New Landscapes and the Itinerants
In 1870, Shishkin was one of the founders of the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions, the Peredvizhniki or Itinerants, as they were known. They held their first exhibition in the following year. A radical group including Shishkin, Repin, Surikov, L.Kamenev, V.Vasnetsov, Savrasov and Kuinji, and later Polenov, Serov, Levitan and Makovsky, it was dissatisfied with the deep conservatism of the official Academy of Art and its exhibitions. Indeed it was in many ways the natural outcome of an Academy revolt seven years earlier in 1863, when fourteen of the best pupils from the Academy of Arts were refused permission to choose the subjects of their graduation paintings and so they walked out and founded an artists' commune.
At first the Itinerant shows were held throughout Russia, from Odessa and Warsaw to Kiev. But gradually the society became centred on Saint Petersburg and Moscow, partly because the paintings were often bought by the time the show had got to Moscow and partly because, by the mid-1890s, it had become the de facto establishment art institution and, as institutions do, had developed conservative tendencies. In the mid-1890s, following reform of the Academy, a number of Itinerants, including Repin and Shishkin, actually agreed to become Academy professors. By the beginning of the new century it was perceived as a reactionary organisation by the younger generation of artists - and by a number of its own members who over the next decade left to join the Union of Russian Artists or followed new ideas about art, especially under the influence of 'Mir iskusstva' ('The World of Art'). Its last shows were held in the 1920s.
Although the dates correspond with those of the emergence of Impressionism in France, this movement had very little to do with the way in which the Itinerants painted. In fact one admired contemporary, Konstantin Korovin, was denied membership because he painted in the Impressionist mode. The Itinerants were closer to, say, the German Malkasten and the Dutch Kunstlerbond, the Czech Bohemia Painter's Association and the Artistic Conversation and Italian Macchiaioli group.
It was only a roughly cohesive group. Everybody subscribed broadly to Realism and supported nationalist tendencies, together with powerfully concerned attitudes to what was going on in Russian society as it lumbered towards its version of the Industrial Revolution. Favored catchwords were sincerity, truth, reality, modernity, and national authenticity. In their search for a psychological truth they took a very serious approach to plotting the face of Russia and its life. Not surprisingly, they supported the validity of landscape painting as a subject in its own right. At the end of the century landscape was to be the Itinerants' primary interest.
But to begin with it was a catholic group. The Itinerants painted anything from genre through great moments in Russian history, to water and forest and landscapes. They had a broader purpose: in depicting the everyday lives of their subjects, whichÂ¬ever they had chosen to work with, they were deliberately asserting the importance of the psychological truth of the commonplace. They thus sought to show that Russian culture was vibrant and had a voice of its own, that Russian topography and climate was not that of the sunny South. It believed that its slow-moving rivers, calm and violent seas, gloomy forest lakes, snow and ice, wind and rain, and charming woodland ponds were all just as proper subjects of painting.
One of their painterly positions was to do with what they called local color. The Itinerants were reluctant to use colors that reflected the meaning of the paintings, which very often meant using quite gloomy colors or the relatively self-disciplined earth colors of Shishkin.
The Moscow school of the 1880s produced a number of painters, such as Abram Arkhipov, Alexey Stepanov, Valentin Serov and others such as Isaak Levitan, who wanted their art to be spontaneously expressive, to divorce their art from preconceptions and rules. Serov, who as a student talked a great deal about the joys of life, went abroad immediately after his years at the Academy. He fell in love with Venice, absorbed the old masters, and on his return spent a great deal of time at Abramtsevo, the country estate of radical art patron and merchant Savva Mamontov. With fellow artists he painted the local scene and one theme in particular, the overgrown pond. As a subject it is interesting enough as a picturesque set-piece landscape theme, combining as it does foliage, sky, water, reflections and possibly mist. But one suspect there is also a second agenda: ponds are overgrown because they have been neglected and in the latter part of the century many formerly noble estates could not cope financially with the freeing of the serfs and either went bankrupt or allowed their estates to decline.
Serov's 'Little Pond: Abramtsevo' of 1886 and the seminal 'Overgrown Pond: Domotkanovo' of 1888 belong to a little group of such paintings, in which the utter calm and serenity of the ordinary countryside devoid of people is transformed into observations about the state of being. In plein-air painter Vasily Polenov's earlier and more realist study of 1879 of the same subject, a slightly ramshackle landing stage gingerly project into the edge of the lily-strewn water, while an old half-submerged log floats abandoned in the foreground. In Serov's 1886 'Little Pond', Polenov's landing stage has become a ramshackle collection of timber approached by a board resting on the shore. Isaak Levitan's study and painting of the same subject of 1887 deploy an impressionist technique of deft brushstrokes to create a solemn mood.
All three artists must have seen a painting of 1871, the second year of the Itinerants, by founder member Lev Kamemev. It is 'Fog. The Red Pond in Moscow in Autumn' (1871). It pays tribute to Claudian composition in its lucent light in the middle of the picture and the way the farther boundary of the pond merges through the golden fog into the sky. The water, unbroken except by the silent reeds and scattered jetties, is suffused, saturated with an air of reposeful and unmistakably Russian sadness.
Here in the four paintings is a restrained palette of colors used to depict a languorously sombre emotion. It is this deliberately limited palette and the deliberate choice of a gloomy emotion that make all of these water paintings uniquely Russian. Compare them, for example, with Monet's much more freely painted and light suffused 'Pond at Montgeron' of 1876 or indeed his famous 'Waterlilies'. Apart from the way the paint is applied, they also have a completely different range of colors and a different emotional agenda: these ponds are sombre, filled with a dark languor. The viewer wants to know why the pond has become neglected, untended, why it has not been painted on a sunnier day, what lurks beneath the surface, what dark, essentially Russian secrets it holds. Interestingly, Monet's 'Pond' was bought by a Moscow collector. All three are subdued with cloudy summer skies, the profoundly still waters almost black - in Serov's so black that they reflect the patch of bright sky above - the others hinting at uncertain depths, the dark oil paint emphasised by the green brushstrokes of the lily pads.
Polenov was a professor of landscape at Moscow and, although he occasionally returned to landscape after this wonderfully moody evocation, he was never to entirely repeat it except perhaps in his 'Lake Gennesaret' of 1899. Here a different mood is evoked - a sense of wonder at the sheer extent of nature. The viewpoint is on a high crag overlooking the marshy preliminaries to the edge of the lake, which stretches across to the majestic line of low cliffs which themselves range left and right into the far distance, uniformly and unchanging.
One of Polenov's students was Isaak Levitan, who at the end of the century had become one of the great painters of Russian water. Writing at the time critic Alexander Benois said, "Levitan, was not a Barbizon painter, nor a Dutch artist and not an Impressionist. Levitan was a Russian artist, but his Russianness does not lie in him having painted Russian motifs out of some sort of patriotic principles but in the fact that he understood the obscure charm of Russian nature, its secret meaning." (Alexander Benois, 'History of Russian Painting in the Nineteenth Century', 1910)
Shishkin was the master of the forest and Levitan the master of placid open landscape, and especially water. His 'Lake' of 1899, one of several such paintings, sums up his preoccupation with the painterly possibilities of water. The strip of land serves as a narrow middle ground, a device to mark the transition between sky and its reflection in the deep foreground of water and vestigial reed bed. The summer clouds float dreamily over the land, reflected in the moving waters of the lake. His 'Golden Autumn' of 1895 catches a Russian landscape at the end of a long summer, the skies still clear, the leaves turning gold. The river is full and calm, its dark foreground depths hinting at the cold to come.
In 'Those Evening Bells', Levitan catches a moment when a boat has just left the dark foreground landing stage and makes off down river. On the peninsula across the water two tiny figures make their way up a road and through an arch to a group of churches, from where sounds of the title come. In the distance the clouds dream in the pale sky. Here is Levitan at his characteristic best; lakes and rivers, cottages and villages, these are the landscapes of no other country. And yet they are of a placid, open country in which the only drama is the unexpected beauty to be found in the Russian countryside. Here is a contra view of Russia to those painters who sought to exploit the notion of Russia as, metaphorically, a tortured soul. Here is a Russia of changing seasons, of rains, of great waters and rivers. It is a still almost silent Russia, which is drenched not in the bright colors and intense light of the hot South but suffused with the golden light of spring and summer, the bright, cleansing light of the winter sun and the mellow light of autumn.
The River of Life and Death
Levitan's's special interest in painting water and rivers has a resonance in the rest of Russian painting of his time. For socially aware artists such as Ilya Repin, the great river Volga represented not only a picturesque setting for atmospheric paintings but also a location for depictions of powerful emotions of sympathy in the face of grim everyday life. His 'Barge Haulers on the Volga' of 1873 is the seminal social painting for the Itinerants. The sails of a decorated barge are draped negligently across the hold, and a steersman strains against the great tiller. The slight ripple along the bow is the consequence of the efforts of nearly a dozen ragged haulers, the burlaki, pressing heroically against the broad bands across their chests which spread the load transmitted from the top of the barge's short mast. To the right, the rearmost hauler seems fit to collapse, his sole means of vertical support being the rope band, which half pinions his arms and shoulders and yet supports him. The leading man's face is full of both character and resignation as he leans familiarly into the load. These are people who have devoted their lives to the great river - and have had no choice and have no hope of doing anything else. Yet half-way back in the middle of the canvas, painted in lighter colors, is a lad who grasps uncertainly at his bond and peers beyond the picture frame to some unseen source of hope.
For the leading historical painter of the Itinerants, Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), the river is the neutral setting for great thoughts, a kind of tabula rasa. His 'Stepan Razin' of 1906 has the legendary hero being rowed up the Volga following a pirate raid in a boat laden with booty and, apart from the rowers and Razin, a celebrating crew. Razin reclines against the mast, scowling with the effort of planning the release from servitude of the Russian people. Perhaps the leader of a war flotilla, this is the only boat visible in the great whitish lumpy sweep of the mighty river whose far bank is a grey streak, the only thing differentiating river from sky. It is as if the boat itself represents Razin's thoughts, looking backwards but surging forwards in a grey uncertain world. This exactly matched the state of Russian painting at that moment, a few years into the century.
Radical nineteenth-century Russian painting often carried an underlying anti-clerical message. But in the search for reality, religious symbolism had to be portrayed. llarion Pryanishnikov's 'A Religious Procession' of 1893, with its crowd of devotees straggling up from the banks of a great river having crossed from a church on the far bank, reminds us that the Christians originally baptised people in the river. Here it is as if the penitents have been through a purifying baptism before straining up the hill with their icons in a lengthy profession of faith.
It was not only the Volga, the 'Mother of Rivers' as Russians like to call it, which represented a potent symbol for Russian painting. It was all great rivers with their ambiguous connotations of continuity inextricably linked with simultaneous and inexorable change. On the other hand, rivers could simply be the setting for a genre subject such as Abram Arkhipov's earlier 'Down the Oka', painted in 1889.
Surikov may well have re-used the arrangement of Arkhipov's picture for his Stepan Razin. This, however, is a straightforward genre painting in which a group of peasants in a boat are about to reach the shore. Here the river has no particular quality apart from reflecting the pale golden haze and the subject is a nicely observed and painted slice of life.
Storms break regularly on the broad Volga, Ilya Repin had captured one twenty years before Dubovskoy in 1870 - and three years before his great 'Barge Haulers'. Here the perilous view is from the stern of a low freeboard barge. The deck is swept by dirty seas as five men struggle with the great tiller and other crewmen shout advice from a forward hatch cover; all are about to be engulfed by a boiling white-topped sea.
Rivers turn out to be ideal for the artist to set mood. In the late 1880s the influential landscape Itinerant, Isaak Levitan, then in his twenties, made a visit to the Volga and painted it in all the states he could possibly observe. 'Evening on the Volga' (1888) is an almost monochromatic study, the only color a pink sunlit tinge to the top of a long grey cloudbank. Below, the waters of the river reflect the color of the sky framed horizontally by the black of the foreground shore. Beyond a long silver wake is the distant black shore. Here is the moment before the remnants of the light quickly fade into black. It is a moment for grave reflective ness, touching in its quiet dignity.
It is curiously more evocative than a painting of a similar scene by Arkhip Kuinji, 'Moonlight on the Dnepr' of 1880. Here the structure of the composition is almost a mirror image of Levitan's. The moon, set in a fortuitous break in the streaky cloud, casts an unearthly light on the glassy surface of the river visible between a dark foreground beach and the far shore, which merges into the black of the lower sky. Here is Kuinji's striking coloring, depth and mystery but the moment of transition is missing. Repin's much more intimate 'Moonlight Night, Zdravnevo' of 1896 has a woman in a white coat contemplating a moonlit river. The quiescent attitude of a dog lying at her feet suggests that she has been standing there for some time. What are her thoughts? Does she dream of release in the black river depths? Why is she standing there and what will she do next? This is the river of dreams, still and yet driving on to its far distant destination in the sea.
Daylight river studies by Levitan include 'Barges on the Volga' of 1889 and 'On the Volga' of 1888, in which the far distant bank is mirrored in the morning light, boats lie in the mud in the foreground, and an extraordinary light suffuses the sky, reflecting in the river in the middle ground. 'Fresh Wind: the Volga' of 1895 has two barges being towed by a small steamer, the great river now a faintly choppy red reflecting the raw red banks and a mysterious red haze high in the sky. In 1887 Levitan wrote from the Volga to his friend Chekhov, "What can be more tragic than to feel the infinite beauty of one's everyday surroundings, be fully aware of their innermost secrets and see God in everything and to realise that you simply cannot fully express these powerful emotions."
Levitan's definitive water painting is his 'Above Eternal Peace' of 1894. He wrote of it, "It has the whole of me in it, all my psyche, all my content". Under a sky of mixed clouds, the far distant plain stretches, with a hint of a lake here, a dense wood there. The main part of the picture is a great wide river in flood, "white as death", as the artist described it. In the foreground on a promontory and surrounded by a small copse and a derelict graveyard is a traditional rural church with a tiny onion dome on the roof ridge. Beyond in the flood a triangular piece of high ground has turned into an island. There is nothing else. This work of inner psychology represents one rare occasion when Levitan offers a less than golden account of the nature which he so loved.
A number of Levitan's Volga studies incorporate boats propelled by the newly introduced steam power and even Aivazovskiy, most of his life necessarily devoted to sail and the sea, produced a study of steam paddle boats on the Volga, 'The Volga near the Zhiguli Hills'. Here is old and new side by side: a paddle steamer bravely occupies the middle ground of the left half of the picture. On the far right shore a burlaki group hauls a train of barges in the time-honoured fashion, half obscured by a smart passenger steamer bustling up river. In the immediate foreground is a great raft of logs with a temporary hut on top and a group of itinerant woodsmen entertaining themselves until it is time to turn the raft into fodder for the downstream mills. This is a painting of great optimism, suffused with a golden glow which is reflected in the water of the great river as a small flock of birds skim low in search of a last catch before roosting on one of the distant shores. This is also a painting about Russia in a state of change.
Landscape painting can be expressive of many things but it is not entirely surprising that Russian landscape should have running through it a strong theme of transition. In Arkhip Kuinji's 'After the Rain' of 1879, the low sun illuminates an emerald meadow and a low rise, on top of which are the reflecting walls of a group of farm buildings. The turbulent black sky retreats - but the stream in the foreground is in shadow, presaging another mighty downpour. In Isaak Levitan's painting of the same name of ten years later, the water is still dappled with the remnants of a shower, a small paddle steamer, unaffected, bustles across the river, the old-fashioned barges of the middle ground swing at their moorings, while the puddle rainwater starts to form a little stream over the low foreground river bank.
And in Mikhail Larionov's 'Rosebushes after a Rain Shower' of 1904 the impressionistic brush strokes, long and vertical in form, serve as a reminder of the shower that has just passed across the pond in the far middle ground. Here is a moment of stillness captured, and overlaid by a visual memory of the shower's insistent sharpness.
More dramatic than the moment when the noise of rain has receded and before the birds once more begin to sing is that moment of transition between calm and storm. Nikolay Dubovskoy's 'The Calm before the Storm' of 1890 has a great grey-bottomed bank of white cloud hanging above a lake, the far shore serving as a device to indicate the darkness beneath the cloud and, through the scale of the details, its relatively great distance from the viewer. The water reflects the lighter, almost sunlit zone of cloud. The tension is palpable. We know in real life that a thunderstorm is to do with wind currents, water vapour and wild electricity, but in front of the picture we are almost waiting for the sky, or more accurately the heavy cloud bank, to fall with a thud on the face of the water. Dubovskoy wrote about the painting in terms of "that captivating feeling which has many times possessed me at the moment of calm before a major storm or in the interval between two thunderstorms, when it can be hard to breathe, when you sense how insignificant you are in the face of the approaching elements".
The Snows of Change
For Isaak Levitan and many landscape painters the great mode of expressing the changing seasons of Russian Nature was the transition from snow to flood. His snows cape of 1885 is titled simply 'March'. The thaw is about to begin. A bright late winter sun shines from over the viewer's left shoulder. A temporarily untended horse with a sled waits patiently by the porch of a house, the incipient thaw indicated by the melting snow on its small roof and the mud of the road, re-emerging from the covering snow in the foreground. The bare branches of the trees have lost their snow and new growth has just started. So, too, in one of the earliest of the new Russian landscapes, Alexey Savrasov's 'The Rooks Have Returned' of 1871, the presence of the birds in the tiny, very early growth on the tall branches, and the melt waters beginning to form a concerted mass of water among the fields of snow all herald the return of spring.
This theme of transition, the change of state from snow and ice to running water that takes place in early spring, fascinated many of the Itinerants. Quite apart from their own painterly agendas, they were themselves in a state of transition, moving from one way of painting to another, from one set of subjects to a new set - and of underlying, structural changes in society. Fedor Vasilyev's 1871 'The Thaw' has a mother and child still warmly wrapped up and standing in the slush of an emerging old roadway defined by wheel tracks. In the centre of the picture a pond - still surrounded by snowy ground - has overflowed its bank and the cold melt water leaks out into the foreground. In this painting of the same date it is difficult not to read the same allegorical message.
For later painters, such as Igor Grabar in 'February Sky' of 1904, the transition is more subtle. It is difficult to distinguish the bark on the trunks and branches from the snow in this wonderful study in browns and blues of birch trees and their intricate array of branches in a snowfield backed by glimpses of a blue winter sky. Here, on the cusp of spring, the topmost leaves have started to appear and it is their color, scarcely distinguishable from the light browns and whites of the branches, that gives the viewer the hint of things to come.
Illya Ostroukhov's wonderfully simple 'Early Spring' of 1891 is a snapshot of those few days when the snow has begun to retreat from the bases of the trees, the water of the stream is beginning to eat away the edges of the snow, and in the back of the viewer's mind is the thought that the level of the water indicates the beginning of a little flood. In Vitold Byalynitskiy-Birulya's 'The Emerald of Spring' of 1915, the new pale green growth coexists with the slush of melting snow. In Stanislav Zhukovskiy's 'Spring Water' of 1898 the process had gone a little further. Painted from an opposite bank, the shore in the middle ground - now thinly covered with melting snow - is being overtaken by dark melt water; three trees already have their bases under water. A tiny new stream also makes its contribution.
At the end of the transformation, the thaw becomes a flood - the theme of Levitan's wonderful 'Spring Flood' of 1897. Here the birch saplings stand forlornly in the water, their reflections adding to the sense of coldness despite the azure cloud-flecked sky above. A primitive boat nudges a temporary beach. In a week the waters will have subsided, the flooded farm buildings in the distance will return to use and spring will be in full swing. The earth has awakened, and nature has emerged from her long hibernation.
As the French discovered to their cost in 1812, for months on end each year much of Russia's water turns to snow and ice and, when it is not blinding travellers and peasants, it lies thickly over the plains and mountains, rivers and seas. It is so much a part of a Russian's existence that when artists started painting it in the second half of the nineteenth century, people were surprised that they should do so.
In The Background
The first of the Russian cold winter landscapes were actually painted as late as the mid-1860s and then by the social propagandist Vasily Perov, notably with 'The Last Farewell', 'The Troika' and 'The Last Tavern at the City Gates'. All three paintings have snowscape settings, one of a young mourning family on a sled taking a coffin to the cemetery, and one of three children pulling an icicle-draped water barrel while the harsh wind blows streamers of snow from the eaves. The third painting is of two empty horse-drawn sleds waiting outside the candle-lit windows of a tavern, the city gates like stalagmites against the evening sky, the absent drivers' destination somewhere in the icy wastes beyond. A contemporary wrote of Perov's work, 'The landscape motifs - roads as endless as people's patience, gloomy people, monotonous fogs, a severe winter with snow storms and blizzards, a bleak autumn with depressing rains and winds cold as the crying of death - become in his pictures as in folklore and the works of Dostoyevskoy, Levitov and Dickens, the bearers of tragic feeling personified as human misfortunes and burdens.' The Parisian critics of these and other paintings which Perov exhibited there in 1867 argued that at last here were identifiably Russian paintings.
In Perov's socially aware work of this period the bitterly cold snow settings underline the sadness of the paintings' narratives, as they do in llarion Pryanishnikov's 'Returning Empty from the Market' of 1872. A trail of horse-drawn sleds leads off along an ill-marked track through the broad plain of snow towards some wretched settlement beyond the horizon. A hunched figure on the rearmost sled seems to glower out at the viewer. And in Victor Vasnetsov's 'Moving House' of 1876, a middle-aged couple wrapped up and carrying a meagre bundle of their household goods trudges through the snow past the skeleton of a half-buried boat. Beyond the snowbound river, the dark ill-defined walls of a city conceal all but the tower of a church and a few tall chimneys.
Other Russian painters soon took up the theme of snow. In the Realist painter Vyacheslav Schwartz's 'The Tsarina's Spring Pilgrimage in the Reign of Alexey Mikhailovitch' of 1868, a gilded sled makes its way out of a dark village at the head of a procession. The curving road leading into the picture plane is slushy, because the snow is about to thaw from the surrounding white fields. Schwartz was a painter of historical subjects who attempted to break the mould. He painted historical events as if they were genre paintings - that is, without the visual hierarchies of historical painting. The flat, all-enveloping, undifferentiating snow provides an important visual support to this. It is of course not difficult to read 'Spring Pilgrimage' fundamentally as a landscape painting with an enigmatic though doubtless historically factual subject.
Schwartz's position was not uninfluential and there followed from the brush of the Itinerant Vasily Surikov some of the great historical snow paintings, for snow is a wonderful setting for historical painting, representing as it does the rawest essence of barbaric Old Russia. His 1887 'The Boyarina Morozova' has the chained zealot, heroine of the losing side in the great religious schism of the mid-seventeenth century, being dragged through the cold, snowbound streets of Moscow on a sled. Despite the thick snow which lies on the ground and on the roofs of the surrounding houses, she remains defiant, holding her hand in the newly banned two fingered sign of the cross. For students of composition the grey-white of the snow provides a semi-neutral background for the bright colors of the clothes of the people in the crowd, some jeering, some adoring, some angry. And white is the same color as the boyarina's cold hands and terrible face.
Surikov's great snow painting 'Suvorov Crossing the Alps' of 1899 depicts a real event in the war against Napoleon. Following a treacherous withdrawal by the Austrians, Russian general Alexander Suvorov stormed the St. Gothard Pass and came down unexpectedly behind a French army and defeated it. The painting depicts a passage from that heroic march through the mountains. Urged on by Suvorov mounted on a horse, soldiers start sliding down a near sheer snowface, grinning devotedly at their general just before they take what, for all they know, could be their last fateful plunge. Perched perilously on the left of the painting are craggy white rocks and the hint of a mountain torrent. Lateral wisps of fog shroud the almost bare rocks of the crags above and lead the viewer's eye beyond to the distant looming snow-clad slopes of the mountain beyond.
His 'The Taking of a Snow Fortress' was painted at the urgings of his brother following Surikov's profound depression at the death of his wife in 1888, it is perhaps historical only in the sense that it was a real, though disappearing, Cossack village custom, which Surikov had seen as a child in his village. The locals would build a snow castle - more a fort surrounding a snow table heaped with snow food and snow utensils. It was the task of one team on horseback to attempt to take the fortress while another on foot banged tins and whistled and attempted to scare the horses. It was a great opportunity to get drunk, fight and have fun. This is an immensely cheerful picture in which the last wall of the fort is breached and the rider topples a duck-like snow image from the top of a pile of snow and ice blocks.
In an experimental phase of history painting, mostly for the book 'Royal Hunting', the younger Valentin Serov revelled in the use of snow as a setting for genre paintings of Peter the Great and his successors hunting in the fields with their horses and dogs. Serov had already used snow as a setting for earlier paintings, such as the 1898 gouache 'In Winter' and the 1910 study 'Rinsing Clothes', in which two peasant women kneeling in the snow by a tiny stream attempt to wash clothes while a bedraggled pony munches straw thrown on the ground to keep it and its sled close to the women.
Ivan Shishkin, the most prolific of Russian forest landscape painters, was, curiously, not especially drawn to snows capes, although his 'Winter' of 1890 is an uncannily realistic, almost monochromatic study in which the silence of the snow-insulated forest is almost audible. As in an old sepia photograph, time stands still. In the same year Shishkin made studies in snow and another significant snow painting is based on a line in Mikhail Lermontov's poem 'The Pine'. In "A Pine there stands in the northern wildsâЂ¦' the tree depicted in the northern wilds is a neat, heavily snow-laden conifer standing improbably on the edge of an icy winter cliff bathed in what seems to be moonlight. Shishkin is clearly experimenting with light, for the main body of the pine is in shadow and the snowy peak on which it stands bathed in the unearthly light.
It remained for Igor Grabar at the beginning of the twentieth century to deploy snow as a subject for his almost Pointillist studies, 'September Snow' of 1903 and 'February Sky' of 1904. The former supports the proposition that winter starts early in Russia by showing a peasant woman carrying water up a path to houses at the top of the picture. This painting and 'February Sky' represent the end of the serious Realist landscape movement - and in the latter painting, with its flat, clearly decorative intricacy, points in one of the many directions Russian painting was to take in the early decades of the new century.
In one zone of Russia, the Arctic, the winter never really ends. Aivazovskiy's wonderful 'Icebergs' of 1870 sums up the most extreme form of frozen water. A three-masted ship, its sails all furled and with most of the crew on the foredeck, make its way gingerly through the ice floes. In the foreground icicles hang from a small headland, flat floes creaking together in the neighbouring sea. And in the middle ground, towering over the ship is the gigantic tip of a great iceberg, its battered and fractured surface illuminated by an almost unearthly light which somehow eludes the ship below. Here is a great piece of scenery painting but also surely an allegory of the profound uncertainty which always surrounds the behaviour of the great waters.
Spectacle and the Far South
In the first decade of the twentieth century Russian painting opened up like a bursting dam, behind which had massed all the current revolutionary art movements of Europe. On one hand it developed a version of Art Nouveau, on another it became involved with theatre, set decoration and book design. Artists such as Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Natalya Goncharova, Vasiliy Kandinskiy, Marc Chagall, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin took other personal directions. Groups emerged with names like "The Blue Rose", "The Link", "The Triangle" and "The World of Art", and there were Russian versions of the Symbolists. Some of these were to become international figures in twentieth-century art and in a couple of decades Russian art was to take an honoured place in the world.
The Itinerant philosophy was decisively rejected by the progressive younger generation - although one old-guard painter, Valentin Serov, joined them. Under the management of Sergey Diaghilev, the magazine 'The World of Art' ('Mir iskusstva') provided a central theoretical and critical platform. It gave up-to-the-minute information about current art in the rest of Europe, especially Art Nouveau, which was then in its ascendance abroad. At the same time 'The World of Art painters' revived an interest in Russia's legendary and historical past, as well as its primitive and decorative arts. They were fascinated with the early eighteenth century and supported early nineteenth-century classical and romantic art. All this was, self-consciously, on the surface rather than profound. It was decorative, tending to stylisation and theatrical scene painting; it was linear rather than painterly. And water and reflection were especially favoured for their ambiguous and ephemeral effects.
As important as Diaghilev to 'The World of Art' group was Alexander Benois (1870-1960), whose major painting output was his Versailles series, including 'The King's Walk', 'The Marquise Bathing' and 'The Chinese Pavilion'. Here are imaginary scenes from French court life, the young aristocrat smugly and semi-decadently immersed in a pool, her clothes draped over a stone bench in a topiary enclosure from one of whose clipped columns a horrified servant peeps. In 'The King's Walk', Benois has the royal couple encircling an artificial pond, in the middle of which is statuary whose waterworks have surely been turned off to allow the artist to reflect the real world in the waters of the pond. So too in 'The Chinese Pavilion', the jealous man dare not look round at the couple leaning intimately into each other at the left, nor yet inside the pavilion where a couple are kissing. Behind are two Venetian gondolas floating in the water of the lake where, like the isolated man in the pavilion, they float alone.
In all these and a number of others involving water in Benois's Versailles series, water is used in proper 'World of Art' fashion as not only a pleasurable device in itself but as a means of supporting the notion of the ambiguity of people's motives and actions. On what more substantial and yet insubstantial foundations could be built profound edifices of emotion and feeling? And a great area of water is exactly the foundation of Mstislav Dobuzhinskiy's idealised city in his 1905 painting 'Pacification'. This radiant walled city has risen from the depths of a great flood under a rainbow, to float serenely amid the onion domes of the palaces and cathedrals of the drowned world below.
One of the many pleasurable aspects about the early-twentieth century exploration of new things was the breaking of conventions. This applies too to the depiction of water. Mstislav Dobuzhinskiy's 'City Types' of 1908 depicts snow falling in an almost cartoonist way, slanting across a flat streetscape with a garish advertising hoarding forming the background, an organ grinder and monkey forming the central theme leaning on a balustrade guarding the deep area of the building from which the painting has been made.
In Leon Bakst's 'Downpour' of two years before, a woman clad in the filmy neoclassical fashion of the 1800s is caught in an unexpected downpour, her plump body revealed by the now clinging wet clothes, while people in the background dash for cover. Great storms and violent seas had certainly been the proper subjects for paintings, but never before had artists seriously considered depicting the commonplace event of rain or snow.
Valentin Serov became a leading light in "The World of Art". For a long time a brilliant Realist, he used water themes in some of his best late work, notably 'The Rape of Europa' and 'Odysseus and Nausicaa', both of 1910. Looking at his unfinished sketch 'Iphigenia at Taurus' of ten years earlier it is clear that in the intervening decade he had undergone a major psychological change. The sketch has a disconsolate Iphigenia sitting on a rock on a beach, staring at the sea. It is an interesting enough composition and doubtless would have been painted with Serov's great facility. The sketch for 'Europa' has a similar diagonal structure, but the way the colors are applied is quite different and free and broad. The water, with its token blobs of shadow and swelling profile, is the work of a painter rather than of a psychologist: Europa herself does not seem to be particularly alarmed, although we know that Serov went to great pains to get the model's pose exactly right. Here is a decorative work with a deliberately flat treatment, which is also to be seen in his study of the same year for a curtain for the ballet to the music of Rimskiy-Korsakov. Here the sea is represented by an almost childlike series of white horses squiggled across a blue base, while leopards prance in front of an approaching army.
Yet this last phase of Serov's work is not without inner power, as his 'Odysseus and Nausicaa', also of 1910, demonstrates. In Homer's account, Nausicaa discovered Odysseus on the beach, shipwrecked again. She takes him back with her and restores him before he sets off once more. In this painting the bedraggled hero is wrapped uncomfortably in a sheet, stumbling after the princess Nausicaa, who is proud and straight, holding her mules and waiting to start. Behind, the sunlight dances on the choppy waves, a long puddle breaking up the foreground sand.
There was something about the sea and antiquity. It is not just Homer's wine-red sea or the fact that several of Serov's late paintings have watery subjects. It has, perhaps, something to do with the fact that ancient Greece spread out around the Mediterranean on scattered islands as well as the mainland and the adjacent coasts of Italy, Asia Minor and Africa. Serov went on a tour of the Greek islands with Lev Bakst, later the great ballet set designer. On his return Bakst painted a mysterious decorative panel 'Terror Antiquus'. It is an aerial view of a fragmented rocky shore, with a great grey-blue sea while beyond molten larva dribbles into the water. A lightning strike flashes across the upper part of the painting. At the bottom an enigmatically smiling figure holds a blue bird in her hand.
Another internationally famous early Kandinskiy painting, dating from 1899 is his 'Mountain Lake' in which a green hill descends to a lake lined with white-painted cottages. The lake reflects the buildings, the slopes and a corner of sky. A painterly sketch of 1901, 'Akhyrka, Autumn', has a similar sloping background. But this time there is a Palladian mansion at the crest with the water reflecting two water gates, but - more importantly - there is a wonderful collection of pure colors, partly foreground reeds and water plants. As one of his commentators has it, Kandinskiy "painted like a mature artist and at the same time an unskilled one". As he moved in a more and more abstract fashion, he was able to convey more feeling than was possible in a conventional scene. In his 'Boat Trip' of 1910, he gives us a hint of three boats rowing into perhaps a dark and violent sea and sky beyond a lighthouse. By this time Kandinskiy had almost entirely abandoned narrative representational forms, and had anyway moved abroad.
One of the manifestations of 'The World of Art' was a new preoccupation with folklore and myth. Aivazovskiy had, uncharacteristically, painted at least two such otherworldly pictures. One was 'Poseidon's Sea Journey' of 1894. The great god and his consort ride on a green-tinged wave in a chariot drawn by four horses. Enigmatically-shaped outriders blow horns in warning, putti fly overhead, and a dark multitude obscured by the great black cloud of the background follows behind. Another is his 1858 painting 'The Loss of the Lefort', in which a shadowy line of dead souls ascends from a sunken ship towards a Christ figure in the sky.
These subjects are from conventional mythology. The versatile Repin took the epic folk poem 'Sadko' as the text for his very popular 'Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom' of 1876. This is an entirely magical notion of living underwater. Here the protagonist finds himself in a mysterious, faintly menacing world of sea creatures and sunken barbaric architecture, populated by mer-people lit by an uncanny light and operating under laws unknown to the world above. The viewer can almost hear the silence, the slow swish of the princesses' skirts and the mermaids' tails as they pass not unaware of the protagonist watching his nemesis on a ledge above.
A more conventionally arranged painting by Ivan Kramskoy of 1871 is titled simply 'Mermaids'. Are these white-robed women by the banks of a lake member of some strange sisterhood, or are they in deed creatures of the Deep?
Fairy tales were part of the new experimental milieu of the early twentieth century, and the young Armenian painter Martiros Saryan produced a cycle of fabulous paintings called 'Fairy Tales and Dreams' for the "Blue Rose" exhibition in Moscow in 1907. Among them was a compelling gouache painting 'Lake of Fairies', in which two women bathe in a limpid pale blue pool with the hint of a large grotto farther back, below a hanging wood of predominantly blue forest; a goat in the foreground grazes behind a little grove of trees. The artist was actually more interested in the use of color: "Enamoured of the beauty of the East, I strove after a colorful expressive manner of painting," he explained prosaically.
Magic, myth, folklore and ancient history were all jumbled together in that new-century sensibility, even though the painting techniques are far apart from each other. Nicholas Roerich's paintings belong to the same period and come from the same basic thinking. His 'Guests from Overseas' of 1902 has an unwelcome Slavic longboat sailing up the River Dnepr, the first of a small fleet. Shields are slung over the bulwarks and pair of heavily armoured raiders views the nearby shore.
In a later painting, 'The Varangian Route', the raiders slip through the difficult sea under the watchful eye of a man hidden high on a crag. As in the remainder of Roerich's work of the time, the colors and forms of the ship and seas are stylised. The splendid sea of the 'Route' is a series of heavily laid-on pastel strokes; with concentric ripples less of an attempt at realism as a shorthand representation of deep waters. In the 'Guests' the caution of the leading boat is represented by a stylised bow wave, and the wobbly reflections of the boat and the sails of the following boat have been caught in the placid water.
Although painting in Russia and elsewhere abandoned realism, and as landscape painting became an amateur activity, depictions of water became problematic. Yet in the immensely stylised work of Ivan Bilibin of the inter-war years, water becomes part of the decorative pattern, as in his 'Falcon' of 1927 and 'Underwater Kingdom' of the same year. The former is a formal, decorative version of a standard bird's-eye view of a river delta. In the latter the sea is a zone inhabited by great crocodilian fish, its surface indicated by the vaguely Viking boat floating on a decorative frieze.
And in the totally different work of that old stager Alexander Alenandrovitch Deinecka, it seems that the sea remains a universal symbol. There in his 'Future Aviators' of 1938 sit three naked boys on a promenade, one pointing to a seaplane landing while other planes taxi out beyond the headland. Here is a new vision of Russia as master of the ocean skies as well as the seas, in which it is plain that these three have baptised themselves before taking on the new world beyond the seas.
Order the copy of any particular painting on this page accomplished by one of the professional Russian painters presented in our gallery.