ArtIssue 12

From Russia with Love

Russia and the Arts: the Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, National Portrait Gallery, London

17 March 2016 — 26 June 2016

It is a happy coincidence that both the National Portrait Gallery in London and Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery were founded in 1856; a wide-open anniversary opportunity on which Dr Rosalind P Blakesley (Pembroke College, Cambridge) hasn’t failed to capitalise. That this exhibition is ten years too late for the sesquicentennial, and thus any date of numerical significance, hasn’t stopped Dr Blakesley; the show she has curated at the National Portrait Gallery, Russia and the Arts, proudly advertises that it marks the 160th anniversary of both of these galleries.

Russia and the Arts shows portraits on loan from the Tretyakov, which in turn is hosting its own exhibition entitled Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits. But whereas they get from Shakespeare (the ‘Chandos’ portrait: the National Portrait Gallery’s foundational picture) to Kipling, the National Portrait Gallery boasts that we get portraits pre-1914 from … 1867. Perhaps taking less than fifty years is productive of a more focussed, meaningful exhibition than whatever they’re getting, and doesn’t attempt to scrabble piously for significant Russian portraiture pre-1800. But why 1867? Is Blakesley quietly commemorating Russia’s sale of Alaska to the US? She doesn’t tell us – we must draw our own conclusions. But by choosing 1914 and the advent of WWI as the end date, we do at least wonder whether she is concerned neatly to dodge dealing with the trash of Socialist Realism. Blakesley maintains that the exhibition is an “unprecedented opportunity to appreciate the excitements of Russian Realism, Impressionism, and Symbolism through the portraits of some of Russia’s most creative figures”. Of the exhibition’s 26 portraits, 22 have never even set foot (or frame) in the UK. None of the art deals with why that might have been the case; this writer assumes that, in both taste and politics, Dr Rosalind is only being tactful.

Under its portentous title, Russia and the Arts has been split into different sections according to five artistic fields. From ‘The Theatre’ to ‘Composers and Musicians’, the portraits are spread across two, medium-sized rooms and – with a Chekhov portrait just yards from Tchaikovsky – one can’t help but wonder whether each category could potentially have an exhibition of its own. Yet it is the skill and artistic congruity that ties the work together, as almost all of the portraits on display were painted by truly great artists, including Vasily Perov – founding member of the set of Russian Realist artists known as Peredvizhniki – and the Symbolist painter Mikhail Vrubel.

The first picture to greet you upon entry is a portrait of the Russian philan­thropist and founder of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Pavel Tretyakov (1901), painted by Ilia Repin. It is fitting: isolated from the rest of the display, Tretyakov is your host, greeting his visitors at the door. Many of the portraits featured in the exhibition were commissioned from the artists directly by Tretyakov, and this opening portrait seems to say: “Welcome to my collection.”

From an old merchant family, Tretyakov started out as a young textile industrialist who had inherited his father’s successful business at a young age. He started collecting art during his early twenties, and it turned out to be a passion that would last a lifetime. In his book My Life in Art, theatre director Stanislavsky comments that Tretyakov worked all hours of the day, in his office and at the factory, in order to meet with young artists “in whom he felt the presence of talent”. He went on to establish the State Tretyakov Gallery, and by 1892 had amassed roughly 2,000 works.

Initially, his taste appears to have been quite generic, and his first purchases were Old Dutch masters. However, Tretyakov quickly found his niche in assembling portraits of renowned Russian personalities. He hoped to use these paintings to create a pantheon of those shaping the country’s art scene during the late nineteenth century – a vision that seems yet to characterise Russia and the Arts. Not only was Tretyakov a visionary of his time, but a patron that would have an immortal impact on the public’s interaction with Russian art for generations to come.

Tretyakov would often turn to Repin when commissioning a new portrait, and the Realist painter frequently counselled the collector on artists worth investing in. Painted by a friend as much as a colleague, and despite the fact it was composed three years after his death, the portrait seems to capture the art collector’s person­ality. With arms folded and a controlled and thoughtful gaze, surrounded by gilt-framed pictures in the rooms of his gallery, he appears a reserved yet quietly confident man.

But the true master of 19th century Russian portraiture on display here is not Repin but Vasily Perov. His picture of the military doctor turned famous writer and lexicographer Vladimir Dal, acquired by Tretyakov in 1872, the year of Dal’s death, is a startling snapshot of dotage and fragility. The creeping unrest sweeping through the Russian government during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century resulted in many writers being tasked with voicing political and social qualms. Many became preoccupied with enhancing Russian traditions in the arts, opposed to emulating western European styles, and writers such as Dal threw themselves into the study and elaboration of Russian fairy-tales and proverbs. Concerned to assert the primacy of Russian itself, Dal is best known for his Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language – a four-volume dictionary published between 1863 and 1866 and still in use today. Despite his resigned pose, Dal’s alert mind, intelligence and life experiences are communicated through his eyes, skillfully captured by Perov.

Another standout portrait is Perov’s picture of Fedor Dostoevsky, also painted in 1872; evidently a bumper year for the artist. This portrait, commissioned by Tretyakov himself, is the only picture of the novelist painted from life. Having endured years of hard labour during exile in Siberia for his affiliation with secret organisations opposing the Tsarist autocracy, such as the Petrashevsky Circle, the writer appears shifty, unable to relax; his hands are clasped together; his narrowed eyes are concentrating on the darkness in front of him; and his hair is vanishing from his temples, through the thin skin of which veins visibly throb. Seeming emaciated in a greatcoat several sizes too big for him, it has been pointed out that Dostoevsky’s posture and facial expression are comparable to Ivan Kramskoi’s depiction of Jesus in Christ in the Desert, painted the same year. Both portraits well relay an inner dialogue taking place; both clearly also attempt to portray martyrdom.

The styles of portraiture on display here move from Realism to work in more experimental and colourful flavours towards the end. The portraits of the acclaimed poets, the husband and wife Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, by the relatively unknown female artist, Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya, are particularly eye-catching thanks to their modern, cartoonish styles. Both poets seem both graceful and serene, set against rolling, rural landscape; the alluring pastel shades and soft lines fail to anticipate anything of the harsh future they had in store. Haunted by political and personal turmoil, Nikolai Gumilev was executed for alleged counter-revolutionary activities in 1921, and Akhmatova would live to see her son and later common-law husband spend many years in the Gulag. Not so different to Perov’s tortured artists, after all.

‘Patrons and Estate Culture’, found towards the end of the exhibition, is the most curious category because the least expected, shifting the focus of the exhibition from the creator and back to the collector. By looking beyond famous faces – the obviousness of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky – to those who actually funded artists and kick-started many careers, Russia and the Arts takes on a deeper, more interesting, dimension. The exhibition’s final portrait is of one of the leading patrons of French modernism, Ivan Morozov, painted by Valentin Serov (1910). Morozov garnered some of the richest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting during his lifetime. A corpulent man painted in loose, thick strokes, the picture seems to swell with his wealth and generosity. Perhaps we got the good end of the deal after all; the fattest man we sent was Robert Browning.


Admission: £6/£5/£4.
Catalogue (National Portrait Gallery):
£24.95 paperback