Russia And The Arts, The National Gallery, London, until 26 June 2016

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Russia And The Arts can be described very fairly as being ‘small but perfectly formed’. Within a compass of only twenty-six works, all drawn from a single institutional collection, that of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it offers a survey of a crucial epoch in the development of Russian culture. Here are the great writers and musicians of the period, who had a massive impact not only within their own country but also outside it, and whose fame still resonates in the world today. There are also a very few others – actors and singers, and three of the great impresario/patrons of the time: Pavel Tretyakov, Savva Mamontov and Ivan Morosov.

The exhibition is fascinating in more ways than one. Primarily, of course, for the creative importance of the personalities portrayed, and the vivid quality of the likenesses. Secondly, for the interest of being able to compare these portraits with those of equally important cultural greats of the same epoch who flourished in Britain. Thirdly, for what the paintings have to tell us about the development of Russian art in the Soviet Period that immediately followed, and which lasted for almost a century thereafter.

Best, perhaps to start with the second of these considerations, rather than going directly to the works themselves. Sad to relate, it would be hard to put together a gallery of likenesses of major creative Victorians of anything like the same artistic standard, whether from the NPG’s own collection, or by reaching out to other museums, in the British Isles or even, perhaps, elsewhere. There are, for example, no really distinguished portraits in the NPG’s possession of leading British composers from the relevant period. Elgar is represented by an academic bronze bust by an artist called Percival Hedley, best remembered, if at all, as a medallist. There are also drawings of Elgar by Sir William Rothenstein. There is one drawing by Rothenstein of Hubert Parry, but there seems to be no painted portrait of any distinction, at the NPG or elsewhere. Gustav Holst is there, in quite a nice painting by an extremely obscure artist named Millicent Woodforde, a friend of his family. Where musical grandees are concerned, there is nothing that comes even close to rivalling Ilya Repin’s astonishingly vivid likeness of the alcoholic composer Modest Mussorgsky, who died of drink before the painting was quite finished.

British mid- and late nineteenth-century writers fare a little better, but only a little. There are workman-like portraits by G.F. Watts of a number of major writers – Matthew Arnold, Browning, Thomas Carlyle, George Meredith, Tennyson – but nothing that startles with its insight. This despite the fact that Watts declared: ‘I paint ideas, not things’. Dickens, when young, is present at the NPG in a portrait by Daniel Maclise, best known for his vast historical paintings in the Houses of Parliament. Somewhat older, Dickens is also portrayed in a canvas by the slightly chilly Franco-Dutch Romantic, Ary Scheffer. Neither work offers any particularly sharp perception of the great novelist’s character.

What one encounters, in the portraits brought together in the Russian show at the National Portrait Gallery, is an astonishingly vivid reflection of a crucial moment in the development of Russian culture – the process of its transition into what we now think of as the modern world, the world that we ourselves inhabit. One looks, for example at two other images of writers. The likeness of Dostoevsky by Vassily Perov is well known. The catalogue of the show rightly claims that it has ‘a tension that speaks of a fiercely creative but unquiet mind.’ Less celebrated is the likeness of Turgenev, painted by Repin. Here the catalogue notes – and it is in fact impossible to miss – the sense of unease that the portrait conveys: ‘perhaps [it] reflects the caginess of a long term émigré in the face of a talented young compatriot whose star was in the ascendant back home’.

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898

Repin and Perov were prominent members of the group of artists called the Peredvizhniki – the Association of Travelling Art Exhibits, sometimes called the Wanderers in English. A number of other members are represented in the NPG show – Nikolai Ge, Ivan Kramskoy, Nikolai Kuznetsov, Valentin Serov – often, as is the case with Repin and Perov, with more than one work. In fact, this gets close to being a celebration of he centrality of this group of artists during a crucial period of the development of Russian art. One of their major aims was to democratize art. Beginning as opponents of the official art world of their time, but quite rapidly accepted, as Pavel Tretyakov’s steadfast patronage demonstrates, the Peredvizhniki aimed to reflect contemporary life, also to reinterpret Russian history, and in doing so to make art accessible to as widespread an audience as possible. Though their dominance was challenged in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and still more so in the decade immediately before the Bolshevik Revolution, they were in fact the direct ancestors of the Socialist Realism promoted by the Soviet government from 1923 onwards.

If one looks at Matthew Cullerne Bown’s Socialist Realist Painting (Yale University Press, 1998), a lavishly illustrated and extremely comprehensive book on this subject, it is impossible to miss the basic fact that the Peredvizhniki were the undoubted ancestors of what happened to Russian art during the Soviet period. Their work offered the basic stylistic foundations for the propaganda art now demanded by the new regime. What was corrupt was that the artists were no longer free to say what they wanted to say. Instead they had to say what the regime and its apparatchiks told them to say.

When the regime began to lose its Stalinist mixture of self-righteousness and self-confidence, from about 1960 onwards a somewhat more nuanced art emerged. It only acquired its present name, the Severe Style (from the critic Aleksandr Kamenski) as late as 1969. Cullerne Bown defines the term as follows: ‘In Russian the phrase is surovyi stil, and it presents some problems in translation. The Russian word surovyi may mean ‘severe’, ‘rigorous’, ‘bleak’, ‘austere’ or ‘stern’ in various senses’.

The merits of the best painters of this group, among them, for example, the powerful Geli Korshev, continue to be recognized within post-Soviet Russia, through they have been largely ignored outside, in favor of so-called Nonconformists. Looking at their work, it is hard not to recognize its strong likeness to the nineteenth-century Russian paintings on view at the NPG. To quote Cullerne Bown again:

The new outlook was manifest in the changes in the nature of the protagonist in painting. The critic Aleksandr Morozov saw the end of the 1960s as a turning point, after which the protagonist of a painting ceased to be merely ‘a sign of a social situation which completely defines the content of the image’. Private, rather than social values now determined the nature and content of a painted figure.

One looks again at Repin’s portrait of Turgenev and notes how neatly this description, written long after it was painted in 1874, fits the image.

One major difference, however, is that Severe Style paintings from the 1960s and 1970s fairly seldom depict ranking members of the Russian intelligentsia, still distrusted by those who had political control. The exemplars the paintings offer are most usually members of a by this time somewhat less-idealized proletariat.

One of the fascinating aspects of the NPG exhibition, in sharp contrast to this, is the image it offers of an integrated intellectual elite. To some extent this existed at that time in all European societies. In Britain for, example, if one looks at the connections of Edward Burne-Jones, the chief figure in the second phase of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, one finds that he was the uncle-by-marriage both to a Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and also to a famous writer, the prophet of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling. This, in addition to being brother-in-law to another celebrated painter, Edward Poynter. In nineteenth-century Russia this elite creative class was even more tightly knit.

In the Post-Modern age here in the West there is of course a great deal of leftwing attitudinizing among supposedly avant-garde artists and their 140 supporters. The most recent Venice Biennale, for example, was full of it, complete with ritual public readings from Das Kapital by Karl Marx. In our age of mass communication it is difficult to see that this kind of agitprop activity has any practical effect. There are now available much more efficient ways of communicating ideas of this kind. One of the things that Russia and The Arts commemorates is a time, and also a place, where the arts did indeed have real political force. The avant-garde of today longs to possess what these gifted Russian artists and their distinguished subjects were so fully in command of.

Edward Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 at Kingston, Jamaica. He moved to Britain in 1946, and was educated at King’s School Canterbury and Merton College, Oxford. He is now an internationally known art critic and historian, who is also a published poet and a practicing photographer. He has published more than a hundred books in all, chiefly but not exclusively about contemporary art. A number of his books are used as standard texts throughout the world. Among the languages in which they have appeared is Chinese, Arabic and Farsi.

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