TITLE: 'The Last Day of Pompeii (Briullov's Painting)' (1834) (1)
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2003 Robert Russell; all rights reserved. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator(s).
Introduction to the text
Take all the engravings that keep appearing, the fruit of outstanding talent, in which nature lives and breathes in such a way that you might think they had been done in colour. Dawn lights the sky so subtly that when you look closely you seem to see the crimson reflection of evening; trees, flooded with sunlight, seem to be covered with a fine dust; a brilliant whiteness shines in the deepest of dark shadows. When you are examining them you are almost afraid to breathe on them. This whole effect, which spills out in nature and which springs from the struggle between light and shade, has become the aim and the aspiration of all our artists. One might say that the nineteenth century is the century of effects. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, from poet to pastry cook, is so eager to create an effect that, to tell the truth, these effects are now beginning to be tiresome, and it may well be that the nineteenth century will, by some strange quirk, in the end turn in the direction of lack of effect. Moreover, one may say that effects have their greatest value in painting, and in general in everything that is perceived by the eye. Here, if effects are false or inappropriate, then their falseness or inappropriateness is immediately clear to everyone. But in works that are subject to the mind's eye it is an entirely different matter. In that case, if they are false then they are harmful because they spread the lie, because the simple crowd rushes unthinkingly towards whatever glitters. In the hands of a true talent, effects are true, and they turn a man into a giant. But when they are in the hands of a fake talent, then they are repulsive to someone who really understands, just like a dwarf dressed in a giant's clothes, or a rogue sporting a medal to which he is not entitled. All of this, however, is irrelevant to the matter in hand. It must be admitted that, in general, striving for effects is more beneficial than harmful: it moves things forwards rather than backwards and recently it has even been the impetus towards perfection. In their desire to create an effect, many artists began to examine their subjects more closely and to exert their minds more. And if the true effect turned out to exist for the most part only in the trivial, then the fault lies with the scarcity of people of genius rather than the massive fragmentation of life and knowledge which is usually blamed. In addition, this striving for effect has set off many minor details extremely satisfactorily and, with its sharp clarity, it has rendered them accessible to all. I do not recall who it was who said that in the nineteenth century there could be no universal genius who could encapsulate the entire life of the century. This is completely unjust. Such a thought is full of hopelessness and betokens some kind of faintheartedness. On the contrary, never has the flight of genius been so brilliant as today; never has the material been so well prepared for it as in the nineteenth century. And its strides will surely be those of a giant, and will be visible to all, great and small.
Briullov's painting could be called a complete, universal creation. Everything is contained within it. Or at least, it encompasses more diverse material than has ever been done before. Its idea belongs fully to the taste of our century, which - seeming to sense its own terrible fragmentation - seeks to combine all phenomena into general groups, and which picks out major crises that are experienced by the entire mass of the people. Everyone knows the fine works, including Belshazzar's Vision, The Fall of Nineveh and several others, in which great catastrophes are presented in fearsome grandeur, and which represent perfection in lighting. (3) With awesome grandeur, lightning illuminates the dreadful darkness as it slides over the heads of the praying masses. The overall impression from these pictures is striking and is full of an exceptional unity; but in general they contain only one idea of the concept. They are like distant views; they only convey a general impression. We are aware of the terrible position of the crowd, but we cannot see the person on whose face would be expressed the full horror of the destruction that he himself is witnessing. The concept that is here presented to us in distant perspective is suddenly placed full-square before our eyes by Briullov. In his work the concept has grown hugely, and we ourselves seem to be caught up in its world. Briullov has formulated his concept in an unusually bold fashion: he has seized hold of lightning and flooded his picture with it. Lightning has flooded everything, as it were, so that everything should be picked out by it, so that not a single object should be hidden from the viewer. This is why he has bathed everything in an unusual brightness. His figures have been cast forcefully, with a hand such as only a powerful genius can wield: here a whole group has stopped at the moment when the blow fell, expressing thousands of different emotions. A proud athlete lets out a cry of horror, pride, and impotence, protecting himself with his cloak from the whirlwind of flying stones; a woman has fallen on the roadway and her beautiful arm, looking finer than ever before, lies outstretched; here is a child whose gaze pierces the viewer's heart; here, being carried by children, is an old man whose terrible body already has the breath of the grave on it, who has been deafened by the roar, and whose arm remains petrified in the air, fingers outstretched; here is a mother who no longer wants to flee and who does not respond to the entreaties of her son, whose pleas seem to be heard by the viewer. The crowd recoils in horror from the buildings and gazes in the wild oblivion of terror at the fearsome phenomenon marking the end of the world; a priest shrouded in white looks with fierce hopelessness at the whole world. All of this has been rendered so powerfully, so boldly, and has been composed so harmoniously that it could only have come from the mind of a universal genius.
I will not attempt to explain the content of the painting or interpret and clarify the events portrayed. For this, everyone has eyes and the criterion of emotion. Moreover, it is too obvious, too closely concerned with human life and with the nature that man can see and understand, which is why it is accessible to all, from the least to the greatest. I will limit myself to noting the qualities, the great distinctiveness of Briullov's style, the more so since such remarks have probably not been made by many. Briullov is the first painter to have reached the heights of perfection in terms of plasticity. In spite of the horror of the event and the position they are all in, his figures are not imbued with that wild horror that causes us to shudder as we do with the stern creations of Michelangelo. (4) He also lacks that great predominance of heavenly feeling that passes all understanding that is everywhere in Raphael. (5) Briullov's figures are beautiful despite all the horror of their position. Their beauty masks that horror. He is different from Michelangelo, in whose work the body serves only to show the strength of the soul, its sufferings, its wailing, its dread manifestations. In Michelangelo plasticity perished, and the human outline took on gigantic proportions because its only purpose was as an emblem, to clothe an idea. In Michelangelo we see not man, but only man's passions. In Briullov, on the other hand, man appears in order to reveal all his beauty, all the extreme elegance of his nature. Passions, emotions, true and fiery, are expressed in such a beautiful form, in such a beautiful human figure, that one is ecstatic with enjoyment. When I looked at the painting for a third and fourth time it seemed to me that sculpture - the sculpture that had been achieved with such perfection of plasticity by the ancients - had at last been transferred to painting and had, moreover, been imbued with a mysterious music. In Briullov, man is full of beautiful, proud movement; woman is radiant, but she is not the woman of Raphael, with fine, subtle, angelic features. She is a passionate woman, fiery, southern, an Italian with all the beauty of the midday sun, powerful, buxom, burning with the full luxury of her passion and the power of her beauty. She is beautiful as a woman. There is no figure in Briullov's painting who does not exude the beauty of a human being. The movements of his groups of figures are powerfully massive, and in their communality they create a sense of beauty. In creating them, Briullov controlled his imagination as firmly as a desert-dweller controls his Arabian horse. That is what gives the whole picture its tense sumptuousness.
In general, the whole picture shows a lack of ideality, that is abstract ideality, and herein lies its principal virtue. If it had revealed ideality or a surfeit of ideas, then it would have expressed something completely different, and would not have created the same impression. A feeling of pity and passionate anxiety would not have filled the soul of the viewer, and the beautiful concept, full of love, artistry and truth, would have been completely lost. It is not the death and destruction that we find terrible; on the contrary, at this moment there is something poetic, some whirling spiritual pleasure. We feel pity for our dear sensuality; we feel pity for this beautiful earth of ours. Briullov has captured this idea in all its power. Man is presented at his finest, woman exudes all that is best in the world. Her eyes, as bright as stars, and her breast, heaving with voluptuous power as she breathes, promise sumptuous ecstasy. And this beautiful woman, this crown of creation, this ideal of the earth must perish in the general destruction, alongside the most despised of creatures who are not worthy even to crawl at her feet. Her tears, her fear, her sobs, everything about her is beautiful.
Briullov's manner of painting, his visual distinctiveness, also represents an entirely original and unique step forward. His paintings contains a whole sea of highlights. That is the nature of his work. His shadows are sharp and strong, but in the totality of the paintings they sink and disappear in light. In his work, as in nature, they go unnoticed. His style might be termed brilliant and transparent. In his work a beautiful body has a sculptural quality, appearing translucent and porcelain-like; light floods the body in radiance and at the same time shines through it. Light in his painting is so delicate that it appears phosphoric. Even the very shadows seem transparent in Briullov, and for all their solidity they evince a kind of pure, subtle, poetic tenderness.
Briullov's style of painting remains for ever in the memory. I had previously seen only one of his pictures, Vitgenshtein's Family. (6) On first viewing, it immediately etched itself on my imagination, where it remains for ever in all its radiant brilliance. When I was on my way to see The Destruction of Pompeii, I entirely forgot about the earlier painting. I was in a crowd of people making our way towards the room where Pompeii was displayed and for a moment, as always happens in these circumstances, I completely forgot that I was going to see a Briullov painting. I even forgot that Briullov existed. But when I looked at it, when it flashed before me, the word 'Briullov' came instantly, like lightning, to my mind. I recognised him. His style includes a poetry that, once experienced, is always recognised: we feel it and we even see its distinctive features, but we can never express it in words. His use of colour has a clarity that was almost unknown before him, his colours blaze and dart into your eyes. They would be unbearable in an artist who stood a rung lower than Briullov, but in him they are clothed in that harmony and they breathe that inner music that all living things are filled with.
But Briullov's principal feature and the main thing about him is the exceptional range and variety of his genius. He scorns nothing. Everything from the general concept and the principal figures to the tiniest stone on the roadway is alive and fresh. He tries to encompass all objects and to mark everything with the powerful impress of his talent. In former times artists almost always chose one aspect and poured into it all their talent, which as a result developed into a remarkable and somewhat abstract grandeur. Raphael normally only painted faces, capturing the development on those faces of heavenly passions and thoughts. Everything else, even clothing, he left to his pupils to do. All the other great artists, inspired by the sublimity of religion or of passions, ignored the background and the secondary features in their paintings. In their works the sky always appears brown, clouds are more like haycocks or granite blocks, trees are either childlike in their uniform regularity or else unharmoniously ugly in their irregularity. But for Briullov, on the other hand, all objects from the greatest to the smallest are precious. He tries to grab hold of nature in a giant's embrace and he squeezes it with the passion of a lover. Perhaps he was helped in this by the detailed preparatory work on fragments undertaken in the nineteenth century. Perhaps if Briullov had lived earlier he would not have had such a varied, all-embracing and monumental ambition. This is precisely the reason why his works are, perhaps, the first to be universally accessible because of their liveliness and the faithful mirror that they hold up to nature. His are the first works that can be understood (although in different ways) both by an artist with highly developed taste and by someone who knows nothing about art. They were the first works to enjoy the enviable fate of worldwide fame, and to date the greatest of them is The Last Day of Pompeii, which, in terms of its extraordinary scope and its combination of all that is beautiful, may be compared only to opera, if opera really is the combination of the triple world of art: painting, poetry and music.