The Immortal Itinerants (Peredvizhniki) Part II

In the 1870-80’s historical painting for the first time seemed to reveal all answers to relevant questions addressed by the past. Popular revolts, acts of terrorism, execution, heroic deeds, sacrifice, suffering, betrayal, faithfulness to ideas and treachery are the concepts dominating the society of that time. Some artists approached these problems via religious subjects, very familiar and clear to Russian people. Nikolai Ghe, was one of them. His work, The Last Supper, lacked mystery and sacred meaning. Like-minded people had become enemies. Judas, who thought of the salvation of his people, did not grasp the great idea of Christ providing salvation for the whole of mankind. The philosophic disagreement, but not the betrayal of a greedy man, became the subject of the painting. (Note there are only 11 Apostles depicted in the painting and that Judas looks like a winged Angel of Death.) His works, Calvary and Crucifixion, were dedicated to humanity, at a time when spiritual strength and faithfulness to ideas overcome physical suffering.

Ivan Kramskoi, also painted religious subjects. In his work, Christ in a Desert, he shows the hero at the moment of making a choice of his life’s way. This feeling of choice was familiar to many people: whether to remain faithful to destiny or to yield to temptation and retreat, having foreseen terrible consequences of remaining steadfast. All his life Kramskoi was devoted to a large painting called, Christ before the people, where he interpreted the subject of sacrifice and suffering for a people that did not understand.

Vasiliy Surikov’s, most famous work is his trilogy painted in the 1880s. Each of these three paintings is devoted to a specific epic collision of paramount significance: The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsi, represents the nation in history. Menshikov in Berezovo, depicts a hero in history. Finally, the Boyarynya Morozova, is an example of a hero and the people. Surikov approached the most dramatic points of Russian history: reformation of the church in the mid 17th century, Peter the Great’s reforms of the 18th century, etc. In Surikov’s own time, the late 19th century, there were numerous flashbacks of those events in Russia. The nation found itself on the threshold of major changes once again. Incidentally, Surikov in his Morning, showed for the first time how an historical inevitability can divide a single nation, turning fellow countrymen against each other. In the painting, one of Peter’s soldiers is carefully supporting a strelets (a member of Ivan the Terrible’s elite corps) while leading him to scaffold. These two Russians are not enemies, only a historical coincidence has turned one of them into a hangman and the other into his victim. Could Surikov have foreseen that twenty years later Russia would be flooded with blood once again, and brother would turn against brother in a civil war? He looked to the past for answers about Russia’s future.

Surikov neither passed judgment nor took sides in his paintings, and his characters were neither saints nor criminals. Each of them was convinced he was doing the right thing, but in the eyes of history, «right» is synonymous with «imperative.» It is the inevitable collision of historical interest entailing the death of one of the parties that the artist rendered with disturbing vividness. Relying on his creative imagination, the artist craftily conjured up pictures of the past, encouraging the viewer to ponder traumatic historical collisions that had once shaken the nation, compelling every person then living to make his choice. His task was to make his characters convincing and historically credible, to make the viewer believe in the image before his eyes. In later years, Surikov abandoned his preoccupation with dramatic turning points in history in favor of glorifying Russia’s heroic past. In spite of this he remained true to himself: the Russian people were still the main character of his works, and courage and daring were the artist’s principal subject-matter. In his paintings, Surikov always focused on fine portraiture. His female images are particularly elaborate and masterful. He appreciated and knew how to depict the beauty of a Russian woman; he understood her contradictory personality, her tenderness, kindness, compassion, cordiality, quiet resignation, and readiness to sacrifice herself, and he recognized that sometimes, her courage, strong will, devil-may-care attitude, and her strong convictions bordered on fanaticism.

During that epoch — the heyday of portrait genre in Russian art — many artists tended to emphasize their characters’ personalities in their historical and genre painting. Itinerants made a particularly notable contribution to portraiture. For the first time in Russian art, portraiture stopped being merely the art of painting family members and stopped serving exclusively the sentimental needs and vanity of individuals and families. As a result of the itinerants, the very word portrait acquires new understanding. The reason for the above we find in the definition of reconsidered art that achieved vivid social status. Portraits became very regulated such as the portraits of contemporary heroes, public figures, common people, peasants, and workers. Art changed much. Now it served more for exhibition purposes rather than purely as private commissions.

The name of Pavel Tretyakov, is closely connected with establishment of this new art destination. He was a Moscow merchant who had decided to set up a gallery of the national modern art. He started buying itinerants’ work, not only at the exhibitions, but also unfinished works while they were in an artist’s studio. Tretyakov attended artists’ workshops and often paid money to an artist in order for him to complete the work. Moreover, he commissioned different artists to make portraits of writers, musicians, actors, and other artists in order to leave a cultural heritage for the generations to come. His life and the life of his family were very modest as most of his money was spent for paintings. Being so interested in portraiture, he got other artists interested in this genre. Among the artists working in portrait genre there are several outstanding masters whose names are worthy of mention.

Vasiliy Perov was the first who featured mostly in psychological portrait the complicated inner world of the person and his soul. His portraits of Feodor Dostoevskiy and of Alexei Ostrovskiy are considered to be his best and most famous portraits. The portrait of Dostoevskiy, a great Russian writer who tried to penetrate the darkest parts of a human soul, is of special value. Kramskoi used this painting to reflect his own understanding of duty and honor of Russian intelligence. He strove to reveal the versatile personality of the writer.

Ivan Kramskoi, being a very talented portraitist, was a prominent public figure and art was not the only domain of his activity. Kramskoi was the head of the Society of Traveling Art Exhibitions from the time it was established. His particular understanding of art as a way of educating people dictated his individual choice of the model and interpretation of his portrait image. He chose those whom he considered to be an ideal subject and who shared his views on the exclusive educational mission of art. His views coincided with general trends and objectives in art — a search of the identifiable person. The resulting form of the above social significance of a model was of particular importance for Kramskoi. A fine example of this approach is the portrait of L.Tolstoy. The ascetic simplicity of the writer’s image and feeling of serious, dramatic thought that dominated Tolstoy was reflected in Kramskoi’s opinion on the writer’s destiny.

After the death of Kramskoi, Nikolai Yaroshenko, who was called «the conscience of the Itinerants» for his integrity and adherence to principles, headed the itinerants’ society. Yaroshenko created his own portrait type, and his representation of a specific model became the basis for his generalized image of the representation of the different layers of society. Girl Student, is typical of Yaroshenko. His Portrait of Pelageya Strepetova, a Russian tragical actress, is a very good example of his work. She specialized in the roles of the poor and humiliated, exhausted by life women, and these roles left their mark on this portrait. Looking at the clenched hands of this fine, young, but not pretty woman, we can feel her inner strength and the emotional strain in her image. This image probably reminded contemporaries of young girls exiled to the mines for expressing their ideas. One critic noted the resemblance of bracelets on her wrists to fetters.

As has been mentioned, the most famous among the portraitists was Ilya Repin. He saw the souls of every person who posed for him, and he destroyed all conventional rules adhered to by other portraitists. He was unsurpassed as a master of any form of portrait from bedchamber to state portraits. He worked both in painting and drawing. The backgrounds for his portraits could be a house interior or landscapes. Using particular composition, color schemes, lines, and strokes, he underlined unique individual features of the model. The German poet, Rilke, said: «Repin has the nature of an artist. With a glance, he inspects everyone he meets, studies him and assigns him to remote corners of his soul and doesn’t let him move away until Rapin is finished.» Repin models came from all types of society to include peasants as well as the aristocracy. He painted men, women, old people, children, friends and relatives. The fine portraiture of Repin gives us an integral, profound, all-embracing, general presentation of 19th Century society and lively individual images of its representatives. Many admire the works of Repin. Especially fine paintings include Fall Bouquet, Portrait of artist’s daughter, Portrait of M. Musorgsky, and the Portrait of Ivan Kramskoi… The list of works is endless. In the history of Russian art, the portraiture genre is one of the oldest and most traditional genres. First introduced at the time of Peter the Great, it was developed by different generations of artists, but it was the itinerants that made a particularly notable contribution to portraiture. They were also great innovators in Landscape genre.

Another important concept of the specific national character of Russia, the peculiarity of Russian nature, was done for the first time by Itinerants. Works by Alexei Savrasov, Ivan Shishkin, Vasiliy Polenov, Arkhip Kuinji, and Isaak Levitan were wildly received by the public. These masters showed the highest importance of ordinary motifs, scenes, and seasons of the year Country sights were approached by artists much more often than urban motifs, thus emphasizing peasant themes. But it was not based purely on social problems. The whole gamut was captured on canvas. Green plain expanses, fallowed fields in the rain, endless travel-worn roads, narrow paths that stretched from different parts of the vast land, dense forests, impassable thickets, small lakes like blue saucers, hidden copses, and the beauty of the big Russian river Volga were all acceptable subjects for these Russian immortals.

The concept of nature, for Russian Itinerant artists and since, has always been closely connected with a man being painted in his natural environment. Concerns about people and their thoughts and the Russian character were very much affected by landscape. The narrations about Russian nature indeed involved the telling of the life story of human beings living in nature. One of the first among itinerant landscape artists was Alexei Savrasov. His painting, Rooks Are Back Again, was exhibited for the first time at the exhibition of 1871 and it amazed viewers. For the first time they saw a plain native landscape far removed from the flourishing Italian beauty typical of classical and romantic artists. A feeling of nature awakening after winter, as a tree with its bared branches is depicted standing in the distance, soft light coming from the blue sky, a bustle of the first birds, all combined to evoke a feeling of something dear to one’s heart.. a familiar scene dating back to childhood. This sentimental landscape gained high significance in this genre.

Each painter approached similar motifs in his own artistic manner. Ivan Shishkin in his works glorified the heroic spirit of the Russian land. He liked to emphasize the might and grandeur of Russian nature. Depicting mostly fields and forests, he was given an artistic name of «singer of fields and forests.» His selfless love of nature made him not only an artist, but a botanist as well. He refused to be inaccurate depicting tree or blade. Numerous studies and sketches that survived till today offer testimony concerning his great care in studying nature.

Although Shishkin was often criticized for his naturalism and his unreasonable standards in his representation of nature, the careful work at the details of his paintings can’t be called «naturalism.» Naturalism in painting means blind imitation of a natural view without a well thought-out composition and without the correlation of common details and a particular selection of the items painted. At first sight, Shishkin’s landscapes look so trustworthy that one can get the wrong impression of the artist’s work. The artist desires the viewer to believe in the reality of such an existing view.

In this connection, his painting, The Rye, is very typical. The artist selected the typical natural motives of a central Russian landscape: the field of rye, the road, and mighty oaks. Next he thought about the composition, trying to get the right correlation between the sky and the earth, the fore and background, as well as the right light combination. All these details create mighty images that affect the feelings of the viewer. In this painting the artist truly glorifies the true beauty and grandeur of Russian nature.

One must give credit to the Itinerants for the creation of the genre of «plein air» painting. Two of the best were Polenov and Levitan. Polenov’s artistic manner was much different from that of Shishkin. In his paintings Moscow Courtyard and Grandmother’s Garden, he acts as a delicate lyric, entertaining storyteller. For the first time in these paintings he demonstrated the principles of so-called «plain-air painting.» However, the greatest «plein air» landscape painter in Russian art was Levitan. Considering the power and might of his talent and his contribution to the landscape genre he can be compared with Repin. His huge creative legacy gives an idea about the broad scope of his interests in the landscape field. Some of his works are full of delicate lyrics while others have epic and broad generalizations.

Issak Levitan had a very profound understanding of nature. Nature in his opinion holds onto its inner content. He said, «Can anything be more tragic than to feel the endless beauty of surroundings, the concealed secrets of nature, to see the Lord in everything and have no possibility to express such deep emotions?» These words reveal the modesty of the artist who has created real masterpieces but was not satisfied with himself and who worried about his inability to achieve perfection. Levitan confirmed once again that Russian landscape art demands to be considered as an object of the highest ideals of art. Many of his paintings contain a reflection on people’s destiny and the meaning of their life. His paintings are full of literary associations and philosophical ideas such as Over Eternal Peace, and Eternal Chime. In an entirely different manner he created landscapes in natural beauty, illustrating the waking up of nature March and the fading of nature in Golden Autumn. Levitan painted typical Russian landscapes, reproducing different states of nature correlating with human emotions.

The pictorial freedom of Levitan’s creative manner made him different from other landscape painters of his time. His last painting, Russia, was not finished. He dreamed of creating the common artistic image of his homeland in this painting. Levitan fell deeply in love with the Motherland as did all of the Itinerants. They dreamed and believed that their art would give people happiness and hope and recognition of the need to develop a high moral ideal in Russia. The Itinerants held sway over Russian art until the first ten years of the 20th Century. For me they will always be the best that Russian art has to offer. They painted in many styles, but they depicted life as they believed it was. They did this at great risk to themselves, and it is hoped that finally Russia stands on the golden threshold of freedom that they envisioned for her so many years ago.

#Immortal #Itinerants #Peredvizhniki #Part

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