Research series: Russian Art and Artists (13) – Icons, and Wassily Kandinsky

The Mother of God of Vladimir [Constantinople; 12th century; Tretyakov Gallery]

The art of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) especially, to my mind, the paintings made from around 1910 to 1916 on the cusp of full abstraction, is among the most experimental, fascinating and exciting work of the 20th century. Before we get there, however, I’d like to explore Russian Icons a little – primarily because of their connections to Kandinsky’s art and thinking as we will see, but also because it was only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that Icons began to be viewed as works of art; much more than that, however, as a genre, they represent, symbolise, Russia’s understanding of itself.

The Mother of God of Vladimir, or the Theotokus of Vladimir (detail top of page) is one of the most beautiful and most revered icons in Russia:

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.” In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus to holy Prince Mstislav (April 15th) and was installed in the Devichi monastery in Vyshgorod

[Orthodox Wikipedia]

Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya icon of Our Lady [16th century, Russian Museum]

With the attempted invasion of Kievan Russia by the Mongol Empire led by Tamerlaine (aka Timur), the icon was removed – translated – to Moscow:

Orthodox tradition states that later, in 1395 Timur, having reached the frontier of Principality of Ryazan, had taken Elets and started advancing towards Moscow. Great Prince Vasily I of Moscow went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the Oka River. The clergy brought the famed Theotokos of Vladimir icon from Vladimir to Moscow. Along the way people prayed kneeling: “O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!” Suddenly, Timur’s armies retreated.

Since then:

The histories of Moscow and of the icon of Vladimir Mother of God are eternally inseparable. How many times did the Mother of God save the capital city from enemies through the grace of her holy icon? This icon has linked Apostolic times to Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ to Vladimir Rus’, and later to Muscovy, the Third Rome; as it is said, “there will be no Fourth.” The kingdom of Moscow was formed by divine providence and embraced the mystical ties of ancient empires, historical experience and traditions of other Orthodox peoples. The miracle working Vladimir icon became a symbol of unity and succession.

[The Catalogue of Good Deeds]

That the Icon is said to be painted by St Luke directly from the Virgin Mary, and to have passed from Byzantium to Moscow carrying all the symbolic weight of Orthodox belief, is the pivot of Russia’s sense of itself in the world.

A 15th-century depiction of Princess Olga being baptised in Constantinople

(from the Radzivill Chronicle: part of UNESCO’s amazing Memory of the World project).

Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ who became a Christian. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus’ officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus’ is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.

These were times often depicted by the Wanderers artists in the late 19th century as they revived the sense of Russian history and tradition. In 1880, Vassily Perov for example portrays early Christians praying in secret during pre-Christian pagan times, in 1892 Mikhail Nesterov recalled Princess Olga and in 1890, Viktor Vasnetsov depicted the baptism of Vladimir [all Kiev Museum of Russian Art].

When Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christinaity, artists from Byzantium came over to Kievan Rus to decorate the newly built churches and to teach local painters the skills of their work; and it was in Russia that icon painting really took hold, especially in the cities of Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow. One especially important master of Moscow was Andrei Rublev (1360s-1420s):

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) [see Tretyakov Magazine and there’s Tarkovsky’s mesmerising loosely biographical film Andrei Rublev.]

The ‘School of Novgorod’ is also particularly fascinating as it was the only Russian city spared the Mongol invasion in the 13th century due to being surrounded by marshes making it inaccessible, and so although the painting of icons is a very strict, inherited, hardly-ever-changing tradition, there is a distinctly Novgorodian style.

Saints Boris and Gleb

The Novgorod Icons Gallery notes:

The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to “Sts. Boris and Gleb” from the Church of same name in Plotniki – heroic in spirit and superb in its colour – scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father’s throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.

In terms of the painting:

Softness is the distinctive feature of the Russian Orthodox icons of Boris and Gleb. Usually, they represent frontal, full-length images of the princes, which seem to float in the air. The faces of the saints are somewhat sad but display concentration and kindness. In their hands, they hold the attributes of martyrdom and princely authority: crosses and swords. Boris and Gleb are dressed as princes with fur hats on their heads. The colour palette… is distinguished by richness and consistency. [Russian Icon Collection]

Add to that, ochre, green and red are dominant colours in Novgorod icons.

Another very famous icon image is that of St George (Patron Saint of Novgorod/ Moscow):

St George and the Dragon (Novgorod School; early 16th Century; c/o Ruzhnikov Gallery, London):

The icon is painted in rich colour typical for the Novgorod school. St.George on a rearing white charger, shown against a rocky landscape, slays the winged monster as it appears from the lake; the hand of God emerges from a segment of heaven on the top right of the composition and blesses the saint. An angel crowns St.George with a martyr’s crown, symbolising the victory of good over evil. The tower on the right represents the city, the king and inhabitants witness the battle.

Icons such as these – singular paintings, as it were – would be in churches and also people’s homes where they would reside in the Icon or Red Corner; small versions could be carried around and, in large churches and cathedrals the images would be built up such as on the iconostases which separate the sanctuary from the nave: here, for example, is the glorious interior of the Dormition Cathedral, Moscow [see Russian Art & Culture for full article].

One of the strangest, perhaps, icon images – especially for west European viewers – is that of Saints Stephen and in particular Christopher:

Saints Stephen and Christopher

That Christopher is represented with a dog’s head may stem from his being an outsider from an Eastern tribe. His faith in God conquered temptation, only to lead to his beheading. Rarely portrayed, even in Russian Orthodoxy, he is nevertheless the renowned patron saint of travellers Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher – Orthodox Arts Journal. And one more extraordinary icon:

Elijah ascending to Heaven [Novgorod]

Here the prophet and miracle worker Elijah ascends alive to Heaven on his chariot in a ball of fire; and it is believed, echoing Christ’s Resurrection, that Elijah will return to earth “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (The Book of Malachi), ie. at the end of the world, the end of history, when St Michael sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead and signal all souls to the weighing scales for the Day of Judgement.

Looking at all of these, what is so important to remember is that:

a religious icon in Russian Orthodoxy is considered a window to the Heavenly World. One should not look at an icon as a work of art bearing certain aesthetic features and merits but as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is a special devout attitude to the icon, which sets Orthodox traditions apart from others.

Russian Icon

It is in light of this Orthodox way of seeing icons that we might understand Kandinsky’s thesis for paintings that bypasses naturalistic representation and turns instead to an orchestration of lines, a chorus of colours and juxtaposition of forms that reach straight into the viewer’s soul. This would lead him, ultimately, to pure abstraction. My interest here, though, is in the pathway towards that abstraction and particularly Kandinsky’s ongoing references – even whilst he was painting in France, then Munich – to Russian history, folktale and Orthodox icons.

A ‘gallery’ of early paintings is one of medieval Moscow and fairy-tale romance:

Kandinsky: Sunday (Old Russia) [1904; Netherlands]

Kandinsky: Couple Riding [1906; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

The Gallery notes:

The “Riding Couple” belongs to the large group of Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, in which he conjures up a poetic world of images full of enigmatic diversity with fairy-tale- like, freely conceived sceneries. The magic of distant, long-gone times, into which such scenes are always transported, increases the impression of mysterious unreality. From jewel bright particles of colour, the image of a young, tightly entwined couple in Russian costume is created, riding along between stylized birch trunks and under the golden net of their leaves in the dark foreground. Behind them, the arch of a silent, sparkling river is visible, on which the white sails of two Viking ships, messengers of an indeterminably prehistoric time, appear in the mosaic of colour spots. Across the river, the silhouette of an old Russian Kremlin city with colourful domes and towers appears like an apparition over the water.

Kandinsky combines the romantic nostalgia of Symbolism with Post-Impressionist colour; the mosaic, or stained-glass window effect liberates the colours from ‘realistic’ representation, allowing them to shine in their own right. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, he would write:

“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, they eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

That liberation of colours is further enabled by ‘reaching back’ into an imaginary Russia; and perhaps one of his most extraordinary early pictures is:

Kandinsky: This Colourful Life [1907; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

We see a variety of characters from Old Russia, some of whom we’ve met before; in the foreground, just to the left, is the Madonna and Child, just behind them stand Boris and Gleb; to the right of the tree we see St George on horseback and, far right, our romantic couple are about to kiss. In the background there are sword fights and children’s games, a boat is rowed along the river (Volga) and we see a church and cemetery: stories, imagination and death being all part of this colourful life. Just up, to the left of the church steeple/cupola is fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga’s house and, looking up further, at the top of the hill, is Moscow.

It’s an extraordinary accumulation of Kandinsky’s ideas, heritage and inspiration. Art historian Hajo Duchting writes:

The painting is meant to depict all the worldly and spiritual aspects of Russian life past and present, aspects that touch upon death and the belief in resurrection, as well as strife and the small joys in life.

Whilst ‘Colourful Life’ is understood as a turning point, these Russian aspects will continue to influence the development of Kandinsky’s paintings over the next few years as explores colour even further in his painting and we the colour saturation intensifies in, for example “Picture with Archer” [1909; MoMA] in which we see the figure on the horse at the forefront to the right, some men in medieval costume to the left and, in the middle of sky and landscape a city with cupolas that could, again, by Moscow:

and becomes brighter, clearer…

The Blue Mountain [1909; Guggenheim, New York]

Vasily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art. 

That colour saturation now begins to change and the forms become less substantial; there’s increasing light, movement and fluidity to the picture:

Composition IV [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

And yet…

can you see Boris and Gleb, the two figures on the lower right?

the three central figures holding sabres (?) who seem to be guarding the blue mountain (blue, the colour of Heaven), well these are members of the celestial army which, according to legend, resides in the mountain and will emerge ready to save Russia and the Sainsts in time of need.?

and to the left in the foreground, under the rainbow, is the River Volga, with the oars of the rowing boat.

Above the rainbow, you might even see a calligraphic line suggesting a horse (the horse of St George), and in the top left? Those two ‘figures’? Well, look at the sky just above them – the red and orange seem to be the shape of a dog’s head. Those two figures are Saints Stephen and Christopher.

For Kandinsky, all this symbolism and this new art implies a turning point, a new dawn: spiritual and social renewal; apocalypse and resurrection.

Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.”

Art Forum

Most pertinent, then, is perhaps this glorious glass painting:

All Saints I [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

In simple outlines and bright colors, regardless of proportions and spatial logic, the artist assembles the figures of All Saints’ Day under the yellow trumpet of a monumental angel. Among them are St. George with shield and lance, a female saint with a burning candle and the large couple holding each other wrapped around each other, perhaps the two princely martyrs of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb… The holy society stands under the clear antagonism of brightness and darkness, salvation and destruction… [and] on the left above the trumpet of the angel [St Michael, from the Book of Revelation, sounding the last trump], the Kremlin city on the hill shines…

Moscow being, of course, the Third – and final – Rome.

And when, due to World War I, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914, he began working towards this extraordinary vision of the city:

Kandinsky: Moscow I [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

We seem to be standing in Red Square, whirling around looking at everything at once, cupolas and factory chimneys; there is a joy of life in the city under the rainbow; and, very probably, that is Boris and Gleb standing at the centre of it all: a triumphant vision.

And if, as Kandinsky believed, spiritual renewal would come with artistic renewal, then Moscow was the place to be, for the avant-garde artists were continuing to experiment fervently…


Russian Art & Artists (13) – Russian Icons and Kandinsky

If you are enjoying this series and able to contribute I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes!


Next time (Saturday 26th June) we’ll catch up with Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Futurists!


Russian Art Week: London, June 2021

It’s that time of the summer when the auction houses of London focus the Art of Russia (see Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture ( which is always a delicious nosegay of paintings from across Russia and Russian history. Anyone following my little Russian Art & Artists research course will, hopefully, enjoy browsing the online galleries, especially as there are pictures, even by the most celebrated artists, that are rarely seen in public (especially in Britain) because they’re in private collections.

It means too that, for the common viewer, one begins imagining which paintings to buy in the creation of a personal collection (imaginary cheque books at the ready!) – I have chosen three:

I would have to start with this glorious painting by Ivan Shishkin: “Forest Road” (1896) at MacDougall‘s. I love the way (as with many artists of the 19th century Wanderers movement) the path comes right up to the lower frame, as a viewer one feels invited in, as if already walking along, enjoying the light, the air and the colours of the forest.

MacDougall‘s notes:

Here, as in many of Shishkin’s best works, there is no pursuit of a beautiful motif or exalted tone yet, for all its apparent simplicity, Forest Road enchantingly evokes the mysterious depths of the Central Russian forest landscape so familiar to everyone, as well as the natural progression of the muted light, and the emotional and expressive quality of the artistic language.

That suggestion of ‘mysterious depths’ calls to the ancient history of Russia, the wildness of its interior lands, even evoking the traditions of story-telling, the grand legends and folk-tales.

My second ‘imaginary acquisition’ is – and this will surprise no-one! – a painting by Natalia Goncharova: The Life of the Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus from 1913 and on sale at Sotheby‘s. For all the radical difference of Goncharova’s art from that of Shishkin, they share the same catalyst for their work: the traditions of Russia. Here, Goncharova explores the story of two Orthodox saints from the Russian Icon tradition.

Florus and Laurus are known as protectors of horses and have been important for the Russian peasantry. In both its form and subject matter, the work therefore continues Goncharova’s exploration of peasant traditions

say Sotheby‘s in their Catalogue Note. With its simplified forms, bright colours and decorative elements (the flowers top right) Goncharova connects folk art and visual culture with avant-garde modernism.

Now this might come as a surprise! Ivan Andreev’s “Pig Farm” is undated and, on sale at Sotheby‘s, sadly there are no additional notes. But surely it is from the ‘heroic’ / ‘working class impressionism’ period of 1950s Socialist Realism? Everyday life is recognised as worthy of monumental representation, the lives of the happy, healthy worker-citizens gloried in sunlight and even pig farming is an honoured part of Soviet collective productivity. Of course we can see it is ‘propaganda’: Socialist Realist artists were closely circumscribed in their art even after the demise of Stalin, both in the subject matter and style; and yet, I find there is something immensely satisfying in Andreev’s painting.


If you want to explore further, the websites are:

Sotheby’s: Russian Pictures (

Christie’s: Browse Lots (

MacDougall’s: MacDougall’s Auction | Home (

and Bonhams: Bonhams : The Russian Sale


And if you are following the Russian Art & Artists research series here on The Common Viewer, our next ‘episode’ (to be published 12th June) will be on Russian Icons and the Art of Kandinsky.


Words and Pictures (A Russian Aside): Rasputin and Anna Krarup

The Moscow Times has reported that – yesterday in Copenhagen – two portraits of the notorious/infamous Rasputin painted by Danish artist Anna Theodora Krarup went to auction, see: Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers of Fine Art (

I’m not sure if I’m more intrigued by the paintings – done from life, incredibly rare – or the artist!

Christie’s writes of Krarup:

Theodora Krarup was born in Scheelborg in 1862 and studied in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris and Helsinki, before fulfilling a lifelong ambition to visit Russia, at the age of 34, where she remained for forty two years. Krarup lived in St. Petersburg, where she was asked by the, dowager Maria Feodorovna to paint the late Alexander III from pictures. She was then commissioned to paint further Imperial portraits from life.

Krarup became a friend of Rasputin and painted a total of twelve portraits of him, the last of which was completed five days before his death. According to her memoires, Rasputin entrusted his own memoires, photograph album and letters to her, but these along with her own remaining works, she had to destroy the day before her deportation in 1938. However, she attempted to refute the scandalous reputation of Rasputin in her own memoires, dictated to and published by : Henning Kehler and William Haste.

What a fascinating story this must be – living in St Petersburg through the Revolution and deep into Stalinist times – but apparently it’s only published in Danish.

The Moscow Times adds:

She had a studio on Nevsky Prospekt and painted portraits of not only Russian royalty, but also other prominent cultural and scientific figures. She was acquainted with Grigory Rasputin and strongly refuted the depiction of him as a womanizer and fraud. She wrote that he was a kind person without ambition.

Concidentally, I’ve just been reading Teffi’s short story/memoirs Rasputin and Other Ironies [Pushkin Press] in which she describes meeting Rasputin:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to be gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes.

It’s a description that approximates Krarup’s portrait so closely it’s astonishing.

Teffi meets Rasputin a couple of times, he’s clearly a very peculiar man sometimes posturing and high-handed, sometimes dancing madly, sometimes a womaniser; but then Teffi also sees the security around him, the journalists exploiting his story, and the powerful interest all sorts of people had in him, and for all sorts of motives. Teffi, however, doesn’t fall for his magic act:

Here he was, Rasputin in his element. The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words – all this was a tried and tested method. But if so, then it was all rather naive and straightforward. Or, perhaps, his fame as a sorcerer, soothsayer and favourite of the Tsar really did kindle within people a particular blend of curiosity and fear, a keen desire to participate in this weird mystery.

I think I’m with Teffi here; it would be much more interesting to find out about Anna Krarup’s time in Russia/USSR!


Words and Pictures: Arty Books for June 2021

The first book to mention is Sarah Winman’s new novel “Still Life” which is published by HarperCollins next week, 10th June and looks fascinating. Anyone who had read her glorious “Tin Man” [Tinder Press] will know her extraordinarily succinct use of language to conjure atmosphere, a strong sense of place and time and always a dramatic, unexpected and often emotional plot. Throughout that novel the presence of Vincent Van Gogh – both his paintings (the Sunflower series) and his biography – haunted, sometimes even drove, the narrative, in surprising ways.

Reading “Tin Man” then took me back to re-reading A. S. Byatt’s novel (also called) “Still Life” [Vintage] which is similarly infused with the spirit of Van Gogh as well as other painters. The Prologue is set at an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and one of the main characters, a writer, looking at Van Gogh paintings reflects how difficult he had found it to find “an appropriate language for the painter’s obsession with the illuminated material world.” Perhaps Byatt, too, found it difficult, but her success throughout the novel – as Sarah Winman achieved in “Tin Man” also – is the creation of story, characters, fictional events that enable one to look again at the paintings and their effect/s upon the viewer.

Vincent van Gogh, Vincent; Sunflowers; 1888
The National Gallery, London;

In Winman’s novel the propelling catalyst is a reproduction of “Sunflowers” won at a raffle – Dora hangs it on the wall of her otherwise drab and depressing back room, and against her husband’s wishes.

“She stood back. The painting was as conspicuous as a newly installed window, but one that looked out on to a life of colour and imagination, far away from the grey factory dawn and in stark contrast to the brown curtains and brown carpet, both chosen by a man to hide the dirt. It would be as if the sun rose every morning on that wall, showering the silence of their mealtimes with the shifting emotion of light.”

The painting now on the wall leads immediately to a near murder Dora’s her husband returns and goes to pull it down: “Do it and I’ll kill you. If not now then when you sleep. This painting is me. You don’t touch it, you respect it.”

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” changes lives throughout the story in, as I say, surprising and powerfully emotional ways.

The publisher’s copy for Sarah Winman’s “Still Life” reads:

Still Life is a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster. 1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

In other words: it will be amazing!

A book more directly linked to an artist is Franny Moyle’s The King’s Painter [Head of Zeus] which, I have to say, is one of the most beautifully illustrated and produced art/biographies that I’ve seen in a long time. What is particularly interesting is that each chapter is dedicated to a particular portrait that then illuminates the context of the working artist. Moyle notes in the Introduction that there is very little by way of written records from the artist’s life, which means that the the paintings themselves, their subjects and their cultural-political receptions, are superbly foregrounded. And of course the paintings have been so historically affective: we could not ‘see’ or perhaps even understand Henry VIII and his court except through the eyes of Holbein.

Holbein the younger, Hans; Henry VIII and Henry VII; National Portrait Gallery, London;

The King’s Painter: The Art and Times of Hans Holbein is published now, and four episodes of it from Radio 4’s Book of the Week are still available (as of today): BBC Radio 4 – The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle – Available now and – fascinatingly – as she was going about her research, Franny Moyle also discovered a portrait of the artist as a child: The child hidden in plain sight: how one painting has upended the Holbein world (!

My third ‘recommended’ book is Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man” [Bloomsbury] which is absolutely brilliant. Wilson not only portrays D.H. Lawrence in a uniquely new light – especially by way of his usually-forgotten-about writing – she has also transformed the art of biography by mapping Lawrence’s life by way of Dante’s travels from the Inferno of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise. It is truly extraordinary and, when the ‘blurb’ says “a landmark biography” for once this rings true.

You might be thinking – why is he talking about this when it’s not about an artist or art? Well, the third part is especially interesting as, when Lawrence and his wife Frieda move to New Mexico, an artist who travels with them is Brett (1883-1977), the Hon. Dorothy Eugenie Brett to give her formal name. Brett had been a student at the Slade, a friend of Carrington and one of the Bloomsbury artists who, during World War I, stayed at Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor – thesae were the circles through which she met Lawrence. At a dinner party, Lawrence – drunk – suggested the guests should all move with him to create a writers/artists colony. One way or another they demurred, except Brett.

The website has only four of her paintings, including one of Ottoline and her Garsington guests and a portrait of Lawrence himself:

The other two are later paintings (both in the Tate) from New Mexico where, from 1924, Brett would live for the rest of her life.

The Tate website tells a little more about these astonishing pictures.

And, one other book to mention is Ian Collins biography of the artist John Craxton [Yale University Press]:

which I will be reading over the next few days before discussing it with the author himself (via @HatchardsPiccadilly on InstagramLive next Wednesday 9th, 6pm), when I’ll have much more to tell!

So, for now, happy book-reading and picture-viewing!


John Nash in Essex

I’ve just spotted that there’s to be an exhibition of John Nash’s paintings at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne:

John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace | Towner Eastbourne

which is very exciting, as John is so often over-shadowed by his more famous brother Paul.

This will be the first exhibition of his work for sixty years and, especially interesting is that the Towner website says:

“The Landscape of Love and Solace will contextualise the artist’s life and work within the history of the 20th century, and in particular via his key relationships with Dora Carrington and Christine Kuhlenthal, who later became his wife”.


“Combining acute observation and a strong individual vision Nash’s oeuvre includes many of the finest depictions of the British landscape created in the 20th century” notes the Towner, which immediately brought to mind the John Nash painting in my own local gallery, The Beecroft in Southend,

Nash, John Northcote; Melting Snow at Wormingford; Southend Museums Service;

which always fills me with delight. Why? Partly because there’s so much of interest to look at: the deep wide view to the horizon, the quilt of fields and the man (a farmer?), his dog running ahead. The colours are those of nature, and beautifully calming. And then there is this heap of cut down trunks and branches right in the foreground, ‘blocking’ our view and refusing to allow the painting enter the ‘pastoral’ genre; it’s a recognition that even in winter there is work to be done on the land. The tree stumps to the left are also fascinating, they have a hint of Graham Sutherland – looking a little monstrous or wounded, we might think of that gaping stump as howling in the aftermath of such violence. This is not a ‘bucolic’ Essex landscape then, there are harsh realities. And yet I cannot but sense that ‘opening of a window’ feeling, the scent of late-winter freshness in the air as the land emerges from a blanket of snow; the adrenalin-rush of hope and joy that the season is turning and spring not far away. I want to go out and walk, take it all in.


There’s a gorgeous-looking book by Andy Friend that accompanies the Towner exhibition.

There is also a really interesting article by Frances Spalding reviewing Andrew Lambirth’s book on John Nash: John Nash and the British landscape | Apollo Magazine ( and 79 paintings by Nash on


Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (9) The Ballets Russes


I’ve done something different this week and filmed the session.

It’s probably about an hour long – so you might need a cup of coffee & a biscuit!

(It does get a bit glitchy towards the end but keep going, the main elements are all there.)

If you can’t bear to watch, the presentation images are below with all the links and references for further researches.

For Anna Pavlova’s “The Dying Swan” on YouTube visit here.

For “The Rite of Spring” on YouTube visit here.

For Valentine Gross (nee Hugo) in the V&A Collections visit here.

For a long read on the Ballets Russes in The Tretyakov Magazine visit here.


Russian Art and Artists (9)

If you are enjoying this series and are able to ‘donate’ even occasionally – please do! Many thanks in advance.


NB There’s to be an exhibition of Laura Knight’s paintings at Penlee House, Cornwall this summer: see here.

Well that was fun!


Three Colourful Summer Exhibitions…

The landscapes and communities of England, the characters of bohemian Paris and London, the glory of the creative imagination…

There are three very exciting exhibitions coming this summer that will draw us out of the lockdown slumber to thrill us with paint, colour and the exuberance of living. And this common viewer for one is very excited!  

(I’ve included as many links as possible for further exploration, but please let me know if there are any others I can add to build up our Common Viewer Resources!)

At Penlee House in Cornwall, they are celebrating the life and art of Laura Knight from 17th May to 16th September in what they’re calling a “major retrospective” that includes a number of paintings from private collections.

The exhibition will bring together over 60 works by the artist, exploring different themes she became fascinated with over her life. Her stunning landscapes in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Worcestershire will be shown alongside her paintings of circus performers and Gypsies.

There is also an accompanying book “Laura Knight: A Celebration” by art historian and curator Elizabeth Knowles published by Sansom and Company.

And, as I was looking that up, I’ve also discovered not only that Barbara C Morden’s brilliant biography Laura Knight: A Life is being freshly published in paperback, but that Laura Knight’s autobiography “Oil Paint and Grease Paint” is to be republished in February 2022 – and that is excellent news indeed as it brings Laura Knight’s voice directly to us, as well as numerous anecdotes!

Meanwhile, over at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (19th May – 30th August), there is to be a celebration of Nina Hamnett – the Queen of Bohemia as she was, quite wonderfully, known!

Hamnett’s paintings give us a glimpse into her life in Paris and London’s avant-garde communities, and into the relationships she forged. Her compelling portraits and skilful compositions such as her Parisian café scenes, reveal Hamnett to be one of the most talented and exciting artists of her time.


Again there is a book Nina Hamnett to coincide with the exhibition written by the brilliant Alicia Foster and published in the Modern Women Artists series from Eiderdown Books.

Sadly there’s no sign that Hamnett’s autobiographies are to be republished, but Rachel Campbell-Johnston certainly offers a flavour of the artist’s life in her Times review article “The Painter who became a Magnet for Scandal” as does Lucy Davies in the Telegraph: “Lucien Freud Perched, Rapt, on her Deathbed“.

Eiderdown Books also include Eileen Agar by Laura Smith in their Modern Women Artists series:

Eileen Agar was an artist who explored painting, photography, collage and sculpture. Her independent and inventive experiments with assemblage and colour linked her work inextricably with two major art movements of European twentieth century culture: Cubism and Surrealism.

which coincides with the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition: Eileen Agar – Angel of Anarchy (19th May – 29th August).

‘I have spent my whole life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery.

– Eileen Agar quoted on the Whitechapel Gallery website.

As Laura Cumming has written in the Guardian:

[Agar’s] art seems infused with a constant sense of the sea and the shore, but also with a characteristically independent joie de vivre. This survey of over a hundred works is long overdue, but better late than never.

Laura Smith has also edited a book “Eileen Agar” to accompany the exhibition that should be especially valuable as it brings together the insights of Andrew Lambirth and Marina Warner. I must also mention Michel Remy’s excellent book Eileen Agar: Dreaming Oneself Awake as well as BBC Radio 4 programme on Sounds about Agar by Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel Gallery, which is definitely worth hearing as an overview/introduction to the artist.


And of course Art UK | Home is as ever a fabulous website through which to explore all these artists.

Oh, what a summer of gorgeous looking we have ahead of us if we share Eileen Agar’s “hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery”.


Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (7) – The Abramtsevo Art Colony

As we’ve been exploring over these last few ‘episodes’ of The Art and Artists of Russia, the Wanderers were very much part of the social revolution that was taking place in 19th century Russia: a century in which the cultural sensibility of Russia pivoted away from the elite and the ‘European’ ways of St Petersburg towards a recognition – especially after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 – of a national Russian heritage: the landscape, its people, history and, indeed, contemporary life. This was all causing immense amounts of social and political turbulence, but the zeitgeist was very much in favour of the ‘peasant’ and the re-evaluation of native traditions, especially when it came to the arts.

Portrait of Savva Mamontov by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) [1897; Tretakov Gallery]

Elizaveta Mamontova Reading by Ilya Repin [1897]

These developments had a powerful impact on Savva (1841-1918) and Elizaveta Mamontov, a married couple who owned the Abramtsevo estate just to the north of Moscow. Savva, a millionaire businessman from a family involved in the pioneering work of railroad construction across Russia, was a great patron of the arts and artists, indeed he was a singer and sculptor himself. Like his wife, he was greatly influenced by the Wanderers’ programme of bringing art back to the people.

Elizaveta was deeply religious and extraordinarily forceful. On her insistence a hospital was built on the estate following a cholera epidemic that had spread through the surrounding population; then a school – the first in the region.

Elizaveta Mamontova is also credited as at least the inspiration behind the creation of matrioshki, Russian ‘nesting dolls’ –

Original matryoshka set by Zvyozdochkin and Malyutin [1892; Sergiev Posad Museum of Toys]

Alongside the school she also had a studio built, and it was this studio that would bring artists, composers, art critics and writers together into what became known as The Mamontov Circle or The Abramtsevo Art Colony. Under Elizaveta’s gaze, and with the knowledge and assistance of Elena Polenova, the studio would soon become a professional workshop in which traditional arts and crafts skills were revived in the production of furniture, ceramic tiles (Russian Majolica – see and fabrics that would then be sold through a shop in Moscow.

Majolica tiles with mythological sirin made for a bench by Mikhail Vrubel at Abramtsevo.

There is a website (in English) for Abramtsevo here; and a great article full of photographs in Russia Beyond here.

Yelena Polenova is a fascinating character, as an article in the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine tells:

“[she] was one of the pioneers of the national-romantic movement in Russian modern art and of the beginnings of symbolism. As an active member of the Mamontov circle of artists, she was among the founders of the museum of folk art at Abramtsevo, as well as the ceramics, woodwork and carving workshops there. Polenova was one of the first artists to turn to book illustrations — over a relatively short period of time, from the end of the 1880s to the 1890s, she created illustrations for and adapted more than 20 collections of Russian folk fairy tales and proverbs”.

Together, Elizaveta Mamontova and Yelena Polenova travelled across the country researching traditional folk crafts:

“In 1885 Polenova and Mamontova started enthusiastically studying folk art and collecting the best samples for the house museum in Abramtsevo. The artist wrote to the critic Vladimir Stasov about her passion: “As long as we could, we bought carved objects which we were able to find during our trips — salt cellars, boxes, donets, shveikas, rollers (spindles), linen rollers, spinning-wheels, beaters (swingles); front parts of carts and sleds; children’s wooden chairs and benches. I sketched or photographed larger objects, such as tables, hanging wall cabinets, arks, benches (mostly not the hanging kind but the ones that are built into the wall and are part of the inner architecture of the izba [peasant house in rural Russia].) Thus, we ended up with a rather inclusive collection at Abramtsevo, and a whole lot of notebooks with sketches and photographs.”

Wall with a door. Sketch of dining room design for M.F. Yakunchikova’s country house in Nara, Moscow region. (Polenov Museum) and Sketch of a table for the carpentry workshop in Abramtsevo (Vasnetsov Industrial and Art College) [both c/o Tretyakov Magazine]

I have to say I find all this fascinating, particularly the folk tradition of Russia distaffs used for spinning and separating wool. Beautifully carved and painted, they were traditionally given by men or boys to daughters and sisters. They’re as much works of art as they are practical tools…

Distaffs from the Ferapontov collection

Most famously, perhaps, the Abramtsevo artists designed and built the Church of the Saviour after a flood across the local district had prevented people from attending the Orthodox Easter Service. Artists and writers all set to on architectural and archaeological research, came up with plans, decided a scheme and then worked on building it.

The Church of the Saviour Not Made by Human Hand, [is] a miniscule church based on the medieval Novgorod designs. Inside the church are icons courtesy of Ilya Repin and Michael Nesterov, and the tiled stove and mosaic floor (in the shape of a blooming flower) are examples of Vrubel’s and Viktor Vasnetsov’s work respectively.

All of the work on the Abramtsevo Colony set off a wave of Arts & Crafts enthusiasm which immediately become “fashionable” and would have its effect, at the turn of the century, on the development of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and well as the avant garde paintings of Kandinsky and Goncharova.

One of the artists most closely aligned with the Abramtsevo colony though was Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). From the St Petersburg Academy he became friends with Ivan Kramskoi, the leader of the Wanderers’ Movement, and Ilya Repin with whom he visited Paris.

And I just have to take a moment here to note this glorious painting made during that time in Paris 1876-7: “Acrobats. Festival in a Paris Suburb” which is on display at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg.

Returning to Russia, Vasnetsov’s work became more closely aligned to the Wanderers and indeed the Abramtsevo aesthetic as his interests in Russian folklore, myth and fairytale grew.

Here, we see three of the most famous legendary bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich in Victor Vasnetsov’s “Bogatyrs” [1898; Tretyakov Gallery].

The bogatyrs are the poetic heroes of the elite forces of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015 (they’re akin to the medieval knight errant of Western European legend):

The most notable bogatyrs [are]… the trio of Alyosha Popovich, Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. Each of them tends to be known for a certain character trait: Alyosha Popovich for his wits, Dobrynya Nikitich for his courage, and Ilya Muromets for his physical and spiritual power and integrity, and for his dedication to the protection of his homeland and people. Most of the bogatyrs’ adventures are fictional, and often included fighting dragons, giants and other mythical creatures. However, the bogatyrs themselves were often based on real people. Historical prototypes of both Dobrynya Nikitich (the warlord Dobrynya) and Ilya Muromets are proven to have existed. [Wikipedia]

It’s of note too that The Bogatyr Gates is one of the episodes in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

My own favourite painting by Vasnetsov is:

The Flying Carpet [a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich; 1880; Nizhny Novgorod State Museum]

Ivan is the main hero of Russian folktales. He is almost always portrayed as either the third son of a peasant family or the third son of a king. The friends and foes of Ivan Tsarevich are often mythic figures, from magical animals to deathless beings.

What is so wonderful about the painting though is that whilst Ivan and the Flying Carpet are necessarily fictional, imaginary – here he is with the magical firebird – Vasnetsov makes the possibility so real as Ivan flies over a very naturalistic landscape. It just evokes, to me at least, a glorious sense of wonder (and I’ve always, always wanted to ride on a Flying Carpet!)

And here is another famous character from Russian folktale:

Baba Yaga [1917; The House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov]

Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter her or seek her out. She may play a maternal role and has associations with forest wildlife… Her depictions vary greatly across tales, ranging from a child-eating monster, to helping a protagonist find his missing bride.

Here, in Vasnetsov’s painting, we see Baba Yaga at her worst – kidnapping a child – as she flies through the forest in her mortar, the pestle sweeping behind her to remove any traces of her being there.

For a Baba Yaga story:

Now Baba Yaga traditionally lives in a hut built on chicken legs which returns us to the Abramtsevo Colony where Vasnetsov built just such a hut!


However, as it is the Easter weekend, it seems more appropriate to finish on another of Vasnetsov’s projects – the interior painting of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev/Kyiv.

Here again, Vasnetsov reflects the myth and legends of medieval Russia (aka Kiev Rus) when Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Russia:

(left) Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir [1880; sketch for Vladimir Cathedral fresco; State Art Museum, Kyiv]

(right) The Baptism of Kyivans [1886, fresco, St Vladimir Cathedral]

Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894) Easter Procession [1893; State Russian Museum]

The Orthodox Easter service is one of the most important religious festivals and, although I’m not sure if Kyiv is in lockdown, the usual service at St Vladimir’s would run something like this:

Easter Sunday morning in the Ukrainian tradition begins at sunrise. That is when the faithful arrive for Resurrection Services. The service before the Divine Liturgy consists of a procession which circles the church three times. The journey is made to symbolize the trip of the women to the tomb to anoint the Body of Christ on that first Easter morning. The makeup of the procession is similar to the one on Good Friday, led by a worshipper carrying the crucifix and altar boys using the kalatala (wooden clappers). Parish elders carry the Plaschenytsia (Holy Burial Shroud).

After the third passage, the procession stops in front of the church doors, which symbolize the impossibility of being able to enter the Kingdom of God before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The priest sings the joyful Easter song “Khrystos Voskres” (“Christ is Risen”) the first time himself.  All of the faithful repeat the triumphant hymn a second time. Then, striking the doors of the church with the crucifix to open them, the priest begins “Khrystos Voskres” a third time, as the congregation joins in. This dramatic entrance reminds us that Heaven is now available to all because our Savior has conquered death with His death. All enter the church and the Divine Liturgy of Easter, the Great Day, begins.


Vasnetsov: Christ the Omnipotent [1886; St Vladimir’s Cathedral]


Next time:

The Art & Artists of Russia (8): 1905 and a Revolution in Art

will be published on Saturday 17th April



Russian Art & Artists (7) – Abramtsevo

If you have enjoyed this little article and are able to help fund ongoing research, do please donate! With many thanks in advance, Mark.


In the meantime: Happy Easter!


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!


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