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The Arts

The Great Russian Artists of the Late 19th Century
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

V.Vereshchagin ‘Apotheosis of War’

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, exhibitions of Vassili Vereshchagin paintings (1842-1904) enjoyed enormous popularity in Russia, Europe and the USA. He was famed mainly as a war painter, the first to give a ruthlessly truthful picture of the savages of war. But his paintings covered many more themes than this. In 1871-1873, Vereshchagin completed a cycle of paintings entitled ‘Turkestan Series’  in which he embodied his impressions of Central Asia. In ‘Gates of Tamerlane’ (after the Tartar conqueror) we see two sentries standing guard in the boiling sun. Vereshchagin admires the beauty of the sentries’ dress, ancient weapons and the ornament of the doors. At the same time he conjures up an atmosphere of the sleepy stagnancy of life at this ancient court and the pomp and ceremony of the local feudal rulers’ living. His picture ‘Apotheosis of War’ (1871) was inspired by the history of Tamerlane’s savage reprisals taken against his conquered peoples. The hill of skulls, the dead town, and the waste in place of lush orchards, acquire the significance of a symbol of the tragedy and devastation of war. Vereshagin made a fortuitous inscription on the frame of this picture: ‘Dedicated to All Great Conquerors, Past, Present and Future.’

I. Repin ‘Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan’

Nikolai Ghe (1831-1894), one of the founders of the Society of Traveling Art Exhibitions, raised cardinal moral problems of the day by interpreting biblical subjects in a new way. In his later period, he embodied his ideal of a hero, who was persecuted for the truth and stood up for the oppressed, in the image of Christ. Ghe didn’t live to finish his last painting ‘Calvary’ (1892) whose expressiveness and tragic impact are truly staggering.

Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) became a big name when he turned for inspiration to Russian folk tales and legends. He was prolific in monumental decorative art, and was one of the first in Russia to adopt Art Nouveau. His heroic imagery was embodied in his painting ‘Bogatyrs’ (or sturdy Russian warriors), which has become a Russian national emblem of strength and ability to protect the Motherland.

The period’s greatest sculptor was Mark Antokolsky (1843-1902). In his marble statue ‘Ivan the Terrible’, the tsar is torn between contending thoughts and passions as, alone with his conscience, he tries to find a justification for his cruelty in exterminating his real and imagined enemies.

V. Vasnetsov ‘Bogatyrs’

The high achievements of Russian realistic painting in the latter half of the 19th century are linked with the names of Ilya Repin and Vassili Surikov.

Genre paintings and portraits were of priority importance in the diversified work of Ilya Repin (1844-1930). The attraction of ‘A Religious Procession in Kursk Gubernia (province)’ (1880-1883) lies in its lifelike, natural composition, the vigorous, lusty, and confidently precise brushwork, and the depth of the psychological characterizations. The stream of humans, slowly moving along the dusty road in sweltering heat, and the strict observance of the place allotted to each class or estate group in the procession, give a panoramic picture of the life of Russian society with its sharp social contrasts.

Repin always sought dramatic situations in which he could disclose the inner world of man and the complexity of his character. Such is the painting ‘Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on Nov 16, 1581’ (1885). It portrays the moment when in a fit of rage Ivan the Terrible killed his son and heir. The hands and heads of the father and son could not be more expressive. Repin places the emphasis on the irreparableness of the deed. It was the wave of the tsarist government’s reprisals against the revolutionary movement of narodniki, which suggested the theme to Repin. His contemporaries took the picture in that spirit, and Pavel Tretyakov, who bought it, had a hard time securing permission to display it in his Gallery.

V. Surikov ‘Boyarynya Morozova’

The historical pictures of Vassili Surikov (1846-1916) represented the peak of the Russian school in this genre. A brilliant colorist and a clever compositionist, Surikov had no equal among the Russian painters in his ability to build up the atmosphere of the past and render historical drama in images of tremendous inner intensity.

One of his most popular paintings is ‘Boyarynya Morozova’ (1887). In this painting Surikov reconstructed a 17th c. scene. We see a crowded Moscow street along which a sleigh carries away Boyarynya Morozova, one of raskolnikis leaders, with chains on her wrists. The sleigh moving over the flaccid snow seems to cleave the crowd in two. Boyarynya Morozova is singled out by the contrast between her black clothes and the white snow, and by the powerful motion of her upraised arm with fingers making the old, controversial, sign of the cross to assert her creed. Her pale face with her sunken eyes glow with an inner fire, and the strength of her spirit and convictions finds a response in the excited crowd.

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