Letter to the Editor of 'St. Petersburg Gazette' (1873)
It seems that our entire public has been to the current exhibition at the Academy, which means that it was able to appreciate the quality of the excellent collection of artistic works that has now been dispatched to Vienna for the world fair. In fact, I doubt whether we have ever appeared in Europe with so numerous and important exemplars of Russian artistic activity. What is more, it is most likely that Western Europe will acknowledge our strength and our current, powerful stature in matters artistic with even greater sympathy than it did at last year's exhibition in London. But the Academy exhibition's term is drawing to a close, and our public is still unfamiliar with one new painting which has just been completed and transported from the artist's studio to the halls of the Academy, and which undoubtedly numbers amongst the best of what has been created by Russian art throughout its existence.
This is Mr. Repin's painting 'The Volga Barge-Haulers'. As long as two years ago or so this painting appeared for several days at an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, and it amazed all who saw it. But then it was still all but a sketch. Great transformations have taken place in it since then. Almost everything in it has now been redone, or altered, elevated and perfected, in such a way that the former piece is a mere child before what the picture has now become. In a short time the artist has matured and gained in strength, has discarded from his youthful imagination everything that was still unripe or weak, and has now appeared with a painting with which much that has been created until now in Russian art is in no condition to compare.
Mr. Repin is a realist as Gogol' is a realist, and he is as profoundly national as Gogol'. With a daring that is unprecedented amongst us he has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged headfirst into the very heart of the people's life, the people's interests, and the people's oppressive reality.
Merely glance at Mr. Repin's 'Barge-Haulers', and you will immediately be obliged to admit that no one in Russia has ever dared to take on such a subject, that you have never before seen such a profoundly staggering picture of Russian life, although this subject and this task have stood for so long before us and our artists. But is this not the most essential characteristic of a powerful talent: the ability to perceive, and to instil in his work, that which is true and simple, and which hundreds and thousands of people pass by without remark?
In Mr. Repin's painting there lies the Volga, endlessly spreading out before us as if swooning and falling asleep beneath the scorching July sun. Somewhere in the distance we glimpse a smoky steamship, closer to, the quietly swelling sail of a humble little vessel gives off a golden hue, while in the foreground, a gang of barge haulers tread heavily along the sandbanks, leaving imprints of their bast shoes in the damp sand. Harnessed in their straps, and hauling on tow ropes, these eleven men march in step, a living
haulage machine, bending their bodies forward and swaying in time inside their yoke. What a docile herd this is, what humble, unconscious strength, and, at the same time, what poverty, what destitution. There is not a single whole shirt on these shoulders which have been burnt by the sun, not a single intact hat or cap: everywhere there are holes and tatters; they are all in rags, with cloth foot bindings.
Mr. Repin did not paint his picture in order to stir citizens to pity and wring sighs from them: rather, the types and characters he saw astonished him, he felt keenly the necessity of depicting Russia's remote, unknown life, and he created in his painting such a scene, the equal of which is surely to be found only in Gogol''s most profound pieces.
The most varied types have come together in this gang of barge haulers. The most quintessential, fundamental ones step forward at the front, like a pair of powerful buffalo. With their dishevelled heads, their chests bronzed by the sun, and their veiny hands hanging down, motionless, these are a sort of somnolent Hercules. What a look there is in their indomitable eyes, what flared nostrils there are, what cast-iron muscles! Immediately behind then, pulling on his strap and bending low to the ground, there is another, third epic hero [bogatyr'], also in rags and with his hair fastened back with a cloth: this man, it seems, has been everywhere, trying his luck and experiencing life in all corners of the earth, and now himself has begun to look like an Indian or Ethiopian of sorts. Immediately behind their backs, dissembling a little and contriving to carry less, is a soldier, most likely retired, tall, wiry, and puffing on a shortish pipe. Behind him is a wizened old man who is completely yellow like wax; he is terribly ill and exhausted, and it seems that he has few days left to live. He has turned his wretched head to one side, and with his sleeve is wiping the sweat of weakness and inescapable torment from his brow.
The second half of the procession comprises: a strong, cheerful, stockily-built old man who has leant his shoulder against his neighbour, and, lowering his head, hastens to fill his pipe from his coloured tobacco pouch as he walks; behind him is a retired, red-haired soldier, the only man in the whole company who possesses boots and broadcloth trousers, which he has stuffed inside his boots, and on his shoulders there is a waistcoat with a single brass button swinging from it and shining in the sun. He bustles about his work, moving his feet briskly; further on, there is someone like a wandering Greek, with features still half from antiquity: he feels ill here, and is not used to it, and he raises his ancient profile, still marvellous despite the extreme prodigality of his life, and gazes about him with his wide, beautiful eyes. The last man paces quietly, swaying from side to side like a pendulum, perhaps half dozing, his head fallen completely to his chest: he is a poor peasant, the last one, set apart from everyone.
And this entire company is silent: it carries out its oxen's work in deep silence. Only the boy makes a noise, the boy who is boiling with
fervour, with his long, blonde, dishevelled hair, barefoot, and who is the centre of both the procession and the painting and the work as a whole. His vivid, pink shirt draws the eye of the viewer to the very centre of the painting before anything else, while his quick, angry glance, his wilful, reproachful frame which seemingly rails at everyone, his strong, youthful arms as they shift the strap which causes calluses on his shoulders - all this is the protest and opposition of powerful youth to the unresponsive submissiveness of the mature Herculean wild-men who pace forth around and behind him, broken down by habit and time.
This procession along the incandescent sand, under the parching sun, these bast-shoes slapping through puddles, these eyes, these expressions of stupefaction and of an utterly brutal life, these glittering colours of nature and the grey tones of their cheerless coarse cloth and lack-lustre eyes - all this combined makes a scene which none amongst us has ever created before.
In the plan and expression of his painting Mr. Repin is an important, powerful artist and thinker, but as well as this he also wields the tools of his art with such strength, beauty and perfection as does scarcely any other Russian artist. Every detail of his painting is planned and executed in such a way as to inspire lengthy study and deep emotion in anyone who is capable of understanding true art, while his palette is as refined, astonishing and strong as that of only one or two of the entire breed of our, generally speaking, so colourless painters. For this reason it is impossible not to foresee the richest of artistic futures for this young artist.
Barge Haulers on the Volga