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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.4 (Fall 2014)
Russian Painting: A Stupendous Genie Hidden in a Tarnished Lantern
Peter T. Singleton
I believe it was G.K. Chesterton who once wrote a delightful essay in praise of the amateur. (Further research turns up the title, “In Praise of Play”.) I am the heir of his sentiments. Here I sit writing yet again, in semi-retirement, about a subject far from my area of formal expertise. What do I know about painting in general, let alone Russian painting? Little enough… except that I love it.
Granted, the tasteful amateur should abstain from inflicting his modicum of knowledge lengthily upon the world. It behooves me to be brief. My subject matter, fortunately, is such that it will speak for itself.
Only by way of necessary introduction, I will explain that I “googled” the keyword phrase “Russian painting” one day after seeing the black-and-white reproduction of a portrait in a collection of Russian short stories. I never found that portrait; but I was “un-too-badded”, as the French say (how else do you translate dédommagé?), by everything else that appeared on the screen. I had always heard that Russian oil painting was a paltry endeavor—an uninspired, almost servile imitation of what was going on in Western Europe. Not for the first time, I was forced to question my sources—all those impersonal, academic, encyclopedic judgments passed along until they are repeated as common knowledge. Just how much mendacity does the average scholar soak up in the course of an average postgraduate education?
Russian landscape painting (to pick an arbitrary beginning) seems to me to burst out of its frame. A Corot landscape leaves me subconsciously sensing the presence of many bowls of fruit or flower arrangements done in training. A Gainsborough or even a Constable may have more perspective than its French counterpart, but appears almost to crave a kind of emptiness. Cramped on their little island, the English dream of wide-open spaces (which they indeed often sought out in their colonial ventures). Immersed in neoclassicism, the French picture romantic settings where a nymph might step from behind a tree at any moment.
The Russians, in contrast, explode upon the canvas. Color knocks one upon one’s back almost before forms take shape. The images seem at once to rush outward into your room and to lead inward into an unnamed forest. There is no meditation about nature, about life: there is only living energy, here and now. Call it either the joy of the irrational or the innocence of Eden.
The Corot landscape is so pastoral that one can imagine one of these leisurely young figures breaking out a flute. Constable usually includes more greenery in his vistas, but the sweeping panorama is typical of him. Ilya Ostroukhov’s Golden Autumn (1887) and Ivan Shishkin’s Forest in the Evening (1869) are, by comparison, almost lurid in their vivacity. The Russian painters belong to a later generation, to be sure; but by the latter half of the 19th century, the Western Europeans had moved away from such acute absorption into nature to a much more subjective interest in human perception. I prefer the objectivity.
Lest my mention of the irrational be dismissed lightly as an invocation of the Slavic stereotype (full disclosure: I grew up with a “crazy Russian” just down the street), I hasten to add further examples. The two works below offer wildly improbable representations of nature that have no parallel, as far as I know, in the canvas creations of Italy or France or England. (Friedrich’s unique productions, admittedly, are a near-match.) The meteorology involved in creating the two scenes might occur once or twice in a lifetime, even for those of us who live on the Great Plains; and American painters did, in fact, make a few weak attempts in this genre during the early 19th century. I do not say that these paintings are fantasies. I observe, rather, that the convention farther west was to eschew the highly improbable—the tornado, the fiery volcano, the red moon. Subjects suitable for representation were supposed to be fairly typical. Russian painters seem largely—and gloriously—to have ignored this dictum of “taste”.
Nikolay Dubovskoy’s Became Silent was completed in1890. I have no information about the second painting, which appears to me more mid-century in style, and altogether inferior. Yet it retains a magnificent sublimity.
The qualities I have mentioned so far appear to fuse when we see remarkable natural settings combined with the human world. Imagine being one of the humans in the two scenes below! The extraordinary effects of lighting would surely inspire a religious ecstasy of sorts. Even the forlorn crew upon the raft, though they cannot be very happy about their circumstances, would know a brief instant of transcendence. The situation’s staggering beauty is dramatically at odds, one might say, with the subject matter—a gaffe that would probably be thought serious in Western Europe. I do not know any particular story to which the “ninth wave” refers; I assume the referent is simply the old sailor’s superstition about the ninth wave in a row growing to killer proportions. (I recall running across this nautical myth in a Patrick O’Brian novel.) Yet if I may continue in my personal and amateurish vein, the painting seems to me all the more powerful for being thus incongruous. There is no greater exhilaration than recognizing the infinite beauty of terrestrial creation a few moments before you seem likely to vacate your small place within it. What better example could there be of a sublime experience?
Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave (Девятый вал) appeared in 1850. The port scene I figure to be not much later. Sadly, the links to various picture files shown on Google.images are as often uninformative blogs as fully fledged enterprises, so my research ended in several dead ends.
Not infrequently, what I have called a tolerance of the irrational (and I shall stick with that designation, presumptuous though it may be) finds other avenues of expression. I am trying to sidestep both the substantial, almost oppressive conventions of religious painting and also impressionism and her ever-more-abstract progeny. The latter most definitely made an appearance in late nineteenth-century Russia (my little note beneath Golden Autumn notwithstanding), and to remark it would be nothing more than chalking up just another Western influence rather than establishing that Russian painters had a unique imagination. As for the painting of icons and other church art, this had gone on for a thousand years and was at one time the only kind of painting allowed. While its influence (unlike the ebb and flow of Western trends) can never be discounted in any age of Russian art, I am trying—for consistency’s sake—to stay focused on oil paintings of the 19th century or close to its parameters, and always within the realist tradition.
Even within these limits, I flatter myself that I see something distinct happening on the Russian scene. In the following threesome, Vasnetsov’s representation of the legendary flying carpet is fully in the realist style—and yet its subject could obviously not be more fanciful. The troika scene, whose artist I failed to identify yet whose image we have often seen on Christmas cards, turns out to be fairly generic in Russia, where racing troikas were painted like Madonnas in medieval Italy. This rig, though, has a trace of the surreal, with its odd escort of crows or ravens, the strange bars of shadow to the left, and the otherwise swirling circle of snowy mist suggestive of infinity in all directions.
Then and finally, I have added with some hesitation another Aivasovsky. Our creator of The Ninth Wave here appears to be commemorating an actual event. If we had not further and convincing evidence of his skill, we might suspect that the cookie-cutter quality of his ships-of-the-line was the shift of an artist lacking in ability or self-confidence. As it is, we behold something strongly oneiric—the seam where realism meets surrealism. The rigidity of this huge procession is impossible. The vessels are far too close to each other, and the masthead of every ship, in a line that vanishes into the horizon, points to precisely the same invisible vertex aloft.
Viktor Vasnetsov’s The Flying Carpet (1880), Troika in a Snowy Landscape (1851: artist unknown), and Ivan Aivazovsky’s Russian Black Sea Fleet on a Parade in 1849 (1886): three executions of a “realistic dream” on canvas.
I can no more say what the intent might have been behind portraying these outdated battleships sailing out of a dream than I can say why ravens would be fluttering around a troika. I’m not used to finding mystical hazes drifting around the realistic representations of Western art: that much I can affirm without vacillation.
The ships lead down yet another corridor in my random investigation. Scenes from battlefields were almost cliché in the 18th century, lingering into the 19th, and Russian painting offers its fair share of them. Yet as in other genres, here we seem to find a colorful ebullience and an exoticism of form more appropriate to the fairy tale than the military chronicle. Below, a magnificent painting of the heroic English stand against thousands of Zulus at Rorke’s Drift (in fact, the regiment was Welsh, and the artist was a Frenchman) has all the clarity of a Hollywood movie. For that matter, Zulu—portraying this very adventure—is one of my all-time favorite films. There are Russian paintings, without doubt, that present similar scenes with much less skill. What intrigues me about Repin’s work after viewing Neuville’s is… well, several things. The Zulus are nowhere in sight in Neuville’s painting, whereas the “barbarian” Cossacks garishly steal the show in from the cowed Turks in Repin’s. Here, cannons and swords seem to be stage props in a visual war of clashing cultural images. One doubts that the half-clothed louts at the table even understand what a quill is for. The Frenchman singles out a contemporary event and foregrounds the heroes of his civilization; the Russian digs into the past (for Repin’s subject was 300 years old) and highlights a robust cultural chaos where his sympathies seem to lie with wild rovers who would have used his canvases for kindling.
Alphonse de Neuville’s The Defense of Rorke’s Drift (1879) is quite as skillful as Ilya Repin’s brilliant Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire (finished in 1891). Yet the value system implied in these two masterpieces has little overlap. Are the Cossacks in the Russian piece, vying to see who can dictate a better insult to the scribe, heroic?
As we draw still closer to the human world, I cannot let pass the representation of the female face (a subject upon which I have written probably more than some of this journal’s readers appreciate). Because I could so easily write forever on these matters without reaching any insight useful to others, let me immediately offer three samples.
I have no information at all about the first example, except that it plainly belongs to the 19th century; Ivan Kramskoy’s An Unknown Lady (1883: read more at http://voiceofrussia.com/2009/04/15/254236/) follows; then a canvas by Nicolai Alexandrovich Yaroshenko (1846-1898).
Notice that all three of these young women wear elaborate headgear that largely covers their hair, that they all have sweeping brows, and that all are looking slightly below eye-contact level with the viewer. I take the first of these as a reflection of Eastern (and specifically Muslim) influence upon Russian tastes. I think the second may point in the same direction, for Persians have long regarded the bow-like brow as a mark of great beauty. As for the third, one might object that the charming girl with her hand held out for payment (or maybe to make a point) is probably looking someone straight in the eye who is just off-stage. The “unknown lady’s” gaze, in contrast, appears to have provoked a critical outcry in its day. “She is haughty: her bearing is immoral!” came the denunciations, just maybe (but probably not) because rumor associated her with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A curious response, indeed… especially to a figure painted from a low angle. Her gaze, as I have noted, is in fact boring humbly into the ground. It is the same gaze as the previous (i.e., the first) woman’s, after the artist has positioned himself a little below the chin. Now, the artist’s choice of that position may of course be significant. Rather than write a long essay about the latent possibilities, I shall content myself with saying that we again encounter a taste for mystery—in the execution of all three portraits. Even the proletarian girl’s gesture leaves us wondering just what she’s doing, exactly whom she’s talking to. I love all three of these.
When males are represented, whether they are young or mature, aristocratic or salt-of-the-earth, they truly seem to occupy the far polarity of the universe from females, to judge by visual effects. If I may generalize: hair is uncovered and richly, even wildly indulged about the subject’s crown. Gazes, if not leveled at the painter, are nevertheless on his level, peering confidently (or defiantly) out into the world. Clothing is thrown open around the neck, hinting at dynamism. Costly baubles are not hung or hooked about the upper body: they would only impede action. This Russian world, I would conclude, is a man’s world! (No doubt, men were the source of all that resentment of the Unknown Lady’s “haughtiness”. Any man might fall in love with her at a glance—and aggressive men don’t like to be resisted!) Yet Victorian England was a man’s world, too. These boys and men are potential Dubrovskis, Pugachovs, and Raskolnikovs. They have genuine flare.
The writer at http://emerlyearts.blogspot.com/2011/08/inspired-by-russian-painters.html#ixzz38s2dX2P7 explains the figure on the left as “a detail from a larger painting done by the incandescent Russian painter, Ilya Repin” (whatever that means). I have no further information about the splendid young lad on the right.
Because I love paintings of women, and because gender studies are such a hot ticket at the moment (believe me, I realize what antagonism works subtly between those two assertions), I’m going to close by reverting to female portraits. This time I shall shift to two artists who yet live. In fact, both are younger than I. Anna Vidogradova (born in 1975–painting on left) must surely have had in mind an earlier canvas by Ivan Slavinsky (born in 1968–painting on right) when she executed her ballerina pensively preparing for the stage in a bright red dress. The two girls might even be the same girl viewed from different angles, so similar are their faces.
I am sorry to say that I found the Slavinsky piece posted on a site of “erotica”, as if it were a bit of voyeuristic porn. Obviously, the one striking difference between the two figures that has nothing to do with art is the bared breast of Slavinsky’s girl. Yet has this really nothing to do with art—is it all about titillation? The styles are identical to an amateur eye like mine: thick applications of bright red paint with a broad brush for the dress; then shining creases probably applied by a knife working in white; and a background left looking almost like a palette, as if to emphasize that the artists’ subjects are themselves artists. One can hear these stiff costumes rustle in anxious whispers anticipating the performance. Lost within the explosive waves of either dress labors a girl—not a woman, but a girl on the verge of womanhood. In contrast to the solar flares in which she decks herself, she is not entirely sure of herself. Can she avoid mistakes? Can she remember and execute every move? Is a certain someone likely to be in the audience? Did she leave home just a while earlier after a quarrel? Vinogradova’s girl appears to be more preoccupied with such musing. Slavinsky’s hastens as if she might be a little behind schedule, with curtain-call imminent.
And so we see her perfectly molded bare breast, the unmistakable sign of bodily maturity, as she goes about her business. Still a girl in mind, she doesn’t stop to think for an instant that she has something—more than a little—of Botticelli’s Venus. She’s a working girl trying to do her job, with a girl’s (not a woman’s) slender arms and blade-straight shins. Only the breast betrays an impending mystery that must soon overtake her existence, but which, for the moment, means nothing to her.
And is that mystery a glory or a tragedy? Has it more of the Madonna or of Mary Magdalene? For those Web-surfers who see in her portrait a turn-on, we know the answer. And since I suppose every breathing man must experience at least one scintilla of turn-on, we men must wonder about ourselves. Are we capable of a higher love, such as art calls us to—and religious faith, as well? Why, when we see beauty, do we prickle with a trace of low desire—or a spark of resentment? Why have a bare nipple and a lifted chin so much power to inspire evil in us?
I don’t recall being lured into reflections of this order by Renoir’s charming ballerinas, or by the domestic Madonnas of my beloved Vermeer. Call the Russian influence chthonic, or visceral, or irrational, or Dionysiac, or uncivilized, or schizophrenic, or Nietzschean, or… whatever you prefer. Call it mystical. I love it.
Dr. Singleton, after a professional career of thirty years, now teaches part-time, consults as a writer, and nourishes his inner amateur. He resides in the North Texas area.