Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ilya Repin

The Barge Haulers of the Volga, 1870-73, Ilya Repin
Ilya Repin Self-portrait, 1873
When it comes to painting, there seems to be a "hole" in American art appreciation--Russian art. I suppose a lot of the blame for this can be laid at the doorstep of the Cold War and before that, the Soviet Union and some seventy-years of Communist domination (work dismissed as commie art). There's also the problem with the god-awful spelling and pronunciation of Russian names, which often baffle and trouble even me. Whatever the cause, it's time we come to the realization that the distinctive qualities and history of Russian art, painting in particular, go back far beyond our own, and in fact, rest on a par certainly with those of France, England, and the Baltic countries. Only Italy and the artists of the northern renaissance (who basically taught the modern world how to paint) could be said to have a longer, broader painting tradition. Over the past few years, I've highlighted some of these Russian painters, yet somehow managed to miss one of the greatest of the 19th and early 20th-centuries--Ilya Repin. If you've never heard of him, that only serves to prove my point. Russian artists are underappreciated.

Ivan the terrible and his Son, 1870-73, Ilya Repin
Agony in the Garden, ca. 1860,
Ilya Repin
Ilya Repin was born in Chuguyev, now the eastern Ukraine. Yes, that's where the fighting is at the moment, (2014). The year was 1844, and the area has seen a good deal of fighting both before and after that time. Ilya's father was a private in the tsar's army, so naturally his son's education began in military school. At the age of twelve, boy became an apprentice to a local icon painter. His Agony in the Garden (right) from around 1860 dates from his earliest art studies. Later, around 1864, Repin enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Art where he graduated in 1869. Though he was quite adept at portraiture, Repin's real goal was to become a history painter. One of his first efforts along this line, Ivan the terrible and his Son (above) dates from this period. Another, The Barge Haulers of the Volga (top), which first won him national recognition, likewise dates from the years 1870-74. You'll notice these lengthy time spans often in studying Repin's work. He was a very meticulous painter, producing hundreds of preliminary drawings and painted sketches, frequently spending years working intermittently on a single painting. He was known to go back years later and correct faults he found or, sometimes simply starting over, painting a second version. There are two versions of The Barge Haulers, the second painted some forty years later in the spirit of the Russian Revolution.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1887,
Ilya Repin
Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky
1881, Ilya Repin
Tsar Nicholas II, 1896, Ilya Repin.
Ilya Repin died in 1930. He was eighty-six, which means his career, from his earliest efforts in the 1860s spanned around seventy years. Moreover, these years saw drastic upheavals and revolutionary changes both in Russian society and governmental politics, not to mention art itself. During the 1870s and 80s, Repin's reputation continued to grow to world-wide proportions, becoming the most famous painter in Russia during the 19th century on a par with Tolstoy in literature, and Mussorgsky in music (both of whom he painted) as well as Tchaikovsky (whom he didn't). His 1881 Mussorgsky portrait (above, left) is probably his most famous and recognizable work, the only one I'd ever noticed before. I found his regal, 1896 portrait of Tsar Nicholas II (right), posed in the throne room of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (now part of the Hermitage Museum) to be quite familiar looking. I've been there. I'm not positive, but Repin's 1894 Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna (below), from what I recall of the place, appears to have occurred in the same grandiose setting.

Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna, 1894, Ilya Repin
Crown of Thorns, Ilya Repin
Christ, 1884, Ilya Repin
Not all of Repin's paintings were so lavishly elegant. In fact, most weren't. As a history painter, Repin was especially revered for his handling of peasants, soldiers, and religious scenes from the life of Christ. Two of his portraits of Christ I've found particularly intense, his 1884 Christ (above, left) and his Crown of Thorns (above, right), go well beyond similar efforts by so many artist of all nationalities painting both before and after the Russian master. Repin's other religious works include a Last Supper and the Christ Raises the Daughter of Jarius. There were others as well, but his most powerful religious works came not from the Bible but from more recent history, such as his St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (below), from 1889 depicts the 4th-century saint interceding to prevent the execution of three innocent men condemned by the local governor.

St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, 1889, Ilya Repin
Unlike any number of other artists who deserted Russia with the onslaught of national adversity, Ilya Repin changed with the times. Despite having long been a favorite of the Russian Imperial Court, Repin fully embraced the 1917 Russian Revolution. His Manifestation, 17 October, 1905 (below) depicts an important political demonstration in the years leading up to the uprising. In return, the Bolsheviks embraced Repin, his work becoming a major part of the Tretyakov Museum, whose founder, Pavel Tretyakov was an early patron of the Repin's work. After he death, Repin's home, The Penates, became a museum devoted to his work. Repin's style, however, changed little over the course of his lifetime. Only some of his religious works at times veered of toward the popular Impressionist movement, or later, Expressionism and, indeed, the trends toward abstraction which followed. Probably the most difficult aspect of writing about Repin is the fact that there is so much of his work to see and so little space here in which to see it.

Manifestation, 17 October, 1905, 1906-11, Ilya Repin.


No comments:

Post a Comment