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.

Hush and Hushed by Frank Holl

Hush by Frank Holl (1877)

I get great pleasure in “discovering” new artists.  Today I am going to look at the life of an artist I had never previously heard of and maybe he is somebody that you have never come across before.  In My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at two paintings by the English Victorian social realist painter and portraitist Frank Holl, entitled Hush and Hushed.

Frank Montague Holl was born in Kentish Town, London in 1845.  His father, Francis, was a well-known engraver and Academician.  His grandfather, William Holl, was also an engraver.  He was brought up in a political household.  His family were staunch Socialists and from an early age Holl was taught that he had a duty in life to transform society and improve it for the common people.   He started his schooling at the Heath Mount School in Hampstead and at the age of fifteen he enrolled as a probationer at the Royal Academy Schools.  He proved to be an exceptional student but much to the dismay of his tutors, Holl liked to add a touch of political content to his works of art.  At the age of seventeen he won a silver medal for his work and the following year was awarded a gold medal and a travel scholarship for his painting entitled The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.  It was a painting that depicted a family bereavement and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, the then monarch, Queen Victoria attempted to buy the painting it but the original purchaser refused to sell it.  Two years later Holl painted another painting on the same theme entitled No Tidings from the Sea and on this occasion Queen Victoria purchased it for a 100 guineas.   Holl set off on his travel scholarship to Italy but the journey lasted only two months, at which time he wrote to the Royal Academy saying that he wanted to return home and concentrate on his social realism paintings based on the lower working-class life in England.

Holl started exhibiting his work in 1864 when he was nineteen years of age and from 1869 onwards he was a regular contributor to the Academy Exhibitions. Many of these works were depicting the plight of the less fortunate and their pitiful existence, such as No Tidings from the Sea (1871) and Leaving Home (1873).  When he completed his studies in 1869 he was employed by William Luson Thomas, a successful artist, wood engraver and social reformer, who had just founded a new weekly illustrated newspaper, called The Graphic, and was looking for a number of talented artists to illustrate it.  For the following five years, Holl produced a series of pictures that were used to illustrate stories in the magazine. Among his fellow workers were Luke Fildes (see The Doctor – My Daily Art Display, May 17th 2011) and Hubert von Herkomer (see Hard Times, My Daily Art Display July 25th 2011), who like him believed passionately in the cause for political and social change.  Often they would turn the engravings, which they had fashioned for the pages of The Graphic, into oil paintings.  These depictions of the real life lead by the “under-class” of the nation lead them to become known as the Social Realist Movement.  Although we may look upon these depictions of poverty as a welcome wake-up call to the nation, they were badly received by the Victorian establishment at the time.  They viewed the works as being disloyal.  The establishment and many of the people who had never suffered poverty wanted to turn a blind-eye to the suffering of the less fortunate.  Their motto was “out of sight, out of mind” and frowned upon these upstart young artists who wanted to drag the social differences which existed into the public forum.

Samuel Cousins by Frank Holl (1879)

In 1879 Frank Holl had a breakthrough in his artistic career when he completed a portrait of his neighbor, the English mezzotint engraver, Samuel Cousins.  The critics loved it.  One wrote in a national newspaper:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s portrait of the renowned engraver Samuel Cousins R.A. is a superb work, glowing,  for all the austerity of its execution, with animation and intelligence…”

In another newspaper the art critic commented:

“…Mr Frank Holl’s half-length, seated of Mr Samuel Cousins, the engraver is one of the portraits of the year and does the young artist infinite credit…”

So was Samuel Cousins delighted with the finished work?  Actually, he wasn’t, saying, with an open show of vanity, that the painter had added to his years, and had made him appear too old.  However notwithstanding the sitter’s comments the painting lead to numerous lucrative commissions from wealthy patrons.  From that day on till the end of his life, Frank Holl never had to search out work, work searched him out.  His portraiture was mainly of men, often ones who were very famous such as Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain.

In 1888 having sent a number of his paintings to the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition he travelled to Spain.  He had decided to spend a short period in Madrid and visit the Prado where he could study the works of the great Spanish master, Velasquez.  Shortly after returning home he suffered at heart attack and died suddenly on July 31st 1888, aged just 43.  His fame as an portrait artist lead to much work, in fact too much work, none of which he ever turned down.  Holl continually tried to find time to paint his social realist paintings as well as his lucrative portraiture work but to do this he found himself working every day of the week.  He once told his wife of the strain he was under, saying:

“…Hunger for work is always on me, and it is when I cannot satisfy this hunger that I get so worn out. If only I could banish my tormenting conscience for work; but that never lets me alone, and if I do nothing I feel of no use…”

After his death his daughter commented that her father continually suffered from the nervous strain of working with such distinguished men and that this strain, in her mind, contributed to her father’s premature death.

Hushed by Frank Holl (1877)

Today’s pair of paintings entitled Hush and Hushed were completed by Frank Holl in 1877 and are now housed in the Tate Britain Gallery in London.

The setting for the two paintings is a room in a small dwelling.  It is a solemn setting and the somber colours used by Holl enhance the bleak and depressing mood.  One can tell by the sparse decor and bare walls that the occupants have little money.  The lives of such people was a constant source for Holl’s artistic works.  In the first of these paintings entitled Hush, we see before us a mother tenderly bending over the cradle of her sick child.   There is a distinct look of concern and apprehension in her face.  Whilst she looks into the cradle,  she whispers to her other child, who stands close by, to be quiet so as not wake the infant who has finally gone to sleep.  The young boy looks equally anxious about the situation.   It is a typical homely scene and there is no hint of what is to follow in the companion work, Hushed.

This second work is a follow-up scene in the same room and this time we see the devastated mother gazing sorrowfully into the empty cradle where once the baby had been but had now sadly passed away.   We see the mother with her hand covering her face in a sign of grief.  Her other child leans against a cupboard with his hands clasped in front of him.   He looks at his grieving mother but has no idea what to do to console her.

These are extremely moving works of art and in a way Holl has handled them without resorting to sentimentality.  The paintings were meant for people to understand the problems faced by those who were imprisoned by poverty and suffered the fates that accompanied such financial destitution. Infant mortality was high in 19th century and it is estimated 1 in 5 children died before their fifth birthday. Infant mortality had always been high and much of it could be because of the lack of sanitation and general hygiene especially amongst the poor. However in those days, the well-off were not immune to such early deaths, as it was also a period when consumption and cholera accounted for many young deaths.