The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

I know virtually nothing about Russian art – well, I know a bit more now. We had amazingly informative guides in Russia, who seem to be as knowledgeable about art criticism and history as they are about restaurants, palaces and everything else. The Old Tretyakov gallery gives a taste of Russian art up to the nineteenth century, and there’s too much there for me to do more that give a synopsis. This is a very shortened version of my notes!
The first painting I saw was a portrait of Pushkin by Orev Kiprensky, which immediately reminded me of Byron (the hair and swathed tartan) – it turns out that indeed this was Pushkin’s homage to Byron and Burns, who were his heroes (Byron I can understand; not so sure about Burns). I must explore the Pushkin-Byron connection – Onegin and Don Juan, anyone? In fact this is the only portrait for which Pushkin ever sat; other images were taken from memory or other pictures. Pushkin liked it so much he wrote a poem about it.
I was interested to hear about a serf, Argunov, who painted well, and thus was allowed by the family to have lessons and learn to paint professionally. After painting a remarkable portrait of the family – surprisingly sympathetically, I thought – Argunov was freed from serfdom and permitted to establish a career as an artist. This story, it seems, was repeated throughout history; many serfs were cruelly treated and died as a result of malnutrition and overwork, but some were also trained in various arts, and given their freedom as a tribute to their skill.
One of the central pieces in the gallery was Ivanov’s The Appearance of Christ before People. This is a huge painting, which took ten years to paint (1837-1857) in Italy. In its realist detail it’s both fascinating and slightly alarming! – Ivanov felt that he wanted to paint the most important event that had ever happened, and chose the appearance of Christ to ordinary people, taking in their responses, which range from overjoyed to sentimental to what looks like sceptical. In the foreground a man is sorting out clothes, perhaps foreshadowing the soldiers dicing for Christ’s clothes after the Crucifixion. In fact, that man is a self-portrait by the artist. John the Baptist also features, carrying a cross. It’s the kind of painting you can look at dozens of times and still see different things.
A painting which particularly appealed to me was Zelentsov’s Indoors Drawing Room, which I can’t find an image of but showed a typically Russian interior, reminding me that though there are some obvious parallels with European art of the same time, Russia was – and is – a very different place, and therein perhaps lies its attraction for me.
Speaking of European parallels, though, there were a surprising number of narrative paintings from the 1840s which are highly reminiscent of paintings frequently used to illustrate the covers of Victorian novels nowadays! The titles tell you all you need to know: The Major’s Proposal, The Fastidious Bride, The French Cavalier, The Young Widow, all by Fedotov, and almost Hogarthian in their sequential depiction of social life. Other paintings, such as Troika (Perov, 1866) are akin to nineteenth-century sentimentalisation of children.
I was pleased to see what is apparently the best portrait of Dostoevsky (left), also by Perov. This portrait, so sombre and muted, seems in its interiority to be as much a portrait of the writer’s mind as his face – as are all the best portraits. Actually I was rather taken with Perov’s work – Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane was also an interesting painting.
Another artist who appealed to me was Aivazovsky – follow this link to see more! He painted the Black Sea in all its moods and changes, as well as wonderful almost naïve paintings of St Petersburg showing the five buildings of the Hermitage. Many of these mid-19th century paintings of Russia are amazing – archetypal images such as cityscapes, sledging on the frozen Neva, battles, countrysides. There was a room devoted to war – the futility of it, the pointless loss of life, and in today’s political climate this was no less moving than when they were first displayed.
Finally, we saw many ikons – from the fourteenth century until the seventeenth century, since between those periods they were the only form of artistic expression permitted in Russia. Many of them are immediately identifiable as Russian Orthodox – the colours, the jewels, they might not appeal to everyone, but they are fabulous!

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