DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       June 2004  

 

Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy

National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
London SW1

June 23 to September 12, 2004

By AVERIL KING

Isaak Ilich Levitan The Vladimirka Road 1892
oil on canvas, 31 x 48 inches
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Historically, landscape painters had their work cut out to find acceptable subjects in the Russian countryside. Since the time of Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 until 1725, aristocratic Russians had praised the scenic attractions of Italy and France, while decrying their own monotonous terrain. Much of Russia, after all, comprised vast, unvaried forests and featureless steppeland, while her villages were meagre and unkempt.

This magnificent exhibition, which originated at the Groninger Museum at Groningen, Netherlands, illustrates how successful and accomplished such landscape artists became. This survey, which is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, brings to the west for the first time some 70 paintings from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; the Russian Museum, St Petersburg; and several provincial museums.

Early nineteenth-century Russian artists complied with the European fashion for Italianate views, subject to a clear, southern light, and far away, both physically and ideologically, from the steppes of the Motherland. The first to instil a uniquely Russian character into his work, and to portray rural workers with dignity, was Alexei Venetsianov (1780-1847). Without significant formal training, Venetsianov made only steady progress at his trade in St Petersburg, but when in 1815 he purchased a small estate in the Tver province and looked for new subjects to paint in those rural surroundings, his endeavours were transformed. Choosing as his subject the serfs who worked his land, he also taught them to paint. Two works by Venetsianov are exhibited: "Harvesting in summer," (1820) and "Sleeping shepherd boy," (c1825) and in both these, but especially in the former, where women are gathering corn and one has stopped work to suckle her baby, the figures are portrayed with a near-classical grace. Perhaps taking his cue from the earlier master, Mikhail Klodt (1832-1902) also portrayed rural workers in semi-idyllic vein, "In the Field," (1872) showing peasant women ploughing with horses beneath a benevolent sky.

The Russian land itself was first ennobled by the short-lived but greatly talented Fedor Vasiliev (1850-73). Following his own penchant for flat, wide expanses and large skies, Vasiliev was able to instil a sense of magnificence into his work by a cleverly orchestrated use of colour and by painting the land at moments of change in nature. Thus in "The Thaw," (1871) a small and unprepossessing village is shown emerging from winter, its shabby houses and the snowy ground lit by sunshine, while in "Morning," (1872/3), desolate marshland is rendered attractive by the early morning light and birds wheeling overhead.

The passionate interest of Ivan Shishkin (1832-98) lay in commemorating Russia's extensive fields and the monumental pine, spruce and larch trees that inhabited her huge forests. At a time when many landowners, struck for cash, were felling their estates' woodland to sell the timber, Shishkin worked to record these splendid arboricultural specimens. The exhibition includes several of his meticulously rendered forest interiors including "Forest reserve. Pine Grove," (1881) and the magnificent "Mast-tree Grove," (1898).

Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi Evening in the Ukraine 1878
oil on canvas, 31-1/2 x 63-1/2 inches
State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

The Ukrainian Arkhip Kuindzhi (1842-1910) made his landscapes immediately noticeable through skilful use of lighting and extreme economy of composition. In his beautiful and evocative "Evening in the Ukraine," (1878), the last pink-gold rays of the sun slant across a hillside dotted with oak trees and small white houses; in "Birch Grove," (1879), harsh sunlight illuminates the white trunks of a group of silver birches.

With the landscapes of Alexei Savrasov (1830-97), who taught at the Moscow School of Painting, a new note of lyricism was introduced. Savrasov's "The Rooks have Returned," originally painted in 1871 although a later version is
exhibited here, became instantly famous. It shows the moment when the rooks, harbingers of spring in Russia, arrive and settle on a group of trees outside a remote Siberian village and its church.

Perhaps the greatest and the most innovative nineteenth-century Russian landscapist was Isaak Levitan, born in a poor Jewish community in Lithuania in 1860. Levitan's early work showed the influence of both Savrasov and Polenov, but between 1887 and 1890 he spent several summers painting in the region of the middle Volga where, inspired by the magnificence of the great river, he produced a series of "mood landscapes" which in effect made his name. We are able to see two of these, the sombre "Evening on the Volga," (1888) and "After the Rain: Plios Village," (1889), and also several of Levitan's evocative later works, painted after his journeys to Europe, including his depiction of the notorious "Vladimirka Road," (1892), the dismal route trodden by innumerable prisoners on their way to exile, the lyrical "Spring Flood," (1897), where birch tree trunks arch above shining floodwater, and a preparatory version of his last great celebration of rural Russia, "Lake Rus," (1899-1900).

A European influence is discernible, too, in the work of Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1944). In his "St Sergius of Radonezh," (1899) and "Dual Harmony," (1905) there are statuesque figures reminiscent of those in the work of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes, whose output was much admired in Russia at this time.

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