The Russian School of Painting/Chapter IV
< The Russian School of Painting
Chapter III
The Russian School of Painting by Alexandre Benois, translated byAvrahm Yarmolinsky
Chapter IV.
Religious Painting
(Alexander I. Ivanov, 1806-1858)
Chapter V
(Alexander I. Ivanov, 1806–1858)
LEXANDER IVANOV, too, belongs to Romanticism. As a man of unusual and lofty seriousness, of a truly mystical nature and of a penetrating inner vision, he deserves, more than the noisy Bryullov and the superficial Bruni, to be enrolled in the Honour Legion of true romanticists. His artistic views were undoubtedly formed under the influence of Overbeck's romantic art and Gogol's mystical preaching. Nevertheless, Ivanov must not be considered a true representative of Romanticism. In part he did not grow up to it, and in part he went beyond it. In whatever he accomplished, he remained too dependent upon the intellectuality and conventionality of classicism; in whatever he wished to achieve, in whatever he left unfinished,—half-ready, awaiting, as it were, the final consummation—Romanticism remained infinitely far behind him. He was the only one among Russian artists to approach in stature the giants of
Alexandre Ivanov
Russian letters: to the Slavophiles, to Gogol, and partly also to Dostoyevsky. At the same time he remained perfectly independent of literature, an artist in the full sense of the word.
The education Ivanov received is fully responsible for his lack of inward unity. The son of that stern classicist, Andrey Ivanov, who was sent to the Academy straight from the Foundling Hospital, and gradually turned there into a flawless professor, Alexander spent his youth in the suffocating atmosphere of academic scholasticism. Moreover, this classical system assumed in the austere, respectable middle-class family a peculiar coldly official character, impregnable, and extremely narrow. A humdrum existence, both at home and at school, was Ivanov's life before his trip abroad. To the Society of Encouragement of Artists belongs the honour of having saved this Russian master. Greatly encouraged by the striking success of their first travelling scholars, the brothers Bryullov, the Society decided to send Ivanov also to Rome, and in 1831 he left his native country, whither he was destined to return only a month before his death. The real Ivanov found himself and developed abroad, where he lived for upward of twenty-five years.
He did not assert his individuality at once. On the contrary, Rome, at first, nearly proved his undoing, for
it was in Rome that the decrepit classicism was living its last days; here were the headquarters of the international colony of artists who catered to the tastelessness and banality of the ever flowing stream of tourists. The energetic, wayward and highly cultured Bryullov, the keen, well-educated Bruni could afford to be subjected to this spirit, without running so great a risk as Ivanov did, of losing themselves in the insipidity and routine which flourished in Rome; what saved Ivanov was his own nature, which, although not very spirited and vivid, was deep, concentrated, and loathed the staleness of classicism. He owed much also to his acquaintance with the sincere and serious artist, Overbeck. Overbeck pointed out to him the ways which led him out of the straits of the academic formula, but once on the highroad, Ivanov left his mentor far behind and came near those revelations of mystery, which were utterly inaccessible to the somewhat limited Overbeck, who, besides, entangled himself in religious hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, Ivanov definitely found himself only in the very last years of his life, and the true Ivanov, the grandiose and excellent artist, is known to us by his Biblical sketches only, which he intended to develop into vast canvases upon his return to Russia. Throughout the twenty-five years he spent in Rome, he simply had no time to devote himself to free creative activity,
for he was brought to a deadlock by the two pictures which he deemed his duty to paint for the Petrograd connoisseurs. The first was "Christ Showing Himself to Magdalen" (1835, Museum of Alexandre III), conceived, though not executed, after the classical fashion. The second was the ill-fated "Christ Appearing Before the People," which tormented Ivanov for about twenty years, for he became entangled, from the very outset, in his efforts to combine in it various religious considerations with complete historical accuracy and a perfect observance of the classical traditions.
Yet in this work, too, there is the reflection of great artistic power. Separate portions of it, individual types, fragments of landscape—hint at what Ivanov could have been, had he not been crippled by his education. They show also into what a great master he could have developed, had not death taken him at the very moment when, having bidden farewell to the vagaries of his youth, he was entering upon a wholly independent and admirable road.
In the hall of the Rumyantzev Museum, where this canvas has found hospitality, all the walls are covered with Ivanov's innumerable studies for it. In the same way, as many, or even more sketches are scattered in the Tretyakov Gallery, in the collections of M. P. Botkin, and elsewhere. It is these sketches that show what
Ivanov aimed at. They show him not only as a wonderful master of design and an astonishing connoisseur of form, but also as a deep psychologist. Moreover, in some of his landscape sketches and in his studies in nude he is a bold innovator in colour, foretelling the achievements of Impressionism long before its appearance. In these studies nature is Ivanov's school to a degree which was scarcely attained outside of classic art. This schooling helped him to master, with astonishing ease, the most complicated compositions in the Biblical sketches, with which he busied himself in his leisure hours.
There exists an opinion that Ivanov's essential lack of preparation would have impaired his subsequent activity. Did he not, it is said, entangle himself in his early, somewhat naive religiosity, echoes of which so strangely lingered in him afterwards,—despite his spiritual maturity? And did not his peace of mind come very near being completely unsettled by Strauss's sceptical conclusions, with which Ivanov grew enamoured in the last years of his life? Nevertheless, when one studies Ivanov's sketches, these doubts vanish of their own accord. The master who reproduced the most palpitating and grandiose passages of the Bible with such a convincing grandeur, the artist who was able to depict the evangelic events in such a
supernatural, "magical" light, who gave some scenes the force of an eye-witness' tale—such a man could not betray all this overnight and return to the inconsistencies of his early life or to lose himself in the desert of unbelief. Ivanov was too original and powerful a personality for this. His very struggle with himself, long and obstinate, out of which he emerged a conqueror, full of hopes and plans, exhibits his tremendous power: that of tenacity, and that of progress. Strauss's doctrine itself would most likely have been transformed and borne fruits of beauty. A deeply mystical nature, like Ivanov's could not suddenly lose its mysticism and turn into a common-place, or, what is worse, weak-headed realist.
Death bore him away in the most significant moment of his life. . . . Probably death was moved by pity for the endless sufferings of this martyr, who, on his return home, would have undergone one more painful trial. Ivanov came back to Russia at a moment when all mystical preaching must have seemed a wild anachronism, when all that was fresh and young in Russian art broke off most resolutely with the aesthetics created by Romanticism, and turned to immediate depiction of reality and to the propaganda of civic principles.
Before passing to the history of realism in Russian art, we shall briefly mention several artists who may be
considered as Ivanov's successors in religious painting.
Gay (1831–1894) may be looked upon as Ivanov's nearest successor because of some similarity in their aims and problems. Despite the fact that Gay himself pointed out his dependence on Ivanov, his whole personality differs essentially from Ivanov's. When Gay, late in the forties, entered the Academy, he did not find there the old scholastic discipline and drill. This school, even though it tormented Ivanov with its pedantic requirements, laid in him that firm foundation of knowledge which is exhibited in every stroke of his brush and constitutes his distinguishing trait. Gay remained a half-dilettante. At times, through the power of his natural endowments he succeeded in attaining a certain perfection and beauty, but in most cases he did not meet the demands of painting. Gay's highest technical achievement is a certain brilliancy and originality of colouring, but the drawing in his canvases is, with rare exceptions, childish and sometimes even lapses into ugly slovenliness and grossness. There was another reason why Gay could not be the true successor of Ivanov. Gay absorbed all the poisons of Herzen's epoch, and his mind held a queer combination of sympathies for Bryullov's masked-ball art, of sincere rapture at the sight of absolute beauty, and of an
Nicolay Gay
enthusiasm for Tolstoy's preaching, mingled with his own rather vague mystical views. His very themes, marked with the stamp of almost hysterical passion, were diametrically opposed to the holy tranquillity of Ivanov's aspirations.
Nevertheless, taken in himself. Gay appears as a well pronounced and brilliant artistic personality, especially in his last works, which express a peculiar, very "Russian" attitude toward the Evangel: namely, he views the New Testament as the gospel of exclusively spiritual beauty, and purposely emphasises the outward uncomeliness of both Christ and his surroundings. Had Raphael seen "The Crucifixion" and other of Gay's paintings, monstrous in their ugliness, he would have torn his garments in indignation, for to him, the heir of the Hellenes, the conception of God was inseparable from that of Beauty. Different would be the relation to Gay of Rembrandt, the son of the Reformation, in whose gloomy art the same notes sound as in Gay's. But Rembrandt was too much of an artist not to conceal the intentional ugliness of his images under the beauty of painting and colouring. Gay, however, with truly Russian straightforwardness, and with truly Russian nihilism, ever in quest of harrowing impressions, put aside artistic demands, and, burning with passion and zeal, strove to depict what appeared to him as "truth."
As a result, we have something in the nature of "official reports," repugnant, but quivering with life, and, therefore, inspiring terror, which, at any rate, will preserve for themselves a place of honour in the painting of the end of the nineteenth century. These works undoubtedly possess serious and rare qualities; they are absolutely devoid of triviality, they are luminous, wholly individual utterances, all white-hot with sincerity and noble conviction. This unbeautiful art of Gay's cannot be denied inner, spiritual nobleness, and in art, as in life, nobility is one of the rarest and most precious things.
This same rare quality distinguishes also Gay's portraits, probably the best Russian portraits of the second half of the nineteenth century. His faces are not only life-like to a truly startling degree, they also bear the imprint of the artist's noble mind. They are absolutely devoid of cheap emphasis,—the delight of Gay's colleagues, who were all educated on the civic rhetoric of the sixties, and were finally poisoned by it. Gay approached the portrait with immense curiosity and with the most palpitating, almost pious attention to his object. He, whose attitude toward Christ was so premeditated, relinquished all set intention, all "arrangement" in his portraits. These are not rich in striking effects, but on all of them lies the imprint of the living
poetry of the human soul. Future men will look on them with that mystic thrill familiar to all who come in too intimate a contact with the life of past ages. In this respect, by far the most impressive work will seem his "Tolstoy," in the Tretyakov gallery, the wise and gloomy titan, deeply absorbed in his great work. Some of his portraits have all the charm of intimacy and all the gracefulness of domestic happiness. Especially remarkable is the portrait of Mme. Petrunkevich standing at a window opening on the forest. The quiet mood of a summer day in the country is rendered in this picture with admirable sincerity. It must be also observed, that the pictorial element of the portraits is of a finer quality than that of the pictures. In some of the former, for example in the famous portrait of Herzen, Gay attains the splendour and the firmness of Bryullov's brush, without falling into cheap effects and without betraying his essential character of inward nobility.
Others who chose Ivanov's way were Kramskoy, V. Vasnetzov, Nesterov and Vrubel. All four would be unthinkable without their great master, but no one of them reached his height; the first three because of lack of talent, the fourth, because of purely external circumstances, which did not allow him to unfold all the splendour of his brilliant and rare gifts. Kramskoy (1857–1887) is known in the history of Russian
thought as one of the prominent representatives of the realistic tendencies which grew up in the favourable atmosphere of the positivistic philosophy of the second half of the nineteenth century, as a reaction against a turbulent and mystical Romanticism. A strict and sober realist is Kramskoy also in his portraits. Yet in his inner life Kramskoy was far from being an absolutely straightforward apostle of Russian realism. In the experiences of his own spiritual world Kramskoy's was not at all such a perfectly clear and well balanced mind as would appear from his portraits and social activity. The desire for spiritual freedom was not entirely unknown to him. There remained in his mind a living spark of religious intuition and mystical longing, and this lent his figure that peculiar, characteristically Russian depth, warmth, and complexity, which both Vereshchagin and Perov lacked. Unfortunately, neither time, nor education allowed him to develop all his possibilities. And finally the power of his purely artistic gift was infinitely inferior to those spiritual aspirations that dwelled in him.
Kramskoy's "Christ in the Desert" is the most convincing proof of what has been said. The subject-matter of this painting, closely resembling the themes of Dostoyevsky's revelations, held the artist's attention for many years, and, strange to say, also in his youth,
Victor Vasnetzov
that is, during the period of the highest development of the positivistic tendencies in Russia. And yet the picture "Christ in the Desert" strikes one because of its hollowness, the lack of conviction and the absence of a definite idea. Kramskoy approached his theme too cautiously, too calculatingly,—his mind stirred up by no inner tempest; he intended to lay bare mankind's greatest and most complicated notions by means of the plainest materials sliced out directly from life. Kramskoy forgot the specific laws of painting, the relative poverty of its means and, at the same time, he neglected its peculiar wealth. The human figure represented among cliffs which are scrupulously copied from nature, and draped in unbearably accurate folds, is wholly incapable—without verbal commentaries—of expressing the multitude of ideas that agitated and tormented the artist's mind, despite the suffering expressed on the face of the figure. So that this fairly satisfying work, though touching in its lofty seriousness, in no way indicates Kramskoy's dependence on Ivanov's deep revelations, although the former was rather fond of pointing out this imaginary dependence.
The same imprint of excessive reserve and cautious tameness lies on Kramskoy's other works, in which he took the liberty of deviating from the canon of realism. His "Ruslan," his "Nymphs" are minutely deliberate
and pedantic in their definiteness of composition. It is true that some of their peculiarities indicate the artist's quickness and wit, but, on the whole, these compositions, too, leave the spectator absolutely cold and indifferent. In these pictures his dry manner of painting, his dull colours, and exceeding realism obscure the splendour of the poetical conception. The demands of his education and surroundings did not fan into a real flame the spark that smouldered in Kramskoy.
V. Vasnetzov, universally idolised up to recent times, is an interesting and big artist, but he cannot be looked upon as the real successor of Ivanov. His very aim: to reproduce the "purely Russian," that is the limited and almost ethnographical attitude toward Christ, is infinitely inferior to the lofty "all-human" ideals of Ivanov. Vasnetzov's humble birth was credited in his favour, but, it seems to us, it is in this very origin, in the manifest lack of culture by which this otherwise very intelligent artist is distinguished, that there lies the cause of the ineffectiveness of his art. Of course, popular art, pure and simple, is eternal, being the living utterance of a vast social organism. But its value and interest are the greater, the purer and more naive it is, and the more strongly there appears in it the element of peculiar, national civilisation,—however different this may be from the general
Mikhail Nesterov
conception of culture. Less precious is "semi-cultural" popular art, because only slurred over by general culture, and least valuable are those works in which artists from the people endeavour to combine bits of general culture, of which they had tasted, with what they owe to their early education. As a result we have a vague, hybrid, compromising art, which has all the defects of its two component elements, rather than their merits.
Vasnetzov is a gifted, lively and impressionable artist. His energetic "Stone age," his decorative compositions, partly also his fairy-tale pictures,—the charm of which is marred by their size and their mawkish colours—sufficiently testify to a certain originality and, especially, liveliness, and impressionability of the master. Great is Vasnetzov's merit as a pioneer of neo-idealism, who came forward with his devotional canvases when all his colleagues sat at the feet of Proudhon and Chernyshevsky. But Vasnetzov's religious paintings, which made their appearance so opportunely in the reign of Alexander III, in the period of official Slavophilism, in the days of the celebrated "rebirth" of Russian Orthodoxy—this art is far from having that artistic importance which our society recently attributed to it. After all, Vasnetzov's religious painting is but a successful parody on the well established canons of
Byzantine and old Russian iconography, to which Vasnetzov applied, without much taste, a rather hollow pathos and fairy-tale effects. The Cathedral of St. Vladimir, at Kiev, decorated by him, cannot bear comparison with the ideal Christian temple, the dream of Ivanov. Just like Flandrin's attempt to restore the Roman-Byzantine painting, like the works of Steinle and of Cornelius' disciples, who endeavoured to return to the purely German style of Dürer,—Vasnetzov's efforts will hold in the history of art an honourable, though not very considerable place. These phases of the church painting of the nineteenth century are infinitely inferior to Ivanov's grandiose conceptions, to his lofty magnificence and prophetic might.
Besides, even in the purely pictoral respect, Vasnetzov's canvases are far below Ivanov's works. In comparison with Ivanov, Gay is a barbarian, yet, as his portraits prove beyond doubt, he did not completely forsake the artistic traditions. It was as though he disdained further development and would not take advantage of the achievements of his times out of conviction, rather than because of any other reason. But Vasnetzov was different. He was the true child of the seventies and eighties, the dreariest period in the history of Russian painting. Vasnetzov's technique is feeble and bears the imprint of a dilettante's timidity,
nearly always disguised by an illustrator's "dexterity."
Vasnetzov had no regular artistic school, and this lack of schooling is felt throughout his works. It is natural that Vasnetzov could not create his own artistic school. A few artists, however, who assimilated his manner and applied it in the decoration, in the so-called Russian style,—of numerous churches, seem to refute this statement. In reality, this group of artists,—among whom Nesterov is the only master of some independence and of a considerable artistic temperament,—does not constitute a school. The prerequisite for the appearance of a school are definite technical acquisitions, or a certain technical drilling, which these artists absolutely lack.
Nesterov, however, would have been one of the most pleasant of Russian painters, had he remained faithful to his talent, to his peculiar vocation. Nesterov could have been an excellent landscape painter. This is proved by the background of most of his canvases. Unfortunately beside the wonderful landscapes there is very little in his pictures to hold the eye, and the landscape plays but a secondary part. It is only in his "Vision of St. Bartholomew" that the figures do not spoil the admirable, truly Russian landscape, which unrolls behind them. On the contrary, they even emphasise its festal sorrow, and its poignant sadness is in keeping
with the downcast figure of the monk in the foreground. The rest of Nestorov's pictures—with fascinatingly conceived landscapes replete with quiet melancholy—are full of commonplace and badly executed figures, which try hard to seem sacred and touching.
The only artist who may be looked upon as something in the nature of a continuation of Ivanov, is Vrubel. Among all the artists of the second half of the nineteenth century, who approached religious themes, only Vrubel did so with the same burning passion and the same most delicate penetration into the mysteries of beauty, which distinguish the art of Ivanov. In addition, the two artists have in common prodigious technical skill. Vrubel is not popular in Russia; he is looked upon as a mad-brained "décadent." His disease[1] has definitely discredited him in the eyes of "reasonable" people. Yet, in reality, of all the artists of the last two decades, Vrubel alone succeeded in forging for himself a real, an amazing technique. At the same time among our artists he is the only true poet, who hovers high above the common level. A bitter life, almost ceaseless failure, the unresponsiveness of society—all this sapped Vrubel's gift and lent a strange
"grimace" to his works. But through it shines the true artistic flame, and so great is his technical knowledge, so colossal his skill, that one not only pardons him his grotesqueness, but begins to love it.
The last years of Vrubel's life (he died in 1910) were darkened by mental disease. (Translator's note.)
Last edited on 29 August 2019, at 06:30
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