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Landscape in the age of Tolstoy: later this month, an exhibition of nineteenth-century Russian landscape painting opens at the National Gallery, London, after being seen in Groningen.

For the first time in almost thirty years Russian art will be shown in Eng and, when, on 23 June, the National Gallery in London unveils an exhibition of masterpieces of nineteenth century Russian landscape painting. It has been organised in collaboration with the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands, where the exhibition was first seen. Paintings from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian State Museum in St Petersburg join works from the art museums in Kiev and Nizhni Novgorod. At the opening in Groningen, ex-president Mikhail Gorbachev praised the exhibition's initiative and pleaded for more cultural exchanges between 'east and west'.

In the postmodern building of the Groninger Museum, the exhibition began in an oval room, its red walls complementing six monumental green forest views by Ivan Shiskin. Here, and in the six following colourful rooms, the paintings were strikingly well displayed. Shiskin, nicknamed the 'knight of the forest', used his amazing skills and patience to depict Russia's many birch forests, meadows and lakes. He went out daily to the countryside, planted his easel on the spot, and started to work in an almost photographically realistic way.

In the exhibition catalogue Henk van Os describes how the young Shiskin travelled throughout Europe on a bursary, visiting Dusseldorf, then an outstanding centre for landscape painters. However, he was homesick and dreamt about Russia: 'Even in my sleep I see the endless vastness of the Russian soil, the golden rye, the rivers and the forests, and the immeasurable Russian horizons.' Returning home, he became one of the founders of the first group of independent artists in Russia, named the Peredvizhniki (Itinerants) in 1870. They broke with the 'foreign' neo-classical tradition taught at the Royal Academy of the Arts in St Petersburg, and focused on Russian themes instead. They painted portraits of Russians, domestic landscapes, genre pieces, religious and historical scenes and organised their own travelling exhibitions.

Their precursors--Alexander Venetsianov, the Italianisers of the early nineteenth century and the realists of the 1860s- are represented in the exhibition as well. As David Jackson says in his overview of Russia's landscape art in the beautifully designed catalogue, the paintings of Italian scenes by Mikhail Lebedev and Silvestr Shchredin make the search of the Peredvizhniki for a national style understandable, in many European countries there was a similar rejection of neoclassicism and a search for a national identity.

At first, art critics and writers such as Vsevelod Garshin and Anton Chekhov could not appreciate the popularity of landscapes among the Peredvizhniki. They criticised the artists' lack of involvement in society, and claimed that landscape could only be used as a background, not as an independent subject, as the Peredvizhniki had started to do. Fedor Vasilev rejected the sociopolitical engagement dictated by writers, and painted a whole series of so-called 'atmospheric' landscapes. In The thaw (1871) he depicted two little figures in an overwhelming natural April scene, consisting of a dark clouded sky and a snowy landscape. A father is listening to his little daughter's enthusiastic request to look at the returning rooks. The birds are a happy foreboding of spring, just as in Savrasov's famous work The rooks have returned, painted in the same year. The sun is conquering the winter and lends a magical enchantment to the snow.

Isaac Levitan, an itinerant of a younger generation, was also a dedicated landscape painter. He was not an 'accountant of leaves', as Shiskin was called, but a 'poet-philosopher of nature', who aimed 'to feel and understand nature "from within" [and] to communicate with nature.' Chekhov came to value highly Levitan's bare and vast landscapes, mentioning them in several of his stories, as Sjen Scheijen notes in the catalogue. He even went on a sort of pilgrimage to the village of Plios, where Levitan painted his masterpiece Above, eternal peace (1894) and After the rain (1889). 'Indeed, what a harmony', Chekov writes; having visited the Paris Salon in 1891, he admits: "I must say that I take the Russian painters more seriously than the French. In comparison with the landscape painters I saw here, Levitan is a king'.

Levitan's fellow student Mikhail Nesterov forms the exhibition's epilogue. In his memoirs he writes that both Levitan and he were 'lyricists', and were similar to a new group of artists, the Miriskusniki. However, since these artists were based in St Petersburg, Nesterov explains that this group was somewhat foreign to him, a Muscovite by upbringing: 'Perhaps, unconsciously, I still bore within me the particular aims of religious aspirations which, it seemed to me, were so alien to the Petersburgians.' The art historian Kira Dolinina therefore calls Nesterov 'tile most outspoken representative of a national branch of Christian symbolism'. He indeed painted Russia's famous saint Sergius of Radonezh several times, both as the young Varfolomeus and as a saint standing in a Russian landscape setting. As an inseparable duo, the Russian countryside and the orthodox saint seem to symbolise the ideal of 'Holy Russia'.

The exhibition 'Russian landscape in the age of Tolstoy' will be at the National Gallery, London, 23 June-12 September 2004. The catalogue is published by the Groningen Museum and the National Gallery, 2003, ISBN 90 76704 49 X, 25 [pounds sterling] (cloth)

Inge Wierda is a Dutch art historian who has specialised in Russian art.
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Title Annotation:Exhibitions
Author:Wierda, Inge
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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