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Painting for freedom: Miriam Watts reports on a breathtaking loan exhibition of works by the Russian Wanderers.

The Peredvizhniki: Pioneers of Russian Painting

29 September-22 January 2012

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Catalogue by David Jackson and Per Hedstrom (eds.)

ISBN 9789171008312 (hardback) SEK 489

(Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

The inhuman toil of barge-haulers, harnessed together on the banks of the Volga, unfolds in the opening work of this superb exhibition of nearly 100 first-class paintings at National-museum in Stockholm. Ilya Repin's celebrated painting of 1870-73 (Fig. 1) sets a daringly ambitious standard for a show that has already earned high acclaim--and deservedly so -from the Swedish press.

The artists of the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions, to which Repin belonged, were metaphorical barge-haulers themselves, straining for freedom of expression against the hegemony of Russia's Imperial Academy of Arts. Nicknamed the 'Peredvizhniki' (those who travel about), from 1870 they took their exhibitions to the provinces in a struggle for artistic freedom, seeking to engage new audiences and broaden their artistic impact, as well as reach potential buyers.

The works exhibited at National-museum were created chiefly between 1870 and 1910, and are on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, and the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Pulling away from what must have felt like a dead weight of restrictions of academic tradition, the Peredvizhniki expanded the boundaries of cultural acceptance. Under the autocracy of the Academy, their ideal of free choice inevitably associated them with a critical or dissident ethos, even transposing their artistic striving into a socialist radicalism. The ambitions and objectives, progressive yet founded in academic tradition, of this singular new direction in Russian art are at the crux of the exhibition.

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The three main, themed rooms are closely hung, offering an unbroken aesthetic and intense experience of the paintings to which the only objection could be that a few works relegated to the corners, such as Mikhail Nesterov's spiritually idealistic The Little Fox (1914), might have been presented to greater advantage had they been allowed more space. Small tableaux are ingeniously arranged in these rooms, giving extra dimension to central themes, issues and characters. Some are staged in a manner to convey a random assembly of documentary information pinned up on a rough wall--for example, the subtly underplayed Chekhov tableau, offering just one photo and a few lines of text in a shallow blue space, nestled within the large section devoted to landscape paintings. Others are presented very appealingly, like the portrait section's domestic, wallpapered niche concerning Tolstoy. Elsewhere, engendering a shift of rhythm from the three major rooms, a few smaller galleries present side themes, with a backdrop of music by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The perception of landscape as a traditional academic genre that rarely lent itself to socially engaged discussions was fundamentally revitalised by the Peredvizhniki, which approached the subject matter with characteristic freshness. Isaak Levitan, one of the genre's most prominent exponents, made convention and construction give way to an exceptional sensibility and lyricism exemplified in his tranquil Spring, Flood Water (1897). And whereas Levitan's spring landscape is all lightness and transparency, Ivan Shishkin's Winter (1890; Fig. 3) is of a beauty wherein detail adds to a sense of tactility and matter. Astoundingly modern in its hyperrealism and cropped motif, it is in essence an evocative, romantic visualisation of Russian nature, a fundamental symbol of the nation. Dark pine trees outlined and softened by the snow, a lone bird silhouetted against the sky, verticality of composition balanced by a diagonal opening up the middle ground Winter draws and holds the eye among some strong and highly diverse accompanying landscapes.

The Peredvizhnik ideal of artistic freedom also tied in with their keen interest in contemporary social phenomena, hence the consciously tendentious visual culture that developed within the group during the latter decades of Tsarist Russia. Vasily Perov positioned himself at the forefront of disseminating and tackling controversial themes--take, for example, his openly anti-clerical Easter Procession (1861; Fig. 2), in which the artist fuses a formal tradition of academic genre painting with an uncompromising and satirical exposure of ecclesiastic venality in rural Russia. Perov's explosive depiction of drunken priests emerging from a tavern meant that the painting was immediately removed from display; his fellow artists, by contrast, were more inclined to avoid censorship by imbuing potentially controversial motifs with a degree of ambiguity.

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Repin in particular excelled in circumventing censure; his Spurning Confession (1879-85), however, did not avoid censorship. The painting focuses on the assumption that the revolutionary is a mere tool of ideology, leading an isolated life on the periphery of society. It is an enigmatic work, open to interpretation despite its undercurrent of subversion, for the young man's tense pose and eyeing of the crucifix betray his realisation of the magnitude of the ultimate sacrifice he is making. Likewise, in Repin's celebrated They Did Not Expect Him (188488), the returned revolutionary seems resigned to forego the consolations of domestic life, and even life itself, for his cause, yet we also see that his sacrifice has affected his family profoundly. Both works are fine representatives of the Peredvizhniki's 'long haul' against moribund academic tradition and their successful desire to create a vivacious Russian school of art through freedom of choice and liberty of expression.

Miriam Watts holds a research post at the University of Leeds and coordinates research at the Center for Art Technological Studies end Conservation in Denmark.
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Title Annotation:The Peredvizhniki: Pioneers of Russian Painting
Author:Watts, Miriam
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Dec 1, 2011
Words:892
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