The Russian Review/Volume 1/May 1916/Ilia Repin, Russia's National Painter
Ilia Repin, Russia's National Painter.
By A. Yarmolinsky.
No living artist has contributed more toward the making of a Russian school of painting than Ilia Yefimovich Repin, "the Samson of the Russian painters," as someone has called him. No name is more intimately connected with the destinies of the fine arts in Russia for the last two score years. Repin's magnificent art is, both in matter and manner, preeminently national and racial; the very sap of Russian life courses through it. In his numerous canvases the venerable master has wrought into line and color the picturesque chronicle of his own time as well as sumptuous visions of bygone ages, and in doing so he laid bare something far more deeply interfused with the outer aspects of things: the unworn vitality and the undisciplined power of his race, its measureless inertia and latent fermentation, its baffled revolt and deep resignation, its sense for the tragic, and its brooding melancholy.
Repin is the last representative of the generation whose spirit was moulded by the "era of reforms" which followed the Crimean War. The year 1864 found him, then a twenty-year old lad, in Petrograd, far away from his native Cossack village. After a year of preparatory study he entered the Academy of Fine Arts, and although he spent six years there, he was very little influenced by the scholastic ideals of a conventional and official art. The young painter was far more responsive to the artistic movement which was going on outside of the academic walls. A year before Repin's arrival at the capital, a memorable event took place at the Academy. Thirteen competitors for the gold medal refused to accept the mythological theme, "Odin in Valhalla," offered for the annual competition, and left the institution, together with the liberal stipends and the comfortable studios and living quarters which it offered them. The young enthusiasts formed a company which became the nucleus of the Society of Wandering, or Circulating Exhibitions founded in 1870. This society was the headquarters of Russian painting for about twenty years, until the Second Secession led a group of Russian artists to establish "The World of Art" (Mir Iskusstva). The Wanderers sought to wed art to life, but, having freed Russian painting from the bondage of dead scholasticism, and transplanted it from the hot-houses of classic mythology into the national soil, they fell into the pit of doctrinaire, narrative, and denunciatory art. Carried away by the civic ardor and humanitarianism which was in the very air of the sixties, the "Wanderers" did not hesitate to sacrifice the artistic effects peculiar to their art, in the interests of the propaganda of progressive ideas. Repin's early artistic efforts show unmistakably the influence of this artistic movement. In fact, he is the foremost of the "Wanderers." He has never been able to understand the modern tendency to reduce painting to sheer effects of colors and design; to his mind, art must interpret life and respond to its moral clashes. But Repin was too sensitive a painter to disregard completely the purely pictorial effects of his art, and too great an artist to play on the surface of things without attempting to seize the deeper and more lasting aspects of reality. It was given him to show Russian painting the way toward a broader and freer realism, whose austere truthfulness is suffused with radiant beauty, and whose protest is tempered by a kind of resigned and clarified melancholy.
It is surprising how little Repin's manner was modified by teaching and foreign influence. His art seems to have unfolded suddenly, like the fabulous flower of the Russian fairy-tales. In the summer of 1870 the young painter made a trip down the Volga, and on the basis of the sketches he made then, he completed, two years later, a picture which is recognized as one of the most remarkable masterpieces of Russian painting. "Haulage on the Volga" (Burlaki) is the Declaration of Independence of the Russian school of painting. The picture was a great success at home, and was the first, after Vereshchagin's canvases, to win the eye of the West. To the generation of the seventies, Burlaki was, above all, a humanitarian outcry against the miserable condition of the people. But the picture signifies more than that. These uncouth creatures, cast together by fate from all corners of the vast country, and pulling at the line in the glare of day, form a gloomy human mosaic indeed, and tell a truly Russian tale of woe and suffering. But the picture is also an epic of concerted labor and of invincible human vitality, an epic full of national feeling and human pathos,—and all of this is set in the frame of a typical Volga landscape, which quietly unrolls its boundless stretches under the scorching sun. So that, through the details of a realistic scene reproduced with consummate perfection, one catches a glimpse of a vision which symbolizes Russia, the country of Nekrasov, as well as that of Gorky, the fatherland of Dostoyevsky as well as of Tolstoy.
Having completed his "Haulage on the Volga," and won a traveling scholarship, Repin went abroad. He passed through the art-capitals of Europe, with the contempt of the barbarian of genius that he was. He simply loathed Italian art with "its conventional ad nauseam beauties," as he says in aUpon his return home, Repin became one of the most active members of the Society of Wandering Exhibitions. Not without the disapproval of his colleagues, he accepted a professorship at the Academy, now somewhat reorganized under the pressure of new ideas, by Count Ivan Tolstoy. He devoted most of his time and enthusiasm to his creative efforts. Paintings on contemporary subjects form the main bulk of his vast oeuvre. These paintings, in the words of an historian of Russian art, "together with the works of Tolstoy, Turgeniev, Goncharov and Dostoyevsky will hand down to later times a vivid and characteristic account of Russia to Stasov, and he found French art "empty and silly." In later years, he once remarked that Rodin's Balzac is no better than the primitive statues which decorate the Scythian tumuli in Southern Russia. Decidedly, Europe was not after the young painter's heart. He embodied his homesickness in his "Sadko in the Wonder-Realm of the Sea," the best canvas of those he painted abroad. It represents Sadko, the hero of a Russian Saga of the Novgorod cycle, at the bottom of the deep. He is surrounded by the lascivious forms of mermaids and nymphs, all queens of foreign lands, but Sadko's eyes are turned toward the modest Chernavushka, the emblem of Russia, who looks at him with shy longing from a dark recess of the deep. . . . in all its completeness." Some of these canvases deal with the people of the countryside, that is, with the Russian people par excellence. Such are, in addition to "Burlaki," "The Recruit," "The Little Russian Dancers" ("Vechernitsi") and especially "The Church Procession in the government of Kursk," of which two versions are in existence. All of peasant Russia, bast-shoed, inarticulate, dull, over-governed, lives on this canvas, which is an implacable denunciation of Russian life. In other works, such as the "Nihilist cycle" consisting of three paintings, Repin is, like Turgeniev, the historian of the "intelligentsia." But seldom does he lose sight of the social issues
of his day to turn to themes of general interest, though he does this in his later paintings: "The Duel" and "What Boundless Space!" Only very recently Repin exhibited a canvas depicting the scenes which took place on the Petrograd streets on October 17, 1905, the memorable day when the ill-fated Russian constitution was granted to the land.
In this painting Repin demonstrated again that consummate artistic skill in handling a seething, crowding, swarming mass of humanity, which makes him a great painter of gregariousness. But he is also a remarkable portraitist, initiated into the mystery of what forms the individuality of a human being and able to seize the most characteristic expression of a human face. His portraits reveal most completely the exquisite precision and fresh vigor of his design. Repin's power of characterization is seen at its best in his sketches. Some critics, Alexander Benois, for example, do not hesitate to prefer them to the rest of his work. One of Repin's earliest paintings decorating the concert-hall of the Slav Bazaar, Moscow, consists of a series of portraits of, Polish, and Bohemian musicians, and his recent painting of the plenary session of the Council of the Empire contains upward of eighty likenesses. To enumerate all his sitters would be to make a roll-call of the leaders of modern Russia. All the world is familiar with Repin's portraits of Tolstoy, who was to the painter a friend and a spiritual master. They show the Old Man of Yasnaya Polyana now tilling the soil, now sitting in his study, now standing in his garden with his hands in his girdle. In speaking of these portraits, Prince Bodijar Karageorgevich remarks: "The genius of the painter interprets the genius of the poet, and the calm and simple picture dwells in the high places of memory of those who have looked upon it, in the lofty sphere where the beautiful alone is loved and cherished."
One of the peculiarities of Russian realism in art, says Alexander Benois, is the weakness that the adepts of painting based on observation, have for historical subjects. This applies directly to Repin. He passes with ease from a village hunch-back to a queen of Muscovia, and from the Nihilists to the Cossacks of the sixteenth century. And, naturally enough, it is in dealing with historical themes that his art frees itself from the doctrinaire purpose and reaches a higher aesthetic plane.
Repin's most popular and outstanding historical paintings are: "Tsar Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan Ivanovich," and "The Zaporogian Cossacks' Jeering Reply to the Sultan Mohammed IV." The first canvas conjures up one of the darkest visions that haunt Russia's barbaric past. On November 16, 1581, it is said, Tsar Ivan, in a fit of fury, killed his son. The picture presents the terrible Tsar clasping his dying son in a passion of unspeakable remorse. In "Ivan the Terrible" the painter has given the full measure of his art: he has shown all his power of plastic presentation and characterization, and displayed all the splendors of his rich palette; he has merged into this work all his knowledge of the dark recesses of the Russian soul, extreme both in its sins and in its repentence. Nothing can equal the tragic impression the painting makes: men are said to have turned away from it, and ladies have fainted while gazing upon it. The harrowing effect it produces may be the psychologic cause of the strange crime committed three years ago by a certain Balashov, supposedly a madman. He penetrated into the Tretiakovsky Gallery, Moscow, where "Ivan the Terrible" is kept, and slashed the canvas with a pruning-knife, fortunately leaving the eyes of the tsar and the tsarevich untouched.
In "The Cossacks' Reply" lives again that barbaric military order of half-monks, half-freebooters, which is the most romantic passage in the history of Southern Russia. In this canvas, glowing with rich color and exuberant animality, the purely pictorial side eclipses the "literary" theme. There is the imprint of observation on it: himself of Cossack descent, Repin was undoubtedly familiar with the picturesque figures which he has so masterfully and effectively grouped in his picture. Even in his historic and legendary works, the painter of the Burlaki is essentially a realist feeding on what comes directly to his senses. His latest historical painting represents a meeting famous in the annals of Russian literature, that between young Pushkin and the poet Derzhavin, "the Swan of Queen Catherine's time."
Russian art has almost no history; its face is turned not toward the past, but rather toward the glorious future, whose splendor is augured by talents such as Repin's.