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Tête a tête with Russia’s greats

You shouldn’t miss the chance to be up close and personal with many of Russia’s universally loved writers, musicians, actors and composers at the National Portrait Gallery this spring.

Review by Corinna Lotz

Of the 26 portraits on loan from the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, some 22 have never been seen before in the UK – which makes them appear amazingly fresh and new.

The collection is largely down to the vision of Pavel Tretkyakov, a businessman and philanthropist, who collected some and commissioned others, to achieve his mission to create a “museum within a museum”.

Muscovites will have a chance to see the great and the good from London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of a cultural exchange, marking the shared 160th anniversaries of the Tretkyakov and the NPG.

Opening the show, Tretyakov director Zelfira Tregulova said that the personalities depicted in these gems belong “not only to Russian culture, but to world culture and to humanity”. 

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov
Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The canvases were deliberately hung low, she explained, so that we “really do stand in front of the person who is depicted and look into his or her eyes” and “we can see, not only a physical appearance, but appreciate the profound analysis made by their creator.”

From these outward expressions of Russian identity, the eye is drawn to penetrate deeper, to summons up a highly complex individual and his or her artistic and intellectual contribution.

The line-up begins with political thinker and writer, Alexander Herzen, by Nikolai Ge. Herzen lived for 11 years as an exile in London, where he operated the Free Russian Press and helped to organise the International Working Man’s Association. Ge had to smuggle this picture, made in Florence, back into Russia by overpainting it with an image of the prophet Moses, since Herzen was persona non grata, due to his revolutionary activities.

Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin paid tribute to Herzen on his centenary in 1912, crediting him for playing “a great part in paving the way for the Russian revolution”.

These paintings – like the proverbial Russian dolls – carry stories within stories. The tumultuous history of Russia is intertwined with the complex internal life of the sitter and her or his relationship to the artist, against the background of revolutionary upheavals which swept through Russia.

At first glimpse, Ge’s image of Leo Tolstoy is a quiet thoughtful one, as the writer sits looking down at the ruffled papers on his desk. He is working on a philosophical disquisition, What I believe, which was about to be banned. We can’t see into Tolstoy’s eyes – it’s as though he is not aware of either the artist at work or the viewer. But there is a quiet intensity, as though we are tiptoeing past him.

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin, 1881
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The 1870s saw efforts to create a truly Russian identity in the visual arts as well as music, drawing on folk and peasant themes. There are aspects of “Russian-ness” in this brilliant array as exemplified by Ilya Repin’s poignant depiction of Modest Mussorgsky.

Mussorgsky who was one five composers promoted as identifiably Russian by critic Vladimir Stasov – the Mighty Handful, or the Five as they became known. Coincidentally a concert at the Royal Opera House last month, under the direction of Antonio Pappano, brought alive this moment in Russian musical history.

Repin’s portrait of the composer is a mixture of admiration and despair. Mussorgsky gazes into the distance with alcohol-glazed eyes, his hair tousled, dressing-gown casually revealing a glimpse of a peasant-style embroidered shirt. Tragically, Mussorgsky died the day after sitting for this portrait, aged only 42.

Just as disturbing is Vasily Perov’s image of Feodor Dostoevsky. Condemned to death for his involvement in socialist activities, he only narrowly escaped the firing squad. The trauma of four years in a prison-labour camp, followed by years of enforced military service are etched on his features in this stark and deeply felt portrait. It was painted in 1872, only a few years after the completion of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot.

In 1898, two decades later, Valentin Serov, a student of Repin, broke with the heavy realism and sense of foreboding so often conveyed by his master. In the Summer shows the artist’s wife in a sunny outdoor rural idyll. Her white dress is made up of long loose stripes and the trees are stippled dots of colour.

Serov’s image of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov has a fluid brushwork that lends life to the restricted black and white palette – at odds with the composer’s long beard and stiff white collar. Serov’s Modernist leanings are evident in his superb portrait of the famous collector Ivan Morozov, seated in front of a glowing Matisse still life.

Serov witnessed the horrors of the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg in 1905 and resigned his post at the Academy of Arts in protest at its affiliation with the commander of the troops who killed the unarmed demonstrators. It was a period of tumult in both politics and art.

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Haunting images of poets Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova adorn the closing section – both are by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, the only female artist among the eleven painters in this show. Gumilev, who married Akhmatova in 1910, is a languid, dreamy figure of a man, his long face with diverging eyes above an impossibly high white collar, nervously fingering his buttonhole.

This deliciously decadent image is eerily reminiscent of Delacroix’s much earlier Baron Schwiters, which hangs around the corner in the National Gallery. Their destinies were to be infinitely tragic. Gumilev was accused of counter-revolutionary activities, and executed in the Kovelevsky Forest in 1921.  His friend, the writer Maxim Gorky, obtained a personal order from Lenin to spare Gumilev’s life, but failed to reach him in time. He was not rehabilitated until 1992.

There is a golden Arcadian feeling to Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s portrait of Akhmatova. Her life became excruciating after Gumilev’s execution. She came under constant surveillance and was forced to burn her manuscripts. Art critic Nikolai Punin, who became her partner, died in one of Stalin’s Gulags in 1953. But she endured and became most renowned for her poem Requiem, composed in the darkest years of Stalin’s purges, but only published in Germany in 1963.

Curator Rosalind Blakesley said she felt her mission was accomplished when she glimpsed posters of Akhmatova’s portrait adorning the walls of London’s Underground stations. We can only share her satisfaction. As the centenary of  the 1917 Russian Revolution approaches, there is a huge amount to appreciate and celebrate as well as mourn about Russia’s revolutionary history and culture.

22 March 2016

Russia and the Arts – The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 June. Admission: £6-£3. Exhibition book by Rosalind P Blakesley, with an essay by Tatiana L. Karpova £24.95.

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