The Russian School of Painting/Chapter VI
HISTORY AND FAIRY-TALE
NE of the peculiar traits of Russian Realism was that the boldest and most resolute followers of an art based on the study of the surrounding world very willingly abandoned this reality and turned to history, that is to a domain where the immediate connection with actuality is, naturally, lost. Courbet, Monet, Dégas did not attempt historical painting, and it is even hard to picture how artists, so passionately enamoured of living life could seek for inspiration in the graveyards of the ages. True, Mentzel proved that a realistic artist could live at once in two epochs, and be equally successful in his portrayal of both the past and the present. But Mentzel is an exception, the most remarkable exception in the whole history of art. The Pre-Raphaelites cannot prove the compatibility of realism and history either, because history in their art was not a digression from the intended course, but rather the point of departure. Late offshoots of Romanticism, they grew up on historical painting. This they first refreshed by the introduction of realism, but later on they gradually rejected the latter and made their way either to actuality or to free idealism.
Matters were different in Russia. Here, the evolution of the foremost artists went in the opposite direction, or, rather, their course consisted of confused digressions and inconsistencies. Perov and Vereshchagin did not begin with historical painting; they came to it only toward the end of their careers. Repin did not show in his academic years any serious disposition toward historical painting—the scholastic themes, forced upon him, are, of course, out of consideration. He began to treat historical subjects after the creation of his realistic pictures, or simultaneously. The same inconsistencies can be observed in the art of Gay and Kramskoy, and the cause of it is to be sought not in some peculiar "freedom" of the Russian artists, nor in the breadth of their views, but rather in the amorphous state of their theoretical outlook on life and in their subjection to the temporary interests of society. Many have seen in the ease with which Repin passed from nihilists and peasants to brocade vestments, to the wonderland of the sea, or to the depiction of Saint Nicholas and the "Third Temptation," simply the effect of his vivid temperament, impressionability, and impulsiveness. But it seems to us that these fits and starts can be more properly explained by a certain "confusion" of which the artist was possessed.
Only two of Repin's historical paintings are not covered by this general characteristic: these are the "Ivan the Terrible and his Son" and the "Zaporogian Cossacks." However, neither of these pictures can,
with any truth, be considered "historical." On the other hand, "human interest" is not the main element of the first canvas. It is true that this time Repin succeeded in raising the expression of pathos to the degree of genuine horror. Yet the dominating elements here are the colours and the painting. Swept away by his subject, Repin executed his picture with a fire, with a mastery of brush and colour, which are not to be found in his other works. Similarly, the theme of the "Cossacks," the story of how the Zaporogian Cossacks sent a jeering reply to the Sultan, has an interest for us inasmuch as it suggested his painting to Repin. One can fully enjoy this work without going to the catalogue for information. What the particular cause of the Cossacks' merriment may be, is of no importance whatever. It is not the past that Repin depicted this time. He is a Cossack himself, and he has observed similar scenes from his very childhood. He had only to gather together his impressions into one ensemble and make sketches from nature.
IVAN THE TERRIBLE AND HIS SON
Repin's weak point, his inability to present famous historical persons and to render the flavour of the epoch—as betrayed by his "Sofya," "Don Juan" or "St. Nicholas"—had no occasion to show itself here. In the "Cossacks" everything was dictated by reality. A few historical details are made use of for the sole purpose of intensifying the colour effects.
Repin's historical paintings were, we repeat, inconsistent digressions in his art. This remark may be properly applied to Perov's historical canvases, to the works of Jacobi, Vereshchagin, and Kramskoy, and, finally, even to such pictures of Gay as "Catherine II at the Bier of Queen Elizabeth," or his "Pushkin." All these facts point to the conclusion that the representatives of the art of the sixties lacked firm foundation. But as early as the seventies alongside these artistic phenomena, another current made its appearance in Russian painting. Although it, too, chose history as its subject, it was based on different principles. It is by way of historical painting that Russian art passed from narrow, doctrinal realism to free creative efforts. Of course, the pictures of Repin, Polyenov and even those of K. Makovsky may be looked upon as signs of this evolution. But the art of these painters presents only faint reflections: other masters were to give genuine expression to the new spirit.
The father of specifically "national" historical painting in Russia was V. Schwarz (1838–1869). He was the first to revolt against the tradition represented by "The Siege of Pskov" and to strive to lift the veil which separates us from old Russia. Therein lies his great merit. But Schwarz was far from being a great artist. To him belongs the honour of having made numerous discoveries in the field of costume, furniture, manners, and general appearance of old Russia, but he lacked the necessary power to animate all this, to give convincing and vivid pictures of the past. Schwarz was a conscientious, attentive dilettante, who passionately loved his work. But he had neither a genuine pictorial gift, nor a real artistic temperament, nor a sufficient fund of technical knowledge.
But Schwarz broke the road, and he was followed by more powerful masters. The foremost among these is Surikov (born in 1848),
whose importance is not confined to historical painting. Surikov's mighty gift dealt the most crushing blow to the art of his colleagues, the "Wanderers." He showed how fascinating and significant is the sheer beauty of terrible events, as compared with any moralising interpretation forced upon them. He was the first to break off with the sentimentally humanitarian ideals of the sixties, which were so alien to the true problems of art.
We are not inclined to overlook the merits of the "idealistic realism" of Gay and Kramskoy, nor do we deny that Repin played an important part in the struggle with and the final defeat of the art of the sixties. Then, too, the change from painting subservient to social interests to a freer art did not occur without the influence of external circumstances, such as the political reaction under Alexander III, which stifled the progressive propaganda. But none of these factors was more significant or was of a more far-reaching influence than Surikov's pictures. They made the same stirring impression on our painters as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy did in literature. It was as though the door was flung open, and fresh air rushed in.
We are not going to analyse Surikov's works. The depth of their tragical mood, their purely æsthetic import, their freedom, their convincing power, their historical value are sufficiently known. Nor is it proper to repeat here what we have pointed out several times: the "superb ugliness" of his execution, the "beautiful muddiness" of his colours, the passionate, unsystematic technique of his painting, which upsets all traditions. It is more important here, it seems to us, to indicate Surikov's place in the general evolution of our painting. We have just pointed out the part played by him in the evolution from doctrinal realism to pure realism and to idealistic painting. It is proper to determine here also his technical influence proper. Surikov is to be credited with a distinctive, purely—Russian, colour gamut, which was made use of by Repin and Vasnetzov, and the traces of which are felt in the "gloomy" palette of Levitan, Korovin, Syerov, and all the young Moscow masters. He was also the first to discover the strange beauty of the old-Russian colouring, and of the real Russian decorative "style," so distinctive in its studied grotesqueness. These discoveries of his were utilised by the two Vasnetzovs, Sollogub, Polyenov, Malyutin, Ryabushkin and S. Ivanov. Finally, as early as 1882, in his "Menshikov," Surikov found a wholly distinct type of feminine beauty—one of unutterable sadness and deep sensuous charm, which was utilised by Vasnetzov an infinite number of times, and changed by Nesterov into something nauseatingly sentimental. In the eighties and nineties all of Moscow idolised Surikov, and it is natural, therefore, that echoes of his ideas, colours, forms and compositions are found in the works of artists who are furthest removed from him in their general tendency.
Very close to Surikov are three prominent contemporary Russian artists. To our regret, Ryabushkin, the most gifted and interesting of them, is already dead. Taking Surikov as a point of departure, Ryabushkin found a sphere of his own. He was taken up with the everyday life of the past, rather than with its grandiose tragedies. It was as if he saw all these scenes of the past in reality, as if he strolled, in person, along all these remote nooks, and entered the attics of the old palaces, and all the curious and picturesque details he saw there remained fixed in his memory. There is not a trace in him of a desire to embellish his subjects. Plainly and without ceremony, like an eyewitness, he renders all the homespun spruceness, all the simple-hearted snobbishness of the times of yore. Ryabushkin did not strive to produce poetical impressions, yet a great poetical charm lives in his works. It is the fascination of ancient diaries, of antique objects and rooms, and of all that brings in its train the very fragrance of bygone days.
Two other artists, S. Ivanov and Apollinarius Vasnetzov, fell under Surikov's influence, and chose old Russia as their field. They are very attractive, though less significant masters, of less decided temperament and originality. Ivanov approaches Surikov pretty closely in his efforts to lend his composition an unexpected turn, as well as in his colour combinations and in his choice of costumes and details; but he absolutely lacks dramatic gift, and the episodical character of his pictures deprives them of all historical significance.
Apollinarius Vasnetzov started with Siberian landscapes, broadly conceived and strong in colour. Later on he became wholly absorbed in artistic reconstructions of old Moscow, which had great success among Moscowites, who, as a rule, are ardent worshippers of their ancient city. But, in reality, Vasnetzov only developed that which Surikov had given in the landscape backgrounds of his pictures. To this Vasnetzov added successful borrowings from more original painters, such as Miss Helen Polyenov, Korovin, Malyutin. There is one thing for which Vasnetzov must be reproved: he somewhat overdoes the grotesqueness which he considers the most characteristic feature of mediæval Moscow. His composition often reminds one of stage decorations, on which too many details are crowded closely together.
Here we must again mention the name of Victor Vasnetzov, for it is beyond doubt that to him, together with Surikov, belongs the honour of having first protested against the narrow realism of the "Wanderers" and made the initial steps toward a freer art. True, in comparison with Surikov the art of Victor Vasnetzov may appear flabby and ineffective. But, in the first place, this does not apply to the whole of his output; and, secondly, in the evolution of art the most powerful works are not always those which are most significant. On the contrary, faint hints sometimes engender revolutions, and if Vasnetzov did not revolutionise Russian painting, he undoubtedly planted in it seeds which gave, and are still giving numerous sprouts.
This time we have in mind the "fairy-tale" and historical pictures of the master, on which we only touched in the analysis of his religious paintings. The former played a quite important part in the development of Russian art. V. Vasnetzov gave new motives and themes, he familiarised us with the Old-Russian forms and colours. It was he who popularised the old Russian "fairy-tale," and Helen Polyenov, Mary Yakunchikov, Golovin, and Malyutin, the most prominent Russian "fairy-tale" painters of the nineties, are undoubtedly indebted to him. Apart from them, and, especially, from V. Vasnetzov, stood only one artist, Vrubel. He had no need to recur to the narrow medium of Old-Russian forms for the expression of the fairy-tales, born of his spirit. A vigorous, broad, true genius, he drew his inspiration from everywhere and lent everything a splendour that was his own. Vasnetzov created a school of more or less close imitators; Vrubel created no school, for his art was too original and complex. But Vrubel alone is worth an entire school. He was the sole true and beautiful idealist of the later period of Russian art.
V. Vasnetzov's most remarkable paintings are his: "Stone Age," "Ivan the Terrible," "The Bogatyrs" (Heroes), and "Alenushka." In these, the master rose to a considerable height; he freed himself from dilettante-like mawkishness, and exhibited a fine workmanship, which is difficult to find in his other pictures. This is especially true of "Alenushka." There is music in this picture: soft sobbing and tender, sad song. The landscape is replete with the mysteriousness of loneliness and all the fascination of deep forests, of marsh pools, and of a grey, pensive day. This picture shows that Vasnetzov housed the soul of a true artist, which could not come to expression and unfold itself owing to various circumstances, such as defective schooling, an insufficient understanding of the problems of art, orders unsuited to his talent, the success of his worst pictures, and an infatuation with false nationalistic ideas. Not possessing the strong character and the gift of complete isolation, which were Surikov's shield, V. Vasnetzov was all his life swayed by various influences, and herein lies the cause of the incompleteness of his art and of all its disagreeable defects.
Vasnetzov's ideas were utilised not only by the official world, which saw in him the awaited "truly Russian" national artist, but also by all that was vigorous and young in Russian art. The gauntlet was thrown down to "purpose" painting and Realism. The slogan of these protestants was the cult of Old-Russian culture, a somewhat Slavophile slogan, directly opposed to the school of the sixties, with its sympathies for the Westerners—and soon Vasnetzov was followed by a number of painters who in their art left far behind them the propaganda of typical "Wanderers." The fir-trees in "Alenushka," Savrasov's "Spring," and Surikov's landscape backgrounds resulted in Levitan; and Vasnetzov's "Snyegurochka" (1884) inaugurated our "fairy-tale" painting and led to the Moscow revival of our decorative art in the works of Miss Polyenov, Malyutin, Golovin, and others. Though this movement has not given us a single truly great artist, though it is essentially little more than impracticable dilettanteism, nevertheless, as a page of the history of our culture, it undoubtedly possesses a great interest. ↑
Died in 1916. (Translator's note.)
Last edited on 29 August 2019, at 06:28
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