Tag Archives: Ilya Repin

Prophecies in art, or Putin 120 years before Putin

I am side-stepping from the perfume & art topic to share a discovery I made today at Ilya Repin’s exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Ilya Repin began this painting in 1880 and it took him 11 years to arrive at the finished version. It’s title is “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire”. 

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It is a large canvas worth a thousands words about the cleverness of its composition, but I will do it later.

Sultan Mehmed wrote a diplomatic letter to the cossacks demanding their submission (in fact he wanted them to stop harassing his borders). The cossacks came back with the most vulgar and mocking reply imaginable. You can read both letters here., learning a lot about fancy swearing along the way.

Each and every Russian is exposed to this painting when he|she is young. Each and every Russian believes that’s the right way to answer any demands of any foreign power. This painting defines the way Russian diplomacy functions even without Russian diplomats being consciously aware what is the source of their immutable desire to behave in ways that are meant to disparage and humiliate their counterparts regardless of the real need to do it. That’s how influential programming at childhood could be, by the way.

Now, let’s zoom in to see the character hidden behind the laughing figurehead boss (or rather figurebelly boss).

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Yes, look at the guy in the grey & yellow hat.

Yes, Mr Putin was there.

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Except that he did shave off the lavish mustachio.

How’s that for a prophecy?

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Holy Russia!

Holy Rus, God-blessed land, God-chosen nation. In Moscow, you hear it more and more often now. The words are said in a solemn voice, with a distant look in the eyes as if they would be scanning the future and actually seeing Holy Russia. A contemplative pause usually follows. Even the most ardent supporters of the Holy Russia idea avoid using the phrase when crossing a road: otherwise, an accident is almost guaranteed.

If you steal the pondering pause to ask them what Holy Russia really is, or what their glimpse in the future revealed about it, don’t expect a coherent answer. They don’t have a slightest idea.

Many Russian artists tried to resolve this predicament by offering a picture Holy Russia believers could use as a prop.

The task they set for themselves could best be described by a line from a famous Russian fairytale, when a wicked Czar sends the protagonist on a mission saying, “Bring me I don’t know what from I don’t know where”.

Just as the fairytale hero, Mikhail Nesterov (1862 – 1942) is believed to have succeeded on this impossible mission: his painting comes first when you google “Holy Russia” and it’s not the title (which is, of course, Holy Russia) that has put it on top.

But does it shed light on the whole concept?

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Mikhail Nesterov, Holy Russia

Even a casual glance over this epic painting stumbles upon the frightening absence of a single happy face. I mean, seriously, if you met Christ, wouldn’t you rejoice? You know He loves you, you love Him, what’s the problem with you guys? Where does all this grim gravity come from?

When the literature genius Leo Tolstoy saw this painting, he famously remarked Christ looked like an Italian opera singer, but complimented the artist on the authenticity of the background landscape.

Is this Holy Russia? One pair of mittens for all? People united in their misery?

If not, what is it?

“An idiosyncratic Russian path”, the Holy Russia believers say.
“What is so idiosyncratically Russian about it?”
“Oh, it is definitely not the American highway. Not the German autobahn. Not the English motorway.”
“All right, definition through negation, I can take that. But a path to where?”
“Erm…to the Holy Land”.
“A few dozen regular commercial airlines can take can you there.  Why do you need an idiosyncratic path?!”
“Oh, no”, they say uncertainly, “it is not in Israel, it will be built in Russia” – and then they adopt the forbidding no-more-stupid-questions facial expression that signals they have run out of answers.

Believers in Holy Russia can be otherwise quite normal folks, that is as long as they stay uncertain what is so special about Holy Russia that sets it apart from other countries or nations. It is normal to be unsure if you are racially or nationally superior to others, because this is what it is all about, the Holy vs. the Unholy. The moment someone exclaims, “Viva la God-Chosen Holy Russia!” they proclaim superiority of Russians over other nations. It’s very similar to the “Great Reich” concept, and not surprisingly it boils down to an identical set of sentiments, including genetic differences.

If you read through comments, posts, and public speeches of those who support Putin and his policies, a scathingly scary Holy Russia would emerge:

Holy Russia is the last bastion of spirituality, the last hope of Mankind, the Third Rome. Holy Russia is fighting a spiritual war against the gay oppression of mega-rich Jews who are puppeteers of the US government that controls European nations through the NATO. If Russia loses, the forsaken Humanity crumbles under the weight of gay marriages, consumerism, junk food, and Polish vodka. Oh, and twerking, since recently.

Sometimes, I wonder if Putin really wanted Russians to believe in this bullshit. He can’t be that evil. Anyway, his subjects, overdosing on Russian TV, view the outside world now as a maniac gay Jew with a strap-on nuclear warhead hungry for the riches of Siberian taiga where Putin’s metaphorical bear is peacefully plucking berries and picking mushrooms. The wicked Jew waits for the unsuspecting bear to stoop for another chanterelle, but the Russian bear is no fool. Its bottom is tight, and its claws are at the ready.

I didn’t invent the bear metaphor. It comes straight from Putin’s mouth.

I can’t imagine what life is like when you have that kind of worldview.

If you think this kind of delirium is incapable of seducing anyone but the most insane, you are in for a surprise. One of my neighbours in London, a Royal Prosecutor, is an ardent supporter of all these ideas, except perhaps the anti-Semitic part, which for him is his last remaining reality anchor. Or his get-out-of-jail card, hard to say.

If a Royal Prosecutor is tempted by this version of reality, who can blame the majority of Russians for buying into the myth? I know very intelligent men and women who believe everything the official propaganda feeds them 24/7. At that, they are certain they are the only ones whose eyes are not blinded by the US-controlled media. Wait. No. US Jews-controlled media.

Any dialogue with these people is impossible. It is an atheist-believer kind of argument that leads either nowhere or to “gnashing of teeth” and madness, because the same facts are always interpreted differently, just like in this famous joke:

A little old Christian lady comes out onto her porch every morning and shouts, “Praise the Lord!” And every morning the atheist next door yells back, “There is no God!” This goes on for weeks. “Praise the Lord!” yells the lady. “There’s no God!” responds the neighbour. As time goes by, the lady runs into financial difficulties and has trouble buying food. She goes out onto the porch and asks God for help with groceries, then says, “Praise the Lord!”

The next morning when she goes out onto the porch, there are groceries she asked for. Of course, she shouts, “Praise the Lord!” The atheist jumps out from behind a bush and says, “Ha! I bought these groceries. There is no God!”


The lady looks at him and smiles. She shouts, “Praise the Lord! Not only did you provide for me, Lord, you made Satan pay for the groceries!”

Still, almost as long as Russia exists, debates about Holy Russia keep raging on, leaving in its wake ruined friendships, families, lives, uncountable philosophical treatises, and artworks.

The main Moscow’s gallery of Russian art, the State Tretyakov Gallery, shows two paintings that have been a silent graphic illustration of the two sides of the loud debate on Holy Russia for more than a hundred years.

The first painting comes from the author of “Holy Russia”, Mikhail Nesterov, but I am sure you’ve already guessed as much. He had a very recognisable style.

The painting’s title is “In Russia. Soul of the people” and it shows a religious procession that unites people who embrace God without questioning, like the boy at the front, and those who give it some thought, like Leo Tolstoy at the back. This is the best of Russia heading for Holy Russia.

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Mikhail Nesterov. “In Russia. The soul of the people”. 1914-1916

If this is the soul of Russia, I want to know why there is no joy, no happiness, no smiling eyes, but only sad resolve and grim foreboding. I want to see Russia and Russians happy (not the dead drunk kind of happy, but soberly joyful).

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Fragments from “In Russia. The soul of the people” by Mikhail Nesterov. 1914-1916

Do you believe this painting for a second? Do you believe a nation can hope for progress or at least move somewhere, anywhere from this transfixed state?

As I scan this painting, faces by face, I realise what’s good about it: it’s 100% false. You can breathe out, Russians are not like this collective golem, even though some of them may want this painting (together with the accompanying ideology of a God-chosen nation) to serve as a solemn decoration of a corrupt government.

I won’t surprise you now if I say that its author was a proud member of the Union of Russian People, a far-right party of hardline royalists that took active part in planning and executing Pogroms of Jews in Russia. Some later historians considered the Union as a forerunner of fascist movements in Italy and Germany.

The other painting, completed about 35 years before this one, is Ilya Repin’s “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”.

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Ilya Repin. “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”. 1880-1883

That’s the real thing, the true state of affairs. I am a bit surprised the Tretyakov Gallery hasn’t put it in the storeroom. It basically says, “you can say whatever you want about the god-choosiness and greatness of the spirit of Russia, but all you get is a replacement of true faith by false ecstasy”.

You don’t see any happy faces in this painting either, but what you get is a much broader spectrum of emotions than just Nesterov’s gravity.

Several men carry a platform with holy relics on it. Religion seems to be a burden for them, the kind of cross they have to carry their whole lives, but there’s no joy or promise in it for them.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Right behind them, there’s a group of people of the most devoted kind, it’s a group of petty bourgeois who play an active role in parish life. One of them, perhaps, OD’ed on vodka and did something inappropriate for which he (or she?) is being punished by the mounted gendarme.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

In Russia, stepping out of line, both literally and metaphorically has always been discouraged. And you can see that the line on both sides of the procession is maintained by bearded blokes proudly exhibiting a brass badge of office on their dark cloaks. They seem to be quite attentive.

In this small fragment, I can see rage, tiredness, indifference, boredom, and fake piety, sometimes combined inside a single person. What I can’t see is the joy of belief.

Further on, at a generous distance from the petty bourgeois group, the local rich and powerful walk in safe isolation from the other believers. The guard on the left won’t hesitate to hit you with the stick on the head if you dare to interfere with the golden lady he seems to be protecting.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Can you spot a believer here? Would true believers fence themselves off from other “classes”?

Yet, there is a single believer in this painting.

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Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

The crippled boy who attempts to get closer to the sacred object carried in front of the procession. He is barred and pushed back by one of the guards.

This is Holy Russia without make-up, by a truly Russian artist who just couldn’t lie.

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A modern-day procession in St.Petersburg

The drama of Russia is that whenever it purposely sets off on a journey to the Sacred Russia of Nesterov, it ends up in the sacrilegious Russia of Repin.

P.S. After the Revolution of 1917, Repin emigrated and refused to return, while Nesterov carved out a pretty good living for himself in the new atheist Russia, becoming a laureate of the Stalin’s Prize in 1935. Hypocritical paintings = hypocritical life.

P.P.S. Now is the right time to say “Happy Birthday” to the guy behind this blog )

 

The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part III

Could a 5-year-old boy from a middle-class Jewish family dream of becoming the chief “court” painter of a country that hadn’t yet come into existence when he took a pencil and started drawing everything he could see around himself?

Could he imagine his mentor, a great artist himself, would name him the new Rafael, but then refuse to see him or even hear of him when he was at the summit of his career?

Surely not.

This posting covers the story of Isaac Brodsky, an artist who studied under Ilya Repin, fell in love with the working class, and charmed its leaders to achieve wealth and fame. His tale is the story of trade-offs artists had to make in 1920s. Malevich, Kandinsky and many other artists had stayed true to their talent and became famous worldwide, post-mortem (as usual). Isaac Brodsky went on to become the most famous painter of the Soviet Union and descended into obscurity less than eighty years after his death.

You may want to step back to Part I and Part II of the series to better understand the type of moral dilemma we are to experience in a few pages. Part II covers one of the most important paintings of Brodsky’s main influencer: Ilya Repin. It is an attempt to explain how infatuation with the Common Man of Labour had been shaping art in Russia by the time Brodsky was born.

EARLY YEARS

Isaac felt the burning need to draw and paint anywhere, everything, all the time. It was the same kind of passion that made Leonardo’s dad drop the idea of a notary career for his illegitimate son, and take him to Verrocchio’s workshop. So, when Isaac turned 12, his parents sent him to Odessa’s art school, in which he would spend the next 6 years studying under exceptional artists, who are nonetheless barely known outside Ukrainian art history community today.

Odessa was a bustling trading city in the Black Sea where fortunes were made, lost and remade again. The city had a very European front, with a very Russian stuffing. Get the feel of it, in this gallery, and spot the stairs that Sergey Eisenstein made globally famous in his Battleship Potemkin movie.

Brodsky was a sponge kind of student; he absorbed a lot from his teachers. The Gallery below shows works of his tutors in Odessa, Kostandi and Lodyzhensky, two very different painters who had a strong influence on Brodsky’s early concept of beauty, choice of colours, and composition. These artists were even faster to adapt modern European painting trends into their art than the academically suppressed painters of St.Petersburg. First, they were geographically closer to major European art centres, and second, they were Ukrainian artists, who had always wanted to look more European than the average Russian.

Gravitating to Europe or not, Odessa Art School was an academic institution. It meant students had to copy old masters a lot. When it was founded (about 40 years before Brodsky joined it), the board invited an Italian artist to help define teaching practices. The guy’s name was Luigi Iorini. He used to ask his students to copy the outline of a chicken egg. If there was a micro-error, he’d tear up the imperfect drawing and ask the student to do it again. Erasers were not allowed. Some students would spend up to a month perfecting their “egg copy”. This lesson was meant to show students the difficulty and importance of copying masters of the past. Iorini was still teaching at the time of Brodsky’s studies there.

Lodyzhensky was a king of watercolorists, who favoured pure colours in striking combinations, and Kostandi was fond of mixing colours and contrasting them in softer ways, via the interplay of light and shadow, in a manner that could be defined as soft impressionism (softness is, by the way, the main difference between the Russian and Ukrainian languages: the latter goes much softer on consonants and much more melodious on vowels). Impressionists would save effort on painting each and every detail, and aim at the creation of emotions in viewers through a conflict of colours. If the main conflict was between the blue sky, a white dress, a green parasol, and torrid grass, individual details like a flower that stands out, or uniquely different shapes of clouds were not important to Monet (guess which painting I had in mind). Kostandi would never sacrifice detail to make his colour conflicts more pronounced. His photographic attention to detail we will soon see in Brodsky’s work. Kostandi also loved painting common people, their lives, pains, and joys, something he knew well enough to add a certain psychological depth on top of documentary accuracy.

Kostandi’s most famous painting titled, “Out and towards becoming someone”, was painted in 1885, when Brodsky was a one-year-old. We will see its influence in Brodsky’s first major portrait painted in 1908.

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It is a simple, but powerful tale of a girl taking the train to a large city in the hope to secure a future different to what a common peasant girl could expect. She is sad to leave her previous life, severing ties with her relatives for years or even decades. Her right hand stretches out to her past, her face is turned towards the places she’s leaving, but the train takes her body away, towards a slim possibility of becoming someone other than a peasant girl.

After graduation from Odessa Art School in 1902, Brodsky was immediately accepted to the Fine Arts Academy in St.Petersburg, which dropped entry exams for the young talent. He was a Jew, and it was difficult for Jews at the time to move across Russia. They had to live in specially designated areas, and there were hurdles for them to enter universities. So, it was not a small achievement. Everyone could see the 18-year old man had a rare gift.

Click on Page 2 at the bottom to travel further!

Find a woman in this painting

This is a post primarily for those who laboured through Part I and Part II, and want to learn a bit more about the painting we spent so much time studying. It may, nonetheless, be of interest to those who are curious about the economics of superstition. This is also my answer to the Daily Prompt about googling stuff. This is the kind of stuff I googled to cheer up my readers a bit, for I know that getting through the previous post in which Repin’s painting of barge haulers was dissected and analysed like a patient in Dr House series must have been a nightmare. And – after all the pain – I am sure no one has spotted a woman in this painting. Now, wait a bit, I will show her.

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Ilya Repin, 1873. Barge Haulers on the Volga River

Initially, Repin wanted to show rich public leisurely strolling along the river bank and barge haulers cutting through the well-dressed crowd, but a friend of his talked him out of it. The killing argument was that if such a conflict between the rich and the poor was thrown in the face of the public, it would be not highlighted but devalued. Instead of putting viewers on the path of individual reflection on the plight of the Haulers, they would be forced into comparing clothes’ quality, as if they didn’t know the difference between expensive and cheap fabrics.

Were Repin to follow his initial instinct, he could come up with a painting like Riverside, by Telemaco Signorini in 1864 (five years before Repin first encountered barge-haulers on the Neva River near St.Petersburg).

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A boring piece that doesn’t go beyond a simple statement: some people have to work while others are taking their kids and dogs for a breath of fresh air. Nicely done, though. The dog that pays attention to the sad procession while his owners look the other way is especially cute. I also like the guy to looks back at the viewer, engaging us to become active participants in this scene. It is a small work, an illustration of the day-to-day life to which the group of Italian artists that had Signorini among its members fully dedicated itself.

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Repin’s canvas is a large painting, that can be studied for hours by artists interested in rendering light, textures, composition, perspective, and, above all, emotions.

To sketch the lead hauler Repin and his friends were chasing the team on the river in a small boat.

The painting was completed and exhibited in 1871, but then Repin took it off, and went to the Eastern part of Russia again, to repaint it. It took him two more years to finalise it.

Some details in the painting tell an interesting economic story.

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These barges were built for one-way trip (hard to believe, right?)

Upon arrival at destination, the goods would be sold, the barge disassembled into wood logs and sold as well.

She was not a durable kind of ship, built fast and for a one-off use, but the owner didn’t want it to sink, of course, before she makes it to the intended destination.

It was believed that such barges in some mystical way acquire better sailing qualities if they are covered by elaborate carving. There were carving masters in each trading city who would be hired to cover the sides with patterns. Repin’s painting documented this superstitious effort:

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When these one-off barges were replaced by steamships, the wood carving industry collapsed, but its skilled masters soon found a new market niche. They went into real estate and started protecting houses, offering  to carve window and door casings.

This is how superstition, mysticism, wit, and the ever-present need to exchange labour for money produced beauty:

Фрагмент известного деревянного дома в Томске, «Дома с драконами».

Дом кузнеца Кириллова в деревне Кунара Свердловской области

You can find a ton of amazing photographs at the photographer’s blog (I believe he is one of the few enthusiasts who travel Russia hunting for these images).

I am sure you’ve seen a woman in the photograph above.

If you look at the detail of Repin’s painting above you’ll see a woman’s head in a red scarf over the railing. She helps the boat owner (the guy in a red shirt) with cooking, and washing. She is always overlooked.

How many haulers are there in the painting?

It is also strange that most people in Russia or elsewhere believe there are 11 haulers in this painting. Well, there are 11 people who actually haul the barge, but there’s one other guy who is also the team’s member. He is steering the barge. So, the team is 12.

Did others paint men of this profession?

Repin was not the first or the only one artist to develop an interest in people who move vessels upstream. This is a gallery of works on this theme, and you may roam through it thinking of what these artists (including Monet and Daumier) did differently and what fascinated them in this profession.

As any over-reproduced artwork, Repin’s painting suffered the fate of funny alterations:

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I am sure a Simpsons version also exists.

My favourite is the cross between two Repin’s paintings. The Barge Haulers and The Unexpected Arrival that I covered in this post on Painting Surprise:

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The painting was even reproduced on a Volga car, putting the Barge Haulers literally on a Volga:

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And my last, but not least favourite picture is that of a snow sculpture from China:

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I mean, a snow monument? To melt after a few days? If I ever need to visualise the word POINTLESS, I’d use this photograph.

See you soon over Part III in the series on Russian intellectuals.

The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part II.

It is important that you read Part I. I want this post to scare you a bit and you won’t be properly frightened unless you are prepared by the first installment in the series.

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Ilya Repin. The Barge Haulers on the Volga (1873)

Eleven men are tugging a barge upstream. They are sun-burned, dirty, ragged fellows whom we, representatives of the educated urban classes, love to avoid. Especially when we see such men clustered in a large group. God knows what they may want from us, nicely dressed folks, returning home from a fine Michelin-recommended restaurant. It is usually best to cross the street or choose another route altogether.

Yet in this painting the viewer does not feel immediately threatened. These men are passing the viewer, slowly and in measured steps, like harnessed animals.  No one is scared of bulls or horses when they are tethered to something heavy. And the barge is quite reassuring in this respect.

If the comparison of these men to tethered animals makes you a bit sick, you need to remind yourself they’ve chosen to haul a 40-ton barge themselves, and they are paid for it 30 kopecks a day (which, in today’s dollars would be equivalent to about $120).

Now that we quenched the initial desire to run away from this group, let’s watch them to understand who they are and what we can expect of them, the Russian Men of Labour.

Usually, a painter would want viewers to get locked onto some point, or line, or area in the painting, and then roam their eyes up and down, according to a certain rhythm. Here, each face is a focus in its own right.

burlak-2-1870Repin spent days doing portraits of these men, paying them 20 kopecks per sitting (almost their daily wage, but earned in a much easier way than usual).  They had to pose standing and leaning forward as if they were hauling a barge, like in the preparatory painting on the left.

The less educated of them believed Repin was stealing their souls. One of them even asked Repin to pay him 20 Rubles (= 2000 kopecks) because he was certain he was selling his soul to the devil and wanted a proper compensation for his eternal damnation.

It is not a trivial representation of barge haulers. In the real life you’d see something like this:

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And yes, there were female teams as well then:

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So, Repin’s painting doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It does something very different.

We will go through the painting, studying it fragment by fragment (I’ve numbered them for easier reference) and then we will decide what this painting is all about, and what was the fatal error of Russian intellectuals.

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Continue reading

The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part I

If you think the bane of Russian intellectuals is the thickness of Leo Tolstoy novels (the full collection of Tolstoy’s work is 90 volumes) that they have to read to become intellectuals you are getting close, but not exactly there.

It is their infatuation with the common man. The Worker. The Peasant. The God-Fearing Redneck. The salt of the earth kind of people who grow potatoes, raise cattle, assemble cars, and, generally, apply their physical force to make tangible things that can be used in a practical way.

Grigory Myasoedov. The Haymakers. 1887.

This love is twisted, but it has its own logic, and that logic begins with fatalism.

“Moscow is the Third Rome”: the idea of Russians as Christianity last-stand zealots

The vast multi-national territory of Russia can only exist as one country if held together by the physical coercion and the force of a Grand National Idea, which is meant to justify the co-existence of culturally, economically, religiously and socially polar nations, especially when the physical coercion is not readily available. This National Idea is usually a promise of some sort of Paradise for descendants of Russians who live here and now.

The Russian Idea changes with time. It used to be a promise of Russia becoming the centre of Christian Universe, then the centre of Orthodox and/or Slavic World, and then the Just Kingdom of Communism.

If the best a Russian can do is to sacrifice his or her life on the altar of the Big Idea, then people start seeing themselves as passive pawns in the hands of destiny, which is the prime symptom of fatalism.

Imagine yourself a fatalist now. Nothing really depends on you. Your clean shirt, your shiny boots, banknotes in your pocket become all consequences of a lucky sequence of events. What do you feel about people who are less lucky, despite they’ve done nothing to deserve their destiny, and who may have to work more than you to get even less?

Yeah. You start feeling a bit guilty that you’ve got your chance and they haven’t. It gets further aggravated in case you are an intellectual, who produces nothing but ideas (unlike workers who make material things!)

You want to stop feeling this guilt each time you look at them. And you decide you can channel your ideas to other people like you to create a chance for “the working classes” to get out of their unfortunate circumstances. Give them education, you say. And then you give money to a charity that sends teachers to their remote villages. Give them culture, you say. And then you start opening galleries, which no one goes to and which exist solely because they are funded by “lucky” guys like you.

In the 19th century, to have more intellectuals hop on the “help-the-man-of-labour” train, artists were dramatising miseries of the deprived. The Triplet by Vassily Perov (1866), in which he was showing three kids hauling a barrel of water through a wintry street, is a heart-breaking example:

The problem is that you can’t admit you are doing it out of guilt (which in some twisted superstitious way is also a means to protect your own good luck). You say you simply love those salt of the earth types. You love people of labour.

This love is best experienced at a distance though. You still prefer to live in those parts of the city that don’t have the types you say you love. It is not a purely Russian paradox. You can find it in London or New York. Offer an uber-liberal white guy to relocate from London’s West Hampstead to Bayswater, and watch the guy explaining why he is all for tolerance and co-existence, but never for living in that neighbourhood.

This love is 1/2 Othellian:

“She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.” (Othello)

Unlike in Othello though, the common man did not love back Russian intellectuals for the latter’s compassion to the suffering of the former. Lenin summed it up in a phrase easier to understand, branding all the intellectuals of the past as a pile of crap, towards which the working classes’ only responsibility was cleaning it away. The working classes were happy to oblige, completing the circle of HIGHER PURPOSE – FATALISM – GUILT – LOVE – GRAVEYARD.

Ilya Repin, the pinnacle of the very top of what Russian art had managed to achieve before the October Revolution of 1917 was not immune to this disease of guilt painted over by love. Think of Dostoyevsky. Think of Leo Tolstoy. Repin was an artist of the same caliber, but in the visual arts.

His first major painting was dedicated to dispossessed men earning their living by hauling barges upstream the Volga River, the longest one in Europe. It created a storm when it was first exhibited in 1873, and stayed an icon of the common man misery for the next 40 years, fueling guilt-inspired intellectual debates about the future of the Russian people.

The Barge Haulers on the Volga. 

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Click on it to get a large version.

Repin was telling his students that each brush-stroke must be calculated. There must be nothing “accidental” in a painting. Just like in a Nobel prize-quality novel, there would be no unnecessary scenes, characters, turns; no words that could be replaced by shorter synonyms, no metaphors meant to flaunt language mastery only.

Repin spent four years working on this painting. Not actually painting it, but working out the composition, sketching portraits, reshuffling the team of haulers again and again. There is nothing in this painting that can be left out. Everything is significant. The story of Repin working on it is a fascinating tale in itself, but we’ll skip it and go directly to the end of it, the painting itself.

So, stay tuned for Part II, which will focus on the Barge Haulers’ cleverly calculated details. These details will help us to understand Repin, who was the most important tutor of Isaac Brodsky, who will be my focus in Part III.

Painting Surprise: Impossible?

Darling, I want you to surprise me this Xmas.
I want the kind of surprise that would make me cry out something like, ‘Wow! A Lexus!’

Creating surprise is easy in a story or movie, which can offer a surprising end to an ordinary beginning. Narratives always have the beginning, the climax, and the epilogue, if the narrator does not fall asleep in the middle of the story.

Most contemporary art puts surprise and shock (and a deadly dose of the two ingredients mixed up into something disgusting), right at the centre of what it serves an unsuspecting observer. I often think that the ultimate objective of the contemporary artist is to make viewers wet their pants or puke, or both.

This is why contemporary artists resort to installations, bigger-than-life hyper-realism, and crazy materials (like elephant dung for paintings or artist’s own blood for a self-portrait head sculpture): it is almost impossible to PAINT or SCULPT a surprise using traditional methods or media.

I have a special term for this kind of shocking art: yabrakadabra, which means “abracadabra” (or gobbledygook)  produced by Young British Artists who count Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn among their ageing numbers.

But do they really know how to surprise a viewer? Surprise is not easy. It is often ambiguous. Pride, for instance, is easy. Always positive. Disgust is always negative. Surprise can be both. We can be positively surprised by an unexpected Xmas gift, but just as easily, a new frying pan may not send your girlfriend reeling with joy, given there’s a 90% chance she was expecting the rather usual diamond ear-rings.

There was a realistic Russian painter who pulled off the trick of painting surprise, and not just positive or negative, but mixed the way James Bond would hate, were it applied to his Vodka Martini. Very well mixed, not just shaken.

The painter’s name was Ilya Repin. He was 40, when he did this painting, surprisingly named by a verb, not a noun. “Didn’t Expect”, painted in 1884.

Repin wanted to show a revolutionary, from an upper middle-class family, who comes back home from exile.

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The image has become a generic illustration, a visual synonym for something unexpected that raises a tempest of mixed feelings.

How did Repin achieve this effect?

He positioned his main character at a very unusual spot.

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Yes, halfway from negative to positive reception. The prodigal son is watching his mother, who rose from her chair, unsure of what to do. No one is smiling except the boy who is probably unaware of how much the family was disappointed at one of its members becoming a revolutionary.

The servant at the door watches the reaction of the house-master, the mother. Servants need guidance about how to treat the guy, for they were hardly very approving of his actions.

In fact, everyone is waiting for the mother’s reaction.

What do you think it would be?

To understand it, we need to do a bit more doodles ruining the masterpiece.

If I draw a vertical line through the “positive” spot, to which the hero would arrive if he is forgiven, and then the line of sight between him and his mother, I get this cross (which a viewer inevitably, and not very consciously builds in their mind):

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The horizontal tension line is built because we always look at where other people are looking to understand their intentions. The vertical line appears, actually, not because we really think about the spot which attracts the hero. It is simply one of the four Golden Ratio lines that define the painting’s composition (a trick introduced by Leonardo da Vinci, and one of the foundation principles of the Russian school).

This is the “frame” that Repin designed for this painting:

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The imaginary cross is a very Russian thing about destiny. You have to carry your personal Cross just like Christ was carrying his, no matter what. So, the broken family and the revolutionary have to keep carrying their crosses. You can’t say, ‘Mother, can we put our crosses aside for a minute and just enjoy the reunion, peace, and life in general until I go and try to spark a revolution one more time? Please?’ No. It is not the Russian way of doing things.

We can’t say whether the mother would forgive him. We only know she’d have to carry the cross of the decision she’s about to make.

There are many more interesting symbols that can work as hints though.

It is a very conservative family. Look at the neatly organised family photographs. They are about “husband” + “wife” + children below. Tradition squared. The father of our hero had obviously died some time ago: first of all, he’s not present (only in the form of a photograph on the wall), the mother is definitely dressed in mourning clothes, and, finally, it is her reaction that would define the behaviour of everyone else present.

What would you do about a relative that goes against everything your family has been standing for?

Would you be able to forgive, to accept a non-repentant son or daughter?

These are the kind of questions this painting keeps asking today’s audiences; questions, just as relevant today as 100 or 150 years ago. And it does not impose a single answer on you, it makes you think instead. It makes you try a cross on your shoulders.

Yeah. That’s Russian art for you. Never easy-going, never light-hearted. Asking questions in the form of gut-punches, and watching you gasp for air while you search for answers. 

Very similar to mafia interrogations, don’t you think? I think I was trying to write about this painting in a light-hearted manner because I don’t want to confront it on a deep personal level. At least, not right now. 

If you missed some one the posts on Russian art, here they are, easy-to-reach:

Why are Russians so serious about stuff other people aren’t?

Art to watch vs. Art to see (painting Christ the way you want to believe)

The most famous Russian icon: why it is a masterpiece worth coming over to Moscow

Now, the serious part of this post is over. These are my favourite alterations to the “Didn’t Expect” painting.

Didn’t Expect. Didn’t Arrive.

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Star wars version, inevitable.

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Russian police with a surprise search

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To sample stuff this blog offers, just click on the About page to get an overview of the best posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.

I have to thank the yesterday’s prompt for their surprise inspiration!