THE NORTH IN THE ART OF RUSSIAN PAINTERS
Over the centuries the northern borderlands of the Russian Empire remained underexplored and inaccessible for development. Although followers of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who built monasteries and educated locals, had settled there in the 15th century, the area did not engage public interest before the mid-19th century. The change was partly due to the discovery of unique artefacts of vernacular culture, especially in the field of folklore. Groups of scholars began to visit the regions near Lake Onega, the Pechora river and the White Sea regularly to hear and write down fairy tales, sagas and proverbs orally passed down through generations.
But the countless resources of this inclement country had an even greater appeal. Fyodor Chizhov - a prominent industrialist and financier, a founder of the Moscow Society of Merchants, a public man of Slavophile convictions and a talented social commentator driven by patriotism and passionate entrepreneurialism - had long been contemplating commercial activity in the remote land from which his grandfather had come. As a first step, he decided to build a railway from Vologda to Arkhangelsk, to establish a regular steamship line between Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean, to promote fishing and hunting among the local residents, the Pomors, to build new towns, and to open a Northern Bank in the town of Kola. He wrote: "I'm already envisioning how we put spirit into our North, build towns on the shores of the Arctic, clean up the Northern Dvina River, bring bread there from the Volga, and bring from there cheap fish foodstuffs."1 In 1876 he set out on a voyage of familiarisation to this area in the company of Alexei Polenov, the older brother of the famous artist Vasily Polenov, who later published an engaging and detailed account of the trip2.
However, Chizhov died in 1877, and his plans were picked up by the young Savva Mamontov who, after his father's death in 1869, had become, aged 28, the chairman of the Moscow-Yaroslavl Railway Company.
In 1894 Mamontov submitted to the minister of finance Sergei Witte a memorandum in which he described the riches of the Russian North, and proposed to build a railway from Vologda to Arkhangelsk across the impassable swampland and forests. Witte, before replying, decided to see the region with his own eyes and proposed to Mamontov to join him and a special committee on a cruise around the North; one of the government's objectives was to find in Murmansk near the Barents Sea an ice-free harbour where a part of the Russian navy could be stationed. As was usual with such expeditions, the team included a graphic artist, in this case the future famous painter, then a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, Alexander Borisov, and the writer Yevgeny Lvov (Ye.L. Kochetov), who published in 1895 a book "Out in the Cold Sea. A Journey to the North". The expedition lasted a little more than three weeks. The team reached Arkhangelsk over the rivers Sukhon and Northern Dvina, where they boarded an ocean steamship which took them to the Solovetsky Islands and the Yekaterininsky harbour in Murmansk, from where the travellers proceeded along the shores of Norway, arriving in Finland and then returning to St. Petersburg by train.
In the grip of powerful aesthetic emotion engendered by the sights seen in Arkhangelsk and eager to share his feelings with others, Mamontov in 1894 financed an expedition to the region consisting of his painter friends Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, the latter recently returned from France, where he had lived for about 18 months. "What an awful mistake to chase French tones when you have such beauty here,"3 Mamontov opined, alluding to Korovin.
But besides such pure emotion, this decision was also driven by sound common sense. When the patron of arts and industrialist received the authorisation to build the railway to Arkhangelsk - a project which was successfully completed in 1897 - he wanted to introduce this exotic locale to the Russian public in advance. The most convenient opportunity for this seemed to present itself at the Nizhny Novgorod Exhibition of Industry and Art in 1896, where a pavilion devoted to the Far North was erected. Mamontov decided to enlist the services of Korovin, whom he knew as a fine stage designer, to design the pavilion and the exhibition, and for the execution of ten large murals. The artists' journey was vital for the realisation of this ambitious undertaking because the goal set for Korovin was "to create in the vast Northern Pavilion the impression and to provoke in the viewers the feelings which... [he himself] experienced in the North"4.
This objective was fully achieved: externally the structure resembled the northern trading outposts seen in Norway and was designed in modernist style. The tall high-peaked roof, which had a slight resemblance to ice floes drifting in the ocean, was crowned with huge stylised fish, and the balustrades were graced with the figures of deer designed by Sergei Malyutin. The pavillion had a special adornment in the form of ten large murals featuring the original and austere beauty of the northern land. Korovin designed the composition and the basic colour scheme in sketches, and hired the painters Sergei Malyutin and Nikolai Dosekin to implement his design. Later the murals from the fair, which were Mamontov's property, graced the lobby of the Yaroslav railway station built in 1904 in Moscow, and contributed considerably to the popularisation of the North.
Mamontov's expectations were fulfilled. Several years later volunteers, equipped with photographic cameras, guns, sketchbooks and painter's cases, would be coming in their flocks. Vasily Perepletchikov described the atmosphere on such a ship, typical for the times: "On the deck, big brilliant blue Novozemelskaya forget-me-nots, veronicas, Alpine yellow poppies, Alpine violets, euphorbias, removed from the soil with roots and cakes of mud, are bobbing in boxes on the deck. Alongside the flowers lie killed polar birds, already eviscerated for stuffing: tysties, snow buntings, waders. Antlers are secured with ropes on the broadsides lest a storm sweep them into the ocean. In the cabins hang buck skins, Samoyedic dolls, pied fur purses. And all around there are loons' eggs - bluish green with black patterns - and different stones: rock crystals, quartz, slate5."
Korovin and Serov followed practically the same route as Mamontov: over the Northern Dvina to Arkhangelsk, then, on the comfortable steamship "Lomonosov" owned by the Arkhangelsk-Murmansk line, they proceeded to Novaya Zemlya and the Murman coast, visiting the north of Norway and Swedish Lapland. Late in September the friends returned to Moscow with considerable numbers of northern sketches created during their travels, which were later used in the making of the murals. That was not the end of Korovin's acquaintance with the North. In 1895 he repeated the journey, this time in the company of Nikolai Prakhov and the painter Nikolai Dosekin. Two years later he revisited Arkhangelsk with Valentin Serov, and in 1898, as part of preparation for a colossal project of creating a series of decorative murals for the 1900 World Fair in Paris, he travelled to the North with Nikolai Klodt.
As usual, his packing was brief: "There are open suitcases on the floor. I'm packing paints, brushes, the easel and a field glass, a fur jacket, underwear, big shooting boots, a flashlight and a fully stocked medicine chest. I'm not taking a gun; I'm going to the Far North, to the Arctic Ocean, to paint from nature, and if there is a gun, there's a hunt, sketching falling by the wayside. I take only several fishing hooks and a slim English string. The ocean is deep, so you need a long string and a sinker. The compass, I take it too..."6 Decades later, living in exile in Paris, the painter would reminisce about his old times in Russia and write several interesting short stories about his stay in the wild North.
Like many other painters, Korovin admired the inimitable northern architecture. "A tall wooden church, truly admirable," he wrote. "Many cupolas, they are covered with batten looking like fish scale. The dimensions of the church are a work of genius. The church is a vision of beauty. Its sides are decorated with strips of white, yellow and green paint, as if with a trim. How nicely it fits into the scenery!"7 Korovin, who had a special bond with nature, was stunned by the "pacific disposition" of local wild animals. The artist affectionately describes how he "gave a gentle stroke to the smooth head and kissed the cold wet nose" of a big seal as it looked on "with its marvellous round eyes that were like human eyes, only kinder"8.
But most importantly, in this inclement country Korovin had an opportunity to apply his innate talent for colour differently than before. In the landscapes such as "A Quay by the Dvina in Arkhangelsk" (1894, Regional Art Museum, Tula), "A Mooring in Arkhangelsk" (second half of the 1890s, Russian Museum), and "Arkhangelsk" (1897, Tretyakov Gallery) the artist was still applying bright, saturated colour schemes depicting genre scenes from the life of a seaport town.
In Lapland, Korovin created another series of sketches, including the masterpiece "Winter in Lapland" (1894, Tretyakov Gallery) - a small piece with a simple composition is distinguished by a subdued and elaborate palette of greyish and pearly tones in keeping with the colour scheme of northern scenery. Its style and restraint of forms notwithstanding, the piece has an enormous emotional impact. Near the Pechenga Monastery dedicated to St. Tryphon, where the artists stayed for a while, Korovin created a piece called "St. Tryphon's Brook in Pechenga. Lapland" (1894, Tretyakov Gallery), featuring low-key northern scenery with sparse vegetation growing amidst a scattering of rocks and boats on the bank of a frozen steely-coloured river.
In the Norwegian town of Hammerfest, the hunting centre, Korovin created such pieces as "A Harbour in Norway" (1894, Tretyakov Gallery) and "White Night in Northern Norway" (1890s, Russian Museum), and a number of croquis for the future painting "Hammerfest. Polar Lights" (1894-1895, Tretyakov Gallery) - he started working on it immediately after his return to Moscow. On a large vertically-arranged canvas the artist attempted to convey the unforgettable effect of the amazing natural phenomenon that he saw, the polar lights. The pulsating nacreous, bluish green light suffuses all of the space and, together with the city lights, is reflected on the rippled surface of the water. The writer Alexander Amfiteatrov made one of his literary heroes utter a line regarding this painting: "Do you remember Kostya Korovin's 'Hammerfest'? How the air quivers in the blue fever of polar lights? And the brighter the blue quivering, the deeper this chill penetrates you, the more clearly you feel that down there, behind that blue flame sparked from ice floes - 600 degrees below zero and mute death."9
The northern sketches of Korovin and his friend Serov established in Russian painting of the 1900s a dominance of the exquisite palette of nacreous and grey ashen tones. Korovin himself said than nowhere had he seen such a great diversity of colour shades as in the supposedly monochrome North. Later, explaining his infatuation with the northern country, he said that one could never see such a rich palette in the South. This colour scheme typical for nature in the North attracted the young artists of the Moscow school who organised in 1903 the "Union of Russian Artists". Korovin's associates applied his colour design to create images of early spring, the last snow, and the first cold spells. The intricate greyish blue tones also allowed to fill compositions with light sadness, nostalgia, and poetic charm.
After Korovin's discovery of the North other painters started visiting the country, including Vasily Perepletchikov, Abram Arkhipov, Sergei Vinogradov, Alexander Borisov and Leonard Turzhansky. Nearly all of them returned from their journeys deeply moved, producing not only fine paintings and drawings but also interesting articles, essays and short stories. Even Arkhipov, who was not given to emotional outbursts, wrote: "The White Sea, the big Pomorian crosses, a capsized boat, clouds over the sea - all is so wonderful, so singular. Since this moment during my journey I began to feel as if I returned to my homeland."10 Arkhipov came to Arkhangelsk every summer, preferring to stay in the least populated areas near the sea. He was captivated by the patriarchal tenor of life surviving among the Pomors, the objects of folk art in their households, the solid log houses and octagonal steepled churches created by anonymous architects. Depicting the humble villages, boats near the quay, log huts and barns, he searched for artistic techniques to capture the crystalline purity and coldness of the water, humidity of the air and the heavy clouds hanging low over the ground. In the series of northern sketches he made an ultimate stylistic shift to generous impasto techniques, his command of the brush became more assured and brushwork more fluid, and his palette was now dominated by a wide range of austere grey and brown tones. Arkhipov's sketches of that period, especially those featuring transitional states of nature, are filled with a luminous and slightly sad poetic sentiment.
Sergei Vinogradov frequented the environs of Arkhangelsk from 1902 onwards. The works he created there feature the views of Arkhangelsk harbour with moored sailing boats as well as the picturesque northern villages, in particular Nyuksenitsa, which the artist first visited in the company of Perepletchikov. Later Vinogradov wrote a short essay "Travel to the North", describing in vivid detail everything that had happened with him. In this essay he also provided an apt characterisation of Perepletchikov. "Vasily Vasilievich," he wrote, "intuited the North, understood it; in his works the austerity, stylishness, augustness of the northern nature are rendered very well and appear heartfelt."11
Over 12 years, from 1902 until 1914, Perepletchikov would come every summer to this beloved country about which he wrote once: "The North is stern and unwelcoming, but it beckons me. I'm again off to the Arctic Ocean, to the big strong people."12 Equipped with a painter's case and a notebook, he visited Gorokhovets, Ust-Pinega, Ukhtostrov, Kurostrov and lived in the Antonievo-Siysky and Krasnogorsky monasteries. Perepletchikov made several trips to Novaya Zemlya - a destination to which the steamship took travellers twice a year from Arkhangelsk. Every time he came to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the artist ventured deeper into the area of permafrost. He visited the Samoyedic people's settlement Beluzhya Guba, where his student Tyko Vylka lived, went as far as the Olginskoe settlement, above the 74th parallel north, and even attempted a search for the traces of the lost expeditions of Rusanov and Sedov. The painter was shocked to see how the local people lived fighting death, and how they died in that horrendous region. He wrote in a newspaper article: "Novaya Zemlya has an inclement climate. The famous Samoyed Ilya Vylka told me that when he was riding on a dog-driven sled to Karskaya (in the western section of Novaya Zemlya by the Kara Sea), his thermometer burst on account of the frost. A terrific offshore wind arose. Vylka buried himself under the snow and remained there for four days, and half of his dogs died."13 Perepletchikov's collection of stories "Essays about the North as It Is", published in 1917, includes very interesting, detailed descriptions of nature. The artist Alexander Borisov, who was a very courageous man, was likewise truly enamoured with and fascinated by the North. He first visited Novaya Zemlya in 1896. Borisov brought from his artistic expeditions, as he called them, a great many sketches and finished pieces. Using the technique of quick impasto brushstrokes and subdued colour palette he featured the boundless ocean with drifting ice floes, snow covered flatlands with a distant scattering of chums, teams of sled deer or sled dogs, and Nenets people at rest. "The process of work was very difficult," the artist wrote, "I had to clip my brushes, to shorten the bristles; grinding pigments is nearly impossible. Biting frost turns pigments into a thick dough which does not yield itself to the brush and resists spreading over the canvas... During my 'Arctic' painting sessions even turpentine, the only possible liquefier, was useless because it began to crystallize too in this infernal cold. I have sketches that I made at minus 28,8° C and three or four sketches at minus 37,5° C. And I had to hold the brush tightly in my hand wrapped in the bottom part of the sleeve of the malitsa [long fur coat] and to press it with force against the canvas as I applied paints. The brush cracks and breaks down, and my freezing hands are failing me."14 More than 60 early works of the artist were acquired by Pavel Tretyakov for his gallery. Borisov gave the collector's name to a big glacier where participants of the 1899 expedition stopped as they were climbing Wilczek mountain where the artist, from a vantage point very high above ground, painted views of the silent snow kingdom.
In 1900 this fearless man built in Novaya Zemlya, at the foot of Pila mountain, a house where he would live and paint. The house had three residential rooms, an inside bathhouse facility, a storage area and a cowshed. In 1908 the geologist V. Rusakov stayed there, followed in 1913 by the artist Perepletchikov. Alexander Borisov and his academic friends made a considerable contribution to the exploration of the Kara coastline. T. Timofeev, a member of the expedition in charge of topography in the spring of 1901, added to the map 35 new geographic locales. The artist liked to name capes, hills, streams and glaciers in honour of his teachers and patrons: Cape Bogolyubov, Vasnetsov Glacier, Cape Vasnetsov, Cape Vereshchagin, Witte Glacier and the Gulf of Witte, Yermolov Cove, Cape Kazi and Kazi Hill, Cape Kramskoi, Cape Kuindzhi, Cape Repin, Romanov Cove, Cape Count I. Tolstoy and Count I. Tolstoy River, Tretyakov Glacier, Cape Shishkin.
Undoubtedly, the artists of the late 19th-early 20th centuries were attracted, as Perepletchikov put it, by the "charming mysteriousness and inscrutability and infinite beauty of this country"15. Spellbound by the North, nearly all artists who visited it wrote about it adoringly. Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva was one of those who did not remain immune to the charm of the place. Many years after the event she recalled how she returned with her husband from Europe to Russia through Norway after the beginning of World War I: "In the morning we left Bergen. An August scenery was spread before us as we went up and across the Scandinavian mountains. The beauty of the fjords was striking. Standing at the window, I was hurriedly painting in my sketchbook the succession of quickly changing wonderful landscapes... What a heavenly view! The area in the foreground was dominated by looming mountains, which swept by and every now and then splintered lengthwise revealing in the opening distant blue and slate-gray plains locking into the quiet, deep fjords. Bright red little houses like embers skirted their shores... Norway is a wonderful country!"16
- Simonova, Inna. "Feodor Chizhov". Moscow, 2002. P. 251
- Alexei Polenov published two books on this topic: "Account of Business Travel to the Murman Coast" (St. Petersburg, 1876) and "Revival of the North. 20th Section of the World Exhibition of Industry and Arts in 1896 in Nizhny Novgorod. Far North. Pavillion of the Moscow-Yaroslavl-Arkhangelsk Railway Company with 15 Photographs" (Moscow, 1896).
- Kopshitser, Mark. Savva Mamontov. Iskusstvo. 1972. Pp. 146 -147
- Korovin, Konstantin. "That was long ago..." Moscow, 2010. Vol. 1. P. 398
- Perepletchikov, Vasily. 'Novaya Zemlya'. An essay. A reprint from the "Zavety" magazine. July 1914. In: Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 827. File 1. Item 64. Sheet 15
- "Konstantin Korovin remembers." Moscow, 1990. P. 280
- Ibid., p. 283
- Ibid., p. 286
- Ibid., P. 567
- Rozhdestvenskaya, N. "The People's Artist Abram Arkhipov". Moscow, 1930. Pp. 26-27
- Vinogradov, Sergei. 'Trip to the North'. In: "Moscow of Yesteryear. A Memoir". Riga, 2001. P. 98
- Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 827. File 1. Item 64. Sheet 7
- Ibid., File 1. Item 60. Sheet 1 reverse
- Nazimova, Irina. "Alexander Alexeevich Borisov. His Life and Artwork". Arkhangelsk, 1959. P. 38
- Perepletchikov, Vasily. "Essays about the North as It Is". 1917. P. 171.
- Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Anna. "Autobiographic Notes". Vols. 1-3. Vol. 2. Moscow, 1974. P. 491