Research Series: Russian Art and Artists (6) – Ilya Yefimovich Repin

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) Self-portrait [1878; State Russian Museum]

As a fifteen-year-old teenager with a reputation for his drawing abilities, Ilya Repin was apprenticed to a local icon painter and was successful enough to establish himself as an independent, itinerant self-supporting young artist working on church and portrait commissions. However, the lure of St Petersburg and the Imperial Academy of Arts was too strong to resist and so the young man, with a portfolio of sketches under his arm and 40 roubles in his pocket left the isolated village of Chugaev and journeyed across Russia, arriving in the capital at a time of dramatic change.

Two years earlier, in 1861, one of the most radical changes in Russian society had come with the abolition of serfdom, releasing millions of peasants from bondage. And in 1863 – as Repin tried to find his feet in St Petersburg – the Revolt of the Fourteen art students took place, beginning the difficult process of opening the door to an independent art culture: the portraits of peasants, the Russian landscape and the great dramas of national history.

Initially rejected by the Academy, Repin enrolled on a preparatory course with Ivan Kramskoi – one of the Fourteen who, as we have seen previously, would become a founding figure of the Wanderers movement in 1871. Repin, therefore, finding success with a further application to the Academy in January 1864, would from the very start of his career have a foot in both camps, straddling the classical education and militarist environment of the conservative Academy and the Artel’s Thursday evening sketching club with its radical liberal debates on art and politics.

The effect of this ‘dual’ education was that Repin would try a number of different types of painting from ‘everyday’ genre to episodes from the Bible:

left: Preparation for the Examination [1864; State Russian Museum]

right: The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter [1871; State Russian Museum]

the result of which was, as the Tretyakov Magaine points out, that throughout his life Repin would be able to work on a number of really quite different paintings simultaneously.

The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter won Repin a travelling scholarship, an opportunity he would take up in 1873-6 spending time in Italy and France. Interestingly a painting from this time came up for auction at Christie’s ten years ago that hadn’t been seen since 1916:

A Parisian Café [1875; private; c/o Christie’s]

where there is a fascinating Lot Essay:

Repin met with a broad section of the Parisian intelligentsia (Turgenev introduced him to Zola) and he seems to have thrived in an atmosphere of cultural experimentation. In terms of subject alone A Parisian Café is one of the most interesting and uncharacteristic of Repin’s works, depicting the liberality and license of Paris… Following not so long after the aberrant selection of Manet’s Olympia (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 1863) for the 1865 Salon, Repin’s blatant depiction of an unaccompanied denizen of the Parisian demi-monde; bold, confident, unapologetic and, like Olympia, making brazen eye-contact with the viewer, is an exceptional piece of modern audacity from such a young painter.

That the picture would be shocking to a Parisian audience is as nothing to how ‘disreputable’ it would have been to Russian eyes – despite its academic style and finish. Certainly “A Parisian Café” is unique in Repin’s work, returning to Russia he would focus again on the national themes expected by the Wanderers artists. Yet, even within this remit, his works were often experimental.

The Wanderers’ leading ideologues were horrified when they heard news of Repin’s ‘French’ painting primarily because it was so distant from a picture he had exhibited in Russia before travelling abroad:

The Volga Boatmen, aka Barge Haulers on the Volga [1870-3; State Russian Museum]

The idea and ethics of the painting first stirred in 1869 when Repin witnessed barge haulers just outside St Petersburg on the River Neva. The men were filthy, dishevelled and worn out, whilst around them were stylish houses, orderly gardens and brightly-attired holiday-makers. Then, with a fellow-artist. Repin travelled down to the Volga to prepare the painting he had in mind, sketching the landscape and making both individual and group portraits of the fishermen, peasants and haulers.

The haulers are roped together in full exertion as they heave the boat up river and against the tide. The bright sky contrasts dramatically with their filthy clothes and bodies. The foreground into which the men lumber looks like a desert plain.

The dark, heaving mass of human beasts changes, as we look closer, into a group portrait of eleven individuals – all based on portrait sketches: this was one of the greatest shocks to the Academic viewers of the time, the realisation – in paint – of peasants (so recently serfs) as distinct characters – full frontal, up and personal, leaning as it were out beyond the painting and into the gallery space. It was a confrontation.

And note the youngest of the men, he is caught in light at the centre of the group, his look is outwards, seemingly beyond the moment and the situation in which he finds himself.

The Academics saw the painting as a profanation that art in all its glory should be used for such an irreverent subject, indeed representing barge-haulers in such an iconic way, at the heart of a St Petersburg exhibition. No doubt many a guilty landowner was shocked at the affront. It was so political.

These were the years when the “To the People” movement was underway, in which intellectuals and students were spending time out in the rural regions of Russia hoping to raise political consciousness amongst the masses. This was dangerous.

A second huge canvas by Repin was exhibited ten years after Barge Haulers, again it was controversial in its address to the spectrum of Russian society. According to the Tretyakov Gallery website, Repin wrote: “I apply all my feeble forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; the life around me preoccupies me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas…”

Religious Procession in Kursk Province [1880-3; Tretyakov Gallery]

The panorama of Russian society taking an Easter procession has at the forefront, just to the right, a miracle-working icon “Our Lady of Kursk” carried in a gilded and beribboned casement. The crowd comes from all echelons of life – peasants and priests, landowners and merchants, men and women, the well-dressed and the beggared. The priest seems strangely separate amidst the procession in his fine robes. At the very centre is a wealthy, aristocratic landowner’s wife, carrying her own golden icon; alongside her is an apparently drunken man, possibly a tax collector. There are various men on horseback to control the crowds, some are peasants, some in police uniform – note the man in a white uniform just behind the icon, he is about to lash someone with his whip.

“Depicted here is not just a stream of people, but the flow of life” – write Grigorii Stenin and Jelena Kirillina in their monograph The Creative World of Ilya Repin – “a life bereft of joy, full of profound contradictions, social hostility and inequality, but a life that never stops moving for a moment.”

That hostility seems to extend to the landscape as well: the procession is taking place in an extraordinarily dry, dusty and barren setting; indeed, one can pick out the stumps of trees. Repin is commenting on the destruction of the forests. On a trip to his home village, he had written: “Houses and fences seem to have sunk into the earth as if in a deep sleep… Only the exploiters of the land are not sleeping. They have cut down my beloved woods, so full of childhood memories.” This was ecological exploitation and Repin brings it into the painting as if to reflect the stunted life of rural Russia more broadly.

And notice the boy with the crutch to the left, he’s almost as far forward as the icon, leading the peasant crowd full of his own energy and determination, pushing forward despite his disability as as if he has a spiritual compulsion. He reminds us, surely, of the young man in the Barge Haulers.

Other paintings by Ilya Repin are less epic, but aim to reveal multiple aspects of Russian life. One is particularly joyous:

Vechornytsi [“Evening Party”, 1881; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an Autumn evening and villagers have gathered together after a day out in the field to feast, play music and dance: a delicious, iconic Russian scene

But it’s Repin’s paintings of the developing political struggle in society to which I’m particularly drawn, as they are such unique visual records. As Yekaterina Scherbakova writes in the Tretyakov Magazine: “Ilya Repin was keenly sensitive to the reformist context of his time, and reflected the political nuances of Russian society in a number of his most important paintings…”

Arrest of a Propagandist [1878, Tretyakov Gallery]

This reflects the To the People campaign. A politically-empowered student has gone out into the countryside to ‘enlighten’ the people and preach reform. However, his judgement has misfired; the peasants were often very conservative in their views and suspicious of outsiders, and one of them has reported him. Here, in the first version of the painting, the student’s papers and leaflets are all over the floor. He has been tied to a post as everyone stands around looking at him waiting for the authorities.

Arrest of a Propagandist [1892; Tretyakov Gallery]

In the second version here, the villagers have mostly dispersed; the police are now in control and the well-to-do – the local landowners perhaps – are scrutinising the seditious leaflets.

Repin’s sympathies seem very much with the student and his failed idealism. Indeed the To the People campaign was failing altogether as rural communities rejected the politics and – after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 – due to the increased vigilance of the state.

It is impossible though not to see the student, bound to the post, as an echo of Christ on the Cross.

The Secret Meeting [1883; Tretyakov Gallery]

This extraordinary painting wasn’t exhibited until 1897, and even then under the title “By Lamplight”. It shows a meeting of the People’s Will party – one of the more extreme elements of the To the People movement: it was a party member who threw the bomb that killed Alexander II.

Again, the man leaning across the table, as if making his point, has a significantly Christ-like demeanour.

An apparently quite different painting is:

They Did Not Expect Him [1884; Tretyakov Gallery]

The arrival of the man comes as something of a surprise to the family; one of the women – his wife? his sister – jumps up, the ties on her bonnet undone suggesting she hadn’t expected anyone. The gaunt expression on the man’s face seems to be one of fearfulness – will she accept or reject him? His muddy boots and heavy cloak suggest that he has been walking for a long time, over a long distance, to get there. At the table the children are also surprised: the boy excited; the girl rather shy and uncertain. In the background another woman also looks surprised whilst the maid looks in through the door to see what’s going to happen, another behind her peeks in to see the drama.

Who is he? A political exile. He is bringing the struggles of society at large – insurrection and imprisonment – here right into the domestic, family room.

And what is particularly fascinating is that this is one version of the picture. Another is:

They Did Not Expect Her [1883; Tretyakov Gallery]

Women had been involved increasingly in the radical politics of the time; indeed the ‘Woman Question’ and liberation was central to many of the debates, polemics and manifestos of the time.

All Repin’s paintings that took the politics of the day as subject matter were potentially hazardous with regard to censorship, but there is one particularly extraordinary picture:

Painted in the 1880s, but not exhibited until the 1890s – and then under different titles – this picture was ‘lost’ until the mid1950s and only came up for auction in 2008 at Christies who declare it to have “explosive content” as it is thought to depict the terrorist Vera Figner in prison. Christie’s continues:

The work… is a testimony to the artist’s famed engagement with contemporary politics and his need to elaborate on such themes and ideas… anticipating that the work’s full import might be exposed in posterity. This work therefore is a rare and important document not only on Repin’s loyalty to this most difficult of themes, but also of his awareness of the increasing political and social involvement of women, something which few of his contemporaries acknowledged, understood or dared to address. It is also, within the artist’s oeuvre, a singular and exceptional work of great cultural significance, the re-emergence of which is a significant event for Russian art history.

In seeking to portray contemporary life and society in late 19th century Russia then, Ilya Repin daringly took up themes that could have seen him sent to Siberia, his career shattered.

Yet there are numerous other elements to his life and oeuvre, one of which we’ll investigate next time: his involvement with the art colony at Abramtsevo.

“Russian Art & Artists (7): Abramtsevo – Arts, Crafts & Folk Tales” will be published on Saturday 3rd April

Russian Art and Artists (6) – Ilya Repin

As always I am extremely grateful if you have enjoyed this piece and are able occasionally to ‘donate’ to the research fund!

£5.00

Further research:

For further reading, do please investigate the articles on Repin published by the Tretyakov Magazine – so very interesting:

  1. Repin and the Eternal Themes of Human Existence by Galina Churak
  2. Repin as a Mirror of ‘The People’s Will’ by Yekaterina Scherbakova

and although I’ve only scanned this paper from the University of Amsterdam, it looks good:

Rethinking the Revolutionary: Ilya Repin’s Convicted Revolutionaries in the Light of their Time” by Julia van Zandvoort

Until next time! All best wishes, Mark

About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring "The Art & Artists of Russia (1850s-present) currently, and please see the A History of Art in England series; looking forward to discussing "British Art Groups (1930s)" when we can have live group meetings again! Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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