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.

Peasants were not the only subjects ofportraits, however. Ilya Repin, the dominant forcein Russian art in the last quarter of thenineteenth century and perhaps the most gifted ofthe Itinerants, is represented in the exhibitionby his portraits of the composer A. G. Rubinstein,of his daughter Vera Repina, of Council memberSemenov-Tian-Shanskii, and of his close friend LeoTolstoy.

Repin's genius was in capturing the inner worldof his subjects; in his portrait of his daughter,he uses a lighter palette to show the happy natureof the girl as she clasps a bouquet of flowers inan open field. Tolstoy, on the other hand, iscaptured in profound contemplation, theself-imposed simplicity of the author's later lifeaccented as much by his stance and costume as byhis countenance.

The second and third rooms of the exhibitdisplay other important works from the 70s and 80sthat reflect the social and intellectual turmoilof the period. Vasilii Maksimov's humorouslytitled genre scene, "It's All In The Past," (1889)shows the crumbling lifestyle of the countrygentry: an old woman dreams in front of her oncegrand, but now delapidated old house.

These figures could have auditioned forChekhov's The Cherry Orchard, underliningthe remarkable sensitivity that Russian artistscontinued to display toward the social trends oftheir time, compared to the rampant aestheticismof many of the French Impressionists and BritishPre-Raphaelites.

Vasilii Vereshchagi, an independent painter,depicted scenes from his travels as well as imagesof battles and bloodshed that had haunted Russiaafter the disastrous and bloody Crimean War. Thespontenaity of his "Mortally Wounded" (1873) showsmodern war's horrors: sketched in broadbrushstrokes, the lone soldier lunges toward us,clutching his wound instead of his gun which liesforgotten on the ground behind him.

Isaak Levitan was clearly the leading landscapepainter of the day, and the exhibition offersseveral fine examples of his work. In thesepaintings, we distinguish the distinct mark of theFrench Barbizon painters in his direct and simpletreatment of a nature without people or astory--the beauty of the colors, the naturalpoetry captured in the scene, shines throughLevitan's paintings.

Two especially impressive works, "The BirchGrove" (1885-89) and "Silence" (1898) reflect theinfluence of the later French impressionists aswell: the interplay of the light on the trees andin the water, the looser brushstrokes and thelighter pallette combine to reveal what thepainter Nesterov has described as "that which ishumble and innermost within every Russianlandscape--its soul, its charm."

INDEED, BEGINNING IN THE 1890s,landscapes came to dominate the Russian artisticvocabulary. According to Frierson, the land itselfbecame the subject of the paintings, while thepeasant became only one element in the broaderimage of the Russian countryside. Realism has beenabandoned in these paintings for a newromanticism, an idealized vision of naturestylistically closer to the middle ImpressionistsYet the land was Russian, even if the techniquewas French, and the works from this period arestill distinctly Russian in character.

Konstantin Korovin's works are a good example:in "On the Seashore in the Crimea" (1909) and"Portrait of F.I. Chaliapin" (1911) he avoids anysense of illusionistic depth, but uses broad,multi-directioned brushstrokes and flat,juxtaposed bright colors to give an impression ofthe atmosphere of a summer day.

The last room in the exhibit contains worksfrom the early years of this century, works whichreflect the emergence of new ideas in art as wellas life. Indeed, the connection between art andreality developed over the course of the lastcentury began to split during these years as theevents of the twentieth century forced artists tosearch for new sources, for a new individualismand originality.

Natalia Goncharova's "Grain Harvest"(1908)--the only work of a woman in theexhibit--is a superb example of the "primitivist"folk art. The painting reflects a deliberateattempt at distortion: the trees are blue, anoutline of a cat is painted broadside on the roofof the house, and the geometric regions of intensecolor are startling to say the least. But thesubject of the painting is still traditionalrather than abstract--we see three women hard atwork on the farm.

Vasilii Kandinsky, perhaps the mostinternationally famous artist in the exhibit, isrepresented by a small landscape. Againtraditional in subject, "The Summer Landscape"(1909) gives a hint of his future in its electricyellows, blues and greens, its complete avoidanceof aerial perspective and the almost abstractshape of the regions of colors. Clearly, theexhibit does not intend to provide in this lastroom a thorough indication of the direction ofmodern art at the beginning of the twentiethcentury. Rather, by showing the early works of thegreat Russian moderns, the exhibit tries tounderscore not the newness of these painters, buttheir origins in the traditions of Russianpainting.

It helps to have some knowledge about theRussia of this time period to appreciate howclosely the artists of the period molded thehistorical trends of Russian life into theirpaintings. It's sometimes hard to remember that atone time the visual arts were understood torequire a serious political and social content,when the political content of modern American arthas rarely risen above the fatuous. But even ifone can't tell a Romanov from a roman candle, theFogg's exhibit is an admirable introduction to theweltunshauung of a nation far tooimperfectly understood in America.