Friday, 6 May 2016

Oh, those Russians....

In 1856, the same year the National Portrait Gallery was founded, a young textile industrialist named Pavel Tretyakov began collecting Russian art. 36 years later, in 1892, his collection was valued at 1,500,000 roubles (however much that is/was) and consisted of approximately 2,000 works. He donated it to Moscow and it now forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery - the world's largest collection of Russian art and that country's national gallery.

To commemorate a century and a half of both these institutions the NPG have got a lend of some of the Tretyakov's extensive collection of portraiture. Tretyakov himself commissioned Russia's leading painters of the day to depict their contemporary writers, actors, musicians, and even their patrons.

It's probably in the field of literature that 19th century Russia is most acclaimed. Russian writers of the day acquired unparalleled respect. Under autocratic rule and fierce scrutiny they nonetheless voiced their social, political, and moral concerns.

Some deployed subtle, and skilful, use of fiction and literary criticism to throw the censors off and get their voices heard. Others were so barbed in their critiques they could only be published abroad.

It's widely accepted that the three great novelists of the era were Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. In 1849 the then 28 year old Dostoevsky was sentenced to a decade of penal servitude in Siberia for his involvement in an 'underground society'.

Vasily Perov's portrait of the much older man, above, 1872, hints at his pained inner life informed, as was his writing, from these experiences. He wrote of crime, depravity, illness, insanity, degradation, and irrationality. All the fun stuff. Oddly this painting became something of a meme in Russian society and his since appeared on stamps and biscuit tins.

Nikolai Ge painted Leo Tolstoy in 1884. Then in his late 50s and a writer of international repute. The portrait, below, shows a man, who corresponded with Gandhi and, later, devoted himself to philosophical and religious inquiry, working in Moscow on his, soon to be banned, tract What I Believe.

Ilia Repin travelled to Paris in 1874 to paint the emigre Ivan Turgenev. They didn't get on and Turgenev didn't like the picture. It shows. His grumpiness barely able to resist oozing out of the frame.

The literature boom went hand-in-hand with a flowering of Russian theatre. St.Petersburg's opulent Mariinsky balanced by it's elegant counterpart the Alexandrinsky whilst in Moscow the Bolshoy (sic) traded in pure spectacle as the Maly devoted itself to more intense works including those of Turgenev himself.

Most radical of all was the Moscow Art Theatre. Conceived by Konstantin Stanislavsky, father of method acting, and championing the works of Anton Chekhov. Iosif Braz's 1898 oil painting of Chekhov marks the era the former doctor, after several critical maulings, finally achieved success with The Seagull.

There was music too. Of course there was. There always should be. In 1862 Anton Rubinstein, who had played for Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace aged just 14, founded the St.Petersburg conservatoire to develop homegrown musicians. His younger brother Nikolai did the same for Moscow. Some saw these as patriotic acts while others carped about the use of Western repertoire and professors.

Modest Mussorgsky and Nikola Rimsky-Korsakov responded in style. They created identifiably Russian music, informed by folkloric traditions, and became known (along with Balakirev, Cui, and Borodin) as The Five or, if you'd prefer, The Mighty Handful.

Repin's portrait of Mussorgsky, above, was painted the year of the composer's death. 1881. His unkempt beard and ruddy nose telling the story of his chronic alcoholism. Much less the talent behind Pictures at an Exhibition and Boris Godunov.

Nikolai Kuznetsov painted Petr Tchaikovsky in Odessa in 1893. Tchaikovsky had won fame for Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin and had toured in Europe and the US. Kuznetsov managed to look behind that and capture some of the unease, the unhappiness, of a man who only married to cover up his homosexuality and now lived apart from his wife.

Rimsky-Korsakov seems a much less conflicted figure. Valentin Serov's 1898 depiction merely shows him immersed in his work.

Various patrons and critics flesh out the show up to a point. But as we move towards the 20th century and the mammoth upheavals that would visit Russia in that century the art becomes more interesting and takes over a little from the historical narrative that has dominated so far. It becomes more colourful too, more modern, and perhaps more Russian.

Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia's 1914 rendering of the poet Anna Akhmatova, above, puts a distinctly Russian spin on the fauvist/expressionist greats. It nods to Van Gogh, to Munch, and even to Matisse. The folds of the drapery even offer a callback to the Venetian Renaissance masters. But the work stands on its own. Proudly declaring the onset of a national art and hinting at Soviet styles to come.

Even more proto-Soviet, at least at surface level, is Ilia Repin's 1889 canvas of Baroness Varvara Iskul Von Hildebrandt, the wife of the Russian ambassador to Rome. There wasn'a red under this ambassador's bed. There was one in it! Statuesque hardly does it justice. But despite looking like a poster girl for Communism she actually departed for Finland, and eventually Paris, during the 1917 revolution.

It's curveballs like this that make for an intriguing and interesting exhibition. For logistical and art-historical reasons Russian art is probably not as well known in the UK as it should be. This show is a stepping stone towards a greater understanding and appreciation of it and as it'll only set you back a fiver I can recommend it. On that, this cat really is gone.

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