From Russia With Love

'WHEAT. WHEAT FIELDS. RED FIELD. AN enormous amount of wheat." These words, torn from Woody Allen's satirical epic "Love and Death," spring to mind when viewing the new exhibit at the Fogg Art Museum, Russia: The Land, the People: Russian Painting 1850-1910. In the Russia of the late nineteenth century, "Land" Wheat and "People" Peasants, at least if you take these paintings at face value.

The exhibition contains 62 paintings from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in Leningrad, and was organized by the Soviet Embassy and Ministry of Culture. A companion exhibition, New Horizons: American Painting 1840-1910, will travel to the Soviet Union in late 1987.

The two exhibitions represent the first exchange of paintings between the two countries since the signing of the cultural exchange agreement in 1985 in Geneva. Circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the exhibition will be shown in this country from October 1986 through July 1987 at galleries in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in Cambridge.

THE PAINTINGS ON VIEW IN the exhibitionare unfamiliar even to Americans at home in theworld of canvas and pigment. While the writers andmusicians of the period--Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,Chekhov, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky--have achievedworldwide fame, the visual artists remain largelyunknown outside of the Soviet Union. In the latenineteenth century Russian culture came into itsown, breaking free of the slavish imitation ofwestern norms that had plagued it since Peter theGreat first journeyed across the steppes in the1700s. The efforts of painters to forge a uniqueRussian artistic identity rivaled their literaryand musical counterparts in complexity, sincerityand originality.

In the years prior to those addressed in theexhibition, the Russian art world was dominated bythe Petersburg Academy of Arts, founded in 1757.The Academy set the standard of aestheticprinciples in the visual arts, and following theEuropean orthodoxy of the time, consideredidealized depictions of mythological subjects inthe neoclassical style the only acceptablerepresentation of genuine beauty. As a result,artists interested in peasant life, the landscape,or scenes from contemporary history were oftenexcluded from major exhibitions.

But around the middle of the nineteenth centurymany artists and critics became dissatisfied withthe establishment. The critic Vladimir Stasovurged a rejection of Western styles and ideals anda move toward "a national and original orientationin art." He called for Russian artists to rejectthe schools of European classicism and to developa new method of interpretation, allowing theartist "to paint a native landscape, and one inwhich he lived with nature, so as not to have toinvent each detail of his work, such as a foreignsky over a foreign land."

In response to this anti-academic feeling, atightly-knit association of some of the mosttalented painters formed a group known as thePeredvizhniki, or the Circle of Itinerants.Dedicated to the "fostering of love of art insociety," the Itinerants mounted travellingexhibitions of their work to provide theinhabitants of the provinces with the opportunityto keep up with the achievements of Russian art.In their painting, then, the Itinerants embodiedthe intellectual spirit of the age. Turning to thepeople both for the source and the end of theirart, they created a body of work intensely andself-consciously Russian in its character,execution and function.

This same mood characterized the politics ofthe period, most notably in the Classical Populismof Mikhailovsky and Lavrov. The intelligentsiaaimed to bridge the gap between themselves and thesoul of Russia, her peasantry, by "going to thepeople," to teach and to learn, to atone forlosing touch with the essence of their motherland.The culmination of this philosophy was a vastPopulist movement in the summer of 1873-4.

Even though the artists of the time were eagerto assert their economic and ideologicalindependence from the academic establishment, thegoals and practices of the Itinerant movementattained wide acceptance. The creed of thismovement was a realism in which the artists soughtto capture their subjects as they found them innature, leaving the idealized forms of the Academybehind. The exhibition traces the development ofthis new art from its origins to its demise at thebeginning of the twentieth century.

The paintings of this period fall into fourlarge categories: genre paintings, landscapes,historical works and portraits. Yet theorganization of the exhibit ignores thesedistinctions in subject, dividing the paintingsinstead according to period: the four rooms plusthe hallway in the Fogg roughly reflect theprogression of Russian realism, from its originsin the elevated social consciousness of the 1850sto the emergence of a more abstract art in theearly 1900s.

The first room of the exhibit contains worksdating from the 1850's through the early 1870's.This was a period of great social upheaval inRussia, culminating in the freeing of the serfs in1861. Nevertheless, the bulk of the populationcontinued to live in extreme poverty and hardship.Artists sought to convey the harsh realities ofpeasant life, to expose the grimness of themedieval legacy, by treating their subject matterwith a critical--and realistic--eye.

Vasilii Perov was one of the dominant figuresof the period, as well as a founding member of theCircle of the Itinerants. His work reflects anintense compassion for the suffering of thepeople, and his work comprises scenes of theeveryday tragedies of peasant life. In "A DrownedWoman," all the humiliation and injury of peasantliving is dramatized in one image of everydaytragedy: a peasant woman clad in black lies washedup on the shore, her hands and feet intertwinedwith seaweed. The yellows, browns and blacks ofthe painting are not beautiful, but they reflectPerov's artistic asceticism, his willingness tosacrifice prettiness for the sake of socialcommentary.

This first room also contains many finelandscapes, historical paintings and portraitsfrom the period. Arkhip Kuindzhi's landscape,"Lake Ladoga" (1870) is an early example of hiswork, but its vivid browns, yellows and blue-grayshow his concern that the nature he portrays notbe merely serene.

The Academy had particularly restricted thesubject matter and technique of historicalpaintings, forcing painters to depict solelyclassical and mythological subjects in anidealized style. The works of the 1860's,therefore, are strikingly novel in comparison.Nikolai Ge's "The Last Supper" (1866) reflectsthis change--the traditional scene is interpretedwith a remarkable new emphasis on thepsychological states of the figures, and Christ isportrayed with originality and expression.

DURING THE 1870s, NEW SOCIAL issues tiedto the emergence of capitalism replaced concernfor the legacy of serfdom, and the realistpainters turned their eye to these new problems.The image of the peasant dominated many canvassesof the period; as Lecturer in History andLiterature Cathy Frierson has pointed out, it wasthe objective of many realist painters to"penetrate and master the peasant soul." IvanKramskoi's portrait, "Mina Moiseev" is the firstwork to confront visitors to the exhibit, and itgives clear insight into the Itinerant painter'sdetermination to study the psychological behaviorof the peasant. Using a restricted palette,Kramskoi does not idealize his subject, and therealism captures a sense of the wisdom, kindnessand ruggedness in the subject.