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The Courtauld Institute of Art

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'Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky,' National Portrait Gallery, London

June 2, 2016

The ‘Vogue100’ show at the National Portrait Gallery is proudly boasted as its blockbuster, and it certainly is a dazzling draw. However, before venturing into the vast Vogue space veer right into the ‘Russia and the Arts’ exhibition, and languish in the calm before the stylish storm of bombast and swagger. The portraits in ‘Russia and the Arts’ modestly, yet majestically, occupy two rooms. The curators have abandoned any sort of chronological layout; a thematic organisation instead effectively ensures a reminder of Russian critics and writers, great novelists, actors, composers, patrons of the arts and poets. This arrangement also lays out an overview of Russian realism, impressionism and symbolism.     

 

‘Russia and the Arts’ offers a rare glimpse into the State Tretyakov’s portraits. Many of the exhibited works are integral elements of the museum’s permanent collection and have never before been prised from its walls; most have never left Russia. Pavel Tretyakov began accumulating portraits in the 1860s, unwavering in his quest to support Russian artists and commemorate crucial Russian figures. The bequest of Tretyakov’s collection to the city of Moscow in 1892 led to the founding of the State Tretyakov Museum.  

 

Penetrating, psychologically incisive portraits dominate the show. Vasily Perov’s portrait of Fedor Dostovesky (1872) hints at the weight of the sitter’s past (who was exiled to Siberia in penal servitude) by omitting any interior detail and employing powerful body language alone. Dostovesky’s fixated glare and perplexed interlacing fingers are effective vehicles of tormented contemplation. Less introspective, and more industrious are Nikolai Ge’s depiction of the writer Leo Tolstoy (1884) and Valentin Serov’s portrayal of the composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1898), each inundated by mounds of paper and with spot-lit, gleaming foreheads, as if to express enlightenment. Tolstoy writes furiously and Rimsky-Korsakov twirls his pen as if mid-conducting. Tretyakov commissioned Ilya Repin to paint another great composer Modest Mussorgsky (1881) on his deathbed. Repin highlights the effects of Mussorgsky’s drunken dissolute lifestyle through the shaggy head of hair, unkempt attire and watery blue eyes. But despite the figure’s distraction and dishevelment, a spark of energy and creativity dwindles across his drawn face. So intimate and approachable are these portraits that you may find yourself nose-to-canvas inspecting a brilliant survey of beards, from the fine and downy, as epitomised in Perov’s painting of Vladimir Dal (1872), to the rough and bristly, as exemplified in Ge’s representation of Alexander Herzen (1867).  

  

The show is not entirely sombre and serious; besides the martyr-like ideals and patriotic sense of duty, which various portraits exhibit, certain figures exude feisty character and arresting attitude. Haughtiness juxtaposes humility. The glowering actress, Maria Ermolova (Valentin Serov, 1905), turning her back on the trio of great novelists, Dostovesky, Turgenev and Tolstoy on the adjacent wall, radiates self-importance and superiority. Another full-length female figure, Baroness Vavara von Hildebrandt (1889) painted by Repin, hangs next to a soulful pair of poets. While the latter gaze distractedly into pastoral landscapes, the baroness peers, engaging and disdainful, through her hat net, her wrists dripping in gold jewellery. Tremendous energy is exhibited in Vrubel’s two portraits, his patron Savva Mamontov (1897), and his wife, Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (1898). The former is presented as stern and agitated and the latter frivolous and light-hearted, but both undeniably communicate living, vibrating presences. Disintegrated brushstrokes and patches of paintwork translate the figures’ dynamism.  

 

The last impression of the exhibition, Serov’s portrait of Ivan Morosoz (1910), satisfactorily echoes the show’s opening note, Repin’s portrait of Tretyakov (1901). Both of these celebrate pivotal patrons of Russian art. Although the first muses, with arms crossed in contemplation, and the second sits alert, addressing the viewer with a piercing scrutiny, they are similarly isolated and significantly foregrounded against their great art collections.  

 

 

‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky’ runs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 26 June 2016 (02073060055; www.npg.org.uk) 

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