Back in Saint Petersburg – exploring Russian Art in the Russian Museum – Peredwizhniki and earlier

The Russian Museum (Государственный Русский музей) gives an overview of Russian painting and sculptures. Again using our guidebook “Russisches Museum: Museumsführer” (Palace Editions 2014), I am now turning to my impressions about the Peredwishniki of the 19th century and earlier.

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Second half of the 19th century – the Peredwizhniki are looking for the real life of people and for (real) Russian history

“The barge haulers” by Ilja Repin do fascinate me again and again. Eleven haggard men are dragging the boat that appears faintly in the background – and it is a hot day. Dostoewsky described what I also feel, “[I saw] barge haulers, real barge haulers, and nothing more… you can’t help but think you are indebted, truly indebted, to the people.” (Wikipedia, quote taken from Frank, Joseph. “Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881”. Princeton University Press, 2003. 111. ISBN 0-691-11569-9).

Repin: Barge haulers on the Volga (Бурлаки на Волге), 1873

Repin also painted portraits. For instance his “Tolstoy” is very realistic – he was a double-edged person – and his “State Council” shows many, many honorable men around the turn of the century.  In addition he created romantic landscape paintings like this “Taiga”.

Repin: Taiga

Repin was a member of the Peredvizhniki (передвижники). They emerged, when in 1863 a group of students protested and refused to do the mythological paintings needed to pass the exams. Instead they started to paint the real life of people and the real history of Russia and to show their paintings on traveling exhibitions – that is where the name “Peredvizhniki ” comes from.

In addition to Repin, I discovered Surikov who created some great history representations such as Stenka Rasin and Suvorov crossing the Alps.

Surikov: Stenka Razin, 1906.

Stepan or Stenka Razin was a Cosack that lead an uprising in southern Russia in the 17th century. Surikov painted him, when he was sailing on the Volga. He had planned to marry a Persian princess. His fellow combatants complained that he became mellow like a woman. He does not like that and decides to throw the princess into the river. Surikov painted him just after he had thrown the princess into the waves of the Volga. Listen to Shalyapin singing about this event of Glasunov’s opera – this is one verse taken from it: “Волга, Волга, мать родная, Волга – русская река, Не видала ты подарка От донского казака” (Volga, Volga, my dear mother, Volga – Russian river, you have never seen a gift from a Don Cossack).

I could not stop looking at Surikov’s dramatic scene of Suvorov crossing the Alps. Suvorov was one of the most successful Russian generals. Surikov painted him, when he was 70 years old and had lost his last battle against Napoleon in 1799. He escaped by crossing three smaller passes (Kinzigpass to get to the Mutotal, then the Pragelpass to reach Glarus and finally the Panixerpass to reach Graubünden). On the painting the troops are sliding down on an ice field and I can see the sheer angst in the faces of the soldiers. Suvorov succeeded to bring part of his troops back to Russia.

Surikov: Suvorov crossing the Alps, 1899.

Another poetic painting of Surikov’s is the bronze horseman representing Peter the Great in front of Isaac’s Cathedral.

Surikov: The Bronze Horseman

When looking at Surikov’s horseman, I can feel Pushkin’s poem which tells the dramatic story of Evgeny who loses his beloved Parasha, when Saint Petersburg was flooded. He survives sitting on the marble lions next to the Bronze Horseman. A year later, he remembers the event, goes mad and shouts at the horseman. The horseman comes to live and starts to pursue Evgeny (медный всадник).

There were more Peredvizhniki that I liked, for instance Wassily Polenov with his “Christ and the Aldulteress” and Archip Kuindshi with mysterious “Moonlight in  a Forest“.

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First half of the 19th century impacted by the war against Napoleon

The 19th century started with the war that Alexander i had to fight against Napoleon (1806-1814). It was a traumatic event in Russia that ended with the invasion of Paris. Portrait and landscape painting is influenced by the Romantic movement. The joyful  “An Italian Midday” by Brullov is an example. I spend a long time in front of Iwanow’s  “the appearance of Christ before the people” studying the faces and gestures of the people.

Iwanow: The appearance of Christ before the people, before 1855 (Source: “Russisches Museum: Museumsführer” (Palace Editions 2014))

At this time, a few painters such as Wenezianow and Krylow were interested in real life. Wenezianow painted the farmers in his village and Krylow created a beautiful winter landscape.

Paintings of the bourgeois middleclass and romantic paintings of the city emerge. One example of a romantic city painting is the dramatic “Alexander column” during a thunderstorm by Raev.

Our guidebook points out that though the themes have changed to real life, the representation is still idealistic. Towards 1850 a dramatic touch appears. Fedotow paints such a scene where an impoverished noblemen asks the daughter of a rich merchant to marry him, and she refuses (major’s betrothal).

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18th century impacted by Peter the Great opening the window to the west

In 1703 Peter the Great opened the window to the west by founding Saint Petersburg. He invited European artists to work for him and he sent young artists to Europe to study painting. After returning many of them became portrait artists at the court. An outstanding example is Nikitin, in particular his portrait of a Hetman. In addition, the artists take up antique and classical topics. Losenko puts a Russian theme into a somewhat classical setting: King Vladimir asks to marry Rogneda (she is reluctant).

Dimitry Levizki shows Catherine the Great making law and she stands in the temple of the Goddess of Justice – her portrait has been moved to European antiquity.

Levizki: Catherine II as Legislator in the Temple of the Goddess of Justice, 1783 (Source: “Russisches Museum: Museumsführer” (Palace Editions 2014)).

Some paintings show the grandeur of Saint Petersburg such as the view of the palace water front  taken from the Peter and Paul Fortress by Fyodor Alexeev.

Alexeev: View of the palace water front, after 1794 (Source: “Russisches Museum: Museumsführer” (Palace Editions 2014))

In 1764, the Academy of Art was founded. It shaped the Russian art scene for the next 100 years.

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11th until 17th century dominated by religion

From the 11th until the 17th century, religion dominates the artistic scene with icons and church utensils. This site gives an overview of the icons in the Russian museum. I loved the various representations of Maria such as the Maria of Belosersk. The original of the Archangel Gabriel, painted around 1200 in Novgorod, is in the Russian museum – we have already admired him in Novgorod.

Archangel Gabriel, around 1200 in Novgorod, copy from Novgorod

I always say hello to Boris and Gleb, the sons of king Vladimir who became the first martyrs of the orthodox church and to the apostles Peter and Paul by Andrei Rublev.

Andrei Rublev: Apostles Peter and Paul, 1408

With the Russian icons we leave the Russian Museum. Russian art may have taken up their ideas first from Byzantium and then from Europe. However, they worked on those ideas and gave them the Russian character I do like.

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