First – apologies for my absence – but no excuses!
“There is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is in having lots to do and not doing it.” Mary Wilson Little is an American writer who understands.
But now I’m resolute, my musing is … if art is a window into a nation’s psyche, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is an illumination.
The Gallery started as the private manor-house of Pavel Tretyakov. He and his brother Sergei gathered a private collection, as wealthy patrons of the arts. Sergei collected international artists – but Pavel specialised in Russian art.
He didn’t just accumulate earlier works, but supported a group of artists who rejected (and were rejected by) the rules of the Academy and were the 19th century art-revolutionaries.
When he handed his collection to the State in 1892, it was a wonderfully representative survey of Russian art up to that time. Now, the Tretyakov covers work up till the Revolution. If you want modern work, there’s a “New” Tretyakov across town. But there’s more than enough to go on with here.
The rooms in the Gallery are organised chronologically, so you walk through the historical development of Russian painting – and if I can summarise the story it tells, as told to us by our guide…
Up till the time of Catherine the Great, Russian painting was entirely iconography. The rules there were strict, with set ways of representing the saints and holy ones. Of course sometimes the rules changed – and you can see which form of Orthodox belief was represented through, for example, whether the gesture of blessing was done with two (Old Believers) or three fingers (New).
So, for centuries, if you were an artist, that’s what you painted.
Catherine II came from a more cosmopolitan education as a Prussian Princess to marry Peter the Third, who was such a disappointment she deposed him and perhaps ordered his murder just to be sure. (If you look through the names of Russian rulers, there’s a pattern: each time you see a woman’s name, you know she got there through a coup e’tat; there was no other route to the top!)
Catherine had admired Peter III’s grandfather, Peter the Great, and set out to continue his drive to modernise and “Europeanise” Russia.
Hence – the development of “fine art” painting. A group of young painters were sent off to Europe, especially Italy, to study – and it’s their work in the first rooms. Portraits, yes, but blink again and they could be icons. That deeply inculcated way of seeing is there – as is the way of expressing what you’ve seen. The faces tell you nothing, but the status of the sitters is shown in their clothing and accessories.
Move on a room or two, and some context is starting to appear. A glimpse of (italianised) landscape in the background, perhaps an animal.
Symbolism is strong; the flowers shown with a woman indicate her status as maiden (bud), woman (bloom), mother (bloom with buds).
Then another room and within the space of a decade, character is starting to appear in the faces.
Then – landscapes. The move from iconography is complete. Now we’re looking at an environment.
Not yet a Russian environment – the early ones all look like Italy – but it’s still a “somewhere-else” within which people might place themselves in their imagination. Symbolism is still strong – almost every painting has a track, road or path which is shown as clear and easy – or rock-strewn and difficult.
It is still painting by rules. The Academy wrote and enforced those rules – and decreed the subject artists should focus on year by year.
Then, Revolution! A group of young artists – they called themselves the Wanderers – rebelled. It had taken about a hundred years since Catherine had started the process, but now art was determined to be liberated. Art is now telling Russian stories, romantic, and appalling, and the Wanderers will determine what they paint.
These are the artists that Pavel Tretyakov supported – and many rooms of his Gallery are dedicated to their work.
Some of the work is breathtaking in its scope
– and seeing huge paintings with adjoining walls full of the preparatory sketches, is a tremendous insight into the way that artists were now perceiving and portraying their world, a Russian world.
Significantly – there’s only one painting there where a subject is smiling. He’s one of a trio of successful hunters. Remember, random smiling is not “done” in Russia to this day – it indicates stupidity. There are people who think that everything done with a serious face is sensible. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799) was a German scientist and satirist – great combination!
There’s another which shows three Bogatyrs – folk heroes from around 1000AD, who together are said to represent the Russian character - humour (unsmiling of course), courage, and dedication to the protection of the homeland.
By now, my head is full, and my wits befuddled. Mani sits down to rest his back, and I am too slow to rescue him from one of the terrifying gallery guards who notices that he has a video camera and no sticky label showing that he’d paid to use it.
This is a favourite form of Russian revenue-gathering. Almost everywhere, you pay 100 or 200 roubles to take photos, on top of the entry price.
Mani objected and went for civil disobedience to make his point. (He was already grumpy at having had to check in his Swiss Army knife as we went through security.)
If I’d only been quicker to see her coming, I’d have slipped him my sticker – but as it was, he out-grumped her in a contest of mutually impenetrable accents.
And on we went…..