Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky

If you are looking for a crash-course in the most important cultural figures in Russian history, then the National Portrait Gallery’s Russia and the Arts is a good place to start. The exhibition contains 26 portraits from Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery: a collection founded upon the avid Russian collector Pavel Tretyakov’s desire to assemble portraits celebrating Russia’s greatest cultural figures. This exhibition is therefore centred upon the exceptional musicians, writers, actors and patrons who created Russia’s exceptional cultural life from 1867 to 1914.

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin, 1881 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Modest Mussorgsky by Ilia Repin, 1881 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

With so many big names on show – from Tolstoy to Chekhov, and from Mussorgsky to Tchaikovsky – it can be difficult to judge whether we should value these portraits because they a good portraits, or because they give us an insight into how these great artists were perceived in their own times. In other words: are they good artworks in themselves, or does their importance only come from the importance of their sitter? The historical reception of Russian art may suggest the latter, as most people (myself included) would have difficult naming any Russian artist of importance from the period that the exhibition explores. The fact that the exhibition title names two of the sitters on display rather than the artists behind them indicates that even the curators recognise their greater importance – or at least their ability to draw more crowds.

Indeed, one does wonder if some paintings are included in the collection because of whom they depict rather than because of the quality of the portrait. Both the portraits of Anton Chekhov (1898) by Iosif Braz and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1898) by Valentin Serov, for example, are fairly unremarkable. There is also a tendency for the curators to draw too much on the sitter’s biography: the curator’s claim that the portrait of Tchaikovsky (1893) by Nikolai Kuznetzov depicts the composer’s misery and unease for being a repressed homosexual is a tad assuming given that it is unlikely the portraitist was aware of that.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Drawing on biography can also distract from a painting’s own qualities. In his painting of Fedor Dostoevsky (1872), Vasily Perov masterfully depicts a brooding but troubled man. The portrait has a thoughtful stillness, yet there is also an underlying tension created from Dostoevsky’s slightly raised soldiers and firmly but anxiously clasped fingers. The painting nevertheless still has its effect without the knowledge that it depicts a writer damaged by the years he spent in Siberian exile (something the curator’s are eager to point out).

There are nevertheless several portraits where the prestigious life of the sitter does not overshadow the painting itself, and these are easier to appreciate on their own terms. One such example is the portrait of patron and collector Ivan Morosov (1910) by Valentin Serov. That it reveals the influence of French modernism is in itself fairly inconsequential. Yet what makes this portrait so remarkable is how its crude and flat brushwork still manages to captures subtle details, such as the slight shine on Morosov’s forehead and nose.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, 1910 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov, 1910 | Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Serov is clearly an underrated artist, and one can hope that exhibitions such as this will bring him greater attention. It is the artist Illia Repin, however, who is the brightest unsung hero in this exhibition. A number of his works are on display, and two are particularly striking. In his portrait of the German virtuoso pianist Sophia Menter (1887), Repin achieves the nearly impossible task of showing the inner personality of his sitter. His depiction of her simultaneously asserting and alluring expression and a sense that she is both alert and at ease, gives what feels like a familiar insight into a multifaceted character.

Repin’s portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt (1889) shows an equally confident woman, except this Russian aristocrat is more distant. Part of the portrait’s allure is Repin’s depiction of a beautiful and proud woman that towers over its viewers. But it is the dramatic contrast between the intense red of her blouse against her rich black skirt – whose every crease and fold Repin revels in capturing – which makes this painting so striking.

We cannot know what Sophia Menter or Baroness von Hildenbrandt were really like, but the fact that Repin can make us believe we do undoubtedly reveals his mastery as a portraitist. Russia and the Arts therefore succeeds in bringing greater attention to the likes of Repin and other great but unknown Russian artists of the era. Yet the international renown of Russia’s ballet, music, literature and theatre continues to overshadow Russian art from the period 1867-1914, and in being focused on the big names from these fields, this exhibition still reflects this. Russia and the Arts is a small exhibition, and we cannot expect it to make a complete reassessment of Russian art. Yet with the presence of several excellent portraits, this exhibition can at least be the first step.

Russia and the Arts is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 June.

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