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A sense of place: Anthony Parton welcomes a valuable introduction to the often overlooked 19th-century landscapist, Isaak Levitan.

Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape

Averil King, with a foreword by David Jackson

Antique Collectors' Club, 35 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9781851496457


The parameters of 19th-century landscape painting are now clearly established in the Western European consciousness. They range from the chill and mysterious mists of Caspar David Friedrich to Constable's wistful scenes of pre-industrial England and the apocalyptic terrors of Turner and John Martin. We are used to the naturalism of Courbet, the transience of Corot and the vitality of Monet. Later we can point to the conceptualism of Cezanne, to Van Gogh's exuberant sun-bathed Midi landscapes and angst-ridden Wheatfield with Crows (1890), and to the mysterious qualities of a Paul Serusier cigar-box lid. But rarely has attention focused on one of the very greatest 19th-century landscape artists: Isaak Levitan (1860-1900), who almost single-handedly modernised Russian landscape painting and paved the way for artists such as Igor Grabar, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky.


Isaak Levitan was born to Jewish parents who lived in poverty in rural Lithuania. In the early 1870s his father moved the family to Moscow in search of more profitable work. Shortly afterwards the young Levitan gained a place at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. There he studied landscape painting under Alexei Savrasov (1830-97), who was the first to reject the traditional Italianate approach to landscape in favour of the unique qualities of the Russian countryside. Levitan inherited his teacher's mantle, and in the space of a mere 22 years, until his untimely death in 1900, he produced scores of paintings reflecting upon the poetic and emotional qualities of the Russian landscape. These works influenced a younger generation of Russian artists not only in terms of their understanding of their homeland but also in terms of their painterly practice, since Levitan's style, at least in later paintings such as Spring Flood (Sketch) (c. 1897), bordered on the abstract (Fig. 1).

Averil King's monograph is in fact in its third, revised edition, having been given new life and form by the Antique Collectors' Club. It is beautifully produced, fittingly in a landscape format, on high-quality paper and the superb images are as closely colour-matched to the original paintings as can be achieved.

The text is treated thematically in 19 short chapters, each of them quite dense and busy in terms of discussion, arranged in a loosely chronological structure. Rather than being overtly analytical or ideological, this book is very much an introduction to Levitan, to his work and to the world in which he worked. Each chapter sketches a relevant theme, such as his friendship with Chekhov, his association with the Munich Secession or his role within the Russian Peredvizhniki (Wanderers). The result is a well-balanced monograph that gives equal attention to all the periods of his life and genres of his practice, from landscape to portraiture and still life. Yet its success in capturing Levitan 'in a nutshell' is also its failing: those with an existing knowledge of modern Russian art and of Levitan may be left wishing for a deeper enquiry to have been made.



Nonetheless, the key theme, that of Levitan as Russia's first modern landscapist, the first to consistently explore not only the characteristics of the Russian landscape but also the emotions that the vast landscape triggered in him, comes across loud and clear. The author describes his mature works as 'mood paintings', and she is right: Levitan's paintings are moving in their sense of loneliness, stillness and, aside from the occasional church tolling its bells in the autumnal twilight, silence. It is these works, tinged with a gentle fin de siecle pessimism and nostalgia, for which Levitan became so well known. Particular places attracted Levitan for their associative potential: The Vladimirka Road (1892), representing the route taken by political prisoners, among them Dostoevsky, bound for Siberia; or Deep Waters (1892) in which a young pregnant girl was reputed to have drowned herself. His landscapes are also possessed of a deep spirituality which, unusually for a Jewish artist perhaps, takes as its focus the theme of Orthodoxy. The most famous example of this is Above Eternal Rest (1893-94; Fig. 3), in which Levitan employs landscape to evoke a sense of awe as we contemplate our own transient condition before a seemingly boundless, timeless world.

Levitan was a devotee of Schopenhauer, and his work clearly reflects the late 19th-century disposition towards Symbolism. However, he was too big an artistic personality to be bound by one narrow ideological approach. He also excelled at brightly coloured scenes full of positive energies such as The Great Road (Avenue of Birches) (1897; Fig. 2), a work whose Impressionist intimations are carefully qualified by the author: if the movement taught Levitan anything, she argues, it was to value the distinctive qualities of his native landscape. We also learn that Levitan never fell into a rut, repeatedly adopting novel approaches to subject matter and technique. He even made a distinctive contribution to the tradition of modern cityscape painting by representing Moscow illuminated by electric lighting at the time of the coronation of Nicholas II.

The main focus of King's book is, naturally, upon landscape, but space is also devoted to Levitan's work as a still-life artist and portraitist--there is a superb portrait of Sophia Kuvshinnikova that could easily be taken for a work by Paula Rego. What the book does is to reveal a skilled and diverse artist whose career was cut short by an untimely end, yet whose work forced a sea-change in both how Russians viewed their landscape and how Russian artists portrayed it. Throughout the text there is a real attempt to place Levitan in relation to the complex cultural and socio-political currents and debates of his day, and to assess his importance and significance overall.

The author frequently quotes important figures--Alexandre Benois, Mikhail Nesterov, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Polenov and Sergei Diaghilev among others--as well as from Levitan's own letters, but sources for these are rarely cited, an omission that readers from an academic background are likely to find problematic. Including plate numbers in the text to direct the reader to a specific image under discussion would also have been helpful. And while occasional spelling mistakes--for example, 'Filosov' for Filosofov--are inevitable, they should have been rectified in a book now in its third edition. Beyond this, however, Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape is a handsome publication that provides an excellent introduction not only to the status of Russian art during the late 19th century but also to one of its greatest practitioners. It should take its place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Russian art and culture.

Anthony Parton is a specialist in modern Russian ort, based at Durhom University.
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Title Annotation:Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape
Author:Parton, Anthony
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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