Reading between the lines of realism


Special To The Japan Times

Nineteenth century Russia is far better known for its composers and writers than for its artists. While the likes of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy have a global resonance, the most famous Russian painters of the period remain internationally obscure. But this state of affairs is starting to change thanks to the rise of Russia and exhibitions such as “Ilya Repin: Master Works from the State Tretyakov Gallery” at Tokyo’s Bunkamura The Museum.

This follows on from the success of previous exhibitions of 19th-century Russian art in Japan, including 2009’s “Unforgettable Russia: Masterpieces from The State Tretyakov Gallery.” The show now on at the Bunkamura breaks new ground by focusing on a single 19th-century painter, with 57 oil paintings and 42 drawings by the man generally regarded by Russians as their most important painter of the 19th century: Ilya Repin.

Born of peasant stock in 1844, in what is now the Ukraine, Repin rose through his sheer talent, first as an apprentice icon painter for churches and then as a prize-winning student at the Academy of Arts in the then capital, St. Petersburg.

His arrival at the Academy in 1863 coincided with a period of ideological tumult, which stemmed from Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), and which resulted in the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This was a period of great change and uncertainty in Russia that was reflected not only in literature and music but also in Russian art, which at the time was still very subservient to Western European models.

Preceding Repin’s arrival at the Academy, Ivan Kramskoi, another leading painter of the period and later a close friend of Repin, led a group of Academy students in rebellion against the art subjects assigned by the academic board. Kramskoi and his followers believed that art should reflect social reality and serve a nationalist and populist purpose. This rebellion later led to the establishment of an independent group of artists called the Peredvizhniki (The Itinerants), which went on to dominate 19th-century Russian art.

It is this ideological and cultural ferment, caused by the volatile mixture of modernization, foreign influence, and national soul-searching, which makes the works of 19th-century Russian literature and classical music so enthralling. The thesis of this exhibition is that Repin’s art was just as much part of this epic cultural tale as the novels of Dostoyevsky or the compositions of Mussorgsky, a close friend of Repin.

In purely formal terms, this may not be apparent to modern audiences. At first glance, Repin’s canvasses seem anchored in a brilliant but unadventurous realism. Compared to, say, the redolent mysticism of the English Pre-Raphaelites or the visual revolution of France’s Impressionists, there is a lack of obvious avant-gardism.

Part of the reason for this was that Russia in the mid-19th century was a much tenser place than either England or France, with a much more sensitive cultural and intellectual environment. With strict censorship overlying dangerous ideological divisions, it was a society in which people learned to read between the lines and look for nuances. An artist like Repin could make powerful statements through comparatively subtle means, such as the mere choice of subject matter or the way he depicted certain elements.

This can be seen in “Barge Handlers on the Volga” (1870-73), his first true masterpiece, which caused a sensation and made him instantly famous. Although absent from this exhibition, this work is represented here by a preparatory sketch, some oil studies, and an excellent companion piece, “Barge Haulers Crossing a Ford” (1872). Revealing the artist’s intimacy with his subject, this group of works serves as an artistic endorsement of the heroic labor and endurance of the Russian masses.

Other works also give us a powerful sense of the Russian people. “Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk” (1881-1883), is also absent from the show but is again represented by associated works. In this masterwork, the key figure who emotionally activates the scene is a poor hunchback, scuttling along in the foreground. His posture is radiant with the simple faith of a believer and reveals the energy on which Czarist Russia ran. The exhibition brings us face to face with the hunchback in a powerful preparatory portrait.

One major work that is here is “They Did Not Expect Him” (1884-1888), depicting the return of a political exile from Siberia to the bosom of his family. The different emotions coursing through the faces of the family members reveals Repin’s ability to capture individual psychology and plug it into something greater.

Repin’s knack for human psychology is also revealed in a number of excellent individual portraits, but it is in his more ambitious and socially relevant works that you sense his greatness. These are paintings that draw you deeper into the story of Russia, and the deeper you go, the more it becomes apparent that Repin was an artist whose talent was equal to that of his great contemporaries in music and literature.

We have five pairs of tickets to give away for this exhibition. See the Ticket Giveaway below the Art Openings for details. “Ilya Repin: Master Works from the State Tretyakov Gallery” at Bunkamura The Museum runs till Oct 8; open 10 a.m-7 p.m. daily (Sat and Sun till 9 p.m.). ¥1,400.