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Art History

Russian Art
Second half 19th century
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

‘Portrait of L. Tolstoy’ I. Kramskoy

t the end of the 1850s and beginning of the 1860s, in conditions of acute social contention over the abolishing of serfdom in Russia, a sharp rise was observed in the democratic tendencies of art. Realistic, democratic and national art – such were the slogans of the young painters of the day.

In 1863, a group of young artists headed by Ivan Kramskoy dropped out of the Academy as a mark of protest against class prejudices. They brought to light the wealth of a man’s inner world irrespective of his social standing. This action came to be known as ‘the mutiny of the fourteen’. They won their independence, but on the other hand they lost the rewards, the trips abroad, and the other privileges to which the patronage of the Academy entitled them. Kramskoy and his friends set up a commune in St. Petersburg, keeping house and sharing expenses, taking on commissions and distributing the work among themselves. Although this did not go on very long, the experience of the commune was a great help in the elaboration of a more stable form of uniting the independent artists.

In 1870, the painters of Moscow and St. Petersburg founded the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions (peredvizhniki). This was Russia’s first independent organization of artists. This Society coped splendidly with its task. Exhibitions were shown regularly not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in many provincial towns, winning the hearts and minds of the Russian public who came to anticipate the displays as major social events.

It was the members of this Society, among them such great and original talents as Vassily Perov, Ivan Kramskoy, Nikolay Ghe, Ilya Repin and Vassily Surikov, who take the greatest credit for emancipating art from academic conventionalism and for developing realism.

In the 1860s, at the inception of these processes, the leading spokesman for the method of critical realism was Vassily Perov (1833-1882), a Moscow painter and a follower of Fedotov whose discoveries he developed.

‘An Easter Village Procession’ V. Perov

In one of his earliest paintings ‘An Easter Village Procession’ (1861), Perov ruthlessly laid bare the spiritual drama of the village. With anger and acrimony he shows the triumph of brute instincts, nurtured by hopeless ignorance and poverty. The crowning point of the procession of drunken peasants and church attendants is the figure of the parish priest who can hardly stand on his feet and whom the artist singles out by framing him in the porch. It is not surprising that the authorities forbade the picture to be reprinted, fearing the harm it would do to the prestige of the clergy. Pavel Tretyakov, on the contrary, thought very highly of this truthful picture and bought it at once for his gallery.

‘At the Last Inn’ (1868) is one of Perov’s most tragic pictures, a summing up, shall we say, of his broodings on the wretchedness of the people’s existence. A little girl, a dog, and the horses harnessed into the two sledges are freezing in the wind outside a tavern on the edge of a town. The wind sweeps the snow over the runners and the tracks left by other sledges that had been pulled up by the tavern. The road leads to the town gates beyond which stretches onto an endless, dreary plain. Wretchedness, anxiety, and the boredom of waiting permeate the picture. The mood is conveyed by the contrasts of color and light: in the thickening blue dusk the houses seem all the more somber against the cold, piercing yellow of the sunset and the dim, yellow-red, sinister lights in the tavern windows.

A major painter of the 1870s was Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887), the ideological leader of the peredvizhniki, an outstanding theorist and an art critic, whose purpose in art was to disclose the complex inner world of man. In ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ (1872) Kramskoy conveys the tension of the man in his agonized seekings for the truth of life, and his ripening readiness for self-sacrifice. By using chiaroscuro to ‘sculpt’ the face and hands, Kramskoy accentuates the psychological nuances in the image.

‘At the Last Inn’ V. Perov

In 1873 Kramskoy accepted a commission from Tretyakov to paint a portrait of Leo Tolstoy and worked on it in Yasnaya Polyana when Tolstoy was writing ‘Anna Karenina’. The longer he associated with Tolstoy the stronger was Kramskoy’s feeling that he had before him an extraordinary personality: ‘He smacks of genius’, wrote the artist. The painting is ascetically severe and simple. There are no attributes of furnishing or of a writer’s craft in his picture. Kramskoy concentrated all his talent on bringing out Tolstoy’s powerful intellect, will, energy, profound insight – all that distinguished Tolstoy as a personality.

Kramskoy’s persistent interest in man’s intellectual and moral strength underlines the other portraits he painted of intellectuals, among them the writer Mikhail Saltykov- Shedrin, the poet Nikolay Nekrasov and Pavel Tretaykov himself.

(to be continued in the next issue)

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