Friday, January 25, 2019

Russian Paintings at St Peter’s Basilica

As I wrote yesterday, St Peter’s Basilica is currently hosting a very nice show of Russian artworks, a combination of historic icons and more modern (i.e. 19th and early 20th century) paintings. Many of these works come from one of the largest and most important art collections in Russia, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, named for its founder Pavel Tretyakov. Prominent in his collection, which he donated to the city of Moscow in 1892, are the works of a Russian school of artists called “Передвижники (peredvizhniki) - ‘wanderers’, or ‘itinerants’ ”, realist painters who formed a kind of cooperative in rebellion against the methods and policies of the Imperial Academy of the Fine Arts. Their name derives from their traveling exhibitions, which they brought to many major cities of the Russian Empire; the acceptance of their style and preferred subjects was very much furthered by Tretyakov, who brought many of their pieces into his famous gallery. Here is a selection of just some of the paintings in the show, principally on religious subjects.

Christ’s Appearance to the People, by Alexander Ivanov. (Russian State Museum) This painting took the artist about 20 years to complete, from 1837-57; within this exhibition, Ivanov represents the neo-classical tradition of the Academy that the ‘wanderers’ were rebelling against.
“Quid est veritas?” - Christ and Pilate, by Nikholai Ge, 1890 (Tretyakov Gallery). Ge (whose non-Russian sounding family name derives from his French ancestry, originally “de Gay”) had several of his paintings on religious subjects, including this one, banned from public display and various exhibitions.
A Religious Procession in the Kursk Province, by Ilya Repin, 1884 (Tretyakov Gallery). Repin, an extremely productive painter, was one of the most successful of the ‘wanderers’, and very well-known outside Russia.
Before Confession, Ilya Repin, 1879-85 (Tretyakov Gallery)
Portrait of Fyodor Dostyevsky, by Vasily Perov, 1872, another major figure among the group. (Tretyakov Gallery. This famous portrait of the novelist has been used on the covers of countless editions of his works.)
Christ in the Desert, by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872 (Tretyakov Gallery). This artist was one of the leaders of a group of students at the Imperial Academy in St Petersburg who began the revolt in 1863 which led to their expulsion, and who then formed the group that became the Wanderers. He painted portraits of several leading figures of the day, including the Tsar Alexander III, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Soloviev and Taras Shevchenko.
Christ, by Ilya Repin, 1884 (Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum)
In the Garden of Gethsemane, by Nikholai Ge, 1869 (Ivanovo Regional Art Museum)
The Pilgrim, by Vasily Perov, 1870 (Tretyakov Gallery)
The Protodeacon, by Ilya Repin, 1877 (Tretyakov Gallery)
A Holy Fool Seated on the Snow, by Vasily Surikov, 1885 (Vasnetsov Art Museum, Vyatka). “Holy fool” or “fool for Christ” is the term for a very peculiar class of Saint, much admired by the Russians; they were often itinerants who wandered from monastery to monastery, living in extreme poverty, and acted very strangely as way of bearing witness to Christ against accepted societal norms. The painter who did this study was another very prolific and successful artist, and worked alongside Kramskoi and Vereshchagin inter alios on the decorations of the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was demolished by the Soviet regime in 1931.
Above Eternal Peace, by Isaac Levitan, 1894 (Tretyakov Gallery). Levitan, another member of the Wanderer group, helped to popularize “mood landscapes”, the idea of which can be gleaned from the title of this painting.
Trinity, by Natalia Goncharova, 1910 (Tretyakov Gallery). Goncharova was a major figure in the various avant-garde movements that succeeded the Wanderers as the leaders in Russian art in the early 20th century.
The Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev, 1920 (Tretyakov Gallery). A student and assistant of Repin,  Kustodiev suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, and was a paraplegic by the time he painted this, at a point when religious subjects had of course very much fallen out of favor.
The New Planet, by Konstantin Yuon, 1921 (Tretyakov Gallery)

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