The first-time traveller to Russia may well set out enthralled to see the rich harvest of European Old Master paintings in the Hermitage Museum, as well as the wondrous collection of European modern art now housed in its vast extension. The same traveller, however, might well return having been ‘converted’ to another remarkable body of art, the 19th century art tradition native to Russia itself. The Russians themselves are often more proud of their own, autonomous art tradition than they are of Catherine the Great’s imported foreign masterpieces. The Russian painters developed their form of Realism largely independently of Realist art in the rest of Europe, such as that of Gustave Courbet in France. And they did so in the face of the massive authority of the Imperial Art Academy in Russia. Art historians concede that this was a major renovation of art practice in Russia, against the stultifying effect of institutionalised practice.
In museums such as the State Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow) and the State Russian Museum (St Petersburg), visitors can marvel at the achievements of groups such as The Peredevizhniki (‘The Wanderers’, or ‘The Itinerants’), who rejected the lucrative but arid historicist themes of official academic art, and developed their own autonomous brand of realism to record political and social conditions in late Imperial Russia.
The munificence of Mr. Pavel Tretyiakov
The superb corpus of Wanderers’ works collected by Pavel Tretyakov (1832-98) and donated to the City of Moscow in 1892, amounts to a gallery of snapshots of Russia’s social problems in the decades before the revolution. It is a virtual roll-call of the many interlocking political and social problems that occupied the minds of educated and progressive people in the 19th century.
The historian of the Russian Revolution knows that art serves as a seismograph of deeper shifts in political and social attitudes. The art of the Peredvizhniki contains intimations of a deep malaise in Russian society regarding the traditional backwardness and the poverty of peasants, as well as the newly-created social problems of urban workers created by minister Witte’s program of accelerated industrialisation. These paintings are not clarion calls to revolution, but they are intimations of the social conscience that will lead to reform movements and, eventually, to revolutionary action. The two poles of Wanderer art are a humane sympathy – even indignation – for the poor and the oppressed, and a critical hostility to the tsardom, its police state and its ally, the Orthodox Church.
Criticism of the tsarist state
Of all the political features of later Imperial Russia, the tsardom itself was the most difficult to attack, at least directly. The persons of the Tsar Nicholas I and Nicholas II were still deemed to be sacred, and to rule by Divine Right, or by God’s will. Any criticism of the tsar was a criticism of God. This orthodoxy was backed by the massive spiritual power of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was itself one of the main pillars of Imperial power. This force was, if anything, more intimidating even than the activities of the Okhrana, or secret police. Finally, there was also a psychological impediment to open criticism of the monarch. For generations, Russians had seen the Tsar as ‘the loving father of the people’, and believed that he could do them no wrong. Moreover, they equally firmly believed that any problems in Russia could not be the fault of the ruler, but of his inept administration. Russian literature is littered with hostile representations of government officials, the most notable being Nikolai Gogol’s play, The Government Inspector (1836). Painters could make more oblique references to the existing order by criticising the Church.
Criticisms of the Russian Orthodox Church
Vasily Perov (1834-1882) was an early leader in this socially-aware realism. His Meal time at the Monastery (1876, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) is, first, a shockingly satirical depiction of the Russian clergy. It depicts Russian monks feasting in the luxurious surrounds of the monastery’s refectory. Ironically, this occurs under a statue of the crucified Christ, himself the apostle of renunciation and poverty, and the champion of the poor and the disinherited. Ironically, a poor beggar woman with children is completely ignored at right, while a supplicant male figure is berated at the far left by a priest, visibly annoyed at a delay in serving wine. Between these two poles of poverty, the monks represent extreme luxury, with their piled platters of food and glasses of wine. One inebriated monk appears to have collapsed on the ground. The upper classes are also implicated here: the decorated official and his wife who enter at right also ignore the begging woman. Perov was an established genre painting, but this work goes beyond a mere jovial depiction of everyday life. It transcends the titular subject, becoming an apocalyptic vision of Russian society as a whole, in a manner anticipating Ilya Repin’s monumental painting, The Procession.
Sympathy for the poor folk
Nikolai Kuznetsov’s Inspecting the Estate (1879, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) explores the power structures that dominated every aspect of peasant life. Kuznetsov was not of peasant origin; quite the contrary, he was born into a noble family in the Province of Kherson. His father owned an estate, and Nikolai almost certainly observed scenes in which the landowner – or his foreman – apprehended poachers who were hunting illegally on his land. The well-dressed owner sits in a light, high-speed cart, and shakes his whip at the poacher, who stands with the incriminating game lying at his feet. The hunting dog reiterates the aggression of the master. This is no mere rebuke: this will end up in the local court, which will always find in favour of the landowner.
Ilya Repin, the peasant who became painter of peasants
The leading figure of Russian realism was Ilya Repin. He had good credentials to take on such a subject. He knew poverty personally, having grown up in a poor peasant family. He had risen above it by taking on the career of a painter. He was one of the many liberal thinkers who not only noticed the social problems in Russia, but agonised over them. He wrote: “I am applying all my insignificant forces to try to give incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace—it begs to be captured on canvas.” He visited France and Italy (1873-1876), where he saw the radical work of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, both of whom showed scenes of modern life not merely as chronicles but as commentaries on contemporary society.
Repin began his career of social commentary with a painting that has become iconic: Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-1873, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg). He chanced upon this scene during a holiday in the Volga region in 1870, and used his academic sketching techniques to do multiple detailed studies of each figure. He struck difficulty with local peasants, who refused to pose for him – even as paid models – because they believed that their soul was lost once an image was made of them. Repin had to turn to ‘fallen’ figures, such as an ex-soldier and a dissolute priest, for his models.
True, his gang of just 11 people is not as large as in reality. It is also all-male, whereas whole gangs were often made up of women. (Indeed, Russian peasants tended to choose wives not for personality or good looks, but for strong shoulders and sturdy stature, which made them an asset to hire out for water carrying and barge-hauling!) He nonetheless captures the utter exhaustion – and hopelessness – of the poorest of the poor. Just one young recruit lifts his head with an expression of rejection and defiance, hinting at the spark of future rebellion. The painting, curiously, was purchased by one of the Tsar’s sons!
Repressing the Intelligentsia
The tsarist state also repressed members of the middle classes, especially the many members of the large, university-educated intelligentsia that devoted itself to scathing criticism of the regime.
Ilya Repin’s dramatic masterpiece, They did not expect him (1884-1887, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow) shows a young political radical returning unexpectedly from exile in Siberia to his middle-class family home. An old woman rises in amasement at the gaunt apparition of this victim of Russia’s Okhrana. Two children look in amasement at their lost father. The doyen of Russian revolutionary history, Orlando Figes, reminds us that the tsarist regime literally manufactured its own enemies: by repressing all forms of criticism – from moderate to radical – with equal brutality, it forced opposition into the extremist camp of assassinations and bomb-throwing.
This story of the liberal critique of the tsarist social order deserves far more systematic study of the sort done by David L. Jackson in his superlative The Wanderers and Critical Realism in nineteenth-century Russian Painting. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006). Visitors to Russia would also be well-advised to devote special attention to Ilya Repin’s greatest work, Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate (1880-1883, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), which offers a panoptical and apocalyptic vision of a chaotic, repressive, violent and unjust society lurching towards upheaval and revolution.
Dr Michael Adcock
Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.