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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alexander Litovchenko

Ambassador Horatio Calvucci sketching the favorite falcons of Tsar Alexis I,
1868, Alexander Litovchenko.
In today's world we'd find it laughable that a government would attempt to impose stylistic or content "controls" over art, painting in particular. First of all, such an undertaking would be exceedingly difficult, not to mention ineffectual, perhaps even counterproductive. Second, would come the question, "why bother?" Painters have long since ceased to wield influence sufficient to worry even the most restrictive government. Art has traditionally been a means of communication by the artist to the masses. Moreover, even those modern forms of communication serving the same purpose are seldom targets for government control, at least in the developed countries of the free world, largely for the same reasons mentioned above. Any presumed benefits wouldn't be worth the effort. They'd probably create more problems in the form of adverse public reaction than they'd solve. However, as recently as a couple hundred years ago, such was not the case in most European countries. Thankfully, in the newborn United States of America about that time, along with the separation of church and state came the separation of art and state. (Church and art had long before separated, even in Europe, dating from the Protestant Reformation.)  

Ivan the Terrible showing his treasures to Jerome Horsey, the English Ambassador,
 1875, Alexander Litovchenko. History painters were used to polish the images of long-dead historic figures as well as current rulers.
Alexander Litovchenko, 1878,
Ivan Nikolaevich Kramsko
During most of the 19th-century, art, painting in particular, was an important, viable, and powerful means of mass communication, the equivalent of today's television and motion pictures, and second only to the rapidly developing printed news media of the time in its social impact. The reason had to do with the fact that every major nation in Europe (indeed, every major city) had its own art academy, subsidized by the government and thus influenced by that government's wants and needs, sometimes so tightly as to be a virtual propaganda wing of that government. Any government intent upon shaping its own history (and nearly all of them were) had to control the means of illustrating that history. The art academies not only trained history painters, but rewarded their efforts with fame and fortune, while punishing economically those who deviated from the official version of that history. Art was official, or as art historians call it today, academic. In France especially, but also in England, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere, such academic art reigned supreme. One of these academic artist, a Russian, was Alexander Litovchenko.  

Charon carrying Souls Across the River Styx, 1861, Alexander Litovchenko
Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Nikon,
Archbishop of Novgorod, at the
tomb of Philippe Wonderworker,
Metropolitan of Moscow, 1886,
Alexander, Litovchenko
Litovchenko was far removed from what we'd call a "great" Russian painter. Born in 1835 and academically trained in the St. Petersburg Imperial Art Academy during the 1850s, this Ukrainian-born artist first came to notice with his painting, Ambassador Horatio Calvucci sketching the favorite falcons of Tsar Alexis I (top) dating from 1868. As a result, he became a kind of P.R. man for the ruling Romanovs, painting large scale and largely well-received paintings of the Tsar (Alexi I) and his family during the latter half of the century. Litovchenko's Charon carrying Souls Across the River Styx (above), dating from 1861, had won him a "lesser" gold medal at the academy shortly before he'd graduated. During the latter half of his career, Litovchenko mostly swore off academic history painting, yet as late as 1886 we find him still turning out potboilers such as Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Nikon, Archbishop of Novgorod, at the Tomb of Philippe Wonderworker, Metropolitan of Moscow (left). Litovchenko likely holds the Russian record for long painting titles.

The Ice Flow on the Neva, Alexander Litovchenko
In France, during the 1860s and 70s, it was the Impressionists who struggled to break the stifling grip of Academicism on the stylistic and financial world of art. In Russia, there was a similar group with a similar aim calling themselves the Peredvizhniki Movement (often called The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English). They were a group of some fourteen Russian realist painters protesting academic restrictions. They formed an artists' cooperative, which evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions in 1870. Giving up a comfortable teaching slot at the St. Petersburg Academy, Litovchenko joined them. In essence, he became one of the first Russian Impressionists, his work neither as brilliant as that of Monet, Pissarro, or Renoir, or even that of his fellow members of the Russian avant-garde, but similar in many ways to both.

Solar Path of the Woods, ca. 1880, Alexander Litovchenko
Despite his rebellious tendencies, late in his career, Litovchenko is also remembered for his seven murals in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (destroyed by the Communists in 1931) and several icons at the Crimean War memorial in Sevastopol. His Solar Path of the Woods (above) illustrates the profound change in style effecting Litovchenko's work as he broke free from the bounds of Academicism. Litovchenko died in 1890 at the relatively young age of fifty-five, leaving behind only a very modest body of work; but his career is notable for his willingness to sacrifice the comforts and economic security of academic life in the name of artistic freedom.

The Jester, Alexander Litovchenko.
Notice, when he gave up painting for the tsar, he also gave
up long, overly descriptive titles as well.


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