Textile industrialist Pavel Tretyakov started collecting Russian paintings in the 1850s and continued until 1892, when he donated his collection of over 2,000 works to form the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery.
He not only collected but commissioned works, especially portraits of contemporary artists and musicians. This small but beautifully formed exhibition brings together 26 masterpieces of portraiture from the Tretyakov collection, covering the period 1867 to 1914, arguably the high point of Russia’s cultural history, a golden era in literature, music and the performing arts.
It is divided into themed areas: poets, patrons, composers and musicians, critics and writers, three great novelists and so on. Each theme is separately introduced and then each portrait has a lengthy wall label explaining who the subject is and their significance. In the 40 or so minutes it takes to read everything and look at the pictures carefully, you get a good sense of the extraordinary achievements of this culture over this special period.
This classic portrait of Mussorgsky was painted by Ilia Repin just days before the composer’s death in hospital, brought on by excessive alcohol consumption, at the age of just 42, a patron saint of the social disease which still plagues Russia.
As well as musicians like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, the show features portraits of well-known writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and, from the Revolutionary generation, the ill-fated poet Anna Akhmatova, alongside quite a few less well-known figures, actors such as Pelageia Strepetova, opera singers such as Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, and patrons of the arts such as Ivan Morozov.
The portrait of Morozov is by Valentin Serov, painted in 1910, towards the end of the period. Morozov came from a family famous for its patronage of the theatre and the arts. He personally built up a collection of post-impressionist painters which was big enough to influence the style of contemporary Russian artists, especially the 10 or so Matisses he owned, one of which – Fruit and Bronze – is brightly painted into the background here.
My favourite was Lensky as Shakespeare’s Petruchio by Ivan Kramskoy. It has an oddity, a realism and intensity, the realism of the face set off by the gorgeousness of the velvet costume and the chain studded with jewels.
One painter emerged as especially prolific, Ilia Repin. I counted 8 paintings by him out of the 26, of which the most striking were Mussorgsky the alcoholic showing off his proud Russian roots in dishevelled dressing gown and, at the opposite end of the scale of chic, the astonishing figure of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt.
I happen to be reading the historical novels of Alan Furst, set in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, and so am soaked in the atmosphere of violence spawned by the Russian Revolution and Civil War, followed by Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s – an irredeemably wicked unleashing of humanity’s most bestial urges which destroyed hundreds of millions of lives.
The seeds of all that were sown in the period covered by this exhibition, and it’s hard not to look for signs of it, especially in the troubled relationship so many of these figures had with ‘the West’ and/or with their own Russian tradition; simultaneously criticising the political and economic backwardness of their own society and yet despising the ‘decadent’ West for its superficiality and frivolity, for its ‘liberalism’, as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy so fervently did.
Dostoyevsky served 10 years of penal servitude in Siberia, an experience which is said to underpin the spiritual and psychological intensity of his novels. This portrait, painted by Vasily Perov in 1872, is the only one of Dostoyevsky painted from life. According to the commentary, Dostoyevsky became a figure of immense moral authority with the Russian public and the painting has, apparently, been reproduced on everything from stamps to biscuit tins. But for me he is an advocate of the glorification of suffering and a full-throated contempt for western ‘comfort’, which was to have such catastrophic consequences in Russia and then in Eastern Europe in the generations to come.
This is an unprecedented opportunity to see a group of masterpieces from one of painting’s golden ages, to revel in the range and depths of its achievements, and to ponder anew the depth of the tragedy which so quickly swept it all away.
- Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 26 June 2016
- Themes and portraits from the exhibition
- Ilia Repin – the Complete Works website
- Ivan Kramskoi Wikipedia article
- Russia is quite literally drinking itself to death
- Financial Times review by Jackie Wullschlager
Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions
- Giacometti: Pure Presence
- Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends
- The Great War in Portraits
- Man Ray Portraits
- Lucian Freud: Portraits