Alexsei Savrasov – the lyrical landscape artist

Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)
Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)

My last two blogs featured the life and works of the great nineteenth century landscape painter, Isaac Levitan.  Whilst I was researching his early life as a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture I came across the name of Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov who was one of Levitan’s tutors.  Having a rest from writing about Levitan, I had a look at some of the works of Savrasov, who had influenced Levitan and amongst them I came across the most exquisite painting and the one Savrasov was probably most famous for; but more about that later.

Alexei Savrasov was born on 12 May 1830 into the family of a Moscow merchant.  As a young boy he developed the love of drawing and by the age of twelve he was experimenting with painting gouache and watercolour landscapes and during his early years he managed to exchange his paintings with vendors for chicken feed.  He persuaded his father to let him study art and at the young of eight he attended the painting school.

In 1844, when Savrasov was fourteen years of age, and plans for his future career had to be discussed with the family.  His father was adamant that his son should follow him and become a merchant and thus end all the time his son spent painting which his father regarded as just a hobby.    However for Alexei, his heart was set on becoming an artist.  Alexei eventually had his way and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and in 1848 he was fortunate to join the special studio of perspective and landscape painting which was run by Karl Rabus, who was the Professor of Landscape painting.  Alexei loved the genre of landscape painting and began to specialise in it. Soon he was widely acknowledged by the tutors as the best student of landscape painting in the School.    During the last years at the painting school, Savrasov, received a bursary from a well-known Moscow art patron and member of the Moscow Art Society, Likhachev, which enabled him to go on a painting and sketching trip to Odessa, where he captured the beauty of the local landscape.

View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)
View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)

In 1850 Savrasov graduated from the Moscow School of Painting receiving the official title of “unclassed artist”.  One of the first paintings Savrasov completed after leaving the art school was entitled View of the Kremlin from Krymski Bridge during Inclement Weather.  The storm clouds rush from the right to the left of the painting pushed relentlessly by the strong winds which have caused the branches of the trees to bend towards the river.  The sun has pierced the clouds and illuminated the Kremlin in the background of the painting.  In the foreground of the painting we see that the sun has lit up a small patch of land where the water from the Moskva River laps the sandy ground.  A woman, pail in hand, rushes past.  Her hand clutches her coat to hold it closed while  the wind whips at her skirt which is billowing in the gale.

View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)
View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)

Savrasov travelled to the Ukraine in 1852 and steadily built up a portfolio of sketches and paintings and with them he started to develop a reputation as an up and coming artist.  Two years later, in 1854, he received a painting commission for several works of art for the Russian Art Academy from the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna,   She was one of the daughters of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.    She was an avid and well-known art collector and President of the Russian Academy of Arts in St Petersburg.  To carry out his commission, Savrasov moved from Moscow to the Gulf of Finland, close to St Petersburg.  Two of the paintings he produced, View in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum and Seashore in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum, are now looked upon as excellent examples of the genre known as romantic landscapes   These works of art by Savrasov allowed him to depict, with great fondness, the charm and appeal of a summer evening at the sea, with the moistness associated with the sea air in the shade of ancient rocks, whilst envisioning the twilight which we observe under the spread­ing branches of trees.  The works Savrasov produced during this period, and these two works in particular, earned him the title of Fellow of the Russian Art Academy.

Alexi Savrasov had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture for ten years from 1844 to 1854, some of the time under the tutorship of Karl Rabus.  When Rabus died in 1857 Savrasov was asked to take over Rabus’ landscape class which he did and remained in post until 1882.  During his tenure he took many students under his wing, including the subject of my last blog, Isaac Levitan.  Savrasov was an excellent teacher and much loved and admired by his students.  In 1857 Savrasov married Sophia Hertz, the sister of art historian and archaeologist, K. Hertz; the couple went on to have several children. In their home they entertained artists and collectors including the famous art collector and patron of the arts, Pavel Tretyakov, who gave his name to the Moscow Art Gallery.

After leaving the Moscow School of Art in 1862, Savrasov took up the suggestion made to him by the Art Amateurs’ Society and left Russia on a painting expedition of Europe.   He travelled to that year’s World Fair in London, where he exhibited his painting View of the Surroundings Oranienbaum, and was amazed by what he saw and was unstinting in his praise, writing:

“…no academies in the world could so advance an artist as the present world exhibition…”

View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)
View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)

On the way back home he visited Paris, Switzerland, Copenhagen, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig.  During his European travels the two landscape painter whom he admired the most were the English artist, John Constable and the Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame.   One of the paintings he completed in 1862 originated from his travels through Switzerland.  It was entitled View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken and was completed in 1862.

Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)
Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)

I particularly like his painting entitled Rafts which he painted in 1868.

Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)
Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)

However the painting of his which drew the most acclaim in this period was a beautiful landscape work entitled Elk Island in Sokolniki, which he finished in 1869 and for which he was awarded the first prize at a painting competition organised by the Moscow Art Amateurs’ Society.  Elk Island straddles the boundary between the centre of Moscow and its suburbs to the north of the city.  It is home to a remarkable variety of animal and plant life.  The area was believed to have been a favourite place for Ivan the Terrible to enjoy falconry and bear-hunting. The area was given the name Elk Island in the early 17th century, when documents say that the place was used for hunting “all manner of game birds, and especially elk”.

Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov  (1871)
Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov (1871)

In December 1870 Savrasov, his wife and family went to live in Yaroslavl which lies on the Volga, three hundred kilometres north of Moscow.   Whilst there he produced the beautiful work of art entitled  Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod, which is now housed in the Gorky State Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod.  It was one of the largest canvases Savrasov ever painted.    The left hand side of this wide panoramic view is taken up by the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers with the blue lagoons whilst the right hand side of the painting depicts the Pechersky Voznesensky monastery.  The original monastery is believed to have been founded around 1330 by St. Dionysius, who, along with several followers, arrived in Nizhny Novgorod from Kiev Pechersk Lavra also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, (pechery meaning ‘caves), hence the title of the painting.  On arrival at Nizhny Novgorod they dug a cave on the shoreline of the Volga and later it became the site of a monastery and church.  The original monastery was destroyed by a landslide in 1597; but in the same year a new monastery was built a short distance upstream.

Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod
Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod

In the right foreground, we see suburban homes with their small gardens awash with greenery which contrasts with the towering white stonework of the monastery.

The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)
The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

The last work of Savrasov, which I am showcasing, is the one I talked about at the start of this blog.  Its beauty and simplicity immediately struck me and I was reminded of one of my favourite artists Pieter Breugel the Elder who had a propensity of including rooks or magpies in his winter scenes, such as his 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow.  This painting by Savrasov entitled The Rooks have Come Back was completed in 1871 at the height of his artistic career.

Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)
Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)

A year earlier he had became a member of the Peredvizhniki group, often known as  The Wanderers or The Itinerants who were a group of Russian Realist artists, who like many artists throughout Europe railed against the Academic restrictions and decided to go off on their own and set up artists’ cooperative.   The Wanderers eventually evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.  It is a simple painting with an equally simple theme – the birds returning home in Spring.  It was a transitional depiction.  A transition of nature from winter to spring heralded by the return of the rooks. This landscape work with all its simplicity was termed a lyrical landscape painting later to be termed a mood landscape painting and Savrasov was one of the founding exponents of this type of landscape art.  His pupil Isaac Levitan would continue with this style.  Of this painting the artist, art critic and leader of the Russian Democratic Art movement, Ivan Kramskoi,  wrote:

“…The Rooks Have Come Back was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul.

Savrasov’s former pupil and fellow landscape painter Isaac Levitan declared the painting:

“…to be “very simple, but beneath the simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it…”

Although the year 1871 and this painting marked the height of Savrasov’s fame it also marked the beginning of the end of the great man for in  February 1871 Savrasov’s life took a tragic turn with the sudden death of his baby daughter.  This was the third child he and his wife had lost.  Maybe it was “the straw which broke the camel’s back” as Savrasov never recovered from this loss and descended into deep depression and despite friends who tried to help him he took to alcohol to ease the pain..  His work suffered and by 1882 he could no longer hold down the post of professor at the Moscow Art School and was sacked.   His wife eventually left him and took their children with her,  His bad manners and unpleasant demeanour caused friends and family to eventually desert him and his alcoholism and lack of sales of his work culminated  in the 1880’s with him living the life of a pauper.  In 1890 Savrasov went to live with Evdokiya Morgunova, and the couple had two children.

Savrasov's grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow
Savrasov’s grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow

Alexei Savrasov died in September 1897 in a city hospital, in a ward for paupers. When it came to his funeral, the doorkeeper of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and Pavel Tretyakov, who later founded the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, were the only people to attend Savrasov’s funeral .

I will leave you with a quote from his pupil Isaak Levitan, who wrote of his mentor:

“…One of the most profound Russian landscape-artists has passed away. With him, lyricism came to land­scape painting, and boundless love for one’s na­tive land. Yes, Savrasov was the father of Rus­sian landscape painting, and this undisputed merit of his will never be forgotten in the field of Russian art…”

Isaac Levitan. Part 2 – The later years

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)
Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)

Anton Chekhov, the writer and physician, was born in January 1860.  He was the third of six children and was brought up in the coastal town of Taganrog which lay on the north shore of the Sea of Azov in southern Russia.  In 1876, when he was sixteen years old his father, Pavel, was in the process of building a new house but ran out of money and was mired in a huge debt.  Rather than face the prospect of languishing in a debtors prison he escaped the town and moved to Moscow where his elder sons, Alexander and Nikolai were studying. Alexander was attending Moscow University and Nikolai was an art student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  Anton Chekhov remained behind in Taganrog to finish his studies at the local secondary school and was also charged with the task of selling the family’s possessions.  It was not until three years later in 1879 that Anton Chekhov joined the family in Moscow.

Anton Chekhov enrolled at the Moscow State Medical University and it was shortly after arriving in Moscow that he was introduced to Isaac Levitan by his brother Nikolai who was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow School of Painting.  Anton Chekhov was just eight months older than Levitan and the close friendship between the two great men of the Russian Arts steadily grew and it would last until the end of their lives.  This was a coming together of two Masters of Russian literature and the visual arts, and this close camaraderie led to a close style in the way the two considered and dealt with artistic challenges, so much so that their names are often quoted side by side both in specialized literature and popular writings.

The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)
The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)

Levitan completed a beautiful but small landscape painting, The Watermill, Sunset.  It measured just 33cms x 52cms.  He painted this work in the summer of 1880 when he was spending time in the small riverside town of Plyos on the banks of the mighty Volga River.  Levitan loved the area and this period could be looked upon as one of the happiest times of his life. His friend Anton Chekhov said that when his artist friend and he were in Plyos he could detect a smile on Isaac’s face.  Sadly, because of family tragedies and his unending fight against poverty, Levitan rarely smiled and was often the victim of melancholia.

Isaac Levitan had developed a great love of nature which almost certainly originated from his time at the Moscow School of Painting and the time he spent with one of his tutors, the Russian landscape painter, Alexei Savrasov.  Savrasov was one of the most eminent of all 19th century Russian landscape artists and was renowned for his lyrical style and melancholic works of art.  He was looked upon as the creator of the lyrical landscape style.

In all, Levitan painted this view three times.  The first, which we see above, is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the other two, which were painted later, form part of two private Russian collections.  The scene is set at sunset and the mill is in shadow whilst the forest, on the opposite side of the river in the background is bathed in evening sunlight.  The light slants in from the right illuminating the far bank.  It is the ending of the day and although the blue skies suggest otherwise, the location will soon be cast in darkness.  In the foreground, the focal point is the wooden mill and the small rickety bridge which crosses over the small waterfall, the water of which powers the mill.  In many of Levitan’s paintings he depicts small bridges crossing over water along with jetties which often had boats moored to them.

Levitan’s moody landscapes and the artists and poets who had influenced this style of art were commented upon by Alexandre Benois in his 1916 book, The Russian School of Painting.  He wrote:

“…He brought to a summation that which Vasiliev, Savrasov and Polenov had foretold.  Levitan discovered the peculiar charm of Russian landscape “moods”; he found a distinctive style to Russian landscape art which would have been distinguished illustrations to the poetry of Pushkin, Koltzov, Gogol, Turgenyev and Tyutchev.  He rendered the inexplicable charm of our humble poverty, the shoreless breadth of our virginal expanses, the festal sadness of the Russian autumn, and the enigmatic call of the Russian spring.  There are no human beings in his paintings, but they are permeated with a deep emotion which floods the human heart…”

To supplement his income Levitan gave private painting lessons and he collaborated with the Chekhov brothers on the illustrated magazine “Moscow”.  Levitan also spent time spent time on the popular Russian magazines, “Raduga” (Rainbow) in1883) and “Volna” (Wave) in 1884, where he worked on graphics and lithographs for the publications.  He also collaborated with illustrations for Mikhail Fabritsius’ guide book, The Kremlin in Moscow.  During the summers of the mid and late 1880’s Levitan spent much of his time with the Chekhov family, who had a summer residence on the Babkino estate close to the banks of the Istra River.   The estate was owned by Alexsei Kiselev and he and his wife Marila would entertain artists and writers at their many soirees.  Levitan eventually moved into the Chekhovs home and set up his own studio.   One painting he completed in 1886, whilst staying with the Chekhovs was The Istra River.

In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)
In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)

His impoverished upbringing during which he often had no idea where or when his next meal would come from combined with the stress of being an artist trying to eke out a living had affected his health and he was diagnosed as having a degenerative heart disease and advised to move to a warmer climate further to the south of the country and so in late March 1886 Isaac Levitan visited the Crimea for the first time.  It was here that he completed more than sixty sketches and paintings during his two months sojourn including one entitled In the Crimean Mountains which depicted an area around the town of Feodosiya, in eastern Crimea.  It is a painting which manages to capture the bright sun and the intense heat of the mountainous setting.  Levitan exhibited all the sketches he had completed whilst staying in the Crimea at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL).  All were purchased and with that success came financial stability for Isaac Levitan.

Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)
Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)

Between 1887 and 1890 Levitan would travel far and wide spending the long summer months in small towns along the Volga River, such as Plës (Plyos) and Vasil’sursk and two of his paintings of that time, Evening on the Volga (1888) and Evening: The Golden Plyos (1889) depicted the beauty of the river and the townships, which were situated on the banks of the great waterway, during the hours of sunset.

Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)
Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)

Levitan painted the Volga River scenes in various weather and light conditions and by doing so was able to convey associated moods.  The Volga series established Levitan as the painter of the landscape of mood and his style became popular with other Moscow landscape artists of the time.

The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan realised that much could be learnt from European artists and so, in March 1890, he embarked on a tour visiting Berlin and Paris and the Cote d’Azur towns of Nice and Menton.  From his visit to the south of France, he completed a work entitled The Mediterranean Coast which is a truly beautiful depiction of the multi-coloured sea and the pebbled shoreline.  He went on to Italy and visited Venice and Florence, Germany and Switzerland.  However Levitan was a true Russian and despite the lure of the artistic life in the European capitals he preferred to return to his homeland.

In March 1891 Isaac Levitan became a member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, and by the end of the year, displayed ten of his paintings at a Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL) exhibition. His exhibits met with unreserved acclaim from both his fellow artists and the public.

Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)
Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Another of Levitan’s works of art I really like was completed in 1890, ten years after The Watermill painting, and was entitled Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery.  The monastery in question is the Krivooserski Monastery which is close to the river town of Yuryevets, located at the confluence of the Unzha and the Volga Rivers, some 350 kilometres north east of Moscow.   Levitan had visited the area in the summer of 1890.  In the painting we see the monastery in the background nestled amongst the high trees with just the ornate cupolas peaking above the tree canopy.   In the foreground we can see a curved rickety wooden-planked bridge which traverses the slow-flowing river.  The surface of the river shimmers in the sunlight.  Look how beautifully Levitan has depicted the reflection of the monastery and the trees in this still expanse of water.

Anton Chekhov was so impressed with his friend’s painting that he introduced it into his 1895 novel, Three Years, in which he had the heroine of the story, Yulia Sergeievna, visit an Easter Week art exhibition and stand in front of what he described as

“…a small landscape… In the foreground was a stream, over it a little wooden bridge...”

Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)
Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)

One of the most haunting works by Levitan was his painting entitled Above the Eternal Peace which he completed in 1894.  The first thing that strikes you about this evocative work is it is the depiction of an endless landscape.  In the background we have a beautiful depiction of threatening heavy grey clouds which are  intermingled with fluffy white ones, all of which are reflected on to the still waters of the lake below.  In the foreground, sitting isolated on a verdant promontory which juts into the lake, is a small church with its gleaming silver cupola.  Behind the church is the graveyard.  It is separated from the church by some birch trees which have been bent over by strong winds.  The graveyard looks abandoned and is rather overgrown and some of the crosses have lean over from the constant force of a strong wind which raced unhindered across the exposed promontory.  The picture was painted on the shore of Lake Udomlia in Tver province, 250 kilometres north of Moscow.

Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)
Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)

My final offering is another haunting work of art, not for its pictorial depiction but because where and what it is being depicted.   It was a depiction of a well-trodden road which led convicts towards their penal colonies in Siberia.  The painting is entitled The Vladimirka Road and Levitan completed it in 1892.  The Vladimir Highway familiarly known as the Vladimirka was a 190-kilometre road which went from Moscow to Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod, Siberia in the east.  Siberia was at this time the customary place of exile, and this road depicted in the painting saw an endless movement of prisoners in shackles being marched from Moscow to the Siberian penal colonies.  Levitan’s work of art is not just another landscape painting it is a combination of his realistic vision with a message.  Before us is a somewhat desolate landscape but the point of the painting is to remind people, who look at the depiction, of the traumatic history of the road.  It was about exile but it was not just about the exile of prisoners to Siberia.  Levitan himself probably reflected on his own life at the time as in 1892 through to the beginning of 1893, by order of the Moscow governor-general, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, about 20,000 Jews were deported from Moscow.  Isaac Levitan was among those forced from his home and this expulsion because of his religion had traumatised him.

Everything about the painting reflects his troubled mind.  Levitan has depicted the sky and the fields in dull and rather uninviting tones.  Before us we have a flat and almost lifeless landscape with just the odd trees in the background.  There is little or no vegetation and the path has been almost reduced to gravel due to the thousands of prisoners who had been marched along it over the years.   Look at the colours he has used.  Instead of bright greens and yellows he has gone for dull browns and lacklustre darker greens. The sky is grey with no hint of blue to uplift the painting.  There is no sign of the sun which would have brightened the landscape but that was not the intention of the artist.  There are no people depicted as he and many other realistic landscape artists believed the inclusion of people into a landscape painting  detracted from the surroundings.  Most of Levitan’s landscapes are without people.  This work of art was termed a mood landscape in which the artist has transferred his mood into the way he depicts the scene.  There is nothing uplifting about the view.  There is nothing in the scene that would raise one’s spirits but that is just as Levitan wanted it to be.  It was Levitan’s way of depicting hopelessness.  It was the historical hopelessness of those who trudged their way to what would simply be slave labour.  It was his own feeling of despair at his plight as a persecuted Jew.

To put a more uplifting spirit to this road the Bolsheviks, post-Russian Revolution, renamed it Shosse Entuziastov (“Enthusiasts’ Highway”) and many years later it became known as the Volga Motorway.

In March 1894 Levitan moved to the Tver Region, and later to Gorki.  His health was deteriorating and by 1895 the degenerative heart disease which had been diagnosed ten years earlier was making life more difficult for Levitan.  He was in constant pain and had little energy.  His physical ailment triggered mental health issues in the form of depression and it was known that on a number of occasions he attempted to end his life.  The only thing which gave him happiness was his love of nature.  In 1897, he had become world-renowned as a landscape painter and  he was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts  and in 1898 he was named the head of the Landscape Studio at his alma mater, the Moscow School of Painting.

The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan spent the last year of his life at Chekhov’s home in the Crimea.  Even though Levitan was aware that he was dying his last works were ones of brightness of colour.  An example of this is one which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1890.  It was entitled The Lake although Levitan called it Rus’.  It is believed that he labelled the work thus as he believed the painting reflect ed tranquillity and the eternal beauty of Russian nature and embodied all that was good about his homeland –  its landscape, its people and its history.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

In 1898 Levitan was given the title of academic of landscape painting. He still taught in the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture. His paintings were constantly on display at Russia-wide exhibitions, at International exhibitions in Munich and the World Exhibition in Paris. He became internationally famous. His health started failing, his heart disease progressing quickly. He went abroad for some last-ditch medical treatment but any slight improvement was short lived.   Isaac Levitan completed over a thousand paintings, during his short life.  He died on 22 June 1900, just forty years of age. Levitan never married and had no children.   He was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Dorogomilovo, Moscow.   In April 1941 Levitan’s remains were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery, close to the grave of his friend Anton Chekhov.

In August 2008 in the village of Eliseikovo, Petushinsky District near Vladimir – the Levitan House of Landscape was opened. Isaac Levitan first came to this area in May 1891, on invitation of the historian Vassily Kluchevsky, who had a summer home by the Peksha River. In 1892, Levitan returned, but on this occasion it was not from choice as it was the time when the Russian authorities banished Jews from Moscow.  The great Russain opera singer and friend of Levitan, Fyodor Shalyapin, spoke of the art of his friend:

“…It has brought me to realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people’s hearts on fire. And this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and colour…”

Isaac Levitan. Part 1, His early life and paintings

Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)
Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)

From the portraiture and the religious works of the 16th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni I am moving in a completely different direction.  I am focusing on the Russian Empire and one of, if not the greatest Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century.  Today let me introduce you to Isaac Levitan.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born in August 1860 in the small schetl of Kibart.  A schetl is a small settlement with a large Jewish population.    Kibart was close to the border town of Verzhbolovo, and was then part of what was known as Russian Poland.  The town is now part of Lithuania and is known as Virbalis.  Levitan was one of four children who was born into an intellectual working class Jewish family.  His father, Elyashiv Levitan, was a language teacher, teaching French and German at the nearby school in Kowno (now Kaunus, Lithuania) He alaso supplemented his pay as a teacher by acting as a translator for a French building company, which was constructing a nearby bridge over the Lieponio River for the St. Petersburg to Warsaw railway.  Elyashiv spent a lot of his free time educating his children at home.  Both Isaac’s mother and father were interested in art and so, when their son and his brother Axel also showed an interest in it, they were only too pleased to nurture their children’s love of drawing and painting.

Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)
Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)

In the Spring of 1870 the family moved to Moscow and the following year his older brother Axel enrolled at the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  Two years later, in September 1873, Isaac also registered as a pupil at the college to study art.  His initial artistic training concentrated on copying but, after a year, he moved on to a class which focused on nature and art and soon he was embroiled in the genre of landscape painting, which was later to make him famous.  He had first-class teachers at the college, including the landscape painters, Alexi Savrasov, the head of the landscape department, his successor, Vasily Polenov and the Realist painter Vasily Perov, who was the founder of the Peredvizhniki often known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants, who were a group of Russian realist painters who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative.  The group later evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.

Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)
Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)

Isaac loved the challenge of landscape painting and was greatly influenced by the landscape work of the Barbizon painters as well as the work of the French realist painter Camile Corot.  Things were proceeding well for Isaac until 1875 when, at the age of fifteen, tragedy struck with the death of his mother and in 1877, after contracting typhus and having endured a long illness during which time he could not earn money, his father died.  Now Isaac was without financial support.  He had neither money to pay the college fees nor the money to live.  He was asked to leave the college due to non-payment of his tuition fees but was rescued by the kindness of friends who gave him the money so that he could continue studying and later, thanks to the College Council who appreciated his talent, the tuition fees were waived and furthermore they awarded him a small bursary.

A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)
A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)

In 1877, the year that his father died, the fifth Travelling Art Exhibition was held at the Moscow College of Art.  Isaac Levitan submitted two of his works with great hopes of a medal.  He had completed one of the works, Solnechnyi den Vesna (A Sunny Day, Spring) the previous year, whilst his other entry, Vecher (Evening) had been completed in 1877.  Levitan was disappointed in the judges’ decision.  He didn’t receive a medal for either work but was granted a diploma which allowed him to become an art teacher.

The year 1879 proved to be a year of turmoil and triumph for nineteen year old Levitan.  The turmoil occurred on the morning of April 20, 1879; Tsar Alexander II was attacked by a thirty-three year old former student, Alexander Soloviev, as he walked towards the Square of the Guards Staff.  The result of this assassination attempt was a crackdown on groups of people who were believed to be a threat to the Tsar.  The government issued an edict that there would be a mass deportation of Jews from the big cities of the Russian Empire.  This meant that Isaac’s family were forced to move out of the centre of Moscow to the eastern suburb of Saltykovka. Later that year, due to pressure on the local government officials by art lovers, Isaac Levitan was allowed to return to the city.

Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)
Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)

The triumph came that December, when Isaac entered his painting, Osenniy den Sokolniki (Autumn Day, Sokolniki) in the second students’ exhibition.  Levitan liked to paint views of different settings in the Moscow area. Considered to be one of the best works of this period is his poignant work entitled Autumn Day, Sokolniki, which he completed in 1879.   The painting reveals to us Levitan’s belief in the connection between nature and human feelings.  The painting is a depiction of a grey-clouded autumn sky and one can imagine the rustling sound of the wind through the trees causing the dying leaves to fall to the ground.  The path which disappears into the distance is the focal point of the painting.  It is empty with the exception of a woman dressed in black, who strolls towards us.

This work of art by Levitan was his reminder of his joy of walking along the forest path of his beloved Sokolniki Park.  The park lies to the northeast of the city and was so named because of its connection with falconry which took place there and was the favourite sport of members of the royal court (sokol is the Russian word for falcon).  This work of art received great revues and the following year it was purchased by the art collector and philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  This marked the initial public recognition of Isaac Levitan and his art.  The painting can now be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It was around the end of the 1870’s that Isaac Levitan met the writer Anton Chekhov.  The meeting came about as Anton’s brother, Nikolai, was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow College of Art.  This was to be a friendship which lasted all Levitan’s life.

In my next blog I will continue looking at the life of Isaac Levitan and feature some of his most important later works.

Zinaida Serebriakova – Part 2.

My blog today continues with a look at the life of the Russian painter, Zinaida Serebriakova.  At the end of my last entry I told you that she and her family’s life had been turned upside down by the onset of the October Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  Lenin, who was the leader of the Bolsheviks, wanted to keep the peasant classes on his side so when he made his attempt to overthrow the provisional Russian government, he ensured the neutrality of the peasants by offering them land, owned by the aristocracy.  The Revolution saw the riches, property and lands owned by the aristocratic classes being taken from them by the Bolsheviks and redistributed to the peasants.   That October, Serebriakova had been living at her family estate of Neskuchnoye when the Bolshevik forces descended upon her and her family.  When it was all over the reserves of Neskuchnoye had been plundered and the family was left without food.   Zinaida was left with nothing – no income, no husband, for he had been dragged off by the Bolsheviks and jailed and would die of typhus, which he contracted during incarceration, two years later.  Notwithstanding the fact that she was penniless and had no means to earn money, she was responsible for the upbringing of her four children as well as having to care for her widowed mother.    Zinaida was forced to give up oil painting in favour of the less expensive techniques of charcoal and pencil sketching

Zinaida eventually managed to get some work at the Kharkov Archaeological Museum, where she made pencil drawings of the exhibits.   In December 1920 she and her family went to live with her grandfather who had an apartment in Petrograd.    Petrograd had formerly been known as St Petersburg but when World War I broke out in August 1914 it was decided to change the name of the Russian capital from the Germanic  St. Petersburg to the more Russian equivalent, Petrograd.  It was not until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the city reverted back to the name of St Petersburg.   Because of a Bolshevik dictate which stated that all inhabitants of private apartments had to share their living space with other people, Zinaida found herself sharing her lodgings with artists from the Moscow Art Theatre.

In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)
In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)

Serebriakova’s work during this period focused on theatre life. It was around this time that her daughter Tatyana became interested in ballet and her mother managed to get her enrolled at the prestigious ballet school of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, the home of the Russian Ballet, where Zinaida’s uncle, Alexander Benois was the scenic director.   Much of Zinaida’s time was absorbed by the theatre and she produced a series of exquisite pastels on the balletic life at the theatre.  Many of her works showed young ballerinas in their dressing room preparing to go on stage.

In 1924 Zinaida Serebriakova got the offer of work in Paris and with some financial help from her uncle Alexander Benois, she left St Petersburg and headed to the French capital, leaving behind her four children with her ailing mother.  A few years later Zinaida managed to bring her son Alexander and her daughter Katya to live with her in Paris but her son Yevgenyi and her daughter Tatiana had to remain in Russia with their grandmother, and it was not until 1960 that she was able to have Tatiana visit her in Paris.

Zinaida was now one of many Russian exiles living in Paris who could not return to her homeland.   She earned a living by painting society portraits. Her children also often featured in her work, and her daughter often posed in the nude.   She also painted other female models, reclining in her studio with patterned wraps and decorative drapes. These works were of a very informal nature and often highly erotic.  According to her daughter Ekaterina these nude studies were probably the most intimate images of the female body in Russian art.   She later wrote:

“…The female nude was mother’s favourite subject. While she was in Russia young peasant women would pose for her. In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful…”

Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)
Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)

Zinaida completed one of her best known nude studies of her daughter, Ekaterina, in 1934, entitled Sleeping Nude (Katya).  It was a veritable masterpiece which is similar in imagery to the sleeping Venuses of the Venetian masters, the nymphs of Boucher and the bathers of Cabanel and Renoir.  In this work, Zinaida does not offer us some anonymous heroine from Greek mythological tales but presents us with an innocent young girl, who lies before us, totally relaxed, her cheeks flushed from sleep.  It is so natural and it is even more endearing knowing that the model for this painting was her twenty-two year old daughter, Katya who had modelled for her mother for the previous fifteen years.

Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)
Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)
by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)

In 1923, before Zinaida left for Paris she had painted a nude study of the then ten-year old Katya, entitled Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket), in which we see her young daughter, in all her innocence, sprawled across a blue blanket.

Zinaida’s uncle Alexander Benois, an artist, art critic and co-founder of the art magazine and movement Mir iskusstva (World of Art), commented on the way his niece had portrayed her naked young women.  He wrote:

“…[Her nude studies were] not by a generalised sensuality but by something specific, which we recognise from our literature, from our music, from our personal experiences. This is truly the flesh of our flesh. Here is that grace, that comfortable languor, that cosy, domesticated side to Eros – all of which are actually more alluring, more subtle and sometimes more perfidious, more dangerous than what Gauguin found on Tahiti and in search of which blasé Europeans left their pampered life at home and set off in the footsteps of Pierre Loti, across the whole of the white, yellow and black world…”

Zinaida Serebriakova’s nudes were always dignified, self-assured and classically beautiful.  She created the most sensual and intimate images of the female body in the Russian art and remained true to the Neo-Romantic tradition and her classical training.  At an exhibition of Russian art at the Midi Fair in Brussels in 1928, people noted Serebriakova’s ‘nude’ oeuvre and it was here that she met the industrialist, the Belgian nobleman, Baron de Brouwer.   So impressed was he with her work that he became her patron and commissioned her to paint portraits of his family.

Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)
Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)

De Brouwer also financed her painting trip to Morocco where he owned a plantation.  Zinaida set off for North Africa on her own and fell in love with the colour and light Morocco afforded her.  The baron had wanted her to bring back paintings of the area and its people.  He had also said that he had wanted to some nude studies of the Arab women but Zinaiad found this very difficult to achieve.  She wrote:

“…He (Brouwer) wants nude paintings of the lovely native women, but it’s a fantasy hardly worth dreaming about – even in their veils which cover everything but their eyes nobody will pose for me. There is no question of a nude…”

However she did return with many paintings of the area and the Arab and Berber women, some of whom she had even managed, with much haggling and offers of financial rewards, to get some to pose in the nude but it was difficult.  She wrote of this time:

“…As soon as you sit to draw the women walk away – Arabs don’t wish to be drawn, so they immediately close up their shops or charge up to 10 or 20 francs for tea an hour!…”

De Brouwer was delighted with the works Zinaida brought back from North Africa, so much so, that he commissioned her to paint a series of murals for his villa Manoir du Relais in Pommeroeul near Mons, in Belgium.  Zinaida customized the theme of this mural series to that which appealed to her patron.  The baron had a love of classical art, which of course was ideal for somebody like Zinaida who had a talent for painting portraits of the naked human form.  She set about the commission and decided to paint four separate vertical panels each displaying a standing nude,  each with their allegorical attributes which in some way would mirror the leisure activities and talents of de Brouwer.

Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)
Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)

One of the figures would be Jurisprudence, which would represent the baron’s career as a lawyer.  A second would be Flora, which would symbolize his passion for gardening, his plantations and his love of flowers.   Light, would be another figure which referred to his role as a director of power and gas plants and finally Art which would embody his interest and patronage of the arts.  For Zinaida there could only be one possible candidate for the role of model for the four nudes, which would be depicted on the four vertical panels.  It was to be her daughter Katya.  Her stance in each panel was to be different turning slightly for each depiction.  A further two large horizontal panels (145cms x 710cms) were also created and these depicted four maps in cartouches.  Zinaida left the painting of these to her son, Alexander, and these were of Flanders, Morocco, India and Patagonia. Next to the maps Zinaida had added half-seated female nudes which were initially intended to represent the four seasons, but she later changed their titles to the countries represented on the maps they adorned. Years later, Zinaida wrote about this commission:

“…The assignment was to paint decorative geographical maps in the 18th-century style, single-tined (my son did the maps); and I painted in the corners of the maps, against that background, the images of the ‘four seasons’ (summer with a sheaf, spring with flowers, etc.), and four figures standing in ‘niches’ on another wall. I painted all this in Paris and, unfortunately, did not see how all this looked on the walls, because the house was not quite ready yet, and the residents were yet to move in … during the war the area was a battlefront, and de Brouwer’s summer house was destroyed…”

Even more pleasing to Zinaida’s was the comments by her artist brother Yevgeni Lanceray, who on seeing photographs of the paintings wrote to her:

“…I love them..You have exactly that which others around you do not – an understanding of composition. The panels are excellent in the simplicity of their execution, completeness of shape, and so monumental and decorative. You completely understand the form of objects. Particularly difficult, I think, is the panel Jurisprudence… It is especially elegant and richly executed. In everything is simplicity and parsimony, so to speak, of decoration and attributes. I envy you your ease, your flexibility, and how broad and accomplished is your representation of the body…”

Nadezhda Tregub of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow wrote about the four nude figures:

“…These murals can be considered entirely cosmopolitan works: they were accomplished on a commission from Belgium, by an artist from Russia who worked in France, and who drew on the major achievements of all European art…”

Sadly the baron and his wife did not have much time to enjoy the murals which were completed in 1937/8 as both died during the Second World War, and it was also thought that their house had also been destroyed. In fact this assumption was incorrect as the house remained standing and even changed ownership a number of times. The murals also remained untouched for over 70 years, but curiously the owners did not recognise the work as being done by Zinaida.  They thought they had been executed by an unknown Flemmish artist.

In 1966 a large exhibition of Zinaida Serebryakova’s works was mounted in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev and the critics loved what they saw.  In September of the following year Zinaida died in Paris, at the age of eighty-two. She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris.  The cemetery is a burial place for more than 10,000 Russian emigrants, including the celebrated ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev.

Zinaida Serebriakova. Part 1

House of Cards (1919)by Zinaida Seberiakova
House of Cards (1919)
by Zinaida Seberiakova

One of the most pleasing aspects of this blog for me is discovering artists I had never heard of before.  It is an even greater pleasure when the “new-to-me” artist is a female for I am often made aware in my look at the lives of painters, the difficulty it has been for a female artist to attain credit for her ability.  In the past I have looked at works by Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Gabriele Münter and Vigée Le Brun, to mention just a few, and I have been mesmerised by their works and the passion that went into them.   In my next couple of blogs, I want to introduce you to Zinaida Serebriakova, one of the greatest Russian female artists, whose life story is enthralling and whose works are entrancing.

Zinaida Serebriakova, née Lanceray, was born in 1884, on the family estate of Neskuchnoye, near Kharkov, which now lies in Ukraine. She is descended from two great wealthy and powerful Russian dynasties.  On her father’s side there was the Russian Lanceray dynasty and on her mother’s side was the great Franco-Russian Benois family dynasty.  Zinaida’s father was the sculptor, graphic artist, and painter, Yevgeny Lanceray, who died when she was just two years of age and her mother was Ekaterina Benois.  Zinaida had two brothers, Nikolai and Yevgeny who also excelled artistically and many of her ancestors excelled artistically so it comes as no surprise when she showed both and interest and talent for drawing and painting.

Country Girl by Zinaida Serebriakova (1906)
Country Girl by Zinaida Serebriakova (1906)

Zinaida spent her childhood and youth split between living in St. Petersburg, where her grandfather the architect Nicholas Benois lived, and at the family estate of Neskuchnoye.    Her initial artistic tuition came in 1901 after she had completed her grammar school education the previous year, when at the age of seventeen, she enrolled at the Princess Tenisheva Art School in St Petersburg, where the lead tutor was the distinguished Russian painter and sculptor, Ilya Repin.  The following year she travelled to Italy and in 1903 she began a two year apprenticeship at the St Petersburg studio of the Russian portraitist Osip Braz.  Living in St. Petersburg she was able to visit the Hermitage Museum and gaze in wonderment at the classical paintings of the Masters.   Of all those artists which she admired, the one who stood out the most for her and was to influence her future work was her countryman, Alexey Gavrilovich Venetsianov.  He was famous for his paintings which focused on the simple life of ordinary people and the struggle for survival of the peasant classes.  He often painted portraits of the peasants and Zinaida was captivated by the innocence and virtuousness of his imagery and many of her future works would incorporate scenes from peasant life.  An example of this is the early work which she completed in 1906 entitled Country Girl.

Boris Serebriakov by Zinaida Serebriakova (c.1905)
Boris Serebriakov by Zinaida Serebriakova (c.1905)

Apart from seeing these works by Venetsianov, she was fortunate to live at Neskuchnoye and savour the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the tranquillity of country life.  She also spent much of her time completing portraits of her family members.  In 1905, Zinaida Lanceray married Boris Serebriakov, who was her first cousin.  They had met at Neskuchnoe whilst he was studying engineering and he would later become a railroad engineer.  Zanaida and her husband went off to Paris where she continued her art studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.  This art establishment which was founded three years earlier by the Swiss painter Martha Stettler operated as a ‘free’ academy, where art students, both professional and amateur alike could enter to draw and paint at will.

At the Dressing Table (Self Portrait) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1909)
At the Dressing Table (Self Portrait) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1909)

Her popularity as an artist took off shortly after she exhibited her Self Portrait at the exhibition held by the Union of Russian Artists in 1910.  It was a work she had completed the previous year and showed her image, as seen in a mirror, seated at her dressing table, combing her hair.  The painting can be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  Her uncle Alexander Benois wrote about this work:

“…A young woman lives in a remote country area … and has no other pleasure, no other aesthetic enjoyment on winter days that seclude her from the whole world, than to see her gay young face in the mirror and to watch the play of her bare arms and hands with a comb … Her face and everything else in the picture is young and fresh. There is not a trace of modernistic refinement. But the simple, real-life atmosphere, illuminated by youth, is joyous and lovely…”

 In 1916 Zinaida’s uncle, Alexander Benois was commissioned to decorate the Kazan Railway Station in Moscow and he invited her to help him by becoming part of his team. Serebriakova took on the theme of the Orient: India, Japan, Turkey, and Siam were represented allegorically in the form of beautiful women.  It is recognised that the work she produced between 1914 and 1917 were some of her best.

Bleaching Cloth by Zanaida Serebriakova (1917)
Bleaching Cloth by Zanaida Serebriakova (1917)

She created a series of works, the theme of which was the rural life she witnessed all around her.    In 1917 she completed one such painting entitled Bleaching Cloth which in some way is her homage to the female peasant workers.  Against a background formed by a blue sky and partly veiled by light greyish white clouds, we see the women hard at work in the fields with their bales of cloth.   The red, green and brown colour of the peasants’ clothes gives the painting a beautiful vibrancy and the figures seen against a very low horizon gives the depicted peasants a commanding and grandiose quality.    The work, measuring 142cms x 174cms,  was a testament to Zinaida’s talent as a monumental artist.  The painting is now held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The year 1917 proved to be her annus horriblis and changed her life and that of her family forever.   The Russian Revolution led by the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin started in October of that year and soon spread throughout the country.  The Bolsheviks believed that the working classes would, at some point, liberate themselves from the economic and political control of the ruling classes.  It was an uprising by the “have-nots against those who had” and as such the family estate owned by Zinaida’s family, where she was living was a target.  Much of the estate was taken over or destroyed.  All the reserves of Neskuchnoye had been plundered which resulted in the family suffering from hunger.  Her husband had been taken away by the Bolsheviks and was incarcerated in jail where he died of typhus in 1919.  Zinaida was left without any money and yet was responsible for her four children and her sick widowed mother.

This was a traumatic time in Zinaida’s life and it was in that very year that her husband died that she completed one of her most famous works and which is my featured painting of the day, entitled House of Cards which depicts her four orphaned children, Alexandre, Ekaterina, Eugene and Tatyana playing cards.  It is a tragic painting featuring her children, who probably could not understand what had happened to dramatically change their way of life.  Their safe and privileged existence had suddenly collapsed like a house of cards.

In my next blog I will take you through the story of the rest of Zinaida Serebriakova’s life story and have a look at some of her later works.

I and the Village and The Birthday by Marc Chagall

I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)
I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)

Having just completed my four part look at the quartet of Scottish Colourists I am turning to a painter from the same era but one who could not be more different in style.  For my blog today I want to look at the early life of and two fascinating paintings by the Russian-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall.  He was a painter of poetic, surreal images that to him, represented a topsy-turvy world, combining fantasy and spirituality with a modernist style

Chagall’s family home in Vitebsk

 Marc Chagall, a name he did not use until 1915 when he arrived in Paris,  was born Moishe Segal on the 7th of July 1887 in the small Jewish shetl of Liozna part of the town of Vitebsk, which was in the Russian Empire but now is situated in Belarus.   He was the eldest of nine children born into a Hasidic Jewish family.  His parents led a simple yet spartan life.  His mother Feige-Ite ran a small grocery shop from their home.  His grandfather worked as a teacher and a cantor in a local synagogue and had secured a position for Marc Chagall’s father as a clerk at a wholesale herring merchants but in Marc Chagall’s autobiography, My Life, he criticised his grandfather for his father’s placement and derided the job description of “clerk”.  He wrote:

“…My grandfather, a teacher of religion, could think of nothing better than to place my father – his eldest son, still a child – as a clerk with a firm of herring wholesalers, and his youngest son with a barber. No, my father was not a clerk, but, for thirty-two years, a plain workman. He lifted heavy barrels, and my heart used to twist like a Turkish pretzel as I watched him carrying those loads and stirring the little herrings with his frozen hands……Sometimes my father’s clothes would glisten with herring brine. The light played above him, besides him. But his face, now yellow, now clear, would sometimes break into a wan smile…”

 Chagall would always remember those early days of hardship and how hard his father worked to provide for his family.  In his 1922 autobiography, My Life, Chagall recalled those difficult times:

 “…Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot… There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands…”

 As a young child, Chagall went to the local heder, an elementary Jewish school in which children were taught to read the Torah and other books in Hebrew. Later he transferred to the local secular secondary school and it was here that young Chagall started to show an interest in art.  The fact that he, as a Jew, was allowed to go to the local secular school was in itself rather unusual as according to government dictates at the time, Jewish children were not allowed to study at secular schools.  In 1906 when Marc was nineteen years of age and with help from his mother, and despite his father’s protests, he enrolled at a private school of drawing, Artist Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting run by Yethuda Pen.  Yethuda Pen was a talented Jewish artist and art teacher and one of the outstanding figures of the Jewish Renaissance in Russian and Belarusian art.   Chagall remembers the day he first cast his eyes on the school and how it impressed him.  He recounted the time in his autobiography:

“…I learned about Pen when I was riding on a streetcar.  It was crossing the Cathedral Square and I saw a banner – white letters on blue: Artist Pen’s School. ‘What a cultured city is our Vitebsk,’ I thought...”

Later, in 1921, Chagall told his former tutor, Penn, about the day he first entered the college, accompanied by his mother, for an interview for a place on Penn’s art course and how nervous he was.  He wrote:

 “…I recall how, as a boy, I climbed the steps of your studio. And the tremor with which I awaited you: you were to decide my fate in my mother’s presence. I know how many other young boys in Vitebsk and the entire gubernia [administrative district] had their fates decided by you. For dozens of years your studio was the first to lure people in town… You have trained a vast generation of Jewish artists…”

He remained only a few months at Penn’s art school and in 1907 with little money, he left Vitebsk and headed for Saint Petersburg.  Chagall had already seen and felt the full force of the anti-Semitic Russian laws in his home town but they paled into insignificance compared to the discriminatory policies against Jews in Saint Petersburg.  However for Chagall these legal hardships and the fact that he had little money to live on, was of little consequence as he was now able to immerse himself in the whirlpool of artistic life.  These were also revolutionary times and the revolutionary mood of the Russian people against their Tsarist ruler could be seen in every-day life, through avant-garde magazines and art exhibitions which pioneered new and modern western art.  The art world was waking up to the new art of the French Fauves, the German Expressionists and the Italian Futurists.  This was an exciting time for the young Russian artist, Chagall, and this new art would greatly influence him.  Although he absorbed this new art and knew about the various artistic groupings, he was his own man and he wanted to stand alone and create his own unique artistic style.  The one thing Chagall was determined about was that he would never ever forget his childhood background and the people of Vitebsk.  He would never forget his family’s or his poor but happy upbringing and the family’s lowly status.  He would never forget the hand to mouth existence and the importance of the land and the farms that provided food for its people.  He would never forget the onion-shaped cupolas of the churches, the wooden houses with the grass roofs which helped insulate them.  His home town of Vitebsk was tattooed on his very heart and he would always remember it in his art with great affection.

Whilst living in St Petersburg Marc Chagall earned a living by working at the editorial office of the Russian-Jewish periodical, Voskhod.   He also carried on with his artistic studies first at the school of the Society for the Encouragement of Art Society of Art Supporters where he studied under the Russian painter and stage designer Nikolai Roerich and the following year he enrolled as a student at the Yelizaveta Zvantseva’s School of Drawing and Painting where one of his teachers was the great Russian artist and costume designer Leon Bakst.  Bakst had lived in Paris from 1893 to 1897, where he studied at the Académie Julian, and he would eventually persuade Chagall to head for the French capital, the then art capital of the world,  so as to best continue his artistic studies.

Bella Rosenfeldcourtesy of
Bella Rosenfeld

In 1909, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld who lived in his home town and had been visiting friends in St. Petersburg.   It was love at first sight and within a short time they had become engaged.   Although both Marc and Bella were from Vitebsk, their social worlds could not have been more different and for that reason Bella’s parents were very unhappy with the liaison.  Bella’s parents, Shmule and Alta Rosenfeld were extremely wealthy and ran a very successful jewellery business back in Vitebsk and had managed to put Bella through the best education culminating at the University of Moscow.  She was particularly interested in the workings of the theatre and in art, and whilst studying at university, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper.  Chagall’s love for Bella, who became his wife in 1915, was deep and enduring and in his autobiography he wrote with passion about his true love:

“… Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul…”

In 1910, Chagall held his first solo exhibition, which was in the editorial office of the St Petersburg avant-garde magazine Apollon.  One of the visitors to the exhibition was Maxim Vinaver, a lawyer and deputy of the State Duma.  Vinaver, who was one of the outstanding figures in Russian Jewry of his time. He played a distinguished role as a Jewish communal leader, as well as one of the leaders of the Liberal Cadet Party. He was always a champion of the Jewish cause and as a deputy in the Russian Duma, Vinaver organized the Society to Secure Equality for the Jews in Russia.  Impressed by the talent of Chagall, he became his patron and gave him a monetary scholarship and with this financial assistance Chagall was able to go to Paris to carry on his artistic studies.  It was on arriving in the French capital that Moishe Segal adopted the French-sounding pseudonym, Marc Chagall.

I will leave the life story of Marc Chagall at this stage of his life and return to it in a later blog but for now I want to look at two of his paintings.  The first painting, and one of his most famous, is entitled I and the Village, which he completed in 1911, whilst living in Paris.  It is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The painting on first sight is, like many of his works, unfathomable and one has to look carefully at all the elements depicted to try and understand what was going on in Chagall’s mind as he put brush to canvas.  It is a dream-like image with many overlapping elements.  This lively composition and the geometrical structures, such as lines, angles, triangles, circles, and squares clearly displays aspects of Cubism.  Some would have us believe that Chagall’s assortment of large and small circular forms are meant to depict the sun’s revolution within our solar system as well as the earth’s revolution around the sun, and the moon’s revolution around the earth. The moon being in the lower left of the painting is causing an eclipse of the sun.  However, maybe like me, this cosmic interpretation of the painting is possibly a step too far!

It is a collage of various objects.  It portrays the artist’s memories of the Hasidic Community of Vitebsk in which he was brought up, a peasant community, which relied heavily on the land and their animals for food. There are human and animal elements in the work which are both fragmented and randomly assembled to produce an abstract composition. The colours Chagall uses are vibrant and he has produced a severe contrast between the red, the green and the blue which he has liberally used.

Let us look more closely at the work and see if we can unravel the meaning of some of its elements.  If you look at the top right hand corner of the work you can make out a small town.  There is a church with its onion-shaped cupola and some brightly coloured houses some of which are upside down.   This inclusion, as he did in many of his works, is probably Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk and the fact that some of the houses are upturned could well be his way of illustrating that it is his town as visualised by him in his dream.  In front of the row of houses is man dressed in black with a scythe over his shoulder, presumably returning home after a hard day’s work in the fields.  In front of him is an upturned woman.   The woman, according to some descriptions is playing a violin.  However although people playing violins feature in many of Chagall’s works I beg to differ as far as this woman is concerned.  I have studied pictures of the painting, inverted it to see her better, and have concluded she is simply a peasant woman swinging her arms as if dancing.  I will let you decide.  This dream-like depiction of the peasant woman whether a violinist or a dancer could be a reference to the importance that music and dance played for entertainment for the people of Chagall’s erstwhile small Jewish community.

eye contact
Eye contact

The two main elements of the painting are, on the right, a green-faced man wearing a cap and on the left an animal.   The green colour of his face is an example of Fauvism where the colour used is not the one we would normally associate with in reality.  On the left is the head of an animal, possibly a horse or goat or cow.  On its cheek Chagall has painted an image of smaller goat or cow being milked.  If you look carefully you will see Chagall has drawn a line between the eye of the man and the eye of the animal and this probably refers to the close relationship, the inter-dependence between a peasant and his animal – a kind of “seeing eye to eye”, understanding the important relationship between man and beast.  The man, who wears a cross around his neck,  clutches hold of a small flowering branch, the seeds from which seem to be scattering, which could allude to the sowing of seed in the ground.

The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)
The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)

The reason why I chose Chagall for my blog today was because it was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to feature a painting which in some ways was the essence of true love between two people.  I could have gone for The Kiss by Gustave Klimt or Francesco Hayer or some other erotic and sensuous painting but I came across the painting by Chagall entitled Birthday and in a way it said everything to me about the love between two people.   Chagall painted the picture in 1915,  the year he married his beloved Bella Rosenfeld.  For Chagall his relationship with her was everything he could have wanted and I believe the couple in the painting are Marc and Bella.

Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)
Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)

Chagall painted Bella in many of his works and I believe this is one of them.  The painting depicts the man and the woman.  Although the woman’s face is clearly defined the man’s face is somewhat of a blur.   In the work we see them both seemingly elevated by their love for each other.  For them it was possible to float above the reality of the world and just enjoy each other’s company.  Look at the feet of the man and the woman.   They seem to be pointing in opposite directions.   Maybe he has given her the bunch of flowers and has walked past her but realises that the flowers without a kiss is not enough and so he literally bends over backwards to please his loved one by offering up a kiss.  She holds the flowers that he has given her and purses her lips in readiness for his kiss but he has walked past her.  However before disappointment can set in he returns, lips ready to kiss his beloved girl!  What could be more romantic?  However there is much more to this work of art than the two lovers.  Look at the amount of detail Chagall has put into the painting.  See how he has depicted the seeds of the watermelon which lies on the counter, the exotically detailed Indian blanket which lies on the bed and the blue lace fabric which hangs below the window.

I end by wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and hope that your loved one manages to bend over backwards for you !!!

The photo of Chagall’s home and Bella Rosenfeld were courtesy of

Compositions, Impressions and Improvisations by Kandinsky

Impression III (Concert) by Kandinsky (1911)

Impressions III (Concert) was painted by Kandinsky soon after he had attended a concert by Arnold Schonberg in Munich in 1911 and according to the exhibition catalogue notes the painting should be looked upon as:

 “…one of modern art’s most outstanding examples of synaesthesia, correspondences between music and painting that other early twentieth-century artists sought. A dynamic wave of yellow paint flows across the painting from left to right like a great swell of sound that seemingly reverberates to and fro. Above it in the upper half of the painting is an energetic black in a diagonal position. In the preparatory pencil sketches one can clearly decipher the scene with the open, black grand piano as well as the curved backs of the seated listeners and those standing along the wall…”


This is my final look at the later life of Wassily Kandinsky and some of his more abstract works of art.   In this blog I am featuring three of his these works, one from each of his three self-classified categories.   After 1910, Kandinsky decided to compartmentalise his work into three groups. The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation. They would be direct impressions of nature. The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type. The last category he termed Compositions. These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully, over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies. These were to be his most complicated works. Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  He would often add musical titles to his individual works such as Fugue, Opposing Chords or Funeral March.  By doing this, he wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well.

Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia.   Synaesthesia comes from two Greek words Syn which means together and Aesthesis which means sensation.   It is a condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. Kandinsky believed that colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Did Kandinsky have synaesthesia?  Maybe we will never know for sure but what we do know is that he was preoccupied all his life with the correlation between sound and colour. Following a performance of Wagner’s great opera Lohengrin in Moscow Kandinsky recalled:

“…I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me…”

Let me now return to his life story.  In my last blog we had reached the point when Kandinsky and some of his artist friends had set up Der Blaue Reiter group as a rival to their previous exhibiting association the NKVM (The Neue Künstlervereinigung München).    In the first exhibition held by the Der Blaue Reiter group, Kandinsky exhibited three of his works, entitled, Impression-Moscow, Improvisation 22 andthe painting which had been rejected by the NKVM jury, Composition V.  The exhibition came with a small almanac that Kandinsky and Franz Marc had been working on and the foreword of which set out to explain what visitors to the exhibition would see.  They wrote:

“…We are not seeking to propagate any precise or special form in this small exhibition.  Our purpose is to show, in the variety of forms here represented, how the inner wish of the artist takes shape in manifold forms…”

The exhibition which besides including works from artists, Kandinsky and Münter, included works from Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Henri Rousseau to name but a few.  It also included strange sketches by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It was a confusing mish-mash of works, and artistic styles, which totally baffled and stunned both viewers and art critics alike. Even the most benevolent critics found great difficulty in finding some sort of common ground between the various artistic styles on show.   It was also around the time of this first exhibition that Kandinsky published his book Uber das Gestige in Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) in which he presented the reader with his thoughts about what he envisioned was the new purpose of art and his writing showed the great diversity of Kandinsky’s intellectual and artistic awareness.  In his book he discussed the spiritual foundations of art and the nature of artistic creation.  He also wrote an analysis of colour, form and the role of the object in art, as well as the question of abstraction.

Improvisation 19 by Kandinsky (1911)

Improvisation 19 was completed by Kandinsky in 1911.  Annegret Hoberg, the curator at the Städtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus, Munich, which houses many of Kandinsky’s paintings, including this one, wrote about the painting in the exhibition catalogue:

“…It seems as if an unknown ritual occurs in Improvisation 19, a kind of initiation and enlightenment of figures who can be understood as novices. One sees translucent figures outlined only in black. On the left is a procession of smaller form presses forward to the front, followed by shades of colour. The largest part of the painting, however, is filled with a wonderful, supernatural blue, which also shines through the group of figures shown in profile on the right, who seem to move toward a goal outside the painting. The spiritual impact of these long, totally incorporeal figures draws both on the uniformity (that is, they are all the same height, as in Byzantine pictures of saints) and on the fact that deep blue, almost violet shade in their heads may symbolize extinction or transition….This work underscores Kandinsky’s almost messianic expectation of salvation through painting…”


The onset of World War I in 1914 affected Kandinsky, as being a Russian citizen, he had to leave Munich immediately.  He along with Gabriele Münter left and went to Goldach in Switzerland, a small town on Lake Konstanz.  They remained there until December of that year when Kandinsky went to Moscow and Münter travelled to Stockholm where she would remain and wait for him.  Kandinsky did go to Stockholm and met with Münter for the last time.  Their close relationship which had started back in 1902 had recently being deteriorating and by March 1916, it had run its course and the one-time lovers parted for the final time.  Kandinsky returned to Moscow and soon after his arrival in the Russian capital he met a young woman, Nina von Andreyevskaya, the daughter of a Russian general, and in February 1917 the two were married.

Whilst in Moscow Kandinsky spent much of his time not only painting but working as a teacher, writer and administrator.  He immersed himself in the cultural politics of Russia and collaborated in the new reforms in art education. He was director of the theatre and film section of Narkompros, which was the Peoples Commissariat for Enlightenment.  In February 1919 the Museums of Painterly Culture were established in Moscow and St Petersburg and Kandinsky became the first director of the institutions and worked hard to expand the organization by setting up a further twenty-two museums in the Russian provinces.    In May 1920 Kandinsky helped set up Inkhuk, the Institute for Artistic Culture and he formulated a curriculum for the teaching of art which was based on his strongly held belief that there was an inter-relationship between art and music and looked closely at fundamental forms and colours.  His theories did not go down with many of the Russian avant-garde artists on the staff of the institute.  They firmly rejected any kind of irrationality in the creative process and because of such differing views between these leading artists and himself Kandinsky found his position weakened and ultimately untenable.

In the autumn of 1921 a road to salvation was offered to him by Walter Gropius, a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School in Berlin, who invited Kandinsky and his wife to visit the school.  This was a different Germany from the one he left at the outbreak of war.  Many of his artist friends, such as Franz Marc and Auguste Macke, had been killed fighting in the war, whilst others had moved away.  The Berlin art scene had changed.  The Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement was now to the fore.   This grouping of German artists executed works in a realistic style, and they reflected what was characterized as the resignation and cynicism of the post-World War I period in Germany.   Leading protagonists of this style of art were George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckman.  Also popular at the time were the works of the Expressionists and the cultural movement known as Dadaism.  This movement was, in the main, a protest against the brutality of the War and the members were also against what they believed was an oppressive intellectual rigidity in both German art and its everyday society. All of these artistic genres were diametrically opposed to all forms of abstract art, and so when, on arrival in Berlin, Gropius offered him a professorship in the Bauhaus in Weimar, Kandinsky jumped at the chance to start a new life in a new city.

In 1924, an artist friend from his Munich days, Paul Jawlensky, introduced Kandinsky to the German art collector and art dealer, Emmy Scheyer.  At that meeting she also met Kandinsky’s fellow Bauhaus faculty members, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee.   She formed the four artists into an exhibition group called Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) and Scheyer became their representative in America.  The four artists often toured, sometimes as far as America, giving lectures and staging Blaue Vier art exhibitions.

When Kandinsky left Russia he had to leave the majority of his paintings behind. They were sold but the return on them was poor due to the falling value of the Russian currency.   However during his eleven years at the Bauhaus he completed over three hundred paintings and several hundred watercolours, all of which he catalogued.  His time at the Bauhaus ended in 1932.  The previous year had marked the start of a vitriolic campaign against the Bauhaus by the Nazi party and the following year they had it shut down.  Kandinsky and his wife fled from Germany and went to Paris and settled in a new apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine.  Kandinsky continued to paint and within twelve months living in Paris his output totaled an amazing 144 oil paintings and approximately 250 watercolours.   Kandinsky, although born in Russia, had been granted German citizenship in 1928 but when he tried to renew his passport in 1939, his request was declined.  That year, just before the start of World War II, Kandinsky managed to obtain French citizenship.

Composition IX by Kandinsky (1936)

Composition IX was completed by Kandinsky in 1936.  In the work we can make out multiple diagonal bands of colours and small shapes that resemble embryos as much as crustaceans.  This canvas earned Kandinsky criticism for not sufficiently articulating the background and the shapes. Nevertheless, it is one of the rare large format canvasses to which Kandinsky once again applied the name of Composition.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in art, he said that this one, of all his “Compositions”, was his most accomplished painting. In total, he completed only ten in all throughout his entire career. Sadly, when the French government purchased it for just 5000 francs rather than the 100,000 he had demanded, he felt quite humiliated.  This complex canvas is in fact one of the two works that the French State bought from Kandinsky during his lifetime.


His last known watercolours and drawings were completed in the summer of 1944 and he held his last exhibition at the Parisian gallery, Galerie L’Esquisse that same year.  Wassily Kandinsky died of arteriosclerosis in December 1944, aged 78.

I have to admit I have struggled with this blog, the third covering the life and times of Wassily Kandinsky.  I struggle to understand abstract art even though leading up to this offering I have read reams of information with regards this type of art.  I have included three of Kandinsky’s paintings, one from each of his designated “types”.   I will not insult those of you who are very knowledgeable about this form of art by trying to explain, interpret and analyse the works but have relied on exhibition catalogue descriptions of the works.   I would like to have ended this blog by saying how much I like the works of Kandinsky but to do so, would be extremely economic with the truth.  I will conclude this look at the life and works of Wassily Kandinsky with one of his quotes:

“…Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?…”

Have you managed the “walk about” ?

Grüngasse in Murmau by Wassily Kandinsky

Grüngasse in Murnau by Kandinsky (1909)

In my last blog I was following the life story of Wassily Kandinsky and had reached the juncture in his life, 1901, when he had opened up his own art school, Phalanxschule, in Munich.  The previous winter, along with help from some of his like-minded artist friends, he had launched the exhibiting association, known as the Phalanx, and they had held their first exhibition in August 1901.

First Phalanx Exhibition in 1901

Kandinsky designed the Art Nouveau styled poster advertising its opening.  In all the Phalanx held twelve exhibitions during its ten years in existence and it was in the seventh one in 1903 that works by Claude Monet were exhibited.  The tenth exhibition included a number of works by post-Impressionists such as Paul Signac, Felix Vallotton and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jugend magazine cover

In the final years of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the in-vogue artistic style in southern Germany was Jugendstil or as we may better know it, Art Nouveau.  The German word, Jugendstil means “youth style” and derives from the German cultural weekly publication Jugend.  The style-setting iconic magazine, founded by George Hirth, promoted the Art Nouveau style.  This up-and-coming art form was both artistically graceful and stylistically revolutionary. The Jugendstil artists and designers had their base around Munich, and while their work stylistically was likened to that of the French Art Nouveau of the fin de siècle era, the Jugendstil art depicted many Teutonic and mythological themes.  Probably due to this, many of Kandinsky’s works at that time consisted of figure studies, scenes of knights on horseback, scenes from romantic fairytales and some fanciful reminiscences that he clung to of his beloved Moscow.  The second Phalanx exhibition contained many Jugendstil works.

Kandinsky and his wife Anya Chimiakin separated by mutual consent in 1904 and he and his former Phalanxschule art student Gabriele Münter, who had become his lover, set off on a number of trips around Europe.  They travelled to the Netherlands and Tunisia in 1904.  The following year was spent in Italy and for a year between 1906 and 1907 the pair settled down Sèvres, a town in the outer suburbs of Paris.  During this stay he exhibited works at the avant-garde Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants.   At this time in Paris the art work of Gauguin, the Nabis, who were a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists, Matisse and other Fauves were being exhibited.  Fauvism was the first of the major avant-garde movements in European twentieth century art, and was characterised by paintings that used powerfully vivid, non-naturalistic and exuberant colours.   This exposure to fauvism resulted in Kandinsky starting to paint fauvist-inspired landscapes in which the manner he used colour quickly departed from the naturalistic and descriptive.  His use of colour was for reasons of expression, and in a lot of cases, non-naturalistic, motivations.  Colour to Kandinsky now became ever more important and as this importance grew in his mind, the less he painted post-Impressionist type landscapes. Kandinsky’s colours became more brilliant and vibrant.  Often his paintings around this time were large areas of solid bright colours set in sharp contrasts of light and dark and warm and cold.

Although travelling around Europe, Kandinsky always found time to return to Russia and exhibited some of his works at Moscow and St Petersburg exhibitions.   In 1908 Kandinsky and Münter returned to Munich.   From there, they often took painting trips to southern Germany, during which they visited the small town of Murnau, which nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.  Both Kandinsky and Münter fell in love with the sprawling landscape of this area and found great inspiration from the scenic views with its kaleidoscope of colours with the high Bavarian Alps acting as an awe-inspiring background.  The following year, the couple bought a house in the town and their two artist friends from Munich, Jawlensky and Werefkin often stayed with Kandinsky and Münter and together the group produced a number of wonderful landscape paintings and works depicting the town of Murnau itself.   One of these works was one done by Kandinsky in 1909 and is today’s featured painting.  It was an oil on cardboard painting entitled Grüngasse in Murmau which depicted one of the local streets in the town where he was living.

It was during the time the four artists lived under the same roof that conversation often turned to art and new forms of art.  The most important result of these artistic discussions was that gradually Kandinsky’s became more interested in abstraction in art,  in which representational forms, whether people or places, would increasingly melt away and be replaced by colours and basic shapes.  In this Abstract art, the painting did not depict a person, place or a thing in the natural world, even in an extremely distorted or exaggerated way.   So the subject of the painting was based on what you saw, such as colours, shapes, and simple brushstrokes.  Kandinsky believed that different colours provoked different emotions. He believed that the colour red was lively and confident; green was peaceful with inner strength; blue was deep and supernatural; yellow could be warm, exciting, and disturbing and white seemed silent but full of possibilities. Kandinsky had now also decided to compartmentalise his work into three categories.  The first he called Impressions and these paintings would still retain an element of naturalistic representation.  They would be direct impressions of nature.  The second category he deemed would be Improvisations and these paintings would convey  spontaneous emotional reactions inspired by events of a spiritual type.  The last category he termed Compositions.  These were paintings which were not done spontaneously but put together carefully over a period of time, following a number of preliminary studies.  These were to be his most complicated works.  Although the titles he gave to the three categories seems somewhat arbitrary in fact they harked back to his love of music and in the way he connected, in his own mind, art and music.  Kandinsky said of the connection between colour and music and of the connection between an artist and a musician:

“…Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, and the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul…”

In the spring of 1909, the four artist friends from the house in Murnau, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin along with Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, all of who had studied art in Munich, formed an exhibiting society known as The Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM)    (New Artists’ Association of Munich).  Their exhibitions were to be an alternative to established exhibitions. The aims of this newly formed group were laid out in the preamble to the founding circular of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München.  It stated aims were:

“…We believe that the artist is continuously collecting both impressions from the outer world of nature and experiences from an inner world. And that he is searching for artistic forms to express the interaction between these types of impressions, forms which must be free of all irrelevant detail in order to express only what is necessary in a powerful way – in short, the pursuit of an artistic synthesis. This seems to us to be a solution that currently unites increasing numbers of artists. In founding this association, we hope to create a physical form for intellectual relationships between artists and to make it possible to speak to the public with a single voice…”

The NKVM mounted their annual group exhibitions at Galerie Thannhauser in Munich. The first NKVM show at the Thannhauser Gallery was held in December 1909 and a total of 128 works of art were put on display.  The second exhibition followed in September 2010 and this was opened up to French and Russian avant-garde artists, such as Georges Braque, Picasso, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Alexander Mogilevsky.

Suddenly with these exhibitions Munich became the centre of avant-garde art.  These exhibitions of avant-garde and abstract art were not universally popular with the Munich art critics of the time.  They were very forthright in their condemnation of one of Kandinsky’s entries, Composition II, unanimously agreeing that the painting was simply the work of a madman or somebody high on drugs.

The third exhibition of the NKVM was set for December 2011 and artists were asked to submit their painting to the exhibition jury so they could be considered as suitable or not for inclusion in their third exhibition.  By 1911 Kandinsky’s work was becoming more abstract in nature and some of the groups fellow artists were starting to criticise his style.   One of his main submissions, Composition V, was rejected by the jury as being too big and not in accordance with their Society rules on size but it was thought that it was also considered to be too abstract.  This decision pleased some of the artists in the group and annoyed others, such as his close friends, Münter, Jawlensky and Werefkin and the German painters Franz Marc and August Mack, and a schism in the NKVM occurred.  Kandinsky immediately resigned and along with his supporters formed a new exhibition group to rival the NKVM.  The group was called Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  The origin of the name of this new group was once thought to have come from Kandinsky’s own painting which he completed in 1903 entitled Der Blaue Reiter but in Annette Vezin’s 1992 book, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, she wrote that Kandinsky wrote 20 year later that the name of the society came from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and his own love of riders, combined with the fact that he and Marc both loved the colour blue.  To further annoy the NKVM group, Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group decided to hold their first exhibition at the same time as the third exhibition of the NKVM and in a room next to theirs!

I will pause my story on the life of Kandinsky and in my next blog delve into his later life and the works he produced.

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

Barge-Haulers on the Volga by Ilia Repin (1873)

My blog today continues, as promised, with the Social Realism Movement in art.  Social Realism is a very broad term for painting or literature that comments on contemporary social political or economic conditions, usually from a left-wing viewpoint, in a realistic manner.  It was a way in which artists were able to draw attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor, and who were critical of the social structures that maintain these conditions.  As I am looking at a work by a Russian painter today it is important that we understand that Social Realism and Socialist Realism are quite different.  Social Realism evolved from the French Realism of the second half of the nineteenth century whereas Socialist Realism never came into being until the mid 1930’s when in 1934 Joseph Stalin made Socialist Realism the official art form of the USSR and later by the other Communist parties worldwide.  Socialist Realism demanded that all art must depict some aspect of man’s struggle toward socialist progress for a better life.   It was important to the communist regimes that Socialist Realism Art emphasized not just realism but the optimism and heroism of the people and the dictate was that all forms of experimentalism in art was to be looked upon as being degenerate and totally pessimistic.

One group of Soviet Realist artists, of which today’s featured painter was one, was the Peredvizhniki, which was also known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English.  This group of painters was formed in 1863 in St Petersburg as a protest at the academic restrictions of the official art center, the St Petersburg Academy of Arts.  Sounds familiar?  It should be, as in the past I have talked about the breakaway of artists from Academic control in both France and England.  The St Petersburg Academy, like other Academies in Western Europe, was associated with neoclassicism.   Neoclassicism was based on the ideal of beauty seen in ancient Greek and Roman art and looked to the Italian Renaissance.  The St Petersburg Academy of Arts was no different.  It wanted its student to depict not Russian subjects but more traditional art-historical themes: classical history, legends and myths.  In 1863, fourteen artists broke away from the Academy in protest of the proposed topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, which was to be the mythological subject of the Entrance of Odin into Valhalla. These fourteen painters believed that this subject was too remote from the real life of Russia and that the academic style of neoclassicism was much too constricting.   Having left the Academy, they organized themselves into a society on cooperative principles and developed their own educational program and in 1870 set up a touring group to exhibit their work known as the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions. The Society maintained its independence from state support and their travelling exhibitions allowed them to take their art, which illustrated the contemporary life of the people from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, to the provinces.

The artists adopted the style, which could be termed critical realism. Their aim was to depict their homeland and the life and history of their people from a truthful and democratic standpoint. The artists depicted the working class folk in a favourable and often heroic light but at the same time tore into their corrupt upper classes and aristocracy depicting them as oppressors and enemies of the workers.  Their paintings often highlighted the totally unacceptable and unbearable living conditions that the working class people had to endure.  It should be remembered that even though the first Russian Revolution was still more than 30 years away, and that unlike other Western European countries, Russia was a country where the political freedom to express oneself was strictly prohibited. However things were changing.  Tsar Nicholas I died in 1856 and a year later the Russian armies were defeated in the Crimea.  There was a hint of reform in the air but it was only in the arts, whether it be paintings, literature or the theatre that there was an opportunity to express one’s views.  With this in mind the members of the Peredvizhniki believed it was their duty to effect change to the living conditions of the working class. Our featured artist today, Ilya Repin wrote succinctly that artists come from the people and that the people expect art should reflect a clear understanding of conditions and nature.

Today’s featured work is second painting by Repin which I have looked at in a blog.   The first one was a painting, entitled Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk  (My Daily Art Display of August 29th 2011)   Today’s work is entitled Barge-Haulers on the Volga which he completed in 1873.   An alternative title is Burlacks on the Volga.   A burlak was a Russian nickname for a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. The word itself came from the Tatar word bujdak, ‘homeless’.  Before us is a river scene. The barge in the painting’s title is relegated to a minor role in the right background and if you look closely you will see in the distance, behind the barge, a small steam-powered boat, which makes us realise that at the time of the painting we were at the onset of the industrial age and the days of using human beings to haul barges was coming to an end.

The Barge Pullers

It is a magnificent portrayal of a group of eleven men, dressed in rags and bound with leather harnesses, who struggle with their backbreaking task at hand, the towing of a barge along the waters of the River Volga.  This painting is looked upon as being one of the best works of the Peredvizhniki movement.   The men we see before us are simply human pack mules.  This painting focuses on the difficult life endured by the peasantry at that time.  Look how Repin has portrayed the barge haulers.   It is a hot day and the men seem to be at the point of collapse and exhaustion as they lean forward in a desperate effort to keep the laden barge moving.   The painting is not just a testament to the peasant’s heroic efforts but it is a damning condemnation of the people that have set them this inhumane task.

The young optimist

There is an added touch of heroism.  Look at the line of men.  All but one of them is dressed in drably-coloured clothes.  In the middle of the line one man stands out from the others.  He is a fair-haired young man, dressed in slightly brighter colours.  He is not exhausted and bent over like the others.  He stands upright and proud as he looks out over the river.  He is not humiliated by his menial  and backbreaking task.  His spirit, unlike the others, is not broken.  He scans the horizon and in this gesture we realise he is not just scanning the river, he is looking to the future – his future. 

Repin, who was twenty-six at the time he started this work, formulated the idea for this painting during a summer holiday he spent near Stavropol, close to the river Volga in 1870.  He had spent three months there with his brother Vasily and friends. During that time he took a boat trip down the Volga and watched the gangs of barge haulers. Initially he made many oil sketches of the area and the men working on the riverbanks and the people we see in the painting were real people.  One was a former soldier, one and artist and one a defrocked priest.  The former priest’s name was Kanin, who became a good friend of Repin, and he can be seen as the lead hauler of the group wearing a bandana.  From the dialogue Repin had with the barge haulers he was shocked to find that at one time most of them had held relatively important positions in society but had since fallen on hard times.  Although not shown in this painting, there would often be women employed as barge haulers and the number in a barge-hauling gang would normally be more than the eleven Repin has depicted.

Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, who was looked upon as the most respected Russian critic during his lifetime, said of the way Repin depicted the barge haulers:

“…They are like a group of forest Hercules with their dishevelled heads, their sun-tanned chests, and their motionlessly hanging, strong-veined hands. What glances from untamed eyes, what distended nostrils, what iron muscles!…’

and of the painting itself, Stasov commented:

“….with a daring that is unprecedented amongst us [Repin] has abandoned all former conceptions of the ideal in art, and has plunged head first into the very heart of the people’s life, the people’s interests, and the people’s oppressive reality… no one in Russia has ever dared take on such a subject…”

Despite its critical message of how the upper classes badly treated its workers, the painting was bought by the Tsar’s second son.   After the Russian Revolution the art collection of the grand duke was nationalized and it is now housed in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

Repin commented on the paintings of the Russian Social Realist artists and what they achieved, saying:

 “…The pictures of those days made the viewer blush, to shiver and carefully look into himself…. They upset the public and directed it into the path of humaneness…”

Religious Procession in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin

Religious Processionin in Kursk Province by Ilya Repin (1883)

Ilya Efimovich Repin was born in 1844 in the town of Chuhuiv, now part of eastern Ukraine.  His parents were a family of military settlers.  Military Settlements in thise days were places which allowed the combination of military service and agricultural employment.   At the age of twelve, his art training took the form of an apprenticeship with the local icon painter, Ivan Bunakov and throughout his life religious representations remained of great importance to him.   When he was 19 he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and studied portraiture.  It was whilst at that artistic establishment that the Rebellion of the Fourteen took place in September 1863  The rebellion consisted of fourteen young artists who left the Academy in protest against its rigid neoclassical dicta and who refused to use mythological subjects for their diploma works.. The rebel artists insisted that art should be close to real life and they formed the Society of the Peredvizhniki to promote their own aesthetic ideals.  In order to reach the widest audience possible, the society organized regular travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian Empire. Later, Repin would be become a close friend and associate with some of them and fifteen years on after returning from Europe he would join the group.  But for the time Repin remained at the Academy and in 1871 won the prestigious Major Gold Medal award and received a scholarship to study abroad.

Repin went abroad in 1873 travelling around Italy before settling in Paris.  It was whilst he was in Paris that he came in contact with the Impressionists and their works which had a lasting effect upon his use of light and colour and he witnessed their first exhibition in 1874.  Although he never joined the group and was often critical of their style, which he considered too distant from reality, he was greatly influenced by some of the artists’ en plein air style of painting.  In 1876 he left Paris and returned home to Russia, settling down in Moscow.  During his period in Moscow he visited the country estate of Abramtsevo belonging to Savva Mamontov a wealthy Russina patron of the arts (See Valentin Serov – My Daily Art Display Feb 24th).    Following the Bolshevik Revolution Repin went to Kuokkola, Finland to live in the estate he had built and which he called Penates.  Repin produced his greatest works during the latter two decades of the nineteenth century although he continued painting well into the twentieth century.  Repin died in 1930 in Kuokkla, at the age of 86.   After the Winter War between Russia and Finland and the Continuation War between the two countries between 1939 and 1944, Kuokkala became Russian. In 1948, it was renamed Repino in honor of today’s artist Ilya Repin

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Religious Procession in Kursk Province and was completed by Repin in 1883.  This massive oil on canvas painting measures 175 x 280cms.   The setting for the painting is a time of drought and we see a large group of people crossing the parched earth.   The leaders of the procession carry aloft a miracle-working icon to a church which lies nearby.  What is interesting about the procession is that there is a great mix of people of various social standing in the community.   Scan the painting, look at the various characters Repkin has depicted.  He, by his portrayal of how the people are dressed, stresses the difference in their social status and highlights life’s inequalities.  Some are in rags whilst others are bedecked in rich caftans.  We focus our eyes on the young hunchback as he struggles along with his makeshift crutch totally focused on the icon, which is being held on the shoulders of the monks.  To him, it may mean salvation.  To him, life cannot get any worse and for him this procession will lead him to a better existence.  Compare that with the posture of the cavalry officer atop of his horse who oozes a kind of sanctimonious piety,  his attitude appears to be of one who only half believes in the power of the icon and who probably, unlike the hunchback, needs little that the icon can possibly offer anyway.  This is a “them and us” scene, a “have and have not” scenario, which Repin liked to depict in his realist paintings.  This was part of a slow build up to the revolution which would take another twenty years to arrive with its 1905 initial uprisings leading eventually to the ultimate revolution in 1917 which finally destroyed the Tsarist rule and the inequalities of life.  For Repkin this procession we see before us in this painting maybe an allegory for the slow but unyielding forward advance of the working classes towards social change.

Repin was a Realist painter and focused much of his work on the social dilemmas of his country.  He was aware of the inequalities of the Tsarist system and although that same system treated him well, he was aware that for a vast majority of his people, life was unfair.  Ivan Kramskoi, the Russian artist and critic and leading light of the Society of the Peredvizhniki of which Repin was a member, said of his Repkin’s perception of life’s inequalities:

“…Repkin has a gift for showing the peasant as he is.  I know many painters who show the moujik [Russian peasants], and they do it well but none can do so with as much talent as Repin…”

The painting hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and I would so like to stand in front of the painting and absorb the atmosphere that Repkin has conjured up in this magnificent work.