Proud Foreign Eyes

These poor villages, this sorry nature!
Long suffering is native to you,
Land of our Russian people!
These proud foreign eyes
Cannot comprehend - would not even notice! -
The light that shines through
Your humble nakedness.
Burdened by his cross,
Throughout your length and breadth,
In the rags of a slave, the Heavenly King
Has walked, blessing you, my native land!
Fedor Tiutchev, 1859

London's National Gallery exhibition of Russian landscape painting is a rare chance for proud foreign eyes to view these masterpieces outside Russia. It is an exhibition worth seeing, dozens of paintings by artists such as Shishkin, Nesterov, Polenov, Kuindzhi, Levitan, Sarasov, Klodt, Vasilev, Venestsianov and Soroka. Most of which I've never heard of, so I was really glad to see these for the first time and have my eyes open. So I could see if the light shines through. It does.

Some of these artists could justify an exhibition on their own account. Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (И. И. Шишкин 1832 - 1898, click here for more imformation) in particular with his massive canvasses of forests. Shiskin was part of a group of painters called the Wanderers who were sponsored by the gentle and modest P. M. Tretyakov as Camilla Gray describes him (Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863 √ 1922 (1962)). The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow still bears his name and is the heart of this exhibition In the midst of the 19th century, writers, artists and thinkers of all sorts tried to understand the meaning of modern Russia; one way was to look at its landscape with new eyes. Christopher Ely propounded this view at a lecture at Sainsbury Wing, at the National Gallery (Christopher Ely, This Meagre Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (2002)). He sees a fascination with mud and the consciously unbeautiful.

This exhibition marks a transition in Russian painting towards realism and focus on Russia's nature less bound to the Tsar's court, the state and European painting towards Russian themes, nature and private sponsorship. Shishkin's Mast Pine Forest (Корабельная Роща, 1898) is painted on a large canvas, even though it is massive, the tall straight trees (grown for ship building hence the name) tower beyond the canvas. It makes you feel you could climb into the forest and be lost forever.

In contrast, his much earlier painting Rye (Рожь, 1878) creates a great horizontal opening filled with golden rye, the clouds bellow above the isolated trees that look like lost and adrift in the vast Russian landscape. You can see the swallow sweep low across the windblown footpath. Attention to foreground detail and a towering sky makes the view and painter humble before the enormity of nature. These two contrasting paintings are linked in another way by showing the human imprint on the vastness of the Russian landscape.

The Vladimir Road (Владимирка, 1892) by Isaak Illich Levitan (И.И. Левитан, 1860 - 1900, click here for more information) is another empty landscape and muddy road on the way to Siberia. His attention to detail of the foreground and the viewpoint is low and the sky towering. There is gloom and despondency in that mud. That sky is oppressive as if it would press the hapless traveller into this famous Russian mud. This painting was inspired by history and fictional tales of the road and difficult journeys.

The year before, Shishkin painted In the Wild North (На Севере Диком, 1891). This was inspired by a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, and the frozen and isolated tree high on an ice capped cliff is a splendid study in loneliness and remoteness, a living tree turned into a sculptor form, brittle and magnificent. It is frozen in time and space.

Levitan's Evening on Ploughed Field (Вечер На Пашне, 1883) seems humorous and tragic, an elderly man and horse struggle to plough the field, the tiny figure is close to collapse against the steeply sloping field. The man is working into the night and alone. The desperate struggle for survival goes on. The themes that join these paintings deserve detailed examination and can be linked to the late 19th century search for a Russian national identity.

The showman and the magician of the exhibition is Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (А.И. Куинджи 1842 - 1910, click here for more information). His works include the idyllic Birch Grove (Березовая Роща, 1879) where the trees glow like some fairy tale, to the nocturnal drama of Moonlit Night on the Dnieper (Лунная Ночь На Днепре, 1880) to the subtle abstraction of both Landscape (Пейзаж, 1890) and Noon, Herd in the Steppe (Полдень. Стадо В Степи, 1890 - 1895).

These works stand out from the other artists in the show. He draws you in by his use of light. Its sheer concentrated energy attracts the eye; whilst his ghostly images make you peer. His works seem full of trickery and can seem ultimately superficial. Of course, all art is artifice, Kuindzhi is a supreme virtuoso. His works elicit an immediate response and linger on the mind but not necessarily on the soul.

This brief survey of late nineteenth century Russian landscape painting has been superficial and cursory. Shishkin, Levitan, and Kuindzhi do sound out from the crowd. The other artists in the show are more notable for individual works than for the totality of their work on display. I will give you my thoughts on these in my next article.

Useful links - the National Art Gallery, London - the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


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Copyright ╘ 2004 by Melvyn Dresner
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