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Russia's soul in paint: Averil King welcomes a well-illustrated account of Ilya Repin's powerful, virtuoso art.

The Russian Vision: The Art of Ilya Repin David Jackson BAI, 40 [pounds sterling] ISBN 9085860016

For the dustjacket of this book the publishers have chosen a portrait of Lidiya Kuznetsova in flamboyant black and yellow fancy dress, with a raven perched on her hand. It is eye-catching but hardly typical of Ilya Repin's work, for few artists of his stature, with the exception perhaps of Goya, have been as socially committed. This study, the fruit of much scholarship, well produced, generously illustrated and above all readable, should mean that at last he will be better known outside Russia.

Repin (1844-1930) was the son of a soldier based in the military settlement of Chuguev in the Ukraine. His childhood in this remote area made him well aware of the harsh realities of rural life. Showing early talent, he arrived in St Petersburg to study at the Imperial Academy in 1863, at a time when its pronounced conservatism was breeding revolt among its students. A journey along the Volga, where he noted both the dachas of the well-to-do and the hardship of those who worked the river banks, was to inspire his masterpiece, Barge-haulers on the Volga, completed in 1873. The outcome of many preparatory studies of the haulers, some of whom the young artist came to know in person, Repin's dramatic portrayal of the worn, dogged and filthy men dragging a ship upriver, described in an almost Venetian light, provoked a storm of comment when first exhibited. Importantly, it won him the approval of the eminent critic Vladimir Stasov; from then on, the appearance of his major pictures always occasioned great interest.

Repin spent the following three years in Europe, mainly in Paris. Although he admired not only the classical masters but also Manet and the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny y Carbo, his correspondence refers only occasionally to 'the impressionalists'. His technique would not be substantially influenced by new trends in French painting.

Returning home in 1876, Repin found immediate inspiration in the Russian countryside. Among his next paintings was The Archdeacon, a scathing portrayal of a local cleric whom he considered to be 'devoid of one iota of spirituality' and depicted as a gross and hirsute figure. A few years later Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk again served to embody Repin's feelings of cynicism about the church, his contempt for weak and corrupt officialdom, his anguish at the merchants' despoliation of local woodlands, and his sympathy for the peasantry. Across the magnificent, frieze-like composition trudge a large group of reverential peasants, a vainglorious priest and local dignitaries, the pompous wife of the local landowner bearing an icon, and, keeping the populace in order, the mounted, whip-brandishing members of a Cossack squadron. It is a hot, dusty day, the hills behind empty except for the stumps of felled trees.

Russia had become increasingly politicised, as selfless young activists, or Populists, sought to combat the iniquities prevailing in the wake of serfdom (formally abolished in 1861) by taking education to the people, and opposition to the regime of a distant and autocratic tsardom swelled. Following the assassination of Aleksandr II in 1881, revolutionary machinations continued. Unable to remain unmoved, Repin painted a series of works reflecting the tragic circumstances. The affecting Revolutionary Woman Awaiting Execution shows a young woman sitting mournfully in a cell lit by a single candle; the subject of The Arrest of a Propagandist is a young man in the grasp of a police officer and a burly peasant who has perhaps colluded in his arrest.

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Repin worked on the Arrest over a period of some years, modifying the composition several times. The book's inclusion of preliminary sketches, usually in pencil, helps to reveal his thought processes. The Drunken Father is a particularly shocking image, showing a brutal, club-wielding figure swaying at the door of his hut before his cowering wife and children. There are also finely executed studies in charcoal and chalk and many interesting photographs of the artist at different stages of his life.

An outstanding portraitist, Repin was commissioned by the merchant collector Pavel Tretyakov to commemorate the country's pre-eminent cultural figures. His legacy includes memorable portrayals of Turgenev, Tolstoy--whom he painted several times--Stasov, Pisemsky and numerous other writers, musicians and men of medicine and science. The portrait of the artist's friend Musorgsky, painted in the Nikolaevsky Military Hospital just before the composer died, is perhaps his best known; his likeness of the wealthy timber merchant Mitrofan Belyaev, who used his fortune to promote Russian music, one of the most perceptive. Sadly, plans for a portrait of Chekhov, who was uncharacteristically enthusiastic at the prospect, did not materialise.

Unmistakably and quintessentially Russian in spirit, Repin developed a masterful technique that incorporated an appreciation of both Rembrandt and Velazquez. In a text enlivened by quotations from Repin's contemporaries, Jackson describes how both aesthetic considerations and psychological insight enrich his oeuvre. His prowess as he painted Countess Natalya Golovina, swathed in pink satin, caused one of his students to comment as she watched him: 'the brush obeys him magically ... it performs all he wishes'.

From around 1900 Repin's paintings lost their dynamism and in 1907 he moved to Finland. Lionised in his homeland for his profound contribution to Russian art, he spoke of himself as 'a man of the sixties', an artist more concerned to portray the human condition and reveal beauty than to become too deeply involved in political events.

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A revised edition of Averil King's book on Isaak Levitan was published last year.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:King, Averil
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:923
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