", "The Figure of Christ"). Unfortunately, the experiment can hardly be regarded as a success. The result was an unimpressive "mosaic" of elements that did not convey the huge picture's flavour.
In Russia today the name of Alexander Ivanov is among those most frequently sought on the internet. His legacy attracts figures of radically different views and attitudes, from religious figures (Alexander Men) and the authors of sites such as "Eastern Orthodox Church" (Fedorov) and Neofit.ru, as well as "visitors" to the "Rossiiskii literaturnyi portal geev" (Russian literature portal for gays) and "Razvlekatelny geiportal" (Amusements gay portal).
The artist's family name is the commonest in Russia, originating from the baptismal name of Ioann (John), in the non-clerical version - Ivan. However, unlike many other Ivanovs, the artist's surname was pronounced with stress on the second syllable. The artist's father, Andrei Ivanovich, did not know who his parents were and was raised at a Moscow orphanage. Along with 27 other orphaned boys he was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts, where the gifted and industrious youth became a professor. The future artist's mother, Yekaterina Ivanovna Demert was from a German family long settled in Russia, whose father was a galloon maker. However, she belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church and did not teach German to her children (or at least Alexander Andreevich did not know German).
Alexander Andreevich Ivanov was born on July 16 (by the Julian Calendar), or on July 28 according to the Gregorian Calendar, in 1806 in St. Petersburg. The Ivanovs' pattern of life was patriarchal - life had taught the parents to keep a low profile. "My parents are mistrustful," Ivanov would write later, "and we absorbed this deficiency with the mother's milk. This explains why we and our parents are inclined to do good, but given our flaw, we often hurt, without meaning to, innocent people, we often avoid and shun people who are useful to us, suspecting them of something [bad]." These words speak much about Ivanov's character and shed light on his relationships with other people. For instance, after their father's death the artist and his younger brother Sergei stayed in Rome. On the brothers' request, the artist Fyodor Moeller was handling matters of inheritance in St. Petersburg. A former military officer and a nobleman, Moller, genuinely attached to Ivanov, was handling the brothers' requests with a German punctiliousness. However, their correspondence clearly shows that Alexander Ivanov was always suspecting Moeller of negligence, slyness and concealment.
Alexander Ivanov's father, who provided his son with an initial training in drawing and painting, was a life-long influence on his elder son's mentality and art. At the age of 11, Alexander started attending classes at the Academy without officially enrolling - first he attended his father's classes, then the classes of a professor Alexei Egorov. From the very beginning the gifted boy was making such quick progress that it was suspected that his father the professor was helping him. For his achievements in painting the Academy student Ivanov received two silver medals.
In 1824 Ivanov received a minor golden medal for his painting "Priam Asking Achilles to Give Him Hector's Body" (from the Tretyakov Gallery). The subject was very popular at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. At the same time as Ivanov was working on his piece, Academy students older than him, Alexei Markov and Pavel Notbek, were working on similarly- themed paintings. Ivanov was preferred over his rivals. The Academy's Registrar Vasily Grigorovich made a note of the young painter's ability to go deeply into his subject and spoke highly of him. Ivanov's painting, exhibited at an Academy show, proved very popular with the audience and won a favourable review. The editor of the "Otechestvennye Zapiski" magazine, Boris Fedorov, wrote: "Ivanov's picture is more akin to the Iliad."
Over that period the artist was carefully studying engravings from the pictures of Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael, Titian and Poussin. Ivanov was also interested in the works of Durer ("Durer is a true people's artist"). He was in sympathy with what Wackenroder said in his book "Outpourings of an Art-loving Friar" about the importance, for the young, to learn from the great masters and to find "a genre of painting suited to one's individuality".
The Committee for Encouraging Artists asked Ivanov to make a painting on the subject of "Joseph Interpreting the Dreams to the Cupbearer and Baker Kept in Prison with Him" (1827, in the Russian Museum). According to the book of Genesis, the Egyptian king's cupbearer and baker were put in a prison where Joseph was also confined. Once they asked Joseph to interpret their dreams. Joseph predicted that the cupbearer would be set free: "Within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head, and restore thee unto thy place." And he predicted death to the baker: "Within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree." One of the characters depicted is exulted by Joseph's words, another appalled. Ivanov masterfully rendered two opposite moods of a person. The figure of the groveling baker is dynamic and expressive, his face contorted with horror, the movement of his hand, pushing away the bad news, is rendered with an artistic precision, and the red drape emphasizes the drama. To highlight the intensity of the moment, Ivanov used a special creative device: the whole scene is completely immersed in darkness, and only some details are flashed with light.
The picture met with a favourable response from scholars and critics. "If Ivanov proceeds at this pace, he is soon to become one of our biggest artists," Pavel Svinyin wrote insightfully. The painting was awarded the Major Golden Medal, and in September 1828 Ivanov received the title of an artist of the 14 th rank. However, there was a disagreement between the members of the Committee for Encouraging Artists - some could not believe that a young artist had produced a work so mature all on his own. It was decided to give the artist another test - the mythological subject of choice was "Bellerophon Sets out Against the Chimera" (1829, in the Russian Museum). Bellerophon, a son of the Corinthian king Glaucus, accomplished many feats astride the winged horse Pegasus. Once, the King of Lycia Iobates sent Bellerophon to slay the three-headed monster Chimera.
Using themes from antique mythology, Ivanov treated them in full accord with the principles of Classicist style. The concept of the painting is based on the idea of responsibility and heroic self-sacrifice. There are two extant sketches for the painting that afford a glimpse into how the piece evolved. The composition is well thought-out and neatly constructed, with the two main characters - Bellerophon and the horse Pegasus - placed centrally in the foreground. The valiant and noble hero, far from being ideal, has human features, such as inner conflict and determination.
Ivanov's pieces from his early, St. Petersburg period had all the marks of Russian Classicist art - well-rounded composition, neat arrangement of the figures and objects in space, flowing contours and local colours. Even then the young artist was striving for emotional expressiveness in traditional interpretations of the mythological and evangelical themes, "so that the viewer, looking at the picture, would be overtaken by sublimity or that the picture would stir in him sublime emotions".
In the summer of 1830 Alexander Ivanov and Grigory Lapchenko, fellows of the Society for Encouraging Artists, came to Rome for four years, "to perfect their skills in the art of historical painting". According to the strict guidelines, in the first year of their stay the artists were to travel and see the sights, in the second to accomplish "a full-scale cartoon copy of Michelangelo's painting, in the Sistine Chapel, depicting the Creation of Adam", and to spend their third year "making a picture themselves". Following the established tradition, the fellows had to send to the Society detailed reports every two months. In the history of Russian art, Ivanov's reports are unmatched in their circumstantial detail, and the earnestness of their judgments and opinions.
In October 1830 Ivanov arrived in Rome and was making efforts to receive permission to work in the Sistine chapel to copy Michelangelo's fresco "The Creation of Adam". At the same time, "for the purpose of painting nudity, instead of attending artists' group sessions with nude models", the artist started to work on the painting "Apollo, Hyacinth and Cyparissus, Playing Music and Singing" (1831-34, in the Tretyakov Gallery). Ivanov chose as his subject Apollo, an Olympian deity and a patron of the arts and artistic inspiration. The painter depicted Apollo and his young friends - a singing Hyacinth and a pipe-playing Cyparissus - in a sublime and serene nature. Hyacinth was a son of the Spartan king Amyclas and a grandson of Zeus. In another version of the myth, his parents were the muse Clio and Pierus. Hyacinth was beloved by Apollo, who inadvertently killed him hitting him with a discus during a contest. From the blood of Hyacinth grew flowers that were named after the unlucky youth. Cyparissus was a son of Telephus, and Ovid in the "Metamorphoses" tells a story about his attachment to a beautiful deer: he had by accident mortally wounded the animal and was crying bitterly over the loss. Heeding the youth's plea, the gods turned him into a tree of grief and eternal sorrow.
The painting is a refined example of Russian Classicism, and the composition is well-rounded and elegant, with the figures of the characters inscribed into a classic triangle. Apollo, Hyacinth and Cyparissus stand as symbols of the three ages of man, three melodies, three degrees of creative work, and finally, three varieties of the beautiful - elevated, sensual and touchingly naive.
In this early piece Ivanov demonstrated a new technique, different from the academic style. The rules Ivanov had been taught at St. Petersburg's Academy of Fine Arts encouraged the students to emulate classic models. In Italy Ivanov assiduously copied antique bas-reliefs and sculptures in the round, as well as the works of the Renaissance masters. Along with that, he also made many sketches from nature. As a result, Ivanov strove for synthesis - antiquity perceived through a Renaissance focus. The artist wrote: "I would want to test on the beautiful nature what I've learnt copying Raphael." With this in mind, Ivanov turned to the statue of Apollo Belvedere, using it as the prototype for Apollo. And for Cyparissus, he pencilled a sketch from an antique bas- relief featuring Endymion. At the same time the artist also painted several oil sketches from live models - "The Head of a Blond Boy", "The Head of a Pifferare Boy" (both in the Tretyakov Gallery). As it appears, the master was dissatisfied with his first attempts to free himself from the academic canon, and the painting remained unfinished.
Ivanov took a long time selecting a subject for his next painting: "For a long time I couldn't make a choice of subject for my future painting.” The artist sketched "Jacob's Dream” (early 1830s, in the Tretyakov Gallery), "David Playing a Harp before Saul” (1831), and "Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers” (1831-33, both in the Tretyakov Gallery). An important preparation for Ivanov's big theme were his sketches for an unrealized picture "Joseph's Brothers Find the Cup in Benjamin's Sack” (1831-33, Tretyakov Gallery).
The story from the Bible tells about how Joseph, Jacob's son, was sold into slavery by his brothers, but became an important figure in the court of the Pharaoh. Many years later the treacherous brothers came to Egypt to do business. The brothers did not recognize Joseph in an awe-inspiring Egyptian high official, who showered them with presents. However, in order to punish his brothers, Joseph ordered to have an expensive silver cup put in a sack of Benjamin (Joseph's brother). When the brothers were on their way home, envoys of the high-ranking Egyptian seized them and accused them of theft. Certain of their innocence, Joseph's brothers vehemently denied they had stolen anything and proposed to have their belongings searched.
If the cup would be found in the bag of any of them, the brothers were willing to offer up the culprit as a slave. Ivanov depicted the climactic moment when the unsuspecting brothers find the cup in Benjamin's bag. The artist tried to convey the vast range of feelings overwhelming the characters - horror and despair, grief and powerlessness. Ivanov described his characters thus: ”Judah, who is bold and hot-headed, rips his clothes in distress; the second one is more phlegmatic; Samson, after jail, has thrown himself down. The home-builder, as an educated person, is not excited like the first one. The other figures echo this action.”
Ivanov made many studies and several drafts (three of them in the Tretyakov Gallery) for this painting. He was trying to capture the moment, an arrangement of characters that would look good on a big canvas. The artist was trying his hand at a multi-figured composition for the first time. Under the influence of the German painter Johann Overbeck, Ivanov, as he moved on, became increasingly aware of the futility of his aspirations. The finding of the cup is but an episode in Joseph's story, its turning point, which does not, however, explain the whole thing. The depicted scene resembled a theatrical performance, and the characters' gestures were melodramatic. After this failure, Ivanov set his sights on an ecumenical subject, ”The Appearance of Christ to the People”, which was to become his life's work.
In 1833, in a letter to the Society for Encouraging Artists he expounded his concept quite clearly and in no uncertain terms: ”... I have chosen the Gospel according to St. John! Here, on the first pages I've seen the essence of the whole Gospel - I saw that St. John was ordained by the Lord to prepare the people for receiving the teaching of the Messiah, and finally, for introducing Him personally to the people. This subject has not been tackled by anyone, so its novelty alone is bound to provoke interest.”
But Ivanov believed he was not yet ready for implementing his design, and making overtures toward the project he began a two-figured composition ”The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene” (1835, in the Russian Museum). Working on the painting, Ivanov carefully re-read the four Gospels, books by Michelangelo Lanci and F. Ferrario; he undertook detailed research into the circumstances of the Resurrection of Christ and, of course, he worked a lot in his studio. On one of his first drafts, from 1833 (in the Russian Museum) the artist pictured an angel, but later he limited himself to just two figures. The artist chose the climactic moment when Jesus makes a restraining gesture towards Mary, who having recognized Jesus stretches her hands to him. Making an articulate gesture with his right hand, he seems to be telling her, ''Don't touch!” Ivanov was able to achieve a nearly perfect harmony between the posture, the gesture and the mimics of the biblical characters. In a letter to his father he said that he was satisfied with ”the double-quick pace of the Lord and the exhortative gesture of his hand ... in step with Mary's figure frenziedly crouched, who thrusts herself hotly at the Teacher's feet”. The artist was striving for a particular expression on Mary Magdalene's face, where the traces of tears and grief become mingled with joy and hope. Ivanov was using a special trick, asking the sitter to clutch an onion. When the woman cried, he tried to make her laugh. The tearful eyes and the smile on the lips embodied for the artist the Magdalene who has seen Christ. Ivanov tried to convey the "auroral profundity", rather than a convention al state of nature. "Because of this last one, I'll try to set the scene in semi-darkness; without blackness, though."
The painting was finished in December 1835 and the artist displayed it at his studio. Bertel Thorvaldsen applauded it. His father sent his son an excerpt from an article by A. Timofeev, who visited Ivanov's studio. The review read: "'The Appearance of the Saviour after His Resurrection to Mary Magdalene' is a theme many painters tackled; but what especially distinguishes this particular picture is the Saviour's figure. This is God! Grandeur, humility, assurance, grace, holiness, might. The painting is magnificent." Early in 1836, the piece was shown at an exhibition at the Capitol. Amongst the works of Orest Kiprensky, Mikhail Lebedev, Franz Catel and other international artists working in Rome, the historical painting by Ivanov undoubtedly stood out. "The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene" made Ivanov famous. The artist became number one (after Karl Bryullov's departure) in the community of Russian artists in Italy. In May 1836 the picture was sent to St. Petersburg, and in September Ivanov was awarded the title of an academician.
Concurrently with "The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene" Ivanov sent to the Society for Encouraging Artists a tracing paper drawing of the last draft of "The Coming of Messiah into the World". There are several drafts of this painting, affording a glimpse into the painful process of its creation. The Russian Museum collection has a 1834 draft, a draft of the picture's upper part, and a so- called mini version of the painting, which served for Ivanov as a draft. The Tretyakov Gallery has three drafts: "Stroganov's", "Venetian", and a draft of the picture's left section. Concurrently with the drafts, Ivanov was working on studies for individual figures and the landscape. The huge number of these studies (over 300 at the Tretyakov Gallery, 77 at the Russian Museum) is a testimony to the immensity of the work. A detailed account of the creation of the master painting is provided in Lyubov Golovina's article (see TGM#4, 2005), so this writer focuses on Ivanov's other pieces, which were in essence an overture for his work on the master painting.
In December 2006 a major exhibition dedicated to the great painter's anniversary is scheduled to be held at the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val. Comprising more than 300 pieces, the exhibition will be distinguished by presenting Ivanov's works made in a variety of techniques (oil paintings, drawings, watercolours). Alongside the pieces from the Tretyakov Gallery collection, the show will feature pictures from the Russian Museum, while the manuscripts department of the Russian State Library is to present the artist's epistolary legacy (journals, notes, letters), to which the public has had practically no previous access. The exhibition's organizers hope that the published catalogue and the show will contribute to understanding Ivanov's art at the new stage of the development of the Russian school of painting.
Oil on canvas. 130.5 by 113 cm. Russian Museum
Italian pencil on paper, shading. 23.9 by 28.9 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 119 by 124.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 178.5 by 213 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 36 by 55 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Italian pencil, chalk on brown paper. 28.8 by 43.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Italian pencil, pencil on paper, 44.2 by 58.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Ink, water-colour on paper; brush, pen 24.6 by 35 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 25.2 by 23.2 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 100 by 139.9 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Three studies. Brown paper, italian and graphite pencil. 59.7 by 45.6 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 65 by 56 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 242 by 321 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 540 by 750 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Water-colour, graphite pencil on paper. 41.1 by 57.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Water-colour, Italian pencil on paper. 30.3 by 35.5 cm. Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 14 by 12.5 cm (oval). Russian Museum