The Russian Review/Volume 1/March 1916/Vereshchagin, the War Painter
Vereshchagin, The War Painter.
By A. Yarmolinski.
It is told that when Vereshchagin showed his famous picture cycle, "Napoleon's retreat from Moscow," in Berlin, in 1882, Kaiser Wilhelm II. visited the exhibition and made an observation which, in the light of modern events, acquires a strange significance. After looking long, it is said, at a canvas which represented Napoleon tramping heavily in the snow, he turned aside and said thoughtfully: "And, in spite of that, there will still be men who will want to govern the world. But they will all end like this." He is credited also with a remark that these picture are "our best war insurance." Alas! Vereshchagin's canvases, like so many other spiritual citadels of mankind, have so far proved powerless against the hosts of evil. Yet it is true that the paintings of the great Russian artist are a protest, unequalled in pathos and power, against the horrors of war, a silent sermon written in colors, a most tragic "De Profundis" born of a great mind. And it is well to evoke his memory in these days when the cannons have hushed the nobler tones of the human voice, in these sorrowful days when the Furies of War are riding the Old World and the mouths of nations are bloody with the curb.
Chekhov says, in some place, that the best description of the sea he knows of, is that made by a little boy in four words: "The sea was big." One is tempted to describe our artist after the fashion of that boy. For, indeed, Vereshchagin was big, a huge body housing a great soul. He reminded those who had known him of the legendary "bogatyrs" sung in the ancient hero-ballads. His capacity for work, and his endurance, were almost superhuman, and the artistic legacy he left is colossal. Our civilized life was too narrow for him, and he felt uneasy in the cities of men. Of Tartar extraction, on his mother's side, he was possessed by the nostalgia of the distant, and by the nomadic spirit of his ancestors, who, in ages bygone, had swept over the great Russian plain. He travelled far and wide, especially in the East, whose sumptuous majesties attracted him irresistibly. There was something elemental and primitive about this great painter. He began his studies in the Academy of Arts, Petrograd, and in Paris, under Gerome. But he soon exchanged his Parisian studio for a Kirghiz tent, and it was in the wilderness of the Caucasus and of Russian Turkestan that he learned his art and acquired that intimacy with Nature that is given to those only who, in the words of a modern poet, "have companioned nature in her bed-chamber no less than in her presence-room." It was the East, also, that familiarized him with the savage mind and its dark ways, and quenched his thirst for the exotic. Despite his perfectly Western program and aspirations, Vereshchagin was, at heart, always somewhat of a barbarian, just as was his contemporary, Tolstoy. The ancient geographers drew the border line between Europe and Asia along the Dnieper (Boristhenus), and it is still true that the western subtleties and sinuosities are essentially strange to the Russian, and that in many respects he is the child of Asia, the vast, the mysterious.Vereshchagin's mission here below was to tell the world the unadorned truth about the bloody game of kings. No one was ever in a better position to know what war is, for he took part, as a volunteer, in nearly all the military campaigns of the last quarter of the past century. The whole of his life passed under the sign of war, and it was like a soldier that he died: his grave is in the waves of the distant sea where so many compatriots of the painter met their fate during the Russo-Japanese War. It is by observing the fighting man that Vereshchagin believed one could gain an insight into the mysteries of human life and death. And it was not in his nature to content himself with the role of a spectator at a safe distance. "I have been through everything," writes he, "in my determination to see everything connected with warfare. I have taken part in almost every kind of operation. I have charged with infantry, and I have led soldiers in the assault; I have taken part in cavalry skirmishes, and when I was wounded on the Danube I was in action, with sailors who were blowing up a Turkish monitor." Vereshchagin trod the battlefields of two worlds; he saw the doings of the Russian army in Turkestan and witnessed some of the "high deeds" of the British soldiers in India; he scanned the faces of slain soldiers of many races; he saw that great via dolorosa from Plevna to the Danube, which the Turkish prisoners, driven northward to Russia, had paved with their frozen and wounded bodies. He certainly knew the hideous business of warfare under all its aspects, and that is why he succeeded in stripping it of the romantic glamor and halo with which official patriotism had adorned it. "War," he writes, "means hunger, thirst, sickness, the pain of wounds, privations of all kinds,
V. V. VERESHCHAGIN.
The great painter considered this the best portrait of himself ever taken. The picture was presented by Vereshchagin to Mr. Herman Rosenthal, of the New York Public Library, and bears the painter's inscription. It is reproduced here by Mr. Rosenthal's permission.—Ed.
—a reversion to the conditions of the savage state. . . . There is very little that is picturesque about it. As men fall dead by the wayside, they lie like dull, sodden mushrooms, earthy and squalid."
"As I have seen war," writes the painter, "so I have painted it." Therein lies the strength and the weakness of Vereshchagin's art. Very often he made his sketches while bullets were whizzing round and shells bursting nearby, and his pictures were the direct outgrowth of the memories which he brought from his trips to the Inferno of War. No artist, since the times of Callot, had ever painted the appalling realities of war with such a poignant cynicism, with such a relentless, terrible fidelity to life. No painter has ever shown us war, shorn of all its trappings, with such an austere and implacable realism. The physical element of war prevails in Vereshchagin's paintings. He is a painter of bodies and corpses,—the riddles of the human face concerned him as little as the mystery of individuality. It is the faceless mass that is the main hero of his vast canvases. In the words of a Russian critic, "he is greater in chorus than in solo." Vereshchagin's genius was on the whole exterior; he lacked the ability to transform crude reality into mystic visions of naive fairy tales. It was not given him to spiritualize life and infuse into it the light that never was on sea or land. Yet he was not a cold photographer, for back of all his work there is a measureless human pathos, which is the very vis vivida of his paintings. Of late, Russian critics of the modernist school have shown a tendency to undervalue Vereshchagin's art, on the plea that his work is deficient in color and design. In fact, aesthetes have every reason to dislike Vereshchagin. He was utterly indifferent to the problems of pure æstheticism; his art is art for life's sake, art intended to serve a great humanitarian purpose. Like Dostoyevsky's novels, his paintings are unbeautiful, unartistic: they are the product of a mind, powerful, but lacking the Apollonian element of measured proportion, and winged harmony.
The first pictures which made Vereshchagin's name famous were painted, or, at least, sketched during his wanderings in Central Asia and during the Turkestan campaign which he accompanied as a volunteer on the staff of General Kauffman (1867). To most of these works, the artist gave the general title of "Poemes Barbares," and it must be said that these pictures bear their name well, for these magnificent studies of Oriental life have the unity of purpose, the pathos, and the intensity of poems. War with its physical horror is the dominant theme of these canvases. Vereshchagin seldom painted the dramatic, spectacular side of war; he preferred to paint the moments preceding the clash, or the battlefield strewn with fallen and wounded. Characteristic of his manner are the famous pictures "Before the Attack" and "After the Attack," and that implacable painting of a wounded soldier forgotten by his comrades in the desert, which the artist destroyed, and which is said to have inspired one of Moussorgsky's songs. In this series we find two pictures which are among his most popular creations. One is the "Apotheosis of War," a pyramid of human skulls, broken and maimed, amidst the naked desert, with a flock of carrion crows perched on it,—a work dantesque and tragic; it is ironically dedicated "To all great conquerors, past, present, and to come." The other is "The Presentation of Trophies," a gorgeous painting, which represents the Emir before a heap of freshly-cut human heads, and which revives old, storied Samarkand, the capital of Tamerlane.
Vladimir Stasov, a great connoisseur of Vereshchagin's art, maintains that this early cycle has never been surpassed in sentiment and dramatic power. But the artist reached his full maturity toward the end of the seventies, when he completed his Bulgarian pictures the outgrowth of his experiences during the Russo-Turkish War. In the interval he travelled in India and brought from there the sketches of those splendid "Indian Poems," which he finished at his studio, at Maisons-Laff itte, near Paris. The Bulgarian campaign cycle must be considered as the high-water mark of Vereshchagin's genius. Pictures like "The Graves at Shipka", and "Blessing the Dead" arouse an almost eery feeling which is created by an art so close to life that the border-line between them is well-nigh obliterated. At the same time these pictures are all a-quiver with most human pathos and with a passionate, Isaiah-like protest against the evil doings of men. Nothing can surpass in simplicity and poignancy the famous triptych, "All's quiet in the Shipka Pass," showing a sentinel who is gradually buried by a snow-storm in that most sinister mountain pass. Such pictures are like the living coal about which the prophet speaks,—their memory may be obliterated, their formative influence never.
Until his death (Vereshchagin was among the passengers of a dreadnought which was sunk by a Japanese mine in 1904), the great artist travelled all over the world in search of impressions. He treated historical themes ("Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow") and Biblical figures, but although he changed his subjects, he remained faithful to his realistic method and to his Hannibal oath of everlasting hatred of war. His place in the Pantheon of Russia is fixed: in the words of Alexander Benoit, the historian of Russian art, Vereshchagin is Russia's foremost artist-preacher "and a great master of realistic art, a spiritual brother to the painters Ryepin and Makovsky, and to the sculptor Antakolsky." Vereshchagin is a remarkable plastic expression of Russian genius, and he has much in common with other spirits that are suggestive of the high potentialities hidden in the depths of the Russian soul. Like Ivan Karamazov, the hero of Dostoyevsky's novel, Vereshchagin was a gatherer of unavenged, unexpiated tears and voiceless agonies, and like the author of the novel he was a Man of Sorrows, with his mind eagerly scanning the mysteries of human suffering. But he resembles Tolstoy more closely. To both, art was essentially a preacher's tribune and a prophet's tripod; in both of them the splendors of pure art are dominated by a moral preoccupation; both preached and practiced austere fidelity to life and supreme sincerity; both the painter and the novelist reach out for truth with remarkable earnestness and directness of vision; both are distinguished by simplicity in portraying the tragedy of things, and by a truly Russian freedom from traditions and conventions.