The Tretyakov Gallery – My favourites.

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The Tretyakov Gallery is one of the world’s richest museums, a veritable treasure house of the finest works of Russian and Soviet art. In all, there are in excess of fifty thousand paintings, sculptures, drawings and engravings in the storerooms and galleries of this great establishment. The magnificent collection of art was founded by Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect art in the mid nineteenth century with a clearly formed conception of founding a museum that would be open to all to see and appreciate. It was to be a gallery for the people whereas entry to the Hermitage in St Petersburg was granted exclusively to visitors in full dress or tailcoats and the titles of all the paintings on show were in the French language. The Hermitage was only for the elite. In my final look at paintings housed in the Tretyakov Gallery I am going to showcase my five favourite works. Although my five previous Tretyakov blogs were solely about portraiture, and I do marvel at the technical ability shown by artists of that genre, the favourite paintings I am showing you today are all quite different, but gems in their own right.

The Appearance of Christ Before the People by Alexander Ivanov (1837-1857)

My first offering is a painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov who was born in St. Petersburg on July 16th 1806. It is entitled The Appearance of Christ Before the People (The Apparition of the Messiah) which he started in 1837 and yet did not complete until 1857. This monumental oil on canvas work measures 540cms x 750cms (18ft x 24ft 6ins) and the depiction is set on the banks of the River Jordan. The painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (1: 29–31):

“…The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel…”

Ivanov’s fame is inseparable from his great masterpiece. The finished painting is based on hundreds of preparatory studies he made over twenty years, many of which are gems in themselves and are considered by art historians as masterpieces in their own right. This painting and about 300 preparatory sketches are housed in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Art critics believe that the preparatory sketches reveal greater expressiveness and psychological depth than the finished painting itself.

In the middle ground we see the solitary figure of Christ on a rocky mound approaching the gathering. Behind him in the background is a wide plain and the distant mountains. His figure is small in comparison to the others but nevertheless stands out because of it being a lone figure. In the foreground of the picture there are a number of male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed waiting to be baptised.

John the Baptist

The main figure with his wavy black hair, dressed in his animal skin under a long cloak, is John the Baptist. In his left hand he holds a crosier. He is standing on the banks of the River Jordan and has raised his hands aloft and gestures towards the approaching solitary figure of Christ. To John the Baptist’s left, we see a group of apostles: the young John the Theologian, behind him – Peter, further on – Andrew and behind his back – Nathaniel, the so-called “doubter.” To the right of the approaching Christ and below the two soldiers on horseback, we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth. In the centre of the painting we see a haggard old man struggling to his feet buoyed by the words of John the Baptist.

There are two interesting inclusions in the depiction. Firstly, to the right there is a figure that stands nearest to Jesus and it was he who was depicted as the Repin’s good friend, the writer and dramatist, Nikolai Gogol.

Self portrait

Ivanov also included a self-portrait. Just under the raised right hand of John the Baptist, one can make out a seated man with a red headgear – this is Ivanov himself.

In 1858, Alexander Ivanov went with his beloved painting to St Petersburg where it was exhibited. Its lukewarm reception must have been heart-breaking for Ivanov. Just imagine how you would feel if you had spent almost half of your life on one painting and then after all that effort it was not well received. Ivanov died of cholera in St Petersburg on July 3rd 1858, just a fortnight before his fifty-second birthday, not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1873)

My second choice is a painting by Ilya Repin. In an earlier blog regarding the Tretyakov Gallery I looked at some of Repin’s portraiture but my favourite works by him are his Social Realism works of art. His most iconic and most famous work is one he started in 1870 and completed in 1873. It is his painting entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga, which was bought by the Tsar’s second son. After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1880-1883)

However, the Tretyakov Gallery houses another great painting by Repin. It is his 1883 work entitled The Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Like the Barge Haulers on the Volga it is a monumental painting measuring 175 × 280 cm. It is the annual religious procession in honour of Our Lady of Kursk at which the famous icon, Our Lady of Kursk, is carried twenty-five kilometres from the Korennaya Monastery, south, to the city of Kursk.  The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth. The hillside to the right appears to have been recently cleared of timber, and we can see fresh tree stumps in the ground. Further back along the procession we can see another platform, holding what appears to be a circular icon, besides which are two large banners. Further back along the procession we can just make out a large processional cross which is being held aloft.

The icon bearers

The leaders of the procession carry aloft a bier on top of which is the icon inside an elaborate neo-classical case. The light from the many candles inside the glass case gleam and this reflects off the gold riza icon-cover. A riza is a metal cover protecting an icon. To the left we see a line of peasants holding hands in an attempt to prevent any of the crowd getting too close to the icon. We see a peasant holding a stick out in front of him to try and prevent the crippled boy breaking through the cordon.

The priest

 

Following behind the icon are the priests and better-dressed people, some of who clutch icons to their chests. Note how Repin has portrayed one of the priests in a dandified manner as he carefully straightens his hair. Repin has also scornfully depicted the large stout woman in a yellow dress and bonnet carrying an icon behind the priest. She clutches an icon case to her chest.

 

What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community. Look carefully at the painting and observe the various characters Repin has depicted. He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities. Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.

The crippled boy

We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks. To him, the icon may mean salvation. To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence. Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety, his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway.  This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his social realist paintings. This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life. For Repin, the procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change. Of his painting Repin wrote:

“…I am applying all of my insignificant forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”

David L Jackson wrote in his book, The Wanderers and Critical Realism in nineteenth-century Russian painting, that one art critic at the time wrote with obvious disapproval with regards Repin’s painting and the people viewing it, saying that they were:

“…undesirables who thronged around it at exhibition, noting a preponderance of liberated women with short haircuts, nihilistic young men, and a strong Jewish element; the chief characters of Imperial xenophobia…”

While the American writer and educator, Richard Brettell, wrote about the painting in very unflattering terms, in his book, Modern art, 1851–1929: capitalism and representation, that the painting depicted:

“…fat, gold-robed priests, stupid peasants, wretched cripples, cruel mouthed officials, and inflated rural dignitaries…”

The painting was bought by the leading collector of the time, Pavel Tretyakov for a record 10,000 roubles and there is an interesting tale connected to this purchase. Tretyakov wanted Repin to replace the maids carrying the empty icon-case with “a beautiful young girl, exuding spiritual rapture”. Repin refused !

The Rooks have Returned by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

My third choice is a landscape work. It is Alexsei Savrasov’s 1871 painting entitled The Rooks have Returned, which is considered to be one of his finest works. Savrasov is looked upon as one of the most important of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters and is regarded as being one of the early architects of the “lyrical landscape”, sometimes referred to as “mood landscape”. In 1870 Savrasov became a member of the Peredvizhniki group of Russian realist artists who had protested about academic restrictions, and, with other disenchanted aspiring artists, formed an artists’ cooperative, which eventually evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870, which allowed the artists to break away from government-sponsored academic art. In December 1870, Savrasov and his wife went to Yaroslavl and later, Nizhny Novgorod, which was close to the Volga River. The artist was overwhelmed by the splendour of the beautiful Russian countryside and spent much of his time outdoors painting landscapes en plein air.

The painting, The Rooks have Returned, depicts the start of Spring, evidenced by the return of these birds. Savrasov’s landscape works were influenced by the great English landscape painter, John Constable.  This painting is considered by many critics as being the high point in Savrasov’s artistic career. The depiction we see before us is a simple, and depicts the somewhat inconsequential occurrence of birds returning home in spring to an extremely unpretentious landscape, but it was Savrasov’s way of communicating the change of seasons from Winter to Spring. Simple and yet beautiful. Ivan Kramskoy, the Russian painter and art critic who was the intellectual leader of the Russian democratic art movement wrote that the landscape in “The Rooks Have Come Back” was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul. Another famous Russian painter, the classical landscape painter, Isaac Levitan commented about its simplicity saying that although the painting was very simple, beneath its simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it.  The painting enhanced Savrasov’s reputation as a landscape painter and it contributed to the success of the first exhibition organized by the Peredvizhniki.

My final two choices are both historical painting by Vasily Surikov which Pavel Tretyakov bought for his Gallery. Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on January 24th 1848 and at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Moscow. Many believe that he was the greatest Russian historical painter. The paintings like many others by Surikov have one thing in common – the depiction of crowds. He once wrote:

“…I cannot see individual historical figures acting without the people, without the crowd, I want them all out in the street…”

Boyaryna Morozova by Vasily Surikov (1887)

Both these works of art I have chosen hang in the Tretyakov Gallery. The first one is his monumental 1887 work entitled The Boyarynia Morozova which measures 304 x 588cms. A boyarynia is a woman of high nobility.
Tzar Alexey Mikhailovich Romanov who ruled between 1645 to 1676 was the father of Peter I the Great, and he started the reforms in Russia; one of which was intended to subordinate the church to the tsar. The reforms resulted in the Russian Orthodox Church split into Nikonians (those who followed the new course set down by the tsar, the name comes from the revolutionary patriarch Nikon) and the Old-Believers who were against the radical changes. The changes included the revision of icons and holy books, and there were even changes in the divine service. It was also deemed that making the sign of the cross should be done with three fingers, instead of two. In the picture the Boyarynya and her supporters are shown with two fingers up, which means they are Old-Believers.

Boyaryna Morozova

The painting depicts the arrest of Feodosia Morozova, one of the most well-known of the Old Believers in 1653. She is being driven, bound in chains, on a simple peasant sledge through a narrow Moscow street. She has been condemned to a terrible death and is now being exposed to shame and abuse. She remains unbending in her beliefs and we witness her as she sweeps her hand upwards with two outstretched fingers – the sign of the schism. She looks pale and emaciated but still her eyes sparkle defiantly. Few of her followers dare to copy her gesture as they are afraid to openly show their support with the woman because of the brutal oppression by the authorities. However, a beggar to the right holds up his two fingers in a gesture of solidarity whilst others bow their heads in grief.

The Morning of the Streltsy Execution by Vasily Surikov (1881)

The second work by Surikov, and my final choice, is his 1881 painting entitled The Morning of the Streltsy Execution.  Surikov’s very large historical work (218 x 379cms) depicts an event during the reign of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, the second Streltsy Uprising of 1698. The Streltsy were infantry units which were formed in the 16th century by the Russian Tsar Ivan IV ‘Ivan the Terrible’. These units were considered elite units. Over time the Streltsy became a power behind the throne and in 1682 they attempted to prevent Peter the Great from coming to the throne in favour of his mentally disabled half-brother, Ivan. Whilst Peter the Great was on a scientific tour in western Europe during 1697 and 1698, the four thousand men from the Streltsy-regiments of Moscow rebelled. The rebellion was crushed, Peter the Great cut short his tour and returned to Moscow to punish the rebels with savage reprisals, including public executions and torture. Surikov’s painting depicts the crushing of the rebels. The setting is Red Square, with the large Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the background. The stone platform on the left is the Lobnoye Mesto, a 13-meter-long stone platform situated on Red Square in Moscow in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. On the right, on horseback, we can see Tsar Peter the Great, with his advisors standing next to him. To the left we can the Streltsy rebels on carts, their family and loved ones surround them agonising over their impending fate. Fifty-seven Streltsy were executed in Red Square by hanging, with seventy-four more to follow four days later. Many Streltsy were also whipped, drawn and quartered, and buried alive, with the total number of executions eventually reaching 1,182. Six hundred were sent into exile. The Streltsy-regiments were then disbanded.

Of all the world’s Art Galleries the Tretyakov in Moscow is one to visit.

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting was bought by the Tsar’s second son.   After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”