Finishing this weekend is the NPG’s small and perfectly formed exhibition Russia and The Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, portraits of Russian intellectuals and the cultural elite between 1867-1914 from the Moscow State Collection, based on the collection of industrialist Pavel Tretyakov. In an age of blockbuster spectaculars perhaps it doesn’t sound so exciting, but you’d be mad to miss it, and here’s why:
Tragedy and Tradition
These twin peaks of Russian national identity – a conscious effort to create and maintain distinctive Russian traditions in art, literature and music, and a temperament tending towards the tragic on a grand scale, usually to be soothed with a bottle of vodka – run self-evidently throughout the exhibition. There is an acutely observed portrait of the lexicographer Vladimir Dal in his undimmed and magificently-bearded old age, who was devoted to preserving Russian proverbs, folk song and fairytales. Nikolai Ge painted Leo Tolstoy in 1884 aborbed in the writing of his philopshical tract, “What I believe”, which would later be banned, although the light on his face suggests him to be a luminary. Valentin Serov’s In The Summer portrays an idyllic scene of traditional Russian estate life with his wife Olga in the foreground of an impressionistic meadow, with a beautiful harmony of her creamy white dress and the deep blue ribbon on her hat.
In contrast, Ilia Repin, whose paintings crop up throughout the exhibition, painted a rumpled playwright Alexei Pisensky at the start of his decline in 1880, when there still remained a shrewd glint in his eyes, and the defeated composer Modest Mussorgsky at the very end of a long battle with alcoholism in 1881, red nosed and sort of respectably dissolute in his hospital pajamas. Mussorgsky actually died before the final sitting, and Repin’s emotion is clear on the canvas, in the energy and deftness of his brushstrokes. When Nikolai Kuznetsov painted Petr Tchaikovsky in 1893 he chose to emphasise, not his greatness as a composer, but his rather unhappy personal life (an estranged wife and concealed homosexuality) with an almost hesitant hand on his sheet music and retiring expression, as though steeling himself for an unpleasant experience.
Discovering Russian modern artists
You might be familiar with Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematists but I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of most of the painters here, whose work is easily comparable with the great French modernists of the era. Mikhail Vrubel’s large portrait of Savva Mamantov reduces the great arts patron to an energetic mass of fragmented planes of colour, a modern treatment for an entirely modern man who founded the Russian Private Opera and launched Rachmaninov, one of Russia’s most signficiant composers. One of the star pieces of the show has got to be Repin’s dramatic full length portrait of Baroness Varvara Iksul von Hildenbrandt, who held an eminent St Petersburg salon; her sumptously painted bold red jacket cloaks her with an imperious impressiveness, whilst the finest black veil over her eyes and nose declare her to be a woman of sophistication. The vibrant colours of Olga Della-vos-Kardoskaia’s portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova belie her serious, melancholic epxression and poised posture, foreshadowing the tragedy of her later years, when her ex-husband was executed for counter-revolutionary activity and she herself was persecuted throughout the Soviet era.
This skilfulness on the part of the Russian painters ultimately gives the visitor a sensation of really communing with the characters on the walls, whose faces so often seem to convey genuine internal angst, intensity, warmth and intellect, such as Ge’s troubled Alexander Herzen, who emigrated to London to publish influential journals agitating for reform in Russia, Iosif Braz’s shrewd and calculating Anton Chekhov, or Repin’s leonine and energetic-looking Anton Rubenstein, who set up the St Petersburg Conservatoire. The great novelist Fedor Dostoevsky was sentenced to 10 years of penal servitude as a young man for underground society involvement, and this harrowing experience is implicit in the heavy, still atmosphere of Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of an introspective and sensitively intelligent looking man, with hunched shoulders and interlaced hands. It’s not all doom and gloom though – protégée of Franz Liszt, Sophie Mater is painted at her piano with a lively wit in her eyes, brought to life by the frothy dress, deep red shawl and flowers around her.
Another interesting psychological element at play here is the relationship between sitter and artist; Tretyakov commissioned Repin’s portrait of Ivan Turgenev, whose clash of personalities is evident in the look of displeasure on the novelist’s face. In Perov’s portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky however, one senses a meeting of minds in the playwright’s piercing gaze; both men in their respective art forms were sharply acerbic critics of the corruption in certain layers of Russian society.
Quiet, diminutively sized, but intelligent and intense, this exhibition proves that sensationalism, enormity and wow factor aren’t always the most important factors for poignancy or potency, in either the art itself or its exhibition. It reasserts Russian artists’ rightful place in the canon of modern Western art, and perfectly evokes the brilliant cultural whirl of pre-Soviet Russia.