Review: Russia and the Arts – The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovksy

Although the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, Russia and the Arts, is nearing its end, I thought I would just say a few words. Being a student of Scandinavian art, it is only natural that my research interests extend to the same period in Russian art. A few years ago, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm staged an exhibition entitled The Peredvizhiniki – Pioneers of Russian Painting (29 September 2011 – 22 January 2012). This exhibition was co-curated by Dr Per Hedström (curator of the Nationalmuseum) and Professor David Jackson (a leading specialist in Russian and Scandinavian art, working at the University of Leeds). It was exciting and challenging, it positioned this group of Realist artists – among whom were the likes of Isaak Levitan, Ilya Repin, Vasily Perov and Valentin Serov – in a wider European context. It revealed an artistic sphere that came to exist in protest to academic restrictions, much like in Sweden, Denmark, and France; and which can be examined alongside its European neighbours.
Review: Russia and the Arts - The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovksy
Looking now at Dr Rosalind Polly-Blakesley’s, Russia and the Arts, in comparison. Polly-Blakesley is a specialist in Russian art and the Arts and Crafts movement at the University of Cambridge. It is a small exhibit, made up of only three rooms, with the information provided informing me that this is an exhibition of portraits of Russian artists, musicians, writers, socialites and patrons at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. I went in open-minded, excited to see what wonders had been brought to London – how maybe this was the moment that stereotypes of this geographical sphere of art would be debunked! It left me however feeling rather disenchanted: not with the works of art on display, for there are some incredible pieces, including Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s companion portraits of poets’ Anna Akhmatova and her husband Nikolai Gumile; but rather I was left feeling confused as to the intention of the exhibition.
Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia: Anna Akhmatova. (1914)
I use the Peredvizhiniki exhibition as a comparison, as it features many of the same artists and works, and many from the same collection – including Ilya Repin’s stunning portrait of Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Iskul von Hildenbandt. However in the case of the Stockholm exhibition, there was some cohesiveness to the theme; it did not attempt anything too great or too vague, but rather sought to represent a group of artists who reinvented and modernised the path of Russian art. Among the works shown were commissioned portraits as well as personal portraits, including Repin’s intimate painting of his son Yury Repin (see top image, second from left), and intrinsically Russian landscapes. In the case of the London display, the theme appears surplus to what the exhibit is actually concerned with: a representation of some of the key works from Pavel Tretyakov’s collection of portraits, which were later donated to the state, and now form the core part of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. It does not, as the title suggests – Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky – provide an insight into the people and culture of Russia during the time in question. The concept of the Peredvizhiniki as a group, for example, appears as a sideline context within the catalogue – with the information provided in the exhibition itself, remaining rather vague and generalised.
Ilya Repin: Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Iskul von Hildenbrandt. (1889)

I would nonetheless recommend a trip to to see Russia and the Arts, if not just for the paintings. However as an exhibition as a whole, it fails to contribute to the study of this period of art. It fails to add anything to what has already been studied and written. For an exhibition on Russian art to be staged in London I would have hoped for it to have been made relevant to an Anglophone audience. This is the challenge we face as art historians – take it from someone who is specialising in Scandinavian art at an English University – however, it is not something we can ignore. We need to make it familiar, draw comparisons, rather than merely studying these paintings in isolation. The artists displayed here, reveal not only the influence of French Realism and Impressionism, but in the portraits of Repin, for example, one might consider the influence of John Singer-Sargent, or even the Swedish portraitist Anders Zorn. These considerations are overlooked, or merely mentioned in passing. An exhibition should enlighten it’s viewer, teach them something, rather than, in my opinion, merely be a display of some pretty pictures.

If you can’t make it to the exhibition however, or you just don’t want to, I would still suggest purchasing the catalogue, for despite the shortcomings of the exhibition itself, the pictures are beautifully reproduced, and more context is provided. (I inadvertently bought the catalogue in Paris before even seeing the exhibition in London).
The Peredvizhiniki – Pioneers of Russian Painting 
Russia and the Arts – The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky 

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