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The wanderers' return.

The work of 19th-century Russian artists is little known outside that country. The so-called Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, deserve to be more widely appreciated for the break they made with the academic tradition and the new attitudes and vistas they brought to Russian painting

The UK-Russia Year of Culture is speeding by, with the exhibition focus in this country very much on Russian art of the 20th century a major Malevich retrospective opens at Tate Modern this month (16 July-26 October), while a show at St Petersburg Gallery in London explores Russian avant-garde art from 1910-32 (until 20 September). Given this context, it is easy to remain unaware of the art that preceded these movements, out of which, and in reaction against which they developed. Since there are few examples of 19th-century Russian paintings to be seen outside the country, woefully few art lovers in Western Europe or America have even heard of the Russian breakaway group, the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers, or Itinerants), who rebelled against the repressive regime at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg at almost exactly the same time as the Impressionists began their journey away from academic art in France. (1)

In Paris in 1863, the work of more progressive French artists, including Courbet, Manet, Cezanne and Pissarro was rejected by the Salon. Although Emperor Napoleon III allowed them to exhibit in a separate part of the Palais de l'Industrie, an event which became known as the Salon des Refuses, this treatment of younger artists would be a determining factor when Monet and his followers came to experiment with radically different subject matter and new painterly techniques just a few years later.

In the very same year, a group of Russian art students attempted to break with the lack of artistic freedom allowed them both during and after their studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts. Founded in 1757 under Empress Elizabeth, in the mid 19th century the Academy remained under the autocratic control of the ruling family, subject to the whims of Tsar Alexander II himself, who took pains to ensure that only instruction in an unremittingly classical tradition was available. Subject to police surveillance even during their studies, many students were from a serf background and only by successfully completing their long course of study (around 13 years) could they hope to join the lower ranks of Russian society. (2) In striking out on their own, the move the small group of students took in 1863 was indeed a brave one. In particular, their protest was aimed at the overly traditional, historical themes laid down as obligatory subjects for the annual Gold Medal competition --that year it was The Feast of the Gods in Valhalla.

Hoping to be able to sell their work, they set up an artel (craft cooperative), but it was poorly administered and proved unsuccessful. In 1870 the better-organised Society of Travelling Art Exhibits was established. With a sound administrative base and members from Moscow as well as St Petersburg, from 1871 the members of this society-who, because their work travelled outside these locations, became known as the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers)--began exhibiting their work in a number of Russian cities. Ostensibly to make the provinces aware of recent trends in art, they also aimed to establish new markets for their paintings.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), the finest and most celebrated Peredvizhnik, agreed to exhibit with the group from 1874, joining them in 1878. Awarded the Academy's coveted Gold Medal three-year stipend for foreign travel, in May 1873 Repin set off for Western Europe. After visiting Venice, he settled in Paris, but was nonetheless subject to a certain amount of scrutiny from both Petr Iseev, conference secretary of the Academy, and the influential Russian literary critic Vladimir Stasov. Repin found the Louvre, with its over-varnished and poorly displayed pictures, rather gloomy. He was neither acquainted with artists such as Monet nor seemingly aware of the birth pangs of Impressionism; instead he admired artists such as Mariano Fortuny and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Yet something of the spirit of modern French art seems to have impinged on his consciousness, and Stasov, always an ebullient advocate of an art that was distinctly Russian, became alarmed at the possibility of such influences.

Repin's A Parisian Cafe (1875) was clearly looking to contemporary Parisian subjects--younger French artists were beginning to paint a variety of city scenes--even if its sombre coloration and tight paintwork belied any real capitulation to impressionistic tendencies. By way of contrast, his Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom was a subject from Russian folklore commissioned by Iseev, possibly to keep the young artist on the straight and narrow, and was painted in 1876, not long before the artist left Paris (Fig. 2). This extraordinary work, an underwater scene in which the characters are lit by a beam of sunlight, shows the young Sadko choosing a bride from a parade of beautiful young maidens of different nationalities. Air bubbles glint as they rise to the surface, umbrella-shaped jelly-fish lurk in the shadows and silver-bellied fish swim around them. Repin sidestepped his critics by having Sadko evidently prefer the homely young Russian girl standing behind the maidenly parade than her more glamorous rivals.

Back in Russia, Repin would prove one of the most daring of the Wanderers, portraying realist subjects drawn from Russian rural life that would bring him close to condemnation by the authorities. Although serfdom had been officially abolished in 1861, its effects would linger for decades. Under this ancient system serfs, who made up most of the rural population, were tied to their owners like chattels, working their land, paying them dues, living in poor houses and subject to harsh punishment for disobedience. While in their stories Chekhov and Gorky were unafraid to depict the dire poverty, drunkenness and cruelty that were rife in rural areas, some artists, wary of appearing too critical of the plight of common people, settled for sunnier portrayals. In general, however, the revolutionary nature of the Wanderers' compositions lay not in their experiments with new ways of painting, but in their determination to reflect the social and political ills of the time.

Nikolai Yaroshenko's Stoker (1878) for instance, portrays the common working man as a Herculean but tragic figure; Vasily Maximov's The Sick Husband (1881; Fig. 4) is set in a comparatively well-furnished izba, or log-house, but its subject is a wife praying sorrowfully at the bedside of her sick husband. Whereas countless izbas were meagre affairs, this home is clean and tidy, with several icons, rather than a single one or none at all, ranged on the shelf above the bed. Nonetheless, the family's existence will be desperate indeed if the main worker dies. In Nikolai Kuznetsov's Inspecting his Estates (1879), the landowner is seen brandishing a whip at one of the serfs working for him, and his dog lunges menacingly at the peasant's bitch, who rolls on the ground in abject terror. Grigori Miasoyedov's The Zemstvo Dines (1872; Figs. 1 & 3) reveals the true nature of local government following emancipation, as the lesser members of the zemstvo (local council) sit on the ground eating their bread and onions, while waiters and a table set with silverware are visible in the wealthier members' dining room behind.

Throughout the 1870s the political climate in Russia tended increasingly towards revolution, led by young intellectuals rather than the peasantry themselves. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 brought widespread judicial reprisals and further political repression. Several works by Repin, including Arrest of a Propagandist (1880-92) and Secret Meeting (1883), documented such events. The subject of one of his most telling images, Spurning Confession, on which he began work in 1879, is the visit of a priest to a condemned revolutionary (Fig. 5). Holding out a cross, the priest offers to hear confession from the young man before his execution, but the revolutionary stares at him steadfastly, refusing to admit to any wrongdoing.

Largely thanks to the support of the wealthy Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov (1832-98), the output of the Peredvizhniki was also characterised by many fine portraits. The modest and discerning Tretyakov was an invaluable patron, buying many of their works, and from the late 1860s he began his decades-long project of creating a gallery of portraits of famous Russians. Among these, as the collection grew, were literary figures, composers, musicians and professional men, as well as refined and elegant likenesses of several women. It remains unprecedented, and unparalleled in any other country (it was only in 1969, for instance, that London's National Portrait Gallery initiated its policy of acquiring portraits of living personalities). (3)

Initially Tretyakov's preferred portraitist was Ivan Kramskoi (1837-87), while a decade or so later Repin assumed the mantle of portrait painter par excellence. The subjects commemorated by Kramskoi, a founder member of the Wanderers, included not only members of his family and several fellow artists, including Ivan Shishkin (famous for his depictions of Russia's forests), but members of the lower classes whom he knew personally. His sympathetic likenesses of Mina Moiseyev, including the study Mina Moiseyev (1882) and the finished oil Peasant holding a Bridle (Mina Moiseyev) (1883), presented the bearded peasant as a shrewd and capable figure.

The vast expanse of the Russian land, previously considered unprepossessing in the extreme, especially when compared with Europe, became, as the 19th century wore on, the subject of wonderfully varied landscape paintings. It was initially the country's writers, including Pushkin, Gogol and Turgenev, who sensed the unique appeal of her mighty rivers; her steppelands, with their tall grasses and countless wild flowers; and her dark forests with their stands of pine. Foremost among landscape painters was Isaak Levitan (1860-1900), who joined the Wanderers in 1891, known for his lyrical representations of the Russian spring, his magnificent views of the Volga, his tranquil renderings of lakes and rivers, and scenes showing small settlements, where man has imprinted himself on the land. In 1890 Levitan travelled in Europe, and on his return to Russia he embarked on a series of compositions that added a new dimension to depictions of rural Russia. His Evening Bells (1892) shows a group of religious buildings, the sound of whose bells would often ring out across the countryside, reflected in a wide river; his Vladimirka Road (1892) portrayed the infamous road trodden by generations of prisoners on their way to Siberia; in his Above Eternal Rest (1893-94), immense storm clouds hang above a diminutive church standing precariously on a small spit of land, surrounded by the swirling waters of a mighty river in spate.

Like the output of most Victorian artists in Britain, the majority of the Wanderers did not display an innovatory technique, but Levitan, who had been exposed to the work of artists in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, employed increasingly sophisticated brushwork, for instance in his Early Spring (1898), which has a succinct pictorial language. With his careful choice of motif and ability to create an atmospheric verisimilitude, his views of the Russian countryside at twilight are especially affecting, his Twilight. Haystacks (1899; Fig. 6), for instance, comparing favourably with Monet's series of haystack paintings. Here Levitan's small haystacks are seen in a hazy lilac-blue light.

Other Peredvizhniki, including Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841-1910) and Apollinari Vasnetsov (1856-1933), also painted accomplished landscapes. Kuindzhi produced a number of memorable views of both the southern steppelands and the northern reaches. In The River Dnieper in the Morning (1881), the wide, winding river is seen far below its banks, which are strewn with wild flowers; while one of his most charismatic works, Landscape. In the Steppe (1890), is made up simply of two horizontal bands of colour, a misty green below to indicate the grassland, and above, a light blue for the sky. In Vasnetsov's magnificent, yet conventionally represented The Russian North (1898-89), a wide river is overhung by tall conifers; his later Village in the Ural Mountains (1907) cleverly evokes this area of Russia with its wooden churches and fir trees, but is painted in a very different idiom, with bold, emphatic brushwork.

Together with Vasnetsov, who lived until 1933, other slightly younger Russians, some of whom travelled in Europe, or aligned themselves with Diaghilev's enthusiasm for western art, began to move away from the solidly traditional technique of the first Wanderers. Instead, a new and different approach, and a concern for decorative possibilities, began to be evident in their output. In his veritable tour de force, Laundresses (c. 1898; Fig. 7), Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930) uses scintillating greys and silvers to depict the drudgery of women working in a shadowy room, lit only by a small window. And evident in Valentin Serov's (1864-1911) 1903 portrait of Prince Yusupov, who would soon be implicit in the murder of Rasputin, is a rough, circumspect handling of paint, with almost Cezannesque brushstrokes in the young man's dark jacket.

Averil King is the author of Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape (2011).

(1) The biannual Russian sales in London at Bonhams, Christie's, MacDougall's and Sotheby's do provide an opportunity to see 19th-century Russian works in London.

(2) Since 1722 a so-called Table of Ranks had existed within Russian society. When an artist graduated he was entitled to join the 14th (and lowest) rank within this system.

(3) In 1892 Tretyakov donated his collection to the city of Moscow, where it is now housed in the State Tretyakov Gallery.
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Author:King, Averil
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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