Tag Archives: Landscape

Don’t sell your copyright

Russians love eating bears.

Including myself. I can never resist taking a bite, if there’s a Clubfooted Bear on the table.

It is the oldest brand of Russian sweets, introduced in the early 1890s by a German entrepreneur (whose factory was nationalized and renamed into The Red October by the Bolsheviks).

The Soviets changed the name of the factory but kept the brand, which stayed the tastiest kind of chocolate sweets throughout the USSR’s uneventful history of confectionery branding.

The design of the wrapping was modelled after the painting with which I illustrated my previous post about the symbolic Russian bear. Russia’s top collector, Tretyakov, bought the painting in 1889, when the paint had barely dried. A few years later, Einem the chocolatier saw it in his collection, and licensed the image for the sweets.

The name of the painting is “The Morning in the Pine Forest”. It may be the most famous painting in Russia. The brand of sweets surely made it the most reproduced one. The painting is admired by millions of people, who may know very little about arts, but their love for the brand spills over. Everyone knows the painter, Ivan Shishkin, even though many would come back with a wrong name of the painting, if someone cared to ask. It has many aliases: “The Clubfooted Bear”, “The Three Bears” (there were a few versions of the wrapping with the fourth cub removed that have created a mess with the number of bears), or “The Bears in the Forest”.

What few people know is that the idea of the painting and the bears were not Shishkin’s. It was one of his buddies, also a painter, who suggested the idea and painted the bears in, after Shishkin completed the forest. The guy’s name was Konstantin Savitsky. Tretyakov (the collector) believed that Savitsky’s signature should be removed from the canvas, because most of the job was done by Shishkin, and bears were not, in his opinion, essential. It’s good he didn’t ask Shishkin to paint the bears over.

For 25% of the sale price, Savitsky ceded his copyright claims, and Shishkin removed Savitsky’s signature from the canvas. It is still possible to see traces of it:

Today, Shishkin is a household name, and Savitsky is known by a few art historians. It should be vice versa. It is the brand of sweets that made Shishkin’s masterpiece the most recognized painting in Russia (equivalent in its fame to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in Europe or his Starry Night in the US). The irony is that the brand and the painting are loved and known for the bears, not the forest.

I am not saying Shishkin’s forest is inferior. He was a great artist, and I wrote about his winter forest here. Perhaps, his summer forest is worth talking about too, for Shishkin’s technique is an interesting example of a counter-impressionist approach.

I will do it in one of my next posts, and, perhaps, Savitsky also deserves a roundup of his most prominent paintings.

Claude Monet’s reflective paintings

What is so great about Monet’s water-lily paintings? He painted dozens of them; he didn’t paint anything else in his later years, he kept painting water lilies when his eyes betrayed him; he made the Water Lilies panoramic set a gift to the state when he died.

When you are in front of any of his lilies (and I assume many of you have had the experience), do you ask yourself, “gosh, what is really great about’em?” Not a singe visitor to The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses the most giant of the series can be seen wishing the 10 euros paid for the ticket could be spent in a wiser fashion.

I don’t say one needs to know the answer to the greatness question to enjoy the paintings. Some years ago, I was coming to the National Gallery in London each time I was in town just to see the Lily Pond. Were I asked then what was so great about the painting, I might try to give an answer, but it would be tall tales spin-yarned into a baloney pullover of meaningless adjectives.

Now that I have my thoughts a little bit more organised, I can outline a hypothesis about the workings of Monet’s lily paintings.

We need to step back though, to Velazquez, an artist who had a great influence on Manet, who – in his turn – influenced Monet, although in a different way.


Velazquez painted this Venus with a Mirror sometime around 1650. The viewer can’t really see the face of Venus. It is blurred on purpose: the beauty of a goddess, the Ideal or Ultimate Beauty, can’t be painted because no one has seen it, and even today Venus is not known to post selfies on Instagram. The Ideal Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. This blurred image activates those neural networks in the brain that house individual associations with beauty, memories, created by myths, books, movies and Playboy mass media.

Were it a particular face, the mind would react to it similarly to a meaningless portrait of an unknown celebrity of bygone times. It still would be attractive, primarily catering to people whose idea of beauty was congruent to the shape of the buttocks that are so close to the viewer one might be tempted to slap them.

Likewise, some 250+ years later, Monet was painting a refection of nature, but in a way that it couldn’t be attributed to any particular tree, sky, or flower.

His lilies – any and all of them – represent the Ideal Beauty of Nature, and for many they’ve grown to become a representation of the Ideal Beauty of Life itself. Not because they show some mind-boggling beauty of tender lily flowers blossoming against the green surface of a water reservoir – but precisely because they don’t show it.

I will use the painting that a friend of mine took in Vienna – and sent to me a few days ago.


It is known these paintings stay in memory. Somehow. Many people are known not to like them, but they remember them, though they can’t say what were the colours, the shapes, or the lines in them.

Wassily Kandinsky wrote of them,

“Until then I knew only naturalist and, to tell the truth, almost exclusively Russian naturalist art…I believed that no one had the right to paint so imprecisely. I vaguely felt that the object (the subject) was missing in this work. But with astonishment and confusion, I observed that not only did it surprise, but it imprinted itself indelibly in the memory and that before your eyes it recomposed itself in the smallest details. All this remained muddled in me, and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what clearly came out of it is the incredible power, a power I had never known, of a palette that outstripped my wildest dreams. To me the painter seemed gifted with a fabulous power. The object used as an indispensable element in my work unconsciously lost some of its importance to me. In short, there was already a little bit of my enchanting Moscow on this canvas.”

I don’t like this style of art writing: too many adjectives. “Fabulous”, “incredible”, “gifted”, etc. Adjectives that don’t explain anything. Why was the power of Monet “incredible” or “fabulous”? Yet, Kandinsky registered the important facts:

  • the paintings stay in memory (even despite the vague sensation there’s nothing in them, at least nothing of real importance)
  • the painting fire up [neural networks storing] personal associations (like Moscow for Kandinsky)
  • the combination of colours creates a conflict that makes even those who dislike the paintings to get involved into watching them.

Indeed, his greens and violets can be found on the opposite sides of the colour wheel, and thus they create a colour conflict – we do not normally see these colours in their pure form at the same time. It makes the brain go “wow” without us registering it. There is nothing subconscious in this though, the brain starts scanning the painting to understand what the heck is going on – and the viewer does not necessarily register it either.

But there is even a bigger conflict that goes on in the mind of the viewer.

We are used to this:

A real 3D scene ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene in the viewer’s mind.

Monet’s Lilies work differently:

A real 2D scene (the mirror of the pond) ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist (which bizarrely seems 3D, because of the difference in brushstrokes) ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene… BUT WE KNOW IT WAS A 2D SCENE TO START WITH!

And this is when the mind goes off thinking, remembering and associating in its own, very individual ways, some of which the mind’s owner does not register consciously.

Contemporary art is often differentiated from all the other types of art because it transfers the conflict from a painting or a sculpture into the mind of the viewer.

Instead of appreciating the drama that Michelangelo wanted people to live through their exposure to David, a contemporary artist wants to stimulate the viewer into creating his or her own drama, their own conflict, and live through their individual hell.

Monet used traditional colour conflict and innovative 2D-3D play with the mind of the viewer to CREATE A DRAMA OUTSIDE OF THE PAINTING, BUT INSIDE THE VIEWER’S MIND.

In this, he had become a true contemporary artist in his later years. He started the collective impressionistic revolution in visual arts that everyone noticed, but he then overturned visual arts single-handedly, in ways more radical than Cezanne could even imagine, and long before Picasso.

if there’s any painting that is more about individual reflection, I’d love to know about it.


Russians and Snow: love-hate relationship

It has been scientifically proven that regular exercise (like walking the dog) stimulates brain activity, especially when the snow’s fresh and the temperature outside is not at the mythical level when thermometers knock on windows begging people inside to let them in for the night. Stumbling through the white-powdered woods (avoiding owners of big and cruel dogs) I thought of why snow is so important for Russians. Why do they love winter and hate it? Why do they wait for winter to come and then lament incessantly if it decides to stay for another month or two?

But first, I want to immerse you into the real fresh-snow environment to get you in the mood.

Perfect fit with fatalism

Winter fits well with the fatalistic outlook on life that many Russians hold dear to their heart. (You can read more on it here, but don’t forget to come back).

107074417_large_43Indeed, even the most depressing winter is known to yield way to spring. It is the zebra of life, when a bright stripe follows its black counterpart in a fatalistically predetermined way. Don’t resist the blackness you’re in, have patience to live to see the light. Contemporary art is there to drive the point home, like in the recent example of an artist nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in a vivid illustration of people’s passiveness to the governmental onslaught on their rights.

Harsh or rather unpredictably severe winters are both a bane and a bonus. Regardless of how much labour a peasant invests into the next year harvest, a long winter can cancel it out. No point in investing much labour, right?

A foreign agricultural investor comes to a Russian village to witness the scene of bitter devastation and depravity. He asks a villager smoking on the steps of his dilapidated house and looking particularly starved,

“Do tomatoes grow in these places?”
“Do cucumbers grow in these places?”
“Do potatoes grow in these places?”
“That can’t be! Are you sure you’re planting them in the right way?!”
“Oh, but I didn’t say they won’t grow if we plant ‘em”

One just has to passively wait out the black patch, which may be, actually, coloured white on the surface. And this takes us directly to the Russian view that everything has – under the surface – a second, and often deeper or different meaning.

There’s always another layer. To everything.

Scratch off the white layer of snow and you get to the real stuff. Not that it would win you any prizes, except the knowledge of what is hidden beneath. There’s always a second layer of meanings in Russian literature or paintings. You may not want to learn what this second layer is about (and people who sasfied their curiosity often wish they hadn’t), but if you’ve been exposed to Russian culture for any prolonged time, you won’t have a choice. It comes involuntarily.

Take Anna Karenina and the episode when Vronsky breaks the back of the horse he is riding in a race. Vronsky didn’t want to break the horse’s back, so his intentions were not bad. He just wanted to ride it and to enjoy winning.  And he couldn’t shoot the horse because he loved it. The episode shows Vronsky as a competitive and sensitive man capable of love, and serves the storytelling end by exposing Anna’s feelings for everyone present to see. The second layer of meaning is that Vronsky would do the same to Anna, and won’t even be able to finish her off or prevent her rather accidental suicide because he lacks the strength of character required of men to take full responsibility for women (as Tolstoy believed men should). P.S. I hate to admit it, but Leo Tolstoy would probably stangle a visiting feminist, breaking his own rule #1 of not trying to overcome evil by the opposing force. 

Landscapes of Russian artists often represent the second-layer idea by showing not just the snowy surfaces, but offering viewers a glimpse of what is hidden beneath the white blanket.

At first glance, this Winter, painted by Ivan Shishkin in 1890, is about a magical sleeping forest. It does look like a one, right?

Shishkin Winter 1890

There’s nothing really wondrous or complicated about the composition or realistic accuracy of this painting. Tree trunks and branches laden with snow are not very difficult to paint: there’s a lot of purely natural rhythm in a forest, along with export quantities of eye-pleasing black and white contrast:


What is magical about this painting, is its hidden story about the forest floor. This small fragment of the white foreground shows how much labour went into (seemingly) meaningless whiteness. How many different hues of non-white colours, how many brushstrokes:


The under-the-surface meaning becomes obvious when the image’s contrast is maxed out and the stormy sea carrying along shipwreck debris shows up in place of the almost uniformly white surface.

Shishkin Winter 1890 - копия - копия

Another, and a bit more complicated (it doesn’t have any snow in it), painting example of a riddle wrapped in mystery and shrouded in enigma can be found here.

Now you are ready to appreciate a parable that brings together PATIENCE, SECOND LAYER OF MEANING, AND WINTER:

Russia. Winter. Frost. A bird gets frozen in mid-flight, and falls down in a snowdrift. A passing cow deposits a cowpat (US: cow pie) right on the spot on which the bird has fallen. The bird gets warmed up, returns to life, sticks out its head out of the cowpat and is immediately snatched by a cat, with fatal consequences. Now, this tale is about (a) Patience, for one shouldn’t stick one’s head out when buried deep in shit (b) Seeing true meaning behind the obvious conclusions (those who put you deep into shit are not necessarily your enemies; while those who help you to get out from it are not always your friends). 

A long winter: bonuses

Long, frosty, unpredictable, and bleak winters can justify anything, of which the most important indulgence is the regular vodka intake. It warms the body from within and cheers up the spirit that hasn’t seen sunshine in a month. Readers from the UK would agree not seeing sun is depressing, even if air temperature is not -20C (-4F).

Russian winters, with all their unpredictability, have been a natural barrier to other nations who had entertained ideas of conquering the passive Russians throughout the last few centuries. 

It is rumoured each time Russia is blessed with a mild winter, visitors to Les Invalides in Paris can discern a murmur coming from the Napoleon’s tomb, “This year it might just work!”

Winter (as a defence weapon) has often featured in Russian art, like in this 19th century painting showing guerilla peasants ambushing French troops in 1812.

Vasily Vereschagin, 1895 - "Let them get closer"

Vasily Vereschagin, 1895 – “Let them get closer”

Other nations may not especially like Russians (what with all those xenophobic reality shows about Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian emigres on TV and the bunch who govern the country itself), but there’s one thing for which Russians can always expect to garner some respect. It is their ability to survive the Dreadful Russian Winter. The side-effect is that The Game of Thrones loses a lot of suspense here, because “winter is coming” can hardly scare anyone.

The Perfect Cleaner

Muddy streets, shabby buildings, and dirty cars cease to exist when a decent snowfall hits a large city like Moscow.  Everything becomes brand-new white in place of shite. Urban Russians love winters for their decorative ability, and they especially welcome what is known as “the first snow” (which is not, actually, the first snow in the season, but the first snow that blankets the ground for at least a few hours).

Russian painters absolutely love this moment, but in their own, Russian way. Type “first snow paintings” in Google Pictures and you get 90% of paintings without people. Just landscapes. Type the same phrase in Russian (“первый снег картины”) and 90% of paintings would have people in them welcoming a new reality into their lives. 

First snow changes the Russian outlook on life from the gloomy late autumn despair to the positive expectation mode. That’s the basic psychology behind some of the most famous works in the first-snow department.

Arkady Plastov, The First Snow, painted in 1946:


There’s no need for an art critic to feel the contagious smiles of kids who stepped out of their log cabin. This is a pure, simple, and the most famous image of first snow in Russia.

Modern and contemporary artists stick to windows through which people watch snowfalls changing their world:

Sergey Tutunov, Winter has come. Childhood. 1960

Sergey Tutunov, Winter has come. Childhood. 1960

Nude women doing the snow-watching are often the main selling point for misogynist art-lovers:



I hear nudes sell better than cute boys, girls, and even cats.

Speaking of felines, I can’t miss the last painting I wanted to show, done by a great guy living 60 km away from Moscow. He knows and feels Russia better than all the sages and philosophers who keep searching for the Russian National Idea, but maily find cigarette stubs and empty vodka bottles under the snow.

Vasya Lozhkin. The First Snow.


Rhythm and Blues

In my yesterday’s post, I was talking about this dramatic landscape by Ivan Shishkin, that he “invented” to represent the depression he suffered through because of the death of his young wife in a year after their marriage.

I asked three questions at the end:

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

My amazing readers (Olga Brajnović and Anna, ) came back with insightful answers – thank you! As usual, I doctored the image to explain Shishkin’s methods.

1. Creation of rhythm


Shishkin uses dark “markers” proportioned and positioned in a way that the eye is following. I’ve marked a few in this picture to better illustrate the concept.

It is important to paint those markers in a way that would not be too obvious. A casual observer won’t realise the markers are there until they are pointed out.

To understand the vertical rhythm, I’ve maxed out contrast in this picture.

SS2I am sure you can see the trick without any help now, but still:


Shishkin uses interchanging wedges of light and shadow that thin out towards the horizon to create the vertical rhythm and depth.

The play of light and shadow on a relatively flat surface of the plain is justified by the skies, with its own wedges of clouds and clear skies (to better see it, I’ve killed brightness in this picture):


And these are the wedges that get “reflected” on the ground:


It is not enough to know the compositional trick, for the choice of colour value, its intensity is just as important. A less gifted artist would make this composition too obvious, and hence less believable.

2/3. Authenticity and disorientation

Most landscape artists in the 19th century used to paint something notably beautiful at the foreground, to whet viewers’ appetite for watching and studying their painting. It would look theatrical and untrue, just like in this typical work of a Dutch artist:


The plants at the foreground of Shishkin’s painting are NOT beautified in any way. In fact, he makes some of them quite withered, and thus opposed to the oak, which is lonely but full of green vitality.

Withered plants

This group of plants represents blooming, withering and dying, and is linked to the artist’s emotional state as well. The road that leads nowhere and disappears in the folds of the ground is the main symbol of Shishkin’s disorientation, a simple representation of the feeling of being lost.


A few years ago, in a field near Neuchâtel, Switzerland,  I slammed on my brakes because I saw a lone tree in a yellow field. The tree, half-dead and half-alive, was hanging to dear life as Harold Lloyd to the minute hand in this iconic image. I thought about Ivan Shishkin then, and his most emotionally powerful painting.


This is the painting, named after a popular poem at the time, “In the midst of flat dales”:

Ivan Shishkin, 1883,

Ivan Shishkin, 1883, In the midst of flat dales

It was 1883, the time of a suicidal depression for the artist. He was in his 50s. In 1880 he married one of his students, from the first female class in the Russian Art Academy. She died a year later, leaving Shishkin alone and devastated.

For most of his life, Shishkin was painting or etching forests (mostly Russian) in a way no one could. He was a documentarian, who loved painting from nature.  His typical painting would feature Tchaikovsky’s rhythm through a play of light, unbelievable depth, and authentic plants in their authentic state, given the season and time of day.

Like this “Oak Grove”, painted in 1887, when he recovered from the depression .

A sample of “typical Shishkin”: Oak Grove, 1887

Unlike most his other work, the lone oak tree he painted was done from imagination. Art historians believe the oak was painted from memories or sketches done during Shishkin’s trip to Switzerland.

I am sure it was a different oak (from mine), but they just felt the same not only because of their nationality.

Is it a landscape? Technically, yes. Philosophically, no. It is a self-portrait of a strong man in crisis, who believes he has enough vitality to survive and weather through it.

Given that Shishkin could make even an imaginary landscape look 100% authentic, it is one of the most convincing anti-depression paintings I know.

If you’ve been reading my blog before, you might be interested in answering these questions (I will answer them in a day or two, here, as an update):

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

Thank you, the Daily Post, for the perseverance idea! 

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.


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.


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!

Step inside for the outside view

Isaak Brodsky, Fallen Leaves, 1915, Oil on canvas

Isaak Brodsky, The Fallen Leaves, 1915, Oil on canvas

Two posts ago, when we began talking about octobers and what they mean to people and artists, Levitan’s Golden Autumn and Brodsky’s Fallen Leaves were the two landscapes mentioned most often in the comments.

In my previous post, I’ve taken you through Levitan’s Golden Autumn, demonstrating that a seemingly uncomplicated landscape can be an involving 3-act play.

Now is the turn of Isaac Brodsky and The Fallen Leaves (click on this image to save a larger copy for your reference).

I will take you through it, for it is indeed a very good work of an exceptional talent, and in the next post we’ll talk about talent’s ability to dissolve into nothingness, once its owner decides to abandon truth and moor itself at the pier of Client’s Ambition, be it a tyrant or a leading art gallerist. Isaac Brodsky went on to become the top Soviet painter ripening into, eventually, the icon of the hollow Social Realism. He is almost forgotten now. But at the time of this work, in 1915, he was seen as a potentially great name in Russian art.

I usually recommend to start analysis of a painting with a careful examination of colours, shapes, lines, forms, etc. that can be seen in it. This time, we would first try to understand what we, the viewers, are looking at, and from where.

The interior of the house from which we are looking at the outside park is not exciting, unless you like coldness, desolation, and the general feel of abandonment and deprivation. I asked people to imagine themselves standing there and then tell me what they felt they were doing. Most of them answered, “I stand still, looking out, at the park”. They were not moving to the door, they were not trying to get outside, they were just standing, watching, looking at the leaves hurried inside by the wind.

There is a bit of a paradox here, given that it is much more pleasant outside, and the house, obviously, doesn’t offer much in terms of shelter.

GA1Could the artist create a more charming painting, were he to cut the right wall in a way that would still leave us inside, but without the sad monotony of lumber boards obscuring the lovely autumn view?

Suddenly, we discover ourselves a bit unsteady and insecure. No one feels themselves a peaceful observer any more.

People say it is very difficult to explain the feeling, but they feel as if the painting gets tilted to the left. It is quite logical for the left lower corner becomes much darker than the rest of the painting, and dark colours are usually seen as heavy.  The balance between dark-cold and light-warm colours disappears and the painting starts doing the Pisa tower trick.

Perhaps, the artist could do better by taking his easel outside, right to the terrace. There’s not much of beauty on the inside anyway, and the old chair is just making the matters worse. Why not focus on the most interesting part, the park outside? The autumn leaves could be still crawling up the stairs, surely?


It is amazing how boring the scene becomes, how empty of content and feeling!

The red fence becomes the only important element that attracts the eye. It dominates the painting and prevents the eye from traveling elsewhere. The red fence effectively kills interest in the landscape.

And there’s no point in painting a fence, even as craftily made as this one, unless it is an object lesson in painting fences.

You can suggest not painting the fence at all might be a good idea. Now, imagine what we are left with, if it is not there: a messy maze of elegant trunks with a few leaves on the branches. A world champion in the lack of interest category.

The paradox of this painting: when we cut the painting to show its most interesting part, it becomes not in the least interesting!

So, let’s step back inside, to the spot on which we were standing at the start.

It is, I must admit, the same simple rule which Levitan also used: the Golden Ratio. It makes the viewer feel at ease while being inside, and exactly at the spot where the easel was placed.

Golden ratio 2

The right line is placed at the “golden ratio” point of 3/8th of the painting’s width, from the right side. The left line, at exactly 1/8th of the painting’s width, from the left side.

Painting the door along these lines gives us 1/2 of the painting showing “indoors” with the other half showing us the golden autumn.

We, the viewers, are 50% outside and 50% inside at the same time. We are in harmony of the kind the air bubble experiences when the level ruler is perfectly horizontal.

This photo (to which I hold no rights whatsoever) illustrates the point with engineering clarity:


Once we have established that the landscape in this painting doesn’t make any sense without the part showing the interior of the house, let’s look at what we can learn about the latter.

Obviously, it is an abandoned house. Perhaps, it was left to its own devices not so long ago, for the red paint on the fence is still quite freshly red, not peeling away that much. There’s no wallpaper, the chairs have been torn but not broken. The place has not been used, but it has not been destroyed or vandalised. It is a very typical summer cottage of a family that has the means to buy or rent a country house for the summer but lacks the funds needed to maintain it in order.

We don’t find much to entertain us inside the house, so we are looking outside and, obviously, find the landscape more charming than whatever we could see behind our back.

We are standing. At least, most people say they are not sitting in this painting. And not just because of the elevation of the artist’s point of view. We don’t want to sit in these chairs (unless, again, you get excited by sitting on surfaces that offer you a decent chance of free acupuncture), and something tells us we are not going to discover a better chair.

Why doesn’t the artist want us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view?

Because there’s a conflict that we must attend to, and participate in.

Application of the Golden Ratio to painting produces four “attraction” points to which a human eye tends to be drawn:


As we know now, Brodsky used the Golden Ratio in this painting, so he must have left us a clue about the conflict he wanted us to attend. And there’s no better place than one or all of the visual centres to direct us to the clues. Let’s see where these “centres” lead us!

Golden ratio 3

What do these cues tell us about the painting’s conflict, its contrapunto?

We observe nature, from behind a wooden wall. The red fence elevates and separates us from nature. it is through the conflict of nature with man-made things (the chairs, the house, the fence, which as a borderline has a man-made natural design to it) we can see the nature’s beauty. But are we the rulers of nature? Probably not. Having been abandoned, everything that’s man-made in this painting is crumbling. Will nature deteriorate if it is abandoned? Definitely not. At least, it didn’t seem so in 1915, when it was painted.

As we observe Nature, it comes up the stairs, and begins to reclaim what once was a Man’s stronghold, the house: the yellow leaves are unstoppable in their desire to fill out everything. Of course, they do not have a mind of their own, but Nature has. 

That’s the gist of the conflict. The artist was not trying to give us answers, his intention was rather to set us on a path of our own thinking about the relationship between Man and Nature.

And yet, there is a sign the artist made his first step on the road of twisted truth. It is a small element, a small lie to create a big metaphor, but it is still a lie used to create a painting that the public would love.

Look at the right side of the doorway, and you will see the butt end of the red door. It is 1915,not a turbulent year of the Civil War when a door would be stolen if it was left without a Revolutionary Soldier guarding it 24/7. The fallen leaves could pile up like this only if the door was left open for a very long time. The artist made them pile up either with his own hands, or with his imagination. It created the desired effect: the painting tells a story, we like it. But it is a story of fiction that the viewer would easily understand and readily like.

Another aspect of this story, impossible to overlook, is that uncontrollable forces of Nature seem to bring a lot of light and fresh air into the house, which can hardly be seen as a bad thing. 

Given the historical context of 1915, some critics believed this work was a metaphor for the 1917 Revolution, when new and uncontrollable forces would change the run-down Czarist Russia forever.

It was a bad year for Russia. 

Russian trenches, 1915

Russian trenches, 1915

At the beginning of 1915, the Russian army suffered a series of defeats on the German front. The first signs of the coming revolutionary changes could be seen everywhere. The Russian Czar was setting his empire on a path of self-destruction.

The artist was not immune to all this. he was a Jew, and antisemitism was on the rise, as Jews were seen as German supporters.

it is tempting to see prophetic signs of the 1917 Revolution in The Fallen Leaves, but I seriously doubt a relatively young painter deeply in love with his wife and newborn daughter would care much about “the Proletariat masses”. That is, until the “masses” became a very tangible force burning country cottages of middle-class artists and lawyers for loot and entertainment. Houses like the one shown in the painting. All revolutions lead to victims, except in those rare cases when revolutions are sexual (victims of those are normally born some time later). Brodsky’s talent happened to be one of the casualties, and in my next post we’ll talk about how it happened. 

Stay tuned, the tragedy of talent story is coming up!

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