Water and its symbolism
Water is key to the formation of the world and human society. It is one of the four primeval elements from which, people once believed, the whole world was made. Water certainly was - and still is - the principal force whose eroding power forms the features of the land over aeons of geological time. Today it separates the earth's continents from each other. The first human settlements were made near water, beside lakes, rivers and sea shores. According to various ancient beliefs, water once drowned the whole world, and then receded to allow humankind to make a fresh beginning.
Water is still used to baptize people into various religions. It is the giver of life and the bringer of death. Without it the human body survives for just two days. It irrigates food crops and yet it may impartially obliterate thousands of people in a single tsunami. Frozen as snow and ice, it vanquishes armies. As fog it can make even brave sea captains fearful.
Water embraces all extremes from limpid tranquillity to cataclysmic violence. It is therefore not surprising then that water has been a pervasive element in art, architecture and landscape design. It has been used to symbolize the source and sustenance of life.
It has served as a representation of nature's mysteries, as a physical barrier and boundary, and as sparkling decoration. Painters have been fascinated with its misty, reflective qualities, and its ability to underline and sometimes represent a whole range of emotions. As marsh and lake, mist and snow, puddle and ocean, waterfall and driving rain, deadly flood and slow moss-banked stream, it has an extraordinary diversity of forms. But because it is contained and defined by the very land it has shaped, it can never exist entirely in isolation. Water always needs a physical or metaphorical container: it can exist meaningfully only within a context. For these reasons, the representation of water in painting is most frequently as an element of nature, implying that it is best understood in terms of landscape painting.
But this is not exactly always the case because water is also frequently employed in a symbolic way. In Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus', for example, the iconography of the myth demands that the sea be present because that is where Venus has sprung from - although in terms of composition the sea serves as an almost heraldic background device.
In the Curradi 'Narcissus at the Source', it is only a small part of the painting and yet we know that it is the water that initiated the whole process which leads the young man in the most extreme of transformations from human to vegetable form. In the Curradi painting it is not only the water but also the landscape that is an adjunct to the painting of the main figure.
But it is in paintings of nature - landscapes or seascapes - that water is deployed most expressively, whether it is in the glowing landscapes of Claude Lorrain, or in a painting such as Arkhip Kuinji's 'The Birch Grove'. In this, scarcely differentiated from the meadow to each side, the stream is used as a compositional device to lead the viewer's eye into the centre of the painting to create the extraordinary sense of depth which astonished the artist's critics.
In the great range of sea paintings by the prolific Ivan Aivazovskiy, it is significant that he chose the sea as the setting for his almost abstract 'The Creation of the World'. Here a mysterious red magma boils in the middle of an uncertain black cloud on the face of the water's seething vapour, with a febrile sun breaking through the cloud to cast a dim light on the heaving waters. This is God moving on the face of the Deep.
In Isaac Levitan's 'Beginning of the Spring', three forms of water - cloud, river and snow - are (apart from the brown branches recently released from their icy covering) the sole visual components of a painting to do with awakening and, perhaps, regret. And there are, as we shall see, many other variations in the use of water that painters have developed.
Levitan, Kuinji and, in a different way, Aivazovskiy painted water with a peculiarly Russian eye. They are as it happens painters of the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. One of the reasons Russian paintings of waterscapes and landscapes are of a relatively late date is that from the beginning of the eighteenth century Peter the Great and almost all of his successors in that century forced the Old Russia into a western mindset. Russian art was entirely derivative of European models and at first largely filtered by a Prussian vision, because Peter had brought in masters from Germany to teach aspiring Russian artists the ways of the West. As a result, the nation's artists were encouraged to think of themselves as part of the European mainstream, and were given grants to live, observe and paint abroad for long periods of time. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with a new western interest in landscape and landscape painting, Russian artists began to both value and encourage the painting of nature, mountains and water.
At first this was landscape viewed through the filters of a western-trained eye and consisted mostly of idyllic European scenery. But by the end of the century, Russian painting of water and land had become to do with the Russian landscape and identifiably took on a uniquely Russian character.
What was it about Russia itself that focused the attention of so many of its painters on water?
The country has the Pacific Ocean to the far east, and to the west is the Baltic Sea, with its gateway Saint Petersburg and the naval port of Kronstadt. South is the warm Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, with their resorts and trading ports fed by the great, broad waterway of the River Volga, which bisects the country into the East and West Empire. To the north, beyond the great wastes of the Siberian tundra, are the cold seas that form the mostly frozen Arctic Ocean. During the long winter, as Napoleon and Hitler discovered to their cost, much of Russia is frozen over.
Russia is geographically defined by its water in all of its three physical states: vapour, liquid and translucent solid. The brutality, manic depression, melancholy and gloom, which in many ways seem to typify the Russian national character, surely stem from a collective agoraphobia engendered by the country's grim winter climate of rain, mists, fogs, snow and ice. This is of course an oversimplification, for the south of Russia has a relatively equable climate - as the paintings of Aivazovskiy, who spent most of his life in the Crimea, nicely demonstrate. And the spring, summer and autumn could be delightful, as many of the painters of the late nineteenth century discovered.
But people need stereotypes, and the image of Russia held by foreigners and Russians alike has largely been of melancholy, tragedy and callous rawness among those frozen rivers, damp, fog-bound cities and ice-locked seas.
Even before Peter the Great built his new capital on the Neva, Russia's rivers, lakes and seas had formed a crucial transport network for the pastoral and often nomadic Russian people. In the late nineteenth century, Russia was not only a huge country, but still an essentially rural empire in which the boundless forests and plains were crisscrossed by streams, rivers and lakes which were ever mobile. They changed shape and colour as the seasons changed. Indeed there is a Russian Orthodox ceremony known as The Consecration of the Waters at Epiphany. The Volga, one of a group of great continental Russian rivers, is not merely an extremely long and broad waterway. It holds a special place for Russians as a massive artery that feeds the country's very heart, ranging from the wintry extremes of the north to the soft pleasures and seas of the south.
So Levitan, Kuinji, Aivazovskiy, Arkhipov and Repin, to name but a few of the great Russian painters of water, were not only celebrating a major feature of the visible landscape they knew, loved and so obsessively painted but were also celebrating an incredible gamut of emotions and moods. These range from stark terror to peaceful tranquillity, from deep sorrow to exalted musing, and from delightful contentment to uneasy foreboding.
Russian cities and waters
As a serious artistic activity, Russian painting really dates only from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Block put it, "Russian culture is a combination of cultures, we are a new country". Block's new country was actually synthetic and coldly calculated - created at the beginning of the eighteenth century with Peter the Great's westernization of Old Russia. This had often been carried out with great brutality. And in some ways so too had Peter's introduction of western culture, art and architecture. Russian society was originally tribal and backward, its art either primitive and decorative or religious. Then it was suddenly faced with the highly sophisticated art and architecture of the West. Peter's new capital, Saint Petersburg, was shaped as a model of the ideal European city, a kind of Venice or Amsterdam of the North, built on what had been the swampy delta of a river flowing into the Baltic Sea. And it was built by a man whose first love was the sea. Apart from its symbolic and political function, the new city was to be effectively a living textbook of the new western architecture, art and culture, set like jewels on the lid of a box floating on the waters of the Neva.
Saint Petersburg on the Neva
Begun in 1703, with the young Swiss-Italian Dominico Trezzini as Peter's architect in residence, Saint Petersburg had advanced just enough in 1712 for the Tsar to move his court there, although most of the buildings were still timber and arranged like a "heap of villages linked together", as a Hanoverian diplomat described it in 1714. Peter had been impressed by the canal facades of Amsterdam, and Trezzini did his best to incorporate this visual obsession in his early designs. In 1716, J.B.A. le Blond, a student of the great French architect and landscape designer Andre Lenotre, took over Trezzini's mantle and began designing and constructing the early public buildings and palaces in the new European classical manner for both the city centre and its hinterland, where the great families of the court began to establish estates.
At Peterhof, 18 miles (29 km) west of Saint Petersburg, he designed a series of huge gardens and parks incorporating massive waterworks for which a 15-mile (24-km) canal had to be dug. They were constructed in homage to the great Italian and French baroque landscape models. The new city was, as one modern commentator has put it, "an exotic plant in an alien land, with its symmetry and order, it was the symbol of Russia's longing to catch up with the West". Peter died in 1725 and one of his successors, Peter II, took the court back to Moscow immediately on his accession in 1727. In 1732 Empress Anna moved back to Saint Petersburg with her architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, and recommenced populating it with classical buildings, including the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. The European veneer was still thin even when Peter's daughter Elizabeth seized the throne in 1741. She introduced a variety of accomplished architects who worked in the refined rococo classical tradition.
But it was 1762, with Catherine the Great's ousting of her husband Tsar Peter III, that Russia really found itself having to become a European nation. Catherine was a passionate patron of the arts and a great builder of neoclassical architecture, especially at the Hermitage, whose walls she adorned with paintings of the great western masters: Raphael, Van Dyck, Teniers, Rembrandt and Poussin, as further exemplars of the heights of European culture. By the end of her reign Russia had taken its place among the nations of Europe. Although Saint Petersburg became a symbol of the new Europeanised society and a case study of how to be European, it nevertheless took time for the capital to grow and it achieved its final monumental classical form only in the third decade of the following century.
Saint Petersburg apart, Peter's westernisation of Russia had actually less to do with the arts than with technology and society. Just as Saint Petersburg was the work of more than a century, changing a society's thinking took time and dedication, especially when the court was deeply suspicious and reluctant at heart to embrace the ways of the West - as was much of the rest of the country.
In 1757 it was the Empress Elizabeth who founded the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Until then Peter the Great's successors had welcomed European painters to the Russian court. But most of those who came were only minor figures, and Russian artists trained by them had little impact. In the early years of Catherine's reign and patronage of the arts she ordered that the best of the new Academy students should be given travelling scholarships to paint in the great art centres of Europe. Moscow's College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture was to be instituted almost a century later in 1843, and it too continued the pattern of providing traveling scholarships for its artistic talent.
The tradition of supporting young artists for three or four years abroad was to continue right into the twentieth century. An early case in point is Karl Bryullov, who in 1821 graduated from the Academy. He and his architect brother saw at first hand the work of the masters he had admired from afar in Saint Petersburg: Durer, Correggio, Holbein and the Italian primitives. In 1823 in Venice he found himself in front of Tintoretto and Titian, then in Florence he discovered Raphael and Leonardo and later Rubens and Rembrandt. Here was an abundance of artistic riches, a kind of first-hand artistic smorgasbord. Unfortunately for the system, it was thirteen years before Bryullov could be persuaded to return home and share his excitement and experience with his fellow artists.
If this policy actually produced very few original or significant painters during Catherine's 37-years reign, it had at least laid the groundwork for the important Russian painters of the nineteenth century and gave the Russian artistic community easy familiarity with the works, techniques, trends and fashions of the West.
This high level of determined westernisation meant that the European masters were as influential in Russia as they were in the rest of Europe. But there remained a major contradiction. Although the Academy sent bright young painters abroad to absorb the best of European attitudes and ideas, it had as an institution retreated at an early date into a resolutely reactionary and sterile official position. The depiction of classical, historical and biblical themes - all in classical dress and with strictly allegorical intentions - remained mandatory if an artist was to be recognised by the establishment.
The great European landscape precursors
Those European masters who influenced Russian art during this first phase included the great Canaletto, who in Europe had transformed topographical illustration into high art. Feodor Aleksiev's 'View from the Petropavlovska Fortress' of 1794 and his later 'View of the Admiralty' of 1810, with their preoccupation with water and panoramic views, are so organized that they could scarcely have been conceived without a knowledge of the great Italian's work such as, for example, 'The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day' of 1732 and his 'The Thames and City of London from Richmond House' of 1747.
Canaletto was a specific influence, but much more important for the whole of European landscape (and landscape design theory) were the great seventeenth-century masters Claude Lorrain (1600 – 1682) and Nicholas Poussin (1594 – 1665), the pioneering masters of western landscape and water. Claude was celebrated for his radiant depiction of landscape, often painted from studies sketched in the Roman Campagne, and Poussin was recognized for his brooding idealised Roman landscapes. Both were actually Frenchmen who had settled in Rome not far from each other on the Pincian Hill, and both are thought of as the fathers of true landscape painting. Cezanne, abandoning impressionism, said that the landscape artist should aim at “Poussin painted from nature".
Claude's much-copied composition generally relied on a coulisse (usually a frame of trees through which the picture is seen), an extraordinarily delicate gradation of light to mark the divisions of the painting from a dark foreground through middle ground to the misty distance of the background, and the golden glow of the sky. Invariably the boundary between the first two grounds is marked by limpid water, reflecting light into the centre of the composition. For Claude, water was an almost essential, almost inevitable, element in landscape painting, whether it be the middle-ground lighting device of his 'Italian Landscape' of 1648, or the turbid water of 'Morning in the Harbour' of 1634. As we shall see, these were enduring images in the work of the expatriate Russian landscape painters and the great Russian sea painter of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Ivan Aivazovskiy.
At more or less the same time in the Low Countries painters such as Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem van de Velde the Elder (1633-1707), Jan Asselijn, Paul Bril and Salvator Rosa were among those who depicted the rough natural landscapes of their native country, either as backgrounds to genre subjects or, revolutionary at the time, as landscapes in their own right.
These were all painters of the Baroque who had abandoned the clear religious and classical iconography of the early Renaissance and the linear and closed composition of their predecessors in favour of intensified light and shade; broad, almost impressionistic brush strokes; dynamic asymmetry in composition (rather than the formalised symmetry of even mid-Renaissance composition); and a choice of lay rather than religious classical subjects - especially landscape and waterscape subjects.
Existing painted landscapes were of primary importance to artists, but there were also real-life models in the often exuberantly designed waterworks of wonderful Renaissance and Baroque estates, which were all on the young Russian artists' grand artistic tour of Europe: the Villa d'Este at Tivoli of the mid-sixteenth century by Pirro Ligorio, with its water organ, terrace of a hundred fountains and magical waterways; the Villa Lante with its long, falling stream, cascade and stone dining table; the Villa Adolbrandini cascade by Giacomo della Porta; villas for the families of the Frascati, Garzoni and Collodi; and the great waterway city, Venice itself. In France there was Vaux-le-Vicomte, the extraordinary waterworks of Versailles, the Belvedere in Vienna and Het Loo at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, Herrenhauses near Hanover, Charlottenburg near Berlin, and in the early nineteenth century the new Picturesque gardens being developed in England. It is arguable that the great Stone island of Saint Petersburg was inspired by Isola Bella, the extraordinary villa-island in Lake Maggiore. Any of these would have been visited by an enterprising Academy graduate on his three- or four-year sojourn in the West.
A new nationalism
Under Catherine, Russia had become a European power which proved itself in contributing to the defeat of Napoleon in a great continental conflict. But in the 1820s Russian society took a look at itself and decided that there was something unique about Russia after all, that its customs and traditions had intrinsic value. Apart from the fact that most courtiers' incomes were, unlike any other group in Europe, bound up in the ownership of human beings, there developed a belief in the need to acquire a national identity within European culture. At its worst this took the form of a heavy-handed nationalism in which Nicholas I demanded that the Russians become more Russian and that conservatism, autocracy and patriotism were the proper and slow way forward, even if this effectively meant cutting off Russia from the ferment of ideas that were sweeping Europe.
At its best it encouraged Russian artists to be unashamed about being Russian and about painting uniquely Russian themes. Although this took some decades to get going, much of the painting of the rest of the century was, one way or another, imbued with this notion that Russia had of necessity joined the culture of the West but had a totally different origin whose qualities were worth celebrating.
In the early part of the nineteenth century the prevailing painterly styles of Europe had been a mixture of Romanticism and Classicism, and later Romanticism in its more ethnic genre and landscape modes. From the late 1850s onwards, Russian artists began to reject Romanticism and the official cult of history painting in favour of a new Realism, which had for Russian artists a political agenda.
Under the influence of the sometimes heart-wrenching writing of Tolstoy and the earlier and more conservative Dostoyevskiy and Turgenev (about the plight of the masses and the belief that they were the source of those uniquely Russian values which should be most cherished), in the early 1860s a group of painters led by Vasily Perov (1834-1882) argued that painting's function was to explain life in its sharpest and most realistic state. Perov had spent his post-graduate years in Paris working on genre subjects: musicians, people in the street and old people. And on his return his painterly technique had become sophisticated in its depiction of the poignant sadness of everyday peasant life.
His 'A Drowned Woman' of 1867 uses the damp mist of the Moscow river as a cloud separating the magical towers of the city from the hopelessness of the foreground, where a phlegmatic policeman sits out the dawn waiting for the mortuary cart, puffing his pipe over the corpse of a drowned woman. She has been hauled dead from the depths of the invisible mist-hung waterway immediately behind. The water has thus provided grim release from her suffering.
The Realism of Perov and his followers, and their preoccupation with the genre of peasant social reality, was to merge with the prevailing nationalism to support a new interest in Russian landscape painting. At first it was as the necessary accompaniment of everyday peasant life and later as a legitimate subject in its own right, as the young radicals eventually abandoned emotional arm twisting and as examples from Europe (such as the Barbizon School) gained popularity in painting circles.
Early Russian landscape painters
Of course, landscape was a subject at the Academy. But it was not landscape as taught there, but the landscapes of Claude, Poussin, the Dutch painters and the real-life Italian scenery that the Russian pioneers depicted. And it was not until such artists as Ivan Shishkin emerged from the new Moscow School of Art, Sculpture and Architecture - directed in the 1850s by Alexey Venetsianov, who laid emphasis on sketching, painting and learning from nature - that a truly Russian style of landscape began to emerge.
And it is not as if Russians had not painted pure landscape before this. Silvester Schedrin went to Italy on an Academy stipend in 1819 and acquired a reputation for his somewhat Claudian landscapes. Comfortable in Rome among his fellow expatriates, he declined to return to Russia and spent the rest of his life abroad. His interest in pure landscape was engendered by the popularity in Europe of, among others, the English plein-air pioneer John Constable. And there was the local Italian Posilippo school of landscape. The young Corot is believed to have met Schedrin in Rome and admired his work. The Russian painter very successfully exploited the subject of the Tivoli waterfalls outside Rome in a way that is reminiscent of Ruisdael and Salvator Rosa, and yet it is entirely fresh in its depiction of wonderful and lively nature. For the last fifteen years of his career he painted in Naples, still preoccupied with water, but now in the form of the Bay of Naples and the Mediterranean Sea.
Schedrin was important because he was a great influence on the leading Russian Romantic Karl Bryullov, who made the European tour to study and paint in Rome or sometimes Paris, and like many young Russian artists visited Shchedrin. But Schedrin was also important because of the success abroad of his landscapes which, quite contrary to the Russian Academy classicist line, are of real-life scenes whose function is to create a sense of atmosphere rather than provide allegories for life. At around the same time a small group of Russian artists also worked on landscape themes, such as the brothers Grigoriy Chernetsov and Nikanor Chernetsov, and Mikhail Lebedev (1811-37). Lebedev went to Italy on a stipend in the 1830s and followed in Shchedrin's footsteps, painting the warm Italian landscape in the open air and with a more spontaneous range of colours than traditional Russian art rules permitted. His 'In the Park' of the early 1830s is a sylvan scene, with still water reflecting the surrounding trees and the low evening sun filtering through, lighting the tree trunks and the lower canopies of leaves.
Another Russian contemporary was Alexander Ivanov, some of whose landscapes - for example 'The Bay of Naples' of 1846 - are particularly well observed. A recluse, he too spent almost his entire career outside Russia and he was never very successful. But these paintings, whatever else they are, are not in any way Russian. They are simply painted by Russians. Except for Ivanov, most Russian painters of landscape were successful precisely because they worked in the European mode.
Like Schedrin, Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) developed a European reputation, crowned with his monumental work 'The Last Days of Pompeii' of 1833, a significant example of Romantic classicism. Eventually returned to Russia, Bryullov's Romanticism manifested itself much more through portraiture than landscape. In fact his landscapes are still essentially Italian, although in his 'Portrait of the Artist and Baroness Yekaterina Meller-Zakomelskaya with her Daughter in a Boat' of 1835, the water landscape serves as a visual device to isolate and define the closeness of the three protagonists. Only four years before in 1831 he had painted 'An Italian Family', in which a husband prepares a crib for his pregnant wife who inspects the coming child's clothes. Beyond, through the open door, is a wide waterway in the valley below shadowed by the cliffs on the far bank. None of this is yet peculiarly Russian, although Nikolay Gogol maintained that Russian painting's emergence was due to Bryullov. Censured on his return for choosing an inelegant model for his 'Italian Morning, Italian Noon', he replied firmly: "An artist becomes closer to nature by deploying selectively the techniques of color, light and perspective. He has thus the right to reject conventional notions of 'beauty' if that seems appropriate." Here was the heart of the Romantic position and a clear rejection of his new critics' dull adherence to conventional classical notions of beauty.
And here too was the end of the old slavish respect for classical values and understandings about what the proper subjects of painting could be and what the real purpose of painting might be. In many ways the real lead was about to be offered by a brilliant young graduate of the Academy, Ivan Aivazovskiy, whose long life in painting from the 1830s to the end of the century was obsessively devoted to painting that greatest body of water on earth, the sea.
A brilliant student in the 1830s at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Art, Ivan Aivazovskiy (1817-1900) became the most renowned Russian painter of seascapes. With a stipend from the Academy to study and work in Europe, he absorbed the work of the old masters and, because he had determined to become a painter of the water, such sea painters as Ludolf Backhuysen. Despite - or perhaps because of - his relatively unusual favourite subject, he was soon very popular. "All agree", wrote one contemporary, "Only Aivazovskiy depicts light, air and water so truthfully and convincingly."
He returned to Russia in 1844 via Holland, where he was made a member of the Amsterdam Academy. On his arrival in Saint Petersburg, the Tsar made him an academician of its Academy of Art and Painter to the Chief Naval Staff, and commissioned him to paint views of major naval sites. The following year (1845) he went with the Black Sea fleet through the Greek islands to paint local coastal scenery and soon settled in his homeland Crimea, where he was based for the rest of his long life. He exhibited abroad and in Russia, and travelled not only in Russia but in the Mediterranean coastal region, Turkey, Italy, France (where in 1857 he was given the Legion of Honour following a successful exhibition) and even, late in life, to the United States, where he painted the great waterscape Niagara Falls.
He was immensely popular with the navy, not least because at the beginning of his career he painted an important series of naval battles from Russia's heroic past. Besieged in Sevastopol during the Crimean War, he brought first-hand observation to his later paintings of contemporary sea battles.
During his early European years, Aivazovskiy traveled throughout Europe, including Holland and England, where he met Turner. Near the end of his career Turner had begun experimenting with paint less as a medium for describing or depicting seascapes and landscapes but as a way of expressing exhilaration, as in 'Rain Steam and Speed', or intense emotion in the face of extraordinary nature as in 'Landscape with a River and a Bay in the Distance'. And even in paintings with conventional themes, such as 'The Fighting Temerair' of 1839, Turner's ship and its steam tug are mysterious impressionistic elements in an immensely still burnt-sienna sea and a chaotic sunset sky, which is reflected in the chromatic tones of the water, the calm before the final act of destruction presaged in the incipient violence of the sky. Aivazovskiy imitates this unexpected colouring in the sky of his 'Sunset at Sea' of ten years later, the sun an obscured ball of yellow reddening the sails of the lonely top master leaning into the wind of the night, the white horses of the dark foreground hinting at a coming night of mounting storm.
He returned again and again to those magical Turneresque reds and oranges, in the 'Malaga Seascape' of 1854, the 'Shipwreck off Mount Athos' of 1856, and two pale orange limpid misty morning seascapes, 'Morning at Sea' of 1849 and 'Farewells at the Seashore' of 1851, where in both cases a becalmed ship in full sail waits or appears out of the orange mist observed by figures on the shore, the sun a faint yellow ball in the sky, the water at low ebb rippling gently like stretched gauze. The same contrast of mood, a though not using the same colour palette, is to be seen in his 'Storm in the Night' of 1849. Here the foreground water, highlighted by a full moon, has begun to ripple uneasily and beyond the rocky promontory of the middle ground a storm gathers in the sky as a schooner, its sails dangerously billowing and scuds for the protection of the headland.
Aivazovskiy's naval paintings are wonderful propaganda pieces, celebrations of the might of the Russian navy. Perhaps not surprisingly, for these are set pieces, they are organised as rather stiff formal compositions in which it seems the artist has felt obliged to delineate in precise detail every spar and piece of rigging, as in 'The Kronstadt Roadstead' of 1840 and 'A Russian Squadron off Sevastopol' of 1846. Here the composition is based on a major element, a warship sailing straight towards the viewer, occupying one third of the canvas and balanced by the visual mass and colour weight of the remainder. Their stilted composition contrasts with the wonderful life and complexity of his sea battles of the latter part of the 1840s, notably 'The Battle of Navarino, October 1827' of 1846 and his 'The Battle of Revel, May 1790' painted in the same year as 'Sevastopol', and further sea battles such as Chios and Chesme fought on succeeding days in 1770. Here the seas, with their wreckage and flotsam, are the disturbed setting for hideous mayhem.
Unlike later Russian painters, Aivazovskiy painted from memory in the studio rather than painting from nature. He wrote, "The movement of the elements cannot be directly captured by the brush - it is impossible to paint from Nature a flash of lightning, a gust of wind or the splash of a wave. For these the artist must retain the impressions they have left upon him." And some of his most memorable works could only have been created in his mind's eye. One is a big painting, 'The Ninth Wave', painted in 1850 and probably his most famous. The ninth wave, Russian seafaring tradition had it, was the wave shipwrecked sailors had to dread, for it was the killer wave. Low down in the foreground of this big canvas a small huddle of sailors cling to the remnants of a mast as a giant wave crested with spume is about to crash past, while another inexorably builds up in the sulphurous light of a winter sun that has just broken through the red and fearsome clouds. The viewer asks which is the ninth wave, for they all look equally threatening. Nothing can be certain. The ambiguity of the sailors' fate in the arms of this implacable mass of water, and the fear engendered by the colouring of the sky and the terrifying waves, at once translucent in their peaks and black in their depths, engenders what sixty years previously Edmund Burke had spoken, of as The Sublime, that state in which the emotions are stretched to their uttermost.
Twenty-six years later, in 1876, Aivazovskiy painted his most extraordinary 'Shipwreck'. Shipwrecks are of course the stock in trade of any marine painter from Ludolf Backhuysen, through Claude-Joseph Vernet to Jean Pillement and Theodore Gericault, and Aivazovskiy had himself painted many. But this painting captures so sublimely the wrenching poignancy of the remnants of a ship's crew in a foundering boat their arms stretched out to helpless watchers high on a great rock at whose base the boat will inevitably be dashed.
Like the island of the later painting 'Isle of the Dead' by Arnold Bocklin of 1880, the great rock is singled out for startling illumination by a mysteriously selective ray of sunlight, which also transforms the flying spray into a magical cloud around its base. In fact Aivazovskiy had deployed the same kind of lighting effect in his earlier 'Icebergs' of 1870, in which a great fractured edifice of mysteriously-lit ice towering above a slaw-moving three master is singled out for special illumination. Out of the dark shadow of the 'Shipwreck's' foreground a floating mast emerges from a wave, its jagged end streaming seawater (a favourite visual device of Aivazovskiy), while the port gunwale of the doomed boat is flooded by the wave which will soon lift and hurl it onto the great rocks.
This is water at its most fundamental, titanic in its scale - so titanic that it is impossible to imagine the mechanics, the forces that turn a colossal, implacably heaving force into the placid orange and yellow drenched first-light seas of his lyrical morning paintings such as 'Seaside Calm' of 1843 and 'Twenty-six Cannon Corvette at Anchor' of 1852.
In this one painter we have almost the whole gamut of emotions: bowel-churning fear; limpid, romantic regret; jingoistic national pride; intense awe; anguish at others' predicaments; tingling anticipation; delight; the pleasures of recognition and, above all, wonder. Are these uniquely Russian? The answer is not necessarily, and yes. Because Aivazovskiy , for all his early European influences, was his own man. Nobody painted the sea quite like him and, although the subject was popular outside Russia, he outlasted everybody else and made it his very own.
That is not to say that in his long life Aivazovskiy had explored all its possibilities. In his mid-twenties the younger Alexei Bogoliubov, then an officer in the Russian navy, enrolled at the Academy for four years and was made an official artist to the navy before spending four years abroad in Paris, Geneva and Dusseldorf under an Academy stipend.
He followed one tradition when in 1872 he went to live in Paris, visiting Russia each summer. Bogoliubov painted seascapes, but some of his most haunting water studies are of that transition zone between ocean and river - the harbour. In his 1878 'View of Nizhniy-Novgorod' and in the earlier 'Bicentenary of Peter the Great Reaching the Neva', we have a great topographical artist's work. Just as Canaletto a century-and-a-half before had transformed the accurate depiction of scenery into high art, so Bogoliubov turned meticulously accurate delineation of these two harbours into places of moment. The millpond-smooth water somehow heightens the tension of, in the one painting, waiting for the distant flotilla to dock at the floating pier and in the other watching triplets of steam boats, their pennants stiff in the breeze, progress slowly up the harbor roads.
At the same time academic painters were still producing their great theatrical set pieces, such as Genrikh Semiradsky's 'Frina at a Celebration of Poseidon', 'the King of the Sea at Eleusis' of 1889. Nominally about the great sea god, it is actually one of his popular bacchanals with lightly-clad celebrants and dozens of beautifully painted and languidly arranged models, with a token sea serving merely as part of the background. It could hardly be otherwise in this kind of painting in which narrative and classic painterly modes were obligatory.
Yet for Ilya Repin, the sea could serve a very important symbolic function. In his big 'What a Wide World!', the sea is used for quite a special purpose. The great swathe of white-flecked olive sea sweeps around, past and almost over the laughing young lovers obliviously half engulfed on the dangerous edge of a rocky ledge, over which the foaming sea boils. The dark, choppy waves a few yards away, spume blown from their crests, are menacing intimations of potential calamity to these carefree young people who have not yet noticed something that Aivazovskiy's sailors well know, that the world - the sea - is both pleasurable and potentially deadly. Here Repin deploys, not altogether successfully, impressionistic painterly techniques and colourings. Where Aivazovskiy's painting is always representational, Repin's foreground rush of seawater is almost a smear of grubby green paint, which must be intended to underline the ambiguity of the narrative. Who could really survive upright in such turmoil of water? Who but this idealised young couple could survive dry and untouched in such circumstances? Here we have the sea underlining an allegory of young love triumphing oblivious amid the tempest.
If Aivazovskiy was the Russian master of the sea and its moods, Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) was the master of the forests. One of his contemporaries wrote admiringly, "Shishkin is so faithful, has such deep affection for his native land that he has no rivals in portraying Russian nature and especially the Russian forest." As a student at the Moscow College of Painting and Sculpture from 1852, and later at St Petersburg, he encountered paintings by such Russian artists as Ivan Aivazovskiy, of expatriates such as Silvester Shchedrin, and such European masters as Ruisdael. Almost from the start of his course he began painting and sketching the local rural Moscow landscape. As his niece later recalled it, "Shishkin was drawing views and landscapes the like of which no-one had drawn before: a field, a forest, a river, just that - and they are as beautiful as views of, say, Switzerland." Shishkin spent his scholarship years not in Rome or Paris but in Germany, Switzerland and Bohemia. On his return he was made an Academician on the strength of his painting abroad, and began drawing and painting Russian landscape. His mastery of both impeccable Realist technique and in evoking mood is exemplified by his 'An Old House on the Edge of a Pond'. A sketch in sepia of an old semi-derelict stone farmhouse in an overgrown orchard with a pool that has somehow developed in a depression over the years, it is extraordinarily evocative of abandonment, decay and age. There have been no people here for years.
Shishkin's magnificent obsession was with the coniferous forests of Russia. For the last thirty years of his life he painted practically no other subject, after exhibiting his 'Pine Forest in Viatka Province' in the second Itinerants' exhibition of 1872. If Aivazovskiy, who started active work thirty years before him and died two years later, sometimes repeated himself, Shishkin contrived to bring a fresh eye to each painting. This was partly because he liked painting plein-air and, probably, because he saw the forest as a continually changing laboratory of information about the workings of nature.
In 'A Pine Forest', Shishkin uses a forest stream as the main foreground element leading the viewer's eye into the dark recesses of the forest past the clearing, which has been damaged by loggers searching for timber for masts. Bears play mournfully around a tree with a hive tied safely far up its trunk. In his 'Stream in a Forest', of two years before, it is as if the viewer has suddenly come upon the little scene, the still water disappearing into reeds to the right foreground, and in the background there is a hint of its source in a marshy sward, the middle ground following the old Claudian rule and reflecting the sky and surrounding foliage. Here the chromatic scale is deliberately kept narrow: browns and sepias, blacks and dark greens, and a series of rough surfaces contrasting with the hard reflecting surface of the water in the middle ground. From the outset Shishkin has realised the importance of including movement, however placidly it may be represented by a shallow stream moving slowly over pebbles and little rocks on its gradual way to feed some larger waterway. Water is always important for Shishkin's composition because it provides the necessary horizontal contrast to the vertical thrust of his trees. Shishkin returned to the same subject ten years later in 1880. The banks of this forest stream represent a cool haven from the hot summer sun streaming down the slopes in the background, beyond the grove which has grown up around the water.
The water moves slowly and has temporarily disappeared under rocks and moss by the time it reaches the foreground - the same device appears in the totally different painting of a decade before. In those ten years Shishkin's palette has changed, the browns are redder, the greens more sun-drenched and the viewer is made somehow aware that the tall straight trees of the grove are there because of the stream's life-giving grace. The stream in the forest is a subject to which Shishkin returned again and again. In most cases these are not cascades, but gentle scarcely moving waters which, the viewer might well think, are there to provide a foil to the inevitable tall trees.
A study for a painting of 'Pond in an Old Park', one of Shishkin's last paintings, is interesting because of its relative impressionism - the sky is a strange yellow and the painting rapid rather than meticulous. Backed by dark green trees, the still water of the brook reflects blackly. These are certainly paintings of Russian forests and water because that is what Shishkin painted. But even without the clues painters usually provide in the shape of people, architecture, characteristic landscape or even place names, these are plainly Russian paintings. It is largely because of his quietly sombre palette of earth colors and the great silent pine trees gathering around the slow-moving streams that we know we can only be in the heartland of Russia.
Shishkin's work reminds us that Russian art has many parallels with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial art, such as the art of Australia and America - not least in the sense that none has until recently been the subject of serious study. The latter two were more geographically isolated, although all three were conscious of their cultural isolation. Each had a frontier tradition in which raw nature figured heavily. Each had a "frontier" art movement: the Australian Heidelberg School, the American Hudson River School and the Russian Itinerants. Each country had been heavily dependent on slave or convict labour until about the middle of the century, with emancipation legislation. They all spent the rest of their time searching in one way or another for an authentic national identity. Russia had the edge in having a genuine long-term history of kings, wars and sea battles, rather than simple (however indomitable) frontiers men and explorers. As a result, one of the functions of nineteenth-century Russian art turned out to be providing painterly support for one or other visions of the essence of Russia.
New Landscapes and the Itinerants
In 1870, Shishkin was one of the founders of the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions, the Peredvizhniki or Itinerants, as they were known. They held their first exhibition in the following year. A radical group including Shishkin, Repin, Surikov, L.Kamenev, V.Vasnetsov, Savrasov and Kuinji, and later Polenov, Serov, Levitan and Makovsky, it was dissatisfied with the deep conservatism of the official Academy of Art and its exhibitions. Indeed it was in many ways the natural outcome of an Academy revolt seven years earlier in 1863, when fourteen of the best pupils from the Academy of Arts were refused permission to choose the subjects of their graduation paintings and so they walked out and founded an artists' commune.
At first the Itinerant shows were held throughout Russia, from Odessa and Warsaw to Kiev. But gradually the society became centred on Saint Petersburg and Moscow, partly because the paintings were often bought by the time the show had got to Moscow and partly because, by the mid-1890s, it had become the de facto establishment art institution and, as institutions do, had developed conservative tendencies. In the mid-1890s, following reform of the Academy, a number of Itinerants, including Repin and Shishkin, actually agreed to become Academy professors. By the beginning of the new century it was perceived as a reactionary organisation by the younger generation of artists - and by a number of its own members who over the next decade left to join the Union of Russian Artists or followed new ideas about art, especially under the influence of 'Mir iskusstva' ('The World of Art'). Its last shows were held in the 1920s.
Although the dates correspond with those of the emergence of Impressionism in France, this movement had very little to do with the way in which the Itinerants painted. In fact one admired contemporary, Konstantin Korovin, was denied membership because he painted in the Impressionist mode. The Itinerants were closer to, say, the German Malkasten and the Dutch Kunstlerbond, the Czech Bohemia Painter's Association and the Artistic Conversation and Italian Macchiaioli group.
It was only a roughly cohesive group. Everybody subscribed broadly to Realism and supported nationalist tendencies, together with powerfully concerned attitudes to what was going on in Russian society as it lumbered towards its version of the Industrial Revolution. Favored catchwords were sincerity, truth, reality, modernity, and national authenticity. In their search for a psychological truth they took a very serious approach to plotting the face of Russia and its life. Not surprisingly, they supported the validity of landscape painting as a subject in its own right. At the end of the century landscape was to be the Itinerants' primary interest.
But to begin with it was a catholic group. The Itinerants painted anything from genre through great moments in Russian history, to water and forest and landscapes. They had a broader purpose: in depicting the everyday lives of their subjects, which¬ever they had chosen to work with, they were deliberately asserting the importance of the psychological truth of the commonplace. They thus sought to show that Russian culture was vibrant and had a voice of its own, that Russian topography and climate was not that of the sunny South. It believed that its slow-moving rivers, calm and violent seas, gloomy forest lakes, snow and ice, wind and rain, and charming woodland ponds were all just as proper subjects of painting.
One of their painterly positions was to do with what they called local color. The Itinerants were reluctant to use colors that reflected the meaning of the paintings, which very often meant using quite gloomy colors or the relatively self-disciplined earth colors of Shishkin.
The Moscow school of the 1880s produced a number of painters, such as Abram Arkhipov, Alexey Stepanov, Valentin Serov and others such as Isaak Levitan, who wanted their art to be spontaneously expressive, to divorce their art from preconceptions and rules. Serov, who as a student talked a great deal about the joys of life, went abroad immediately after his years at the Academy. He fell in love with Venice, absorbed the old masters, and on his return spent a great deal of time at Abramtsevo, the country estate of radical art patron and merchant Savva Mamontov. With fellow artists he painted the local scene and one theme in particular, the overgrown pond. As a subject it is interesting enough as a picturesque set-piece landscape theme, combining as it does foliage, sky, water, reflections and possibly mist. But one suspect there is also a second agenda: ponds are overgrown because they have been neglected and in the latter part of the century many formerly noble estates could not cope financially with the freeing of the serfs and either went bankrupt or allowed their estates to decline.
Serov's 'Little Pond: Abramtsevo' of 1886 and the seminal 'Overgrown Pond: Domotkanovo' of 1888 belong to a little group of such paintings, in which the utter calm and serenity of the ordinary countryside devoid of people is transformed into observations about the state of being. In plein-air painter Vasily Polenov's earlier and more realist study of 1879 of the same subject, a slightly ramshackle landing stage gingerly project into the edge of the lily-strewn water, while an old half-submerged log floats abandoned in the foreground. In Serov's 1886 'Little Pond', Polenov's landing stage has become a ramshackle collection of timber approached by a board resting on the shore. Isaak Levitan's study and painting of the same subject of 1887 deploy an impressionist technique of deft brushstrokes to create a solemn mood.
All three artists must have seen a painting of 1871, the second year of the Itinerants, by founder member Lev Kamemev. It is 'Fog. The Red Pond in Moscow in Autumn' (1871). It pays tribute to Claudian composition in its lucent light in the middle of the picture and the way the farther boundary of the pond merges through the golden fog into the sky. The water, unbroken except by the silent reeds and scattered jetties, is suffused, saturated with an air of reposeful and unmistakably Russian sadness.
Here in the four paintings is a restrained palette of colors used to depict a languorously sombre emotion. It is this deliberately limited palette and the deliberate choice of a gloomy emotion that make all of these water paintings uniquely Russian. Compare them, for example, with Monet's much more freely painted and light suffused 'Pond at Montgeron' of 1876 or indeed his famous 'Waterlilies'. Apart from the way the paint is applied, they also have a completely different range of colors and a different emotional agenda: these ponds are sombre, filled with a dark languor. The viewer wants to know why the pond has become neglected, untended, why it has not been painted on a sunnier day, what lurks beneath the surface, what dark, essentially Russian secrets it holds. Interestingly, Monet's 'Pond' was bought by a Moscow collector. All three are subdued with cloudy summer skies, the profoundly still waters almost black - in Serov's so black that they reflect the patch of bright sky above - the others hinting at uncertain depths, the dark oil paint emphasised by the green brushstrokes of the lily pads.
Polenov was a professor of landscape at Moscow and, although he occasionally returned to landscape after this wonderfully moody evocation, he was never to entirely repeat it except perhaps in his 'Lake Gennesaret' of 1899. Here a different mood is evoked - a sense of wonder at the sheer extent of nature. The viewpoint is on a high crag overlooking the marshy preliminaries to the edge of the lake, which stretches across to the majestic line of low cliffs which themselves range left and right into the far distance, uniformly and unchanging.
One of Polenov's students was Isaak Levitan, who at the end of the century had become one of the great painters of Russian water. Writing at the time critic Alexander Benois said, "Levitan, was not a Barbizon painter, nor a Dutch artist and not an Impressionist. Levitan was a Russian artist, but his Russianness does not lie in him having painted Russian motifs out of some sort of patriotic principles but in the fact that he understood the obscure charm of Russian nature, its secret meaning." (Alexander Benois, 'History of Russian Painting in the Nineteenth Century', 1910)
Shishkin was the master of the forest and Levitan the master of placid open landscape, and especially water. His 'Lake' of 1899, one of several such paintings, sums up his preoccupation with the painterly possibilities of water. The strip of land serves as a narrow middle ground, a device to mark the transition between sky and its reflection in the deep foreground of water and vestigial reed bed. The summer clouds float dreamily over the land, reflected in the moving waters of the lake. His 'Golden Autumn' of 1895 catches a Russian landscape at the end of a long summer, the skies still clear, the leaves turning gold. The river is full and calm, its dark foreground depths hinting at the cold to come.
In 'Those Evening Bells', Levitan catches a moment when a boat has just left the dark foreground landing stage and makes off down river. On the peninsula across the water two tiny figures make their way up a road and through an arch to a group of churches, from where sounds of the title come. In the distance the clouds dream in the pale sky. Here is Levitan at his characteristic best; lakes and rivers, cottages and villages, these are the landscapes of no other country. And yet they are of a placid, open country in which the only drama is the unexpected beauty to be found in the Russian countryside. Here is a contra view of Russia to those painters who sought to exploit the notion of Russia as, metaphorically, a tortured soul. Here is a Russia of changing seasons, of rains, of great waters and rivers. It is a still almost silent Russia, which is drenched not in the bright colors and intense light of the hot South but suffused with the golden light of spring and summer, the bright, cleansing light of the winter sun and the mellow light of autumn.
The River of Life and Death
Levitan's's special interest in painting water and rivers has a resonance in the rest of Russian painting of his time. For socially aware artists such as Ilya Repin, the great river Volga represented not only a picturesque setting for atmospheric paintings but also a location for depictions of powerful emotions of sympathy in the face of grim everyday life. His 'Barge Haulers on the Volga' of 1873 is the seminal social painting for the Itinerants. The sails of a decorated barge are draped negligently across the hold, and a steersman strains against the great tiller. The slight ripple along the bow is the consequence of the efforts of nearly a dozen ragged haulers, the burlaki, pressing heroically against the broad bands across their chests which spread the load transmitted from the top of the barge's short mast. To the right, the rearmost hauler seems fit to collapse, his sole means of vertical support being the rope band, which half pinions his arms and shoulders and yet supports him. The leading man's face is full of both character and resignation as he leans familiarly into the load. These are people who have devoted their lives to the great river - and have had no choice and have no hope of doing anything else. Yet half-way back in the middle of the canvas, painted in lighter colors, is a lad who grasps uncertainly at his bond and peers beyond the picture frame to some unseen source of hope.
For the leading historical painter of the Itinerants, Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), the river is the neutral setting for great thoughts, a kind of tabula rasa. His 'Stepan Razin' of 1906 has the legendary hero being rowed up the Volga following a pirate raid in a boat laden with booty and, apart from the rowers and Razin, a celebrating crew. Razin reclines against the mast, scowling with the effort of planning the release from servitude of the Russian people. Perhaps the leader of a war flotilla, this is the only boat visible in the great whitish lumpy sweep of the mighty river whose far bank is a grey streak, the only thing differentiating river from sky. It is as if the boat itself represents Razin's thoughts, looking backwards but surging forwards in a grey uncertain world. This exactly matched the state of Russian painting at that moment, a few years into the century.
Radical nineteenth-century Russian painting often carried an underlying anti-clerical message. But in the search for reality, religious symbolism had to be portrayed. llarion Pryanishnikov's 'A Religious Procession' of 1893, with its crowd of devotees straggling up from the banks of a great river having crossed from a church on the far bank, reminds us that the Christians originally baptised people in the river. Here it is as if the penitents have been through a purifying baptism before straining up the hill with their icons in a lengthy profession of faith.
It was not only the Volga, the 'Mother of Rivers' as Russians like to call it, which represented a potent symbol for Russian painting. It was all great rivers with their ambiguous connotations of continuity inextricably linked with simultaneous and inexorable change. On the other hand, rivers could simply be the setting for a genre subject such as Abram Arkhipov's earlier 'Down the Oka', painted in 1889.
Surikov may well have re-used the arrangement of Arkhipov's picture for his Stepan Razin. This, however, is a straightforward genre painting in which a group of peasants in a boat are about to reach the shore. Here the river has no particular quality apart from reflecting the pale golden haze and the subject is a nicely observed and painted slice of life.
Storms break regularly on the broad Volga, Ilya Repin had captured one twenty years before Dubovskoy in 1870 - and three years before his great 'Barge Haulers'. Here the perilous view is from the stern of a low freeboard barge. The deck is swept by dirty seas as five men struggle with the great tiller and other crewmen shout advice from a forward hatch cover; all are about to be engulfed by a boiling white-topped sea.
Rivers turn out to be ideal for the artist to set mood. In the late 1880s the influential landscape Itinerant, Isaak Levitan, then in his twenties, made a visit to the Volga and painted it in all the states he could possibly observe. 'Evening on the Volga' (1888) is an almost monochromatic study, the only color a pink sunlit tinge to the top of a long grey cloudbank. Below, the waters of the river reflect the color of the sky framed horizontally by the black of the foreground shore. Beyond a long silver wake is the distant black shore. Here is the moment before the remnants of the light quickly fade into black. It is a moment for grave reflective ness, touching in its quiet dignity.
It is curiously more evocative than a painting of a similar scene by Arkhip Kuinji, 'Moonlight on the Dnepr' of 1880. Here the structure of the composition is almost a mirror image of Levitan's. The moon, set in a fortuitous break in the streaky cloud, casts an unearthly light on the glassy surface of the river visible between a dark foreground beach and the far shore, which merges into the black of the lower sky. Here is Kuinji's striking coloring, depth and mystery but the moment of transition is missing. Repin's much more intimate 'Moonlight Night, Zdravnevo' of 1896 has a woman in a white coat contemplating a moonlit river. The quiescent attitude of a dog lying at her feet suggests that she has been standing there for some time. What are her thoughts? Does she dream of release in the black river depths? Why is she standing there and what will she do next? This is the river of dreams, still and yet driving on to its far distant destination in the sea.
Daylight river studies by Levitan include 'Barges on the Volga' of 1889 and 'On the Volga' of 1888, in which the far distant bank is mirrored in the morning light, boats lie in the mud in the foreground, and an extraordinary light suffuses the sky, reflecting in the river in the middle ground. 'Fresh Wind: the Volga' of 1895 has two barges being towed by a small steamer, the great river now a faintly choppy red reflecting the raw red banks and a mysterious red haze high in the sky. In 1887 Levitan wrote from the Volga to his friend Chekhov, "What can be more tragic than to feel the infinite beauty of one's everyday surroundings, be fully aware of their innermost secrets and see God in everything and to realise that you simply cannot fully express these powerful emotions."
Levitan's definitive water painting is his 'Above Eternal Peace' of 1894. He wrote of it, "It has the whole of me in it, all my psyche, all my content". Under a sky of mixed clouds, the far distant plain stretches, with a hint of a lake here, a dense wood there. The main part of the picture is a great wide river in flood, "white as death", as the artist described it. In the foreground on a promontory and surrounded by a small copse and a derelict graveyard is a traditional rural church with a tiny onion dome on the roof ridge. Beyond in the flood a triangular piece of high ground has turned into an island. There is nothing else. This work of inner psychology represents one rare occasion when Levitan offers a less than golden account of the nature which he so loved.
A number of Levitan's Volga studies incorporate boats propelled by the newly introduced steam power and even Aivazovskiy, most of his life necessarily devoted to sail and the sea, produced a study of steam paddle boats on the Volga, 'The Volga near the Zhiguli Hills'. Here is old and new side by side: a paddle steamer bravely occupies the middle ground of the left half of the picture. On the far right shore a burlaki group hauls a train of barges in the time-honoured fashion, half obscured by a smart passenger steamer bustling up river. In the immediate foreground is a great raft of logs with a temporary hut on top and a group of itinerant woodsmen entertaining themselves until it is time to turn the raft into fodder for the downstream mills. This is a painting of great optimism, suffused with a golden glow which is reflected in the water of the great river as a small flock of birds skim low in search of a last catch before roosting on one of the distant shores. This is also a painting about Russia in a state of change.
Landscape painting can be expressive of many things but it is not entirely surprising that Russian landscape should have running through it a strong theme of transition. In Arkhip Kuinji's 'After the Rain' of 1879, the low sun illuminates an emerald meadow and a low rise, on top of which are the reflecting walls of a group of farm buildings. The turbulent black sky retreats - but the stream in the foreground is in shadow, presaging another mighty downpour. In Isaak Levitan's painting of the same name of ten years later, the water is still dappled with the remnants of a shower, a small paddle steamer, unaffected, bustles across the river, the old-fashioned barges of the middle ground swing at their moorings, while the puddle rainwater starts to form a little stream over the low foreground river bank.
And in Mikhail Larionov's 'Rosebushes after a Rain Shower' of 1904 the impressionistic brush strokes, long and vertical in form, serve as a reminder of the shower that has just passed across the pond in the far middle ground. Here is a moment of stillness captured, and overlaid by a visual memory of the shower's insistent sharpness.
More dramatic than the moment when the noise of rain has receded and before the birds once more begin to sing is that moment of transition between calm and storm. Nikolay Dubovskoy's 'The Calm before the Storm' of 1890 has a great grey-bottomed bank of white cloud hanging above a lake, the far shore serving as a device to indicate the darkness beneath the cloud and, through the scale of the details, its relatively great distance from the viewer. The water reflects the lighter, almost sunlit zone of cloud. The tension is palpable. We know in real life that a thunderstorm is to do with wind currents, water vapour and wild electricity, but in front of the picture we are almost waiting for the sky, or more accurately the heavy cloud bank, to fall with a thud on the face of the water. Dubovskoy wrote about the painting in terms of "that captivating feeling which has many times possessed me at the moment of calm before a major storm or in the interval between two thunderstorms, when it can be hard to breathe, when you sense how insignificant you are in the face of the approaching elements".
The Snows of Change
For Isaak Levitan and many landscape painters the great mode of expressing the changing seasons of Russian Nature was the transition from snow to flood. His snows cape of 1885 is titled simply 'March'. The thaw is about to begin. A bright late winter sun shines from over the viewer's left shoulder. A temporarily untended horse with a sled waits patiently by the porch of a house, the incipient thaw indicated by the melting snow on its small roof and the mud of the road, re-emerging from the covering snow in the foreground. The bare branches of the trees have lost their snow and new growth has just started. So, too, in one of the earliest of the new Russian landscapes, Alexey Savrasov's 'The Rooks Have Returned' of 1871, the presence of the birds in the tiny, very early growth on the tall branches, and the melt waters beginning to form a concerted mass of water among the fields of snow all herald the return of spring.
This theme of transition, the change of state from snow and ice to running water that takes place in early spring, fascinated many of the Itinerants. Quite apart from their own painterly agendas, they were themselves in a state of transition, moving from one way of painting to another, from one set of subjects to a new set - and of underlying, structural changes in society. Fedor Vasilyev's 1871 'The Thaw' has a mother and child still warmly wrapped up and standing in the slush of an emerging old roadway defined by wheel tracks. In the centre of the picture a pond - still surrounded by snowy ground - has overflowed its bank and the cold melt water leaks out into the foreground. In this painting of the same date it is difficult not to read the same allegorical message.
For later painters, such as Igor Grabar in 'February Sky' of 1904, the transition is more subtle. It is difficult to distinguish the bark on the trunks and branches from the snow in this wonderful study in browns and blues of birch trees and their intricate array of branches in a snowfield backed by glimpses of a blue winter sky. Here, on the cusp of spring, the topmost leaves have started to appear and it is their color, scarcely distinguishable from the light browns and whites of the branches, that gives the viewer the hint of things to come.
Illya Ostroukhov's wonderfully simple 'Early Spring' of 1891 is a snapshot of those few days when the snow has begun to retreat from the bases of the trees, the water of the stream is beginning to eat away the edges of the snow, and in the back of the viewer's mind is the thought that the level of the water indicates the beginning of a little flood. In Vitold Byalynitskiy-Birulya's 'The Emerald of Spring' of 1915, the new pale green growth coexists with the slush of melting snow. In Stanislav Zhukovskiy's 'Spring Water' of 1898 the process had gone a little further. Painted from an opposite bank, the shore in the middle ground - now thinly covered with melting snow - is being overtaken by dark melt water; three trees already have their bases under water. A tiny new stream also makes its contribution.
At the end of the transformation, the thaw becomes a flood - the theme of Levitan's wonderful 'Spring Flood' of 1897. Here the birch saplings stand forlornly in the water, their reflections adding to the sense of coldness despite the azure cloud-flecked sky above. A primitive boat nudges a temporary beach. In a week the waters will have subsided, the flooded farm buildings in the distance will return to use and spring will be in full swing. The earth has awakened, and nature has emerged from her long hibernation.
As the French discovered to their cost in 1812, for months on end each year much of Russia's water turns to snow and ice and, when it is not blinding travellers and peasants, it lies thickly over the plains and mountains, rivers and seas. It is so much a part of a Russian's existence that when artists started painting it in the second half of the nineteenth century, people were surprised that they should do so.
In The Background
The first of the Russian cold winter landscapes were actually painted as late as the mid-1860s and then by the social propagandist Vasily Perov, notably with 'The Last Farewell', 'The Troika' and 'The Last Tavern at the City Gates'. All three paintings have snowscape settings, one of a young mourning family on a sled taking a coffin to the cemetery, and one of three children pulling an icicle-draped water barrel while the harsh wind blows streamers of snow from the eaves. The third painting is of two empty horse-drawn sleds waiting outside the candle-lit windows of a tavern, the city gates like stalagmites against the evening sky, the absent drivers' destination somewhere in the icy wastes beyond. A contemporary wrote of Perov's work, 'The landscape motifs - roads as endless as people's patience, gloomy people, monotonous fogs, a severe winter with snow storms and blizzards, a bleak autumn with depressing rains and winds cold as the crying of death - become in his pictures as in folklore and the works of Dostoyevskoy, Levitov and Dickens, the bearers of tragic feeling personified as human misfortunes and burdens.' The Parisian critics of these and other paintings which Perov exhibited there in 1867 argued that at last here were identifiably Russian paintings.
In Perov's socially aware work of this period the bitterly cold snow settings underline the sadness of the paintings' narratives, as they do in llarion Pryanishnikov's 'Returning Empty from the Market' of 1872. A trail of horse-drawn sleds leads off along an ill-marked track through the broad plain of snow towards some wretched settlement beyond the horizon. A hunched figure on the rearmost sled seems to glower out at the viewer. And in Victor Vasnetsov's 'Moving House' of 1876, a middle-aged couple wrapped up and carrying a meagre bundle of their household goods trudges through the snow past the skeleton of a half-buried boat. Beyond the snowbound river, the dark ill-defined walls of a city conceal all but the tower of a church and a few tall chimneys.
Other Russian painters soon took up the theme of snow. In the Realist painter Vyacheslav Schwartz's 'The Tsarina's Spring Pilgrimage in the Reign of Alexey Mikhailovitch' of 1868, a gilded sled makes its way out of a dark village at the head of a procession. The curving road leading into the picture plane is slushy, because the snow is about to thaw from the surrounding white fields. Schwartz was a painter of historical subjects who attempted to break the mould. He painted historical events as if they were genre paintings - that is, without the visual hierarchies of historical painting. The flat, all-enveloping, undifferentiating snow provides an important visual support to this. It is of course not difficult to read 'Spring Pilgrimage' fundamentally as a landscape painting with an enigmatic though doubtless historically factual subject.
Schwartz's position was not uninfluential and there followed from the brush of the Itinerant Vasily Surikov some of the great historical snow paintings, for snow is a wonderful setting for historical painting, representing as it does the rawest essence of barbaric Old Russia. His 1887 'The Boyarina Morozova' has the chained zealot, heroine of the losing side in the great religious schism of the mid-seventeenth century, being dragged through the cold, snowbound streets of Moscow on a sled. Despite the thick snow which lies on the ground and on the roofs of the surrounding houses, she remains defiant, holding her hand in the newly banned two fingered sign of the cross. For students of composition the grey-white of the snow provides a semi-neutral background for the bright colors of the clothes of the people in the crowd, some jeering, some adoring, some angry. And white is the same color as the boyarina's cold hands and terrible face.
Surikov's great snow painting 'Suvorov Crossing the Alps' of 1899 depicts a real event in the war against Napoleon. Following a treacherous withdrawal by the Austrians, Russian general Alexander Suvorov stormed the St. Gothard Pass and came down unexpectedly behind a French army and defeated it. The painting depicts a passage from that heroic march through the mountains. Urged on by Suvorov mounted on a horse, soldiers start sliding down a near sheer snowface, grinning devotedly at their general just before they take what, for all they know, could be their last fateful plunge. Perched perilously on the left of the painting are craggy white rocks and the hint of a mountain torrent. Lateral wisps of fog shroud the almost bare rocks of the crags above and lead the viewer's eye beyond to the distant looming snow-clad slopes of the mountain beyond.
His 'The Taking of a Snow Fortress' was painted at the urgings of his brother following Surikov's profound depression at the death of his wife in 1888, it is perhaps historical only in the sense that it was a real, though disappearing, Cossack village custom, which Surikov had seen as a child in his village. The locals would build a snow castle - more a fort surrounding a snow table heaped with snow food and snow utensils. It was the task of one team on horseback to attempt to take the fortress while another on foot banged tins and whistled and attempted to scare the horses. It was a great opportunity to get drunk, fight and have fun. This is an immensely cheerful picture in which the last wall of the fort is breached and the rider topples a duck-like snow image from the top of a pile of snow and ice blocks.
In an experimental phase of history painting, mostly for the book 'Royal Hunting', the younger Valentin Serov revelled in the use of snow as a setting for genre paintings of Peter the Great and his successors hunting in the fields with their horses and dogs. Serov had already used snow as a setting for earlier paintings, such as the 1898 gouache 'In Winter' and the 1910 study 'Rinsing Clothes', in which two peasant women kneeling in the snow by a tiny stream attempt to wash clothes while a bedraggled pony munches straw thrown on the ground to keep it and its sled close to the women.
Ivan Shishkin, the most prolific of Russian forest landscape painters, was, curiously, not especially drawn to snows capes, although his 'Winter' of 1890 is an uncannily realistic, almost monochromatic study in which the silence of the snow-insulated forest is almost audible. As in an old sepia photograph, time stands still. In the same year Shishkin made studies in snow and another significant snow painting is based on a line in Mikhail Lermontov's poem 'The Pine'. In "A Pine there stands in the northern wilds…' the tree depicted in the northern wilds is a neat, heavily snow-laden conifer standing improbably on the edge of an icy winter cliff bathed in what seems to be moonlight. Shishkin is clearly experimenting with light, for the main body of the pine is in shadow and the snowy peak on which it stands bathed in the unearthly light.
It remained for Igor Grabar at the beginning of the twentieth century to deploy snow as a subject for his almost Pointillist studies, 'September Snow' of 1903 and 'February Sky' of 1904. The former supports the proposition that winter starts early in Russia by showing a peasant woman carrying water up a path to houses at the top of the picture. This painting and 'February Sky' represent the end of the serious Realist landscape movement - and in the latter painting, with its flat, clearly decorative intricacy, points in one of the many directions Russian painting was to take in the early decades of the new century.
In one zone of Russia, the Arctic, the winter never really ends. Aivazovskiy's wonderful 'Icebergs' of 1870 sums up the most extreme form of frozen water. A three-masted ship, its sails all furled and with most of the crew on the foredeck, make its way gingerly through the ice floes. In the foreground icicles hang from a small headland, flat floes creaking together in the neighbouring sea. And in the middle ground, towering over the ship is the gigantic tip of a great iceberg, its battered and fractured surface illuminated by an almost unearthly light which somehow eludes the ship below. Here is a great piece of scenery painting but also surely an allegory of the profound uncertainty which always surrounds the behaviour of the great waters.
Spectacle and the Far South
In the first decade of the twentieth century Russian painting opened up like a bursting dam, behind which had massed all the current revolutionary art movements of Europe. On one hand it developed a version of Art Nouveau, on another it became involved with theatre, set decoration and book design. Artists such as Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Natalya Goncharova, Vasiliy Kandinskiy, Marc Chagall, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin took other personal directions. Groups emerged with names like "The Blue Rose", "The Link", "The Triangle" and "The World of Art", and there were Russian versions of the Symbolists. Some of these were to become international figures in twentieth-century art and in a couple of decades Russian art was to take an honoured place in the world.
The Itinerant philosophy was decisively rejected by the progressive younger generation - although one old-guard painter, Valentin Serov, joined them. Under the management of Sergey Diaghilev, the magazine 'The World of Art' ('Mir iskusstva') provided a central theoretical and critical platform. It gave up-to-the-minute information about current art in the rest of Europe, especially Art Nouveau, which was then in its ascendance abroad. At the same time 'The World of Art painters' revived an interest in Russia's legendary and historical past, as well as its primitive and decorative arts. They were fascinated with the early eighteenth century and supported early nineteenth-century classical and romantic art. All this was, self-consciously, on the surface rather than profound. It was decorative, tending to stylisation and theatrical scene painting; it was linear rather than painterly. And water and reflection were especially favoured for their ambiguous and ephemeral effects.
As important as Diaghilev to 'The World of Art' group was Alexander Benois (1870-1960), whose major painting output was his Versailles series, including 'The King's Walk', 'The Marquise Bathing' and 'The Chinese Pavilion'. Here are imaginary scenes from French court life, the young aristocrat smugly and semi-decadently immersed in a pool, her clothes draped over a stone bench in a topiary enclosure from one of whose clipped columns a horrified servant peeps. In 'The King's Walk', Benois has the royal couple encircling an artificial pond, in the middle of which is statuary whose waterworks have surely been turned off to allow the artist to reflect the real world in the waters of the pond. So too in 'The Chinese Pavilion', the jealous man dare not look round at the couple leaning intimately into each other at the left, nor yet inside the pavilion where a couple are kissing. Behind are two Venetian gondolas floating in the water of the lake where, like the isolated man in the pavilion, they float alone.
In all these and a number of others involving water in Benois's Versailles series, water is used in proper 'World of Art' fashion as not only a pleasurable device in itself but as a means of supporting the notion of the ambiguity of people's motives and actions. On what more substantial and yet insubstantial foundations could be built profound edifices of emotion and feeling? And a great area of water is exactly the foundation of Mstislav Dobuzhinskiy's idealised city in his 1905 painting 'Pacification'. This radiant walled city has risen from the depths of a great flood under a rainbow, to float serenely amid the onion domes of the palaces and cathedrals of the drowned world below.
One of the many pleasurable aspects about the early-twentieth century exploration of new things was the breaking of conventions. This applies too to the depiction of water. Mstislav Dobuzhinskiy's 'City Types' of 1908 depicts snow falling in an almost cartoonist way, slanting across a flat streetscape with a garish advertising hoarding forming the background, an organ grinder and monkey forming the central theme leaning on a balustrade guarding the deep area of the building from which the painting has been made.
In Leon Bakst's 'Downpour' of two years before, a woman clad in the filmy neoclassical fashion of the 1800s is caught in an unexpected downpour, her plump body revealed by the now clinging wet clothes, while people in the background dash for cover. Great storms and violent seas had certainly been the proper subjects for paintings, but never before had artists seriously considered depicting the commonplace event of rain or snow.
Valentin Serov became a leading light in "The World of Art". For a long time a brilliant Realist, he used water themes in some of his best late work, notably 'The Rape of Europa' and 'Odysseus and Nausicaa', both of 1910. Looking at his unfinished sketch 'Iphigenia at Taurus' of ten years earlier it is clear that in the intervening decade he had undergone a major psychological change. The sketch has a disconsolate Iphigenia sitting on a rock on a beach, staring at the sea. It is an interesting enough composition and doubtless would have been painted with Serov's great facility. The sketch for 'Europa' has a similar diagonal structure, but the way the colors are applied is quite different and free and broad. The water, with its token blobs of shadow and swelling profile, is the work of a painter rather than of a psychologist: Europa herself does not seem to be particularly alarmed, although we know that Serov went to great pains to get the model's pose exactly right. Here is a decorative work with a deliberately flat treatment, which is also to be seen in his study of the same year for a curtain for the ballet to the music of Rimskiy-Korsakov. Here the sea is represented by an almost childlike series of white horses squiggled across a blue base, while leopards prance in front of an approaching army.
Yet this last phase of Serov's work is not without inner power, as his 'Odysseus and Nausicaa', also of 1910, demonstrates. In Homer's account, Nausicaa discovered Odysseus on the beach, shipwrecked again. She takes him back with her and restores him before he sets off once more. In this painting the bedraggled hero is wrapped uncomfortably in a sheet, stumbling after the princess Nausicaa, who is proud and straight, holding her mules and waiting to start. Behind, the sunlight dances on the choppy waves, a long puddle breaking up the foreground sand.
There was something about the sea and antiquity. It is not just Homer's wine-red sea or the fact that several of Serov's late paintings have watery subjects. It has, perhaps, something to do with the fact that ancient Greece spread out around the Mediterranean on scattered islands as well as the mainland and the adjacent coasts of Italy, Asia Minor and Africa. Serov went on a tour of the Greek islands with Lev Bakst, later the great ballet set designer. On his return Bakst painted a mysterious decorative panel 'Terror Antiquus'. It is an aerial view of a fragmented rocky shore, with a great grey-blue sea while beyond molten larva dribbles into the water. A lightning strike flashes across the upper part of the painting. At the bottom an enigmatically smiling figure holds a blue bird in her hand.
Another internationally famous early Kandinskiy painting, dating from 1899 is his 'Mountain Lake' in which a green hill descends to a lake lined with white-painted cottages. The lake reflects the buildings, the slopes and a corner of sky. A painterly sketch of 1901, 'Akhyrka, Autumn', has a similar sloping background. But this time there is a Palladian mansion at the crest with the water reflecting two water gates, but - more importantly - there is a wonderful collection of pure colors, partly foreground reeds and water plants. As one of his commentators has it, Kandinskiy "painted like a mature artist and at the same time an unskilled one". As he moved in a more and more abstract fashion, he was able to convey more feeling than was possible in a conventional scene. In his 'Boat Trip' of 1910, he gives us a hint of three boats rowing into perhaps a dark and violent sea and sky beyond a lighthouse. By this time Kandinskiy had almost entirely abandoned narrative representational forms, and had anyway moved abroad.
One of the manifestations of 'The World of Art' was a new preoccupation with folklore and myth. Aivazovskiy had, uncharacteristically, painted at least two such otherworldly pictures. One was 'Poseidon's Sea Journey' of 1894. The great god and his consort ride on a green-tinged wave in a chariot drawn by four horses. Enigmatically-shaped outriders blow horns in warning, putti fly overhead, and a dark multitude obscured by the great black cloud of the background follows behind. Another is his 1858 painting 'The Loss of the Lefort', in which a shadowy line of dead souls ascends from a sunken ship towards a Christ figure in the sky.
These subjects are from conventional mythology. The versatile Repin took the epic folk poem 'Sadko' as the text for his very popular 'Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom' of 1876. This is an entirely magical notion of living underwater. Here the protagonist finds himself in a mysterious, faintly menacing world of sea creatures and sunken barbaric architecture, populated by mer-people lit by an uncanny light and operating under laws unknown to the world above. The viewer can almost hear the silence, the slow swish of the princesses' skirts and the mermaids' tails as they pass not unaware of the protagonist watching his nemesis on a ledge above.
A more conventionally arranged painting by Ivan Kramskoy of 1871 is titled simply 'Mermaids'. Are these white-robed women by the banks of a lake member of some strange sisterhood, or are they in deed creatures of the Deep?
Fairy tales were part of the new experimental milieu of the early twentieth century, and the young Armenian painter Martiros Saryan produced a cycle of fabulous paintings called 'Fairy Tales and Dreams' for the "Blue Rose" exhibition in Moscow in 1907. Among them was a compelling gouache painting 'Lake of Fairies', in which two women bathe in a limpid pale blue pool with the hint of a large grotto farther back, below a hanging wood of predominantly blue forest; a goat in the foreground grazes behind a little grove of trees. The artist was actually more interested in the use of color: "Enamoured of the beauty of the East, I strove after a colorful expressive manner of painting," he explained prosaically.
Magic, myth, folklore and ancient history were all jumbled together in that new-century sensibility, even though the painting techniques are far apart from each other. Nicholas Roerich's paintings belong to the same period and come from the same basic thinking. His 'Guests from Overseas' of 1902 has an unwelcome Slavic longboat sailing up the River Dnepr, the first of a small fleet. Shields are slung over the bulwarks and pair of heavily armoured raiders views the nearby shore.
In a later painting, 'The Varangian Route', the raiders slip through the difficult sea under the watchful eye of a man hidden high on a crag. As in the remainder of Roerich's work of the time, the colors and forms of the ship and seas are stylised. The splendid sea of the 'Route' is a series of heavily laid-on pastel strokes; with concentric ripples less of an attempt at realism as a shorthand representation of deep waters. In the 'Guests' the caution of the leading boat is represented by a stylised bow wave, and the wobbly reflections of the boat and the sails of the following boat have been caught in the placid water.
Although painting in Russia and elsewhere abandoned realism, and as landscape painting became an amateur activity, depictions of water became problematic. Yet in the immensely stylised work of Ivan Bilibin of the inter-war years, water becomes part of the decorative pattern, as in his 'Falcon' of 1927 and 'Underwater Kingdom' of the same year. The former is a formal, decorative version of a standard bird's-eye view of a river delta. In the latter the sea is a zone inhabited by great crocodilian fish, its surface indicated by the vaguely Viking boat floating on a decorative frieze.
And in the totally different work of that old stager Alexander Alenandrovitch Deinecka, it seems that the sea remains a universal symbol. There in his 'Future Aviators' of 1938 sit three naked boys on a promenade, one pointing to a seaplane landing while other planes taxi out beyond the headland. Here is a new vision of Russia as master of the ocean skies as well as the seas, in which it is plain that these three have baptised themselves before taking on the new world beyond the seas.