RUSSIAN ART (Part 5)

His immediate successor and fellow Muscovite, Basil Perov (1833-1882), was more fortunate, for he trained as an artist from boyhood. As a result his achievements are greater than Fedotov’s, for his pencil and brush kept pace with his powers of observation. His deep sincerity did not affect the lightness of his touch or curb his sense of humour, but the political conditions prevailing in Russia led him to select “ Purpose ” painting as his sphere. As a result Russia possesses a series of pictures no less revealing and incisive than Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress” or “Marriage a la Mode”. Perov’s pictures, however, do not form sets, but show single subjects such as “The Village Sermon”, “The Tea Party”, “The Repast” and “The Governess’s Arrival”. They fall short of Hogarth’s pictorial level because of the peculiar stiffness and restraint characteristic of the nineteenth century, and also because the grouping is less successful and the colour poorer, but they nevertheless have a definite aesthetic value in addition to their narrative interest.

A completely different trend appears in the work of Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858), who lived at practically the same date as Venetsianov. Many of Ivanov’s paintings are religious in theme and essentially religious in approach, for they show a deeply sincere spiritual conception as well as a keen sense of form and composition. He was the first Russian to express his religious emotions effortlessly and tellingly in the Western medium, and to create religious pictures in the Western style no less moving than many of the panels painted at an earlier date in the iconographic tradition. His studies of nudes remain surprisingly modern and deserve to rank with the most advanced contemporary Western work of that type (Plate 24A).

Nicholas Gay (1831-1894), a poor draughtsman, but likewise a genuinely religious artist, followed in Alexander Ivanov’s steps, unconsciously, it might even be said automatically, combining in his religious pictures Western naturalism with the Orthodox disregard for physical as opposed to spiritual beauty. This endowed his distorted, emaciated, unlovely figures with an absorbing intensity, to be seen particularly in a painting of the Crucifixion in the Russian Museum at Leningrad. His portraits arc less vivid, yet more spontaneous. They are excellent likenesses and, for all their kindliness, they are neither mannered nor sentimental, as was much nineteenth-century portraiture. His portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy is one of the most interesting ever painted of the writer, for it clearly reflects the contradictory elements that went to form his turbulent character.

(Talbot Rice T.)

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