Not-so-easy steppes: Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy at the National Gallery

It’s simple enough to imagine what went on in the minds of BP executives when they decided to ‘support’ (as the current euphemism has it) the National Gallery’s current exhibition Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy — at a guess, the black stuff here probably wasn’t the kind that comes in little lead tubes — and equally easy to imagine what went on in the minds of the National Gallery’s own senior management staff when the possibility of sharing this exhibition with the Groninger Museum was but a twinkle in a curator’s eye. It may be unfair, but I imagine some well-intentioned figure, who came into this line of work through his love of art but who has since spent far too long pouring over balance-sheets, thinking to himself, ‘We’ve had the blockbuster Why El Greco Was Really A Proto-Modern Master and we’re about to have the blockbuster Why Raphael’s Art Is Important Even If You Know Bugger All About Christianity And Care Less, so why not fill the space between with a really educational show for once?’ The thing one shrinks from imagining, out of human decency as much as anything else, is what the Gallery’s marketing department made of all of this. In any event, given the signal lack of big names, recognisable images or obviously sexy ‘hooks’ associated with the exhibition’s content, the otherwise meaningless evocation of Leo Tolstoy probably answers the question. Throw in a set of Matryoshka dolls, a few Penguin Classic paperbacks, a CD of Russian-type mood music, the obligatory if pointless notebooks and that’s the gift-shop sorted out, at any rate.

And it has to be said that Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy is indeed educational, even if the education it provides probably teaches us more about what it is we expect from an exhibition at a major national collection than it does about anything else. This being the case, we can certainly save you some time and money here. Is Russian Landscape your sort of show? Here’s a simple diagnostic procedure, exclusive to Electric Review, designed to help you find out:

When you shell out your £7 and make your way down into the Sainsbury’s Wing’s airless, charmless bunker of a basement, which of the following do you expect?

(a) I expect to see Great Art, the sheer excellence of which renders it timeless, universal — unconstrained by the need to know anything of its content or context — enlightening and inspiring for all in its innate, unarguable Importance;

(b) I expect to see Influential Art — A-list stuff that plays an important role in the narratives of Art History that I have carefully absorbed over the years, and which I believe to be important;

(c) I expect, being a bit of a cultural anthropologist or at any rate having been set Hauser in some long-ago university course, to add to my knowledge of what certain individuals produced in certain places and and at certain times — disparate products all of which are now encompassed in that very culturally specific and frankly rather flawed catch-all ‘Art’;

(d) Um, I just wanted to pass the time, really, in a way that sounded vaguely impressive to my more Newsnight Review-focussed pals —can I get back to you about that fine detail bit, please?

If your answer was either (a) or (b), Russian Landscape probably isn’t for you — why not save your cash for a coffee after a ramble round the National Gallery’s unparalleled permanent collection? The room with all the Poussins was completely empty the last two times I was there, and no overcrowded, overpriced travelling show is ever going to be able to top that. If, on the other hand, your answer was either (c) or, however secretly and regretfully, (d), then get on down to Trafalgar Square. Russian art, at this quality and on this scale, rarely makes it as far as London — probably frightened away, quite rightly, by our general ignorance, apathy and complacency — and so it may well be another twenty years before you have a chance to expand your horizons in this particular direction.

From Russia, with preconceptions
The experience of looking at Russian Landscapes turns out to be a disorientating collision of familiarity and unfamiliarity. On one hand, there are the paintings — landscapes, as the title suggests — which is to say, rural scenes, rather than cityscapes, few of them containing much in the way of human traffic. The works, like the names of the men who painted them or the history of the movements they might be adduced to illustrate, will be completely unknown to anyone in Britain, a handful of specialists and ex-pats apart. We live, after all, in a country where few art lovers could actually name four or five nineteenth century German or Dutch or Spanish or Scandinavian or American painters — what hope for a single Russian one?

Yet on the other hand — well, there’s Russia itself. We may know virtually nothing about Russia, but what matters is what we think we know — and here we are operating under a heavy burden, harvested unthinkingly and uncritically from misunderstood scraps of Russian and Soviet history, Russian literature and drama, perhaps even the present-day realities of that far-away fairytale land of oligarchs and gangsters and ex KGB statesmen, derelict industrial towns and toxic forests, endless festering imperial wars and talentless girl bands, old smoke-blackened gold-ground icons and Boris Mikhailov’s exploitative photographs of naked babushkas crouched in the snow, exposing themselves for the price of their next shot of vodka … you know the sort of thing I mean, don’t you? Tsars great or terrible or nymphomanic — Lenin and Stalin, Yeltsin and Putin — every bad televised adaptation of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment that we ever dozed and daydreamed our way through — every John Le Carre aside or journalistic shortcut relating to ‘the Russian mind’ — every adumbration of the relative qualities of Russian culture and its alternatives — this, for that it is worth, is what we bring with us to Russian Landscape, our talkative companion as we pass through the galleries, the lens though which we view the pictures and the standard by which we judge them.

What, then, is the effect of this unavoidable if regrettable framing device? Well, for one thing, since we know so little about Russian art, everything else we believe about Russia starts surging to the fore instead. And this, in turn, invites us to look at the work not really in narrative art-historical terms, let alone in formal ones, but rather through a creeping mist of historicist assumptions, as if from spending time amongst these mute little relics we could learn something, directly and unproblematically, about the ‘age’ and ‘nation’ that created them. We are more or less invited, for instance, to see in the works of painters like Venetsianov and Sukhodolsky a liberal condemnation of serfdom, in Nesterov’s work some sort of ‘Russian spirituality’, in the rather tame innovations of the Wanderers the desire to shake off academic convention in favour of a ‘realism’ as much of content as of manner, and in Shishkin’s huge and meticulously-rendered canvases successful attempts to ‘capture the Soul of Mother Russia’. And indeed, to quote the exhibition curator, landscape still rules supreme, in a way hardly imaginable in normal places:

Landscape plays a central role in the Russian imagination. The emptiness of the country’s vast reaches, the rigours of its climate, the difficulties of transportation, and the intense isolation that long winter months impose, all contribute to a specifically Russian sense of nature, different from — perhaps more fatalistic than — that found elsewhere.

So … well, if you haven’t managed it before, here’s your chance to gain access to the ‘fatalistic’, landscape-dominated, deeply peculiar and strangely homogeneous ‘Russian imagination’, then.

But the oddity of all this should be lost on none of us. Call me a pedant or worse, but I don’t believe in ‘the Russian mind’, ‘Russian spirituality’ or the ‘Soul of Mother Russia’. Seriously, can you imagine a show of nineteenth century French landscape painting being organised on similar lines, with Renoir’s smeary fantasies adduced to illustrate ‘the French mind’, Monet’s cathedral fronts there to represent ‘French spirituality’, and a race-course by Degas or an Italianate hillside by Corot or a crystalline mountainscape by Cezanne bearing witness to the ‘Soul of Mother France’? Oh, the patronising nonsense of it all — and of most of the critics who’ve written about it, too! The exhibition organisers may claim that, by seeking recourse to such terms, they are simply expressing what the painters thought about these subjects themselves, in their own times. Well, if so, the curators should also contextualise this with information about what the painters felt about a number of other topics, such as religion, history, economics, politics, art and nature — an exercise that would reveal, in an instant, what a tangle of diversity, complexity and frank disagreement hides behind these bland assumptions of common terms, because ‘the Russian mind’ was no more homogeneous then than ‘the British mind’ is now. Either that, or the curators should simply stop this patronising, meaningless line of commentary.

At the same time, though, it is parenthetically amusing to notice how relaxed a certain sort of middlebrow critical opinion becomes in the face of what is, in many of the works on show in Russian Landscape, nothing more or less than a fairly assertive expression of Russian nationalism. Were anyone to try to run a show of German nineteenth century landscape painting — cue all that Landscape, Myth and Memory stuff about solitary Nietzschean super-cedars silhouetted heroically against a receptive sky — even the simpler sort of critic would, I suspect, spot something deeply unpleasant cohabiting alongside the love of nature, the interest in science, the elevation of the pure Teutonic outdoors over the overheated cosmopolitan clamour of the bourse and the boudoir. And today it would take a curator with strong nerves to run an exhibition, as the Tate did within the past decade, of of the American landscape painting of the 1800s, with its optimistic rushing towards ever-wider horizons, gleefully heedless of whatever native peoples or otherwise harmless creatures might get in the way of a certain sort of republican liberal imperialism. Can it be anything other than a reflection of our perception of Russian geo-political impotence that we can look with such indulgence on the darker aspects of its recent past? Or to put it another way, does the fairly frequent tendency, in these works, to subordinate the individual to a mere flash of staffage, there to give the Russian landscape scale, not make anyone except me a little bit anxious sometimes? Does the habit of treating art like an agit-prop political poster not seem every bit as creepy in the 1860s as it would come to be in the 1930s? Is this not the Russia of Marx, Engels and the youthful Lenin, then, just as much as it is of the aged Tolstoy?

A far-away country
Apparently not. As one further illustration of this notably wholesome and productive Russian obsession with landscape, the National Gallery press team has put together two pages of ‘Literary Quotes’, helpfully included with each press pack relating to the exhibition. (A list of artists and their dates might have been more to the point. If nothing else, though, the ‘Literary Quotes’ sheet has at least provided for some of us the cheap entertainment of working out whom amongst our fellow critics relied, with varying degrees of subtlety or relevance, upon the crib-sheet.) I suppose this is also meant to implicate poor Tolstoy more closely in the stuff of the exhibition. But of course it is really just a great fluffy nonsense, aimed to remind us of one of the several aspects of Russian nineteenth century culture that has, in fact, travelled very well. Even the greatest Russian novels and plays do, obviously enough, make references to nature and to landscape from time to time. So, however, do English novels and plays. So do French ones. So do American ones. So do Australian and Dutch and Czech ones. In each case, however, what makes any of these literary works potentially ‘great’ — in other words, what makes them of enduring interest, even for those of us reading them in translation, a century later, separated from their realities by countless differences of age and scene and nuance — is not their national specificity, but rather some enduring thread of human relevance. Or to put it another way, if, as I do, you think that the hunting scene in War and Peace is one of the most beautiful chapters ever written in any language, this is quite possibly not because you are a Russian nationalist, but rather because Tolstoy manages in it to capture a fragile nostalgia, a feeling of confraternity and sense of place that could, I suppose, mean something to almost anyone, anywhere, who had ever felt some sort of love for the place where he grew up, whatever it was like. It works despite its ‘Russian-ness’, in other words, not because of it.

So — do any of the works in Russian Landscape approach this level of universal appeal — this ‘greatness’? In a word, yes — but only a very, very few. This is not, in the main, a show of superstar paintings. Instead, we are offered a narrative of development, and then a handful of important individuals — Shishkin, Kuindzhi, Levitan. Relax, though — the narrative, as presented here, is not particularly complex. Throughout the nineteenth century, Russian painters went first to Italy and then Germany and France, learned something about landscape painting and then brought their discoveries back to Russia where they shared them with less peripatetic colleagues, to varying effect. The fact that Russian collectors made similar journeys, and that by the end of the century there were plenty of rather good European landscapes, all the way from the seventeenth century Netherlands to contemporary France, to be found in Russian collections, is more evident from the well-intentioned if badly-organised catalogue than it is from this Russian-only exhibition.

Of this early generation of artists, two stand out. The first, the previously-mentioned Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847), is meant to be a ‘realist’ painter who pushed avidly for the emancipation of the serfs. Well, maybe, but if so this is not exactly the message his work conveyed to me. Idyllic in a soft, illustrational, rather sentimental way, his presentation of the realities of Russian agricultural life says less about the brutal facts of servitude and exploitation than it does about plump boys taking naps, or pretty, big-breasted women nursing their fat babies in front of fruitful, domesticated landscapes — less protest art, really, than a sweetly Virgilian paternalist fantasy given the faintest of Slavic glosses.

The other stand-out artist is, in contrast, represented only by a single painting — but what a painting, and what a story! Fishermen, by Venetsianov’s pupil Grigori Vasilevich Soroka (1823-1864), will for some of us be instantly reminiscent of the work of George Caleb Bingham with its serenely mirror-like water, calm sky, long horizon and faint air of mystery. Its naievity might be seen to give it a frankly documentary quality absent elsewhere in the room. I wish some other works by this artist had been included by way of comparison, but in any event, the painting remained stuck in my mind long after much else in this exhibition had been forgotten. All of which is a long way of praising the work’s intrinsic qualities — it can stand on its own formal feet. However much we may regret this, though, context does matter — sometimes it cannot fail to alter or enhance one’s sense of what a painting is about. I didn’t learn until a day or two later that Soroka was, himself, a serf; that his many attempts at securing emancipation never succeeded; and that in order to avoid harsh physical punishment for leading a rebellion of ex-serfs, he hanged himself. Such knowledge does nothing to decrease the gravitas and dignity of this single work. Indeed, it is especially powerful in contrast with some of the bombastic excesses elsewhere in this exhibition.

Red dawn?
Which brings us, perhaps, to the enormous — in every sense — oeuvre of Ivan Ivanov Shishkin (1832-1898). Shishkin is the card-carrying grand old man of Russian landscape painting, and one of only three artists accorded a room of his own in this exhibition. His pupils called him an ‘accountant of leaves’. One sees what they meant. Working on enormous canvases, at his best he created ‘all-over’ paintings of forests, all rhythm and no incident, in front of which one can get lost, just as one can do when standing slightly too close to a major main-phase Pollock painting. You literally cannot see the wood for all those trees. I guess that’s the point there. Yet even Shishkin’s smaller works — snow-scenes, and one little unfinished painting of oaks — have a slightly antiseptic super-veracity, strangely evocative of claustrophobia given their concomitant obsession with wide open spaces. On a technical level, there is a lot to wonder at, and of course it is interesting to try to understand what patrons and critics admired so much about these works. Yet when it comes to liking them, actually enjoying them as someone must once have done, things become more difficult somehow. Executed on an inhuman scale, these unpeopled vistas seem to me to revel, for all their naturalistic rigour, in a particularly unpleasant sort of romanticism — a suspicion Shishkin’s preference for technical perfection over nakedly subjective, individual human handling does nothing to dispel.

This, I freely admit, may well be my own problem, rather than Shishkin’s — because of course I am as much a creature of the ideological, literary and artistic preoccupations of my own time as he was of his — but I can’t look at Shishkin’s work without feeling, probably entirely unfairly, that somehow those forest paths, woodland vistas and tracks through the fields of rye lead somehow, pitilessly and ineluctably, towards the five-year plan and the famine, towards the communal farm and the re-education programme, towards the gulag and the firing-squad — towards a terrible century, in other words, of collectivist mass murder. Perhaps it’s even more unfair. All the same, though, some vicissitude of free association reminded me, when I was there in the National Gallery, of a time a few years ago when I stood with a friend in a pretty provincial town in Eastern Europe, looking towards a rather handsome stand of trees across a narrow river. It would have made an attractive landscape painting. My friend agreed that it was all very beautiful. Indeed, the local people still liked to take walks in those woods when the weather was good. ‘But not when it’s been raining,’ my friend said, ‘because there’s still a bit of a smell sometimes from the mass graves.’ It is at moments like that when one realises the capacity of landscape to go badly, unforgiveably wrong.

Alternatives to the Big Picture
But then Shishkin is only one of many voices audible here. His contemporaries were just as likely to eschew Shishkin’s epic scale in favour of something rather more lyrical. Mikhail Klodt’s The High Road in Autumn is a painting that would probably benefit from a bit of background information — what’s that plaque about, and what’s going on with that roadside cross? — but at least seems to convey something about the misery of a cold, wet, muddy, pointless journey carried out under a lowering gun-metal sky. Vasili Perov’s The Last Inn by the Town Gate is similarly gloomy — a grim fantasy of a frozen village inn at sunset, where the lights burning inside the windows contrast poignantly — perhaps just a little bit too poignantly — with the dim figure of a female peasant left out in a waiting sledge, more disregarded even than the weary horses who at least have some damp nameless fodder to eat. One can see the appeal of such paintings — how better, as one sat in one’s smart bourgeois townhouse in St Petersburg, to remind oneself how very warm, dry and comfortable one was fortunate to be? Or at any rate this is how I read them, finding such a construction more plausible than any claims to energetic social protest. There is nothing particularly Russian about this urge, either, which can be discerned in both Europe and America at varying times and places, not least the mid nineteenth century. Ditto its mirror image, as seen in Popov’s warm and luminous Morning in the Countryside — a good illustration of the tendency to present country life as simple, idyllic and virtuous. Any impulse towards urbanisation, however faint and faltering, encourages nostalgia about the charms of the recently-abandoned rural life. This isn’t something about Russia — it’s simply a point about how the human mind works, everywhere, at all times.

Halfway between these two poles is Alexksei Savrasov’s The Rooks Have Returned. This is spring, Russian-style — not a robin in sight to welcome the onset of fruitful and welcoming weather, but rather the sordid melting snow of an early thaw, a church rising from some scrubby scenery and, in the foreground, a colony of rooks building a new season’s set of nest in the empty branches of a thicket of scruffy trees. It’s an arresting image, if only because its account of seasonal change carries the burden of a set of clichés that are, for once, not our own. The painting, though, is wholly unremarkable — Barbizon School offcuts, competent but never surprising — a conventional thought given new life by being expressed in a foreign language. And this, in a way, is the sadness of many of the paintings in Russian Landscape. Good manners, let alone the suspect thrill of some sort of putative insight into ‘the Russian mind’, can’t entirely shoo away the notion that all too often here we are looking at second-rate imitations of better European work. Ultimately, provincial copies are provincial copies, no matter how vast, ancient and interesting the province in question.

So, Russian art is either proto-nationalist filth or a heap of derivative rubbish then? Well, no. Russian Landscape includes the work of two painters whose achievement transcends, each in his own way, this gloomy summary.

The right stuff
One is Arkhip Ivanov Kuindzhi (1842-1910). Kuindzhi will, I am sure, winning high praise from many, perhaps even the majority of British visitors to this exhibition. It isn’t difficult to see why this is the case, either. Perhaps due to a burst of foreign travel in the 1870s, or perhaps due to some personal gift of thick-skinned stubbornness, Kuindzhi was an artist who, in the teleological language so beloved of Western art history and its less literate practitioners, managed to ‘move Russian art forward’ a step or two — indeed, moving it away from its narrative, pastoral, lyrical and epic concerns (so subject-centred! so old-fashioned!), towards an interest in painting for its own sake which was much more in keeping with ‘mainstream’ — which is to say, French — art-related thinking at the time. Kuindzhi’s preoccupations appear to have been with light, colour and look-at-me tricks of composition, and he went at each of these with a bracing lack of subtlety and caution. In doing so, he produced the kind of work that a certain sort of person identifies as ‘great art’ — ‘shocking’, ‘controversial’ and — best of all — very much in the narrative mainstream.

Hence we are shown a room full of Kuindzhi’s most ‘innovative’, for which read ‘good’, works. Moonlit Night on the Dniepr is, apparently, one of these. From the monochrome darkness of the canvas, one can pick out only a phosphorescent greenish-blue glimpse of the tranquil river, silhouetting a windmill, and then the moon emerging from some clouds above. The story has it that when this painting was first shown — in a dark, velvet-lined room, incidentally — some viewers tried to look behind it to see whether it was back-lit, so convincing was the illusion of illumination it produced. And of course if you’re the sort of person who thinks that these technical conjuring-tricks equate with greatness, all this means a lot. But Kuindzhi’s appeal is potentially wider than this, if equally dependent on the stuff of ‘art’ for its putative firepower. Oddly, in works such as The North and Landscape, The Steppes Kuindzhi produces strangely luminous, blurry, momentous compositions that can hardly help but remind anyone, now, of the works of the more portentous sorts of American Abstract Expressionists — notably, that other Russian-born painter, Mark Rothko, whose ‘abstract’ paintings always read a bit like landscape at the best of times. And although in some ways it is silly to look forward like this, if nothing else, this sudden appeal to the world of MoMA, the Whitney and the Guggenheim franchise somehow lifts Kuindzhi’s work out of its alleged national peculiarity and its cosy obsession with its own means. I don’t, it must be said, particularly like Kuindzhi’s work, but seeing it certainly taught me something about the history of art, not only in Russia but further afield, too.

All of which brings us, by tortuous and none-too-easy stages, to the last painter featured in Russian Landscape. Isaak Ilich Levitan (1860-1900) is, perhaps, the only painter here with any sort of genuine claim to serious, international art-world importance, and his paintings are the finest in the show. They are, at very least, no worse than what a dozen ‘major’ French landscape painters of a comparable period produced, and ought to be better known in Britain than they are at present.

Levitan did, clearly, feel a good deal of foreign influence when he was producing his landscapes — not only the inevitable Barbizon School and Corot, yawn, but also Monet — this latter perhaps most explicitly in his painting of some haystacks framed against a fading evening sky. But as with Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) — Russia’s other great late nineteenth century painter — Levitan brought two distinctive qualities to the use of his Western cultural inheritance. One was an amazing facility in handling paint, both in terms of gesture and tonality; as with perfect pitch and musicians, the gift alone doesn’t guarantee greatness, but as painters like Velasquez and Sargent have shown, it certainly helps. The second, though, is harder to explain — and here I have to apologise to those of you who have little patience with this sort of stuff, and can only ask you to go to the National Gallery and see for yourself. What marks out Levitan’s work, and what is so hard to put into persuasive words, is the sheer melancholy that seems to have gone into every landscape he painted. His portrayal of the Russian landscape speaks not of nationalism, or literature, or social policy, or anything similarly public and expository. Rather, for Levitan — whose experience as a poor Jew may, for all I know, have given him a slightly less rosy view of ‘Mother Russia’ than that nurtured by some of his contemporaries — landscape seems to have been simply a vehicle for the most absolutely tragic and convincing personal expression imaginable. Was he particularly gloomy, this painter? I have no idea, but I can promise you that a roomful of his work enfolds the viewer in a sort of wonderful, gentle, sympathetic sadness that seems to echo and amplify every little sorrow, regret or bittersweet memory the viewer may have seen fit to bring along with him.

To my mind, anyway, this sort of universalism — this ability, as with the best of Russian literature and music, to speak out clearly across national and temporal boundaries — signals a kind of greatness. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. Levitan’s most famous painting is, perhaps, The Vladimirka Road. When I first saw this painting I stood in front of it for some time. It shows a wide dirt track, red-clay rough, leading off across some flat and unremarkable scrub-land towards a level, uninviting, unreadable distant horizon. A miserable dark sky, dirty and unrelenting, looms overhead. To the extent that anything punctuates the boring matter-of-factness of this scene, it is a dark mark that can, just about, be read as a sort of roadside shrine, while over to the left there is something rather like an old church. It’s not a sentimental scene, and perhaps in describing it I have overplayed the grimness. What breaks your heart, looking at it, is not so much some explicit misery as it is the flat, numb, unending, soul-crushing tedium of it all. Standing before it, I was reminded not of Russia, but of another place, half a world away — somewhere where I’d once lived for a while, where the red clay and scrubby landscape were not dissimilar. I could imagine the journey along that track — how hours and days might pass but the land would keep looking just like that, with nothing to delight or surprise, nothing to respond to human interest or emotion — just the deadening sameness of it all, grinding into the traveller the logic of a life where plodding, unending, unthinking endurance is probably the best that one can hope for, because the journey itself with never yield up anything more happy than its own eventual, perhaps imperceptible conclusion. I stood there in front of The Vladimirka Road thinking all of this, and also thinking what a persuasive metaphor this painting provided for certain times in one’s life — certain situations, certain states of mind. Even the surface of the canvas seemed to radiate a kind of sullen quality, as if the painter didn’t really care whether anyone looked at it or not. Has depression ever been rendered more successfully than this? I tried to think of an example where it had, but couldn’t come up with anything.

Perhaps I should have mentioned before that Russian Landscape is, as an exhibition, rather light on curatorial exegesis. One could argue about the merits of that decision. But anyway, for The Vladimirka Road someone had made an exception, which — typically — I only spotted after staring at the painting for a good ten minutes. The actual Vladimirka Road, it turns out, was the highway along which political prisoners marched on their way to Siberian exile. Presumably, Levitan’s contemporaries would have understood the reference immediately, and would have thus read into the painting volumes of information about recent history, recalled all the books and newspapers they had read, thought critically about the speeches and pamphlets, about politics and religion, about freedom and patriotism and who knows what else. We can’t really recover that now, although the effort to do so could hardly be other than illuminating. What we can do, though, is to be honest about whether the painting still speaks to us, in our own time, with or without a bit of contextualisation. And to me, anyway, it does so in a way that is both powerful and memorable. This is not just a question of one work, but of many of Levitan’s paintings on show in Russian Landscape. For that reason, as much as any other, I really do believe that he deserves to be written, along with Repin, back into the history of Western art — not as a peripheral figure, either, but as a painter who used his medium with a skill, expressiveness and power that time and distance have done nothing to diminish.

In praise of curiosity
So, then — what to make of Russian Landscape? The works that have travelled to the National Gallery, via the Groninger Museum, are borrowed from Moscow’s Sate Tretyakov Gallery, which deserves a word of explanation in its own right. Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov (1832-1898) was a Moscow businessman who built up an enormous collection of Russian art. At first, he collected only the art of his own time, but later expanded the collection backwards, as it were, to include everything from ancient icons to the art of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century paintings. His dream was to create an encyclopaedic collection of Russian art, from its earliest beginnings up to and including his own times, which he then wished to give to the nation. And this, in fact, is exactly what he did.

The significance of Tretyakov achievement, though, is lost unless one realises that at the time when he was putting together his collection, Russian art history was only in its earliest, infant stages. Its canon had not yet been set in stone, its heroic figures had not yet been identified — the language in which it was to be admired, explained and defended had not yet become habitual. So in his selection of paintings, his patronage of particular artists and his passionate defense of the sort of work he most admired, he was not reflecting Russian art history — he was, in fact, creating it. His contemporaries realised this, schemed and politicked and bitched over his growing cabinet of wonders, and called him the Moscow Medici. This is not, though, the only possible comparison. There is something almost Greenbergian about the fillip that Tretyakov gave to Nesterov and Kuindzhi, let alone the way in which he ‘created’ Levitan — ‘discovering’ him as a young student, buying up his key works almost before the last layers of glaze had dried and defending him against his many, many critics. At one level, of course, this rather assertive approach means that the State Tretyakov Gallery has an unparalleled collection of what is now considered the most important Russian art of the late nineteenth century. At another, it may raise questions about the well-rounded, critical, iconoclastic credentials of the art we are seeing in this exhibition. Well, you’d have to know more about Russian art than I do to produce a fair answer to that. As it is, this is probably the best shot at this type of work we’re likely to get for the next few decades, here in cosmopolitan central London.

All the same, all these reservations aside, I’m glad that the National Gallery saw fit to host the present exhibition. It’s easy, obviously, to complain that virtually none of the work on show is ‘great’ — easy and fair, too. There is some truly shocking stuff here, with Nesterov’s terrible faux-mystical rubbish by far the worst, being bad rather than actually just a bit boring and incompetent. The paintings you’ll see if you visit Russian Landscape are, in large part, little better than the sort of stuff whose English equivalent graces unpopular rooms in regional collections, when it isn’t simply cluttering up the darker corridors of little-known stately homes or making an occasional triumphant showing on Antiques Roadshow. It’s less about the coevals of Constable and Turner than — well, artists I couldn’t name, and I bet you couldn’t either. And needless to say, even the most important of the pictures on show here does not begin to approach the greatness quotient of the El Greco and Raphael exhibitions that frame it like a pair of unmatched if unimaginably grand bookends.

But all of that, for me at least, rather misses the point, which is that art — or ‘art’, as my editor would doubtless have it — isn’t always about greatness or universality, let alone the pursuit of the pleasingly neat narratives beloved of art history textbooks. Sometimes it’s about using these mute, rather forlorn old objects — which is to say, these paintings — as a means of stepping back from our own lives and dreaming, however lazily and imperfectly, about how other individuals have lived, in other times and places — what they believed, what they loved and hated, how they saw their world, what they wanted to do or say to preserve or change it. So whatever its occasional faults, Russian Landscape opens a door upon a world that is, for all its apparent familiarity as literature, still obscure to us in a thousand other ways. Looking out that door will not make us better people, or teach us much of great profundity — but it is inherently interesting, in the way that finding out about other people is, generally, quite interesting. This has something to do with basic human curiosity about our fellow creatures, and also more than a little to do with curiosity about our reflected selves. And to my mind, anyway, all of that is, in its own way, justification enough for art, for the presence of Russian Landscape in our midst — perhaps even a reason to make your way to the National Gallery before this flawed but fascinating, ultimately worthwhile exhibition goes back to Russia once more, leaving us alone with our own relative ignorance.
Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy will be at the National Gallery from 23 June to 12 September 2004. Tickets cost £7. Concessions apply. A fully-illustrated, if badly-organised catalogue is on sale for £25.


Comments Off on Not-so-easy steppes: Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy at the National Gallery

Filed under art, reviews

Comments are closed.