Face to Face with Russia’s Greatest
Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky –
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at Russian cultural icons eye-to-eye
The year before the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and with the backdrop of the lowest ebb in the British-Russian political relationship, a momentous event has quietly taken place in London, in several cramped and unprepossessing rooms. This is a civil society event, a cultural one – but no less important for all that. On the face of it, you may be left wondering why I’ve built it up so much, when I tell you that it’s an exhibition of 26 portraits of writers, composers, musicians and actors, together with a few of their flamboyant patrons. The event – Russia and the Arts; The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery – is the most ambitious exhibition of Russian portraiture ever to take place in the West. But even that is to understate its wider significance.
Many of the subjects of these portraits are hardly in need of an introduction. They include giants such as Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov among many others. These are works of exceptional historic and artistic value – often understatedly described as ‘icons of Russian culture’.
Among them is the only portrait of Dostoevsky painted from life. Tolstoy is shown in the study of his Moscow home at work on the manuscript of his philosophical treatise ‘What I Believe’; while Mussorgsky was painted just a few days before his death in a St Petersburg hospital at the age of forty-two. While Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were publishing novels such as War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, and Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were taking Russian music to new heights – in a parallel development – Russian art of the period was developing a new self-confidence. Although the next stage in Russian art is extremely well-known in the West with the likes of Malevich and Chagal, this era of Russian Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism with outstanding talents such as Repin,and Perov – is far less well-known.
But what is significant is not just the fame of the subjects of these portraits, nor is it just the paintings themselves and the extraordinary artists responsible for them – it is also their symbolic or iconic power over the hearts and minds of the Russian people. There is no nearest equivalent in British visual culture. No painting of Shakespeare, Dickens or Elgar that has a similar potency.
And it is also significant that all of these portraits of the greats were of a period – painted by their contemporaries. All were known to each other, some friends others less cordial. These portraits represent an extraordinary flowering of Russian cultural life – a glittering golden age – at the twilight of imperial rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are justly honoured because they were all – in their own ways – uniquely able to articulate the Russian soul with all its beauty and angst, light and darkness.
The poignancy of this golden age is heightened by the dreadful writing on the wall that was already there for all to see. Many of these Russian greats were dissidents, caught up in the zeitgeist, struggling for some sort of change from the status quote – and often like Dostoevsky being cruelly punished for it.
Curator Rosalind Blakesley’s achievement to persuade the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow to take down these invaluable icons of Russian culture – let alone bring them to London – is of course truly astonishing. To understand the scale of this achievement you must realise that to refer to these portraits as Russian ‘cultural icons’ is no exercise in purple prose. They are – in fact – just that: Hallowed, sacred images invested with deep emotional intensity by generations of Russians across Tsarist, Communist and now Capitalist eras – one of the few unchanging constants in the turmoil of political and social upheavals, wars and invasions.
This pantheon of the great and good is in many ways the beating heart and living soul of Russia – a secular cathedral – to which Russians have made repeated pilgrimage both in good times and bad. These secular icons are indeed touchstones that magically appear to replenish the very souls of Russian peoples and fill them anew with pride in their collective historic identity.
Inevitably therefore these works are the pride and joy of the Tretyakov Gallery – an integral part of the permanent display – and have rarely if ever left its walls. It is fascinating that the majority of the portraits on display were bought or commissioned directly by Pavel Tretyakov, a merchant, philanthropist and the founder of the museum. He conceived his portrait collection as ‘a museum within a museum’ – a portrait gallery as part of a national gallery. He wanted to build up a pantheon of the worthy – a collection of portraits of ‘individuals whom the nation holds dear.’ Tretyakov would send out his favorite artists to paint a great man often in the act of producing a notable work, at a critical juncture in their career or with some urgency – moments before their death. In this noble endeavour, Tretyakov was influenced by both the views of Russian intellectuals and the experience of the National Portrait Gallery, which had opened the same year in London in 1856.
The exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery provides an intimate green room-like space where you appear to intrude on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov – all in a row. To find these incredibly important men all displayed together is quite unexpected – displayed by theme instead of artist, as is the way in Moscow – in life, they would not always have even wished to be in the same room as each other. But to also find them displayed at eye level where the face-to face contact is very direct – unlike their more elevated display in Moscow – is for many visiting Russians, a particularly deeply emotional and indeed humbling experience.
Neither Western nor Eastern, neither democratic nor totalitarian, neither friend nor foe – Russia defiantly retains its distinctive otherness and inscrutability, refusing – now as then – either to join Western culture nor turn its back on it. If we want to understand Russia a little better, then we need to understand its soul, which is touchingly bared for all to see in this unique, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of its pantheon of worthies – its immortal secular icons – produced by some hitherto unsung masters of a resplendent golden age.
Ilia Repin, Ivan Turgenev, 1874
The great novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818-83) appears to be glowering in his richly patterned chair – his mouth tuned down and a distinct look of mild disdain in his expression. Tretyakov had commissioned the much younger Ilia Repin (1844-1930) to paint the great man when both were then living in Paris. It seemed like an inspired pairing up. It all started very happily, but soon Turgenev’s friends voiced their concerns about the portrait and Turgenev himself was persuaded that it was all wrong.on the grounds that it made him look like a ‘shamlessly grinning old roue’. Repin reworked the head but there was no pleasing the sitter with relations going from bad to worse. Tretyakov himself was displeased with the final portrait on the grounds that it failed to capture Turgenev’s intelligence and good humour. Tretyakov was to approach seven other artists to produce the definitive portrait of Turgenev – but two refused. Repin himself was persuaded to have another crack on two further occasions – both portraits of which have been lost. This portrait of 1874 – with all its supposed faults and visible friction is however now considered the most successful of all portraits of the great writer.
Nikolai Ge, Leo Tolstoy, 1884
The highly introspective and spiritual artist Nikolai Ge said of his portrait of Leo Tolstoy, “In this portrait, I have conveyed all that is most precious in this wonderful man.” Tolstoy was at the very peak of his international reputation and many – including Ge – were drawn like moths to the great man. Even Repin – who painted Tolstoy on numerous occasions – was powerfully awed by his charisma, intelligence and reputation, stating that “When near him I could only submit to his will, as if hypnotised.” Tolstoy was not only a celebrated man of letters but also a deeply philosophical and spiritual man with a growing cultish following. Both of these attributes are well represented in this portrait that depicts the sitter dressed simply in an austere setting – much like a modern saint Augustine – undisturbed at his work, with the focus on his concentrated and furrowed brow, and famous writing hand with its gleaming wedding ring. Here he is at his desk at his Moscow home in 1884 working on a highly radical philosophical work – What I Believe – that would soon be banned. In this work he advocated peaceful nonresistance to evil power – an idea that was to famously influence Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle against British Imperial power. Even more radically he also opposed the ownership of private property and proposed a from of Christian anachism. This quietly meditative portrait successfully appears to convey both Tolstoy’s modesty, service and integrity as well as the power of his personality and intelligence in equal measure by an enthusiastic neophyte.
Vasily Perov, Fedor Dostoevsky, 1879
There is a masterful lightness of touch to this exceptional portrait of one of the world’s greatest novelists, which is also the only portrait of Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-72) from life. Here he is seated with exaggeratedly enmeshed fingers as if shackled, seemingly oblivious to the viewer, his slight frame overpowered by his voluminous coat. His face appears pale, drawn, careworn and his mind resigned but unquiet. The writer’s wife believed that “Perov captured… Dostoevsky’s ‘moment of creation’ when he ‘peered into himself.'” It was painted at the time when Dostoevsky was working on the dark and intense psychological novel The Devils. This followed the similarly dark and psychological novel Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky was able to draw from deep well springs of suffering, cruelty and anguish. In 1849 the 28 year old writer was arrested for his involvement with a utopian socialist society and sentenced to death. Reprieved only as he awaited the firing squad, he then spent four years in unspeakable conditions shackled and exposed to extremes of heat and cold. There then followed half a decade of enforced military service – all of which would have destroyed a lesser man. Instead Dostoevsky earned an unrivaled authority to mediate on subjects of crime and depravity, illness and insanity, degradation and irrationality. Perov’s understanding of his subject and restraint is therefore admirable. The result is a portrait that many – like the painter and art critic Ivan Kramskoy – justifiably believed was one of the greatest Russian portraits of all time.
Nikolai Kuznetsov, Petr Tchaikovsky, 1839
Tchaikovsky (1840-93) stares out at you with a humbling and unnerving intensity from a darkly troubled background of chaotic loose brushstrokes, his refined hand resting gently on a musical score – the single part of his great life over which he clearly has absolute mastery. Here is a portrait that puts a face to the music – as if the notes on that musical score have mysteriously anthropomorphised to present his features – but all the while the dark chaos threatens to engulf him. Gazing eye-to-eye at a monumental genius of humanity with all its extremes and flaws, his music playing in your ears – is a withering experience. There is none of the imperious swagger of an arrogant high-achiever however. Instead his slightly parted lips appear to suggest some unease – he always loathed the public spotlight – and his eyes are tired and more than a little troubled. This powerful portrait is of a deeply complex and unhappy man preoccupied both by the weight of his genius and the private burden of his repressed homosexuality. Nikolai Kuznestsov (1850-1920) painted this portrait in the midst of Tchaikovsky’s tour in Odessa with the Russian Philharmonic Society. At the very peak of his national and international fame, having been lauded both in Europe and America – where he had been guest conductor with some of the world’s leading orchestras – even the tsar showered him with honours and closely followed his burgeoning career. Kuznetsov’s portrait convincingly conveys the futility of all of this in providing a lasting solace to his unhappy soul, the turmoils of which could only be expressed in the immense gift of his talents.
‘To show in the National Portrait Gallery, London, the highest achievements of Russian portraiture of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century was my long-time dream. The portrait was always one of the strongest points of the Russian painting school and those presented at the exhibition are a concentrated expression of the ideal Russian identity of the time’.
Tatiana Karpova, Deputy Director on Scientific Affairs at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Ilia Repin, Modest Mussorgsky, 1881
The context – both micro and macro – of Repin’s portrait of the great Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) is both poignant and extraordinary. It was with some urgency that Tretyakov rushed Repin over to the dipsomaniac’s hospital ward, as a habit of hard drinking had left him gravely ill at the age of just forty-two. As Repin writes, “My last session was planned for the next day. But when I arrived at the appointed hour, I did not find M.P. (Mussorgsky) among the living.” Furthermore this death-bed portrait was painted the day after Alexander II was killed by a bomb in the streets of St Petersburg, which had left Russia reeling in shock. It is unlikely that Mussorgsky – had he survived – would have mourned the tsar, as the frequently destitute composer was perceived as an extremist by the court and consequently overlooked throughout his professional life. His alcoholism was probably as much a response to the difficulties of his life as a bohemian pose, and is pitifully all too visible in his unkempt beard and hair, his florid features, rosacean nose and watery unfocussed eyes. The elegant burgundy lapel of his dressing gown hangs loosely like a tightening noose around his neck – perhaps a harbinger of the imminent. Beneath the dressing gown is a flash of peasant handiwork patterns that appear to reference his lifelong preoccupation to forge a uniquely Russian musical identity. A decade previously Mussorgsky had written of the chief driver of his work to Repin, saying “It is the people I want to depict, when I sleep I see them, when I eat I think of them, when I drink they appear to me, complete, large unvarnished.” Repin’s empathy with these sentiments and indeed with his subject is convincingly expressed with sincere pathos in this great tour de force.
Iosif Braz, Anton Chekhov, 1898
Braz’s portrait of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) appears unchallengingly conservative and conventional – which is peculiar when you consider that he is one of the world’s greatest developers of the short fiction genre and modernist innovator of the theatre. He is seated in formal mode facing the viewer with a somewhat morose expression, in a smart black suit, and pince-nez – his hair and beard perfectly groomed. The type of portrait you would – at a slightly later era – expect of a company director, head master or doctor – which was of course his day job. “Medicine is my lawful wife”, he once said, “and literature is my mistress.” The portrait – painted in Nice in 1898 – was another commissioned by the great Tretyakov for his pantheon of the great and good of Russia. It marks the point at which the doctor becomes the internationally celebrated playwright, when The Seagull is performed to considerable acclaim in Moscow and the sluice gates to fame – and some fortune – are finally opened. Braz’s portrait is his second attempt, the first having been destroyed as it looked so little like him. Chekhov himself disliked this – the second attempt – saying that he thought it made him look as if he’d been sniffing grated horseradish, and refused to sign reproductions of it. Nevertheless, for all its faults – this portrait remains the seminal and defining image of the great man towards the end of his life when success was to be accompanied by a wasting illness that killed him when he was only 44 years of age.
Ivan Kramskoy, Alexander Lensky as Petruchio, 1883
The literal focus of this portrait of actor and theatre director Alexander Lensky (1847-1908) is the elaborate Elizabethan costume with its gleaming jewels, contrasting fabrics and leather gauntlet – rather than his features. With the actors eyes averted – Kramskoy appears to be drawing our attention to the part being played rather than to the actor. Lensky was riding on a wave of Russian interest in Shakespeare, having earned a reputation playing some of the biggest roles. Kramskoy was able to study his subject at very close quarters having befriended the famous actor, who at this point was taking painting lessons with the artist whilst performing in St Petersburg in 1883. Like many of the subjects and painters of this collection of portraits, Kramskoy had revolutionary leanings both in his politics and his art. Rejecting the conventions of academic art, he promoted the notion of public duty in artists as well as the principle of realism. This striking portrait of Lensky, at the top of his game in the role of Petruchio (The Taming of the Shrew), is in effect a type of genre painting – dazzling in its intensity and detailing.
Vasily Perov, Vladimir Dal, 1872
The acclaimed lexicographer Vladimir Dal (1801-72) aged 71 was to die soon after this portrait by Perov. As with his portrait of Dostoevsky, Dal’s fingers are firmly enmeshed as his sunken eyes look directly at the viewer. He is almost completely enveloped by a large chair as old and worn as he is, and weighted down by a heavy gown with overly large buttons. There is no doubting Dal’s advanced age, with his wispy grey beard and saggy skin, but his keen intelligence and determination is clearly undimmed. After retiring from government service in 1859, following service in the navy and as an army doctor in various military campaigns, the prodigiously talented Dal reinvented himself as a writer and philologist. Defying literary conventions – that were influenced by Western fashions, he produced a number of volumes of Russian fairy tales, folk beliefs and proverbs. At the heart of his quest was the articulation and celebration of the Russian language in all its rich regional diversity, which he was masterfully able to do with his four-volume ‘Reasoned Dictionary of the Living Russian Language’ – that remains a classic today. Perov’s sensitive and evocative portrait of this great man is a haunting depiction that stays with you long after you’ve walked away.
‘Compared to the work of the Russian avant-garde, Russia’s extraordinary artistic traditions of earlier periods remain relatively unknown abroad. This exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate the excitements of Russian Realism, Impressionism, and Symbolism through the portraits of some of Russia’s most creative figures. These include cherished national treasures, from Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky on his deathbed to the only portrait of Dostoevsky painted from life, and illuminate Russia’s exceptional cultural life in the closing decades of Imperial rule.’
Dr Rosalind P. Blakesley, Curator of Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky
The exhibition focuses on the great writers, artists, actors, composers and patrons whose achievements helped develop an extraordinary and rich cultural scene in Russia between 1867 and 1914.
Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is curated by Dr Rosalind P. Blakesley, Reader in Russian and European Art, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge. She has written widely on Russian art and on the Arts and Crafts Movement and is a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, London. The exhibition celebrates both the National Portrait Gallery’s and State Tretyakov Gallery’s 160th anniversaries.
Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 17 March to 26 June. 2016
RUSSIA AND THE ARTS: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky
by Rosalind P. Blakesley and Tatiana L. Karpova
published by National Portrait Gallery, RRP £24.95
To accompany the exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery has published Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. This book explores some of the extraordinary developments that took place in Russian culture between 1867 and 1914, within a broad history of Russian portraiture, with reference to a variety of important works in the State Tretyakov Gallery. Core paintings from this collection illuminate the engaging story of Russian portraiture from the early eighteenth century to the twilight of imperial rule.
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