TITLE: 'Art Exhibition in Petersburg, May and June 1859' (1)
AUTHOR: M. L. Mikhailov
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2003 Carol Adlam; all rights reserved. Notes br Carol Adlam and Robert Russell. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator.
Introduction to the text
In our time criticism should and must be even stricter towards the plastic arts than towards literature. There is no need, for instance, for Russian painting to struggle with its material aspect as Russian literature has with language. In this respect all people are brothers, and what the Italian, Flemish, and French have done in this field leaves us nothing more to do. We must extend the path produced by European art, and not repeat it. It goes without saying that the nature of our art must be different, since our nationality is different, our history is different, and our geographical circumstances are different. Cosmopolitanism is still not possible in painting. Zurbaran (8) could have appeared only in monastic Spain; Gerard Dou (9) and Metsu (10) would have found no food in Italy for their quiet inspiration. It is still too early to judge what the nature of Russian painting will be, but the guarantee that we shall not limit ourselves merely to a repetition of what has been done before is provided by Ivanov's painting, which occupies first place both in this exhibition, and in everything that has been produced in Russian painting up to now.
A strange sensation fell upon us when we moved away from Ivanov's Appearance of the Messiah (11) and walked around the Academy's other halls. It seemed as though we moved from a work which represents modern art's latest step, and which will open up new pathways for it, to collections of some sort of incunabula. Much has already been written about Ivanov's painting, although far from all has been said which should be. But to speak of it here would lead us too far from our point, and would make us forget our intentions to make a few remarks on this year's miserable exhibition, to which [Ivanov's painting] is as alien as art is to craft.
Of the number of works 'of art' presented we shall bear in mind only painting (since it occupies the main place of the exhibition), and then only paintings by Russian artists. Foreign submissions are few, there is decisively nothing of note amongst them, and their very appearance at a Russian exhibition is by chance: it follows, therefore, that we may leave them to one side. We shall likewise leave it to the specialists to evaluate the quality of the architectural projects. We shall merely note that eleven artists dedicated their labours to the composition of projects for 'a trading house for women's outfits', while four did compositions for the project of 'luxury trade baths'. From the last number of the Tehran Monitor we see that our art is threatened by a rivalry on the part of Persia: there, nor four, but forty artists immersed themselves in creative consideration of the production not just of luxurious, but the most luxurious of trade baths. From a sense of national pride let us allow ourselves to think that our architecture will nevertheless win the day, and that at the next exhibition we will see the missing thirty six projects that are needed to make up a complete set.
Let us turn to painting. The first thing that strikes one is the fact that it is absolutely impossible to apply the rule of contemporary criticism to the mass of works exhibited here. This criticism has no business with all two hundred plus of these pictures. It is another matter if one starts to expound upon (as once people expounded upon rhetorical and grammatical refinements) how to hold a brush, which colour to mix with which in order to indicate which is the foreground and which the background, etc., etc. After this one may, perhaps, speak of the expression of the passions in painting, and of a high, middle, low, and even vulgar, style. It goes without saying that two most delightfully conceived and outstandingly executed paintings by Mr Tiutriumov (12) serve as an example of the first: Zarema, with her dark-blue squirrel fur, blue dagger in hand, with a blue sky overhead and with lips that are practically blue from seething passion (such harmony of the outer world with the inner!), and Ophelia, whose eyes have perhaps by now popped out since the time when we were at the exhibition. Nothing can exceed this style, and before these two pearls must fade both Academician Mr P. Orlov's Repentance of an Italian Artist, (13) and Academician Mr Butkovskii's The Page's Curiosity (14) (what are the subjects alone worth!), and Mr Nevzorov's Young Sculptor, (15) who (the sculptor and not Mr Nevzorov) should be made an academician for his remarkable cleanness and spotlessness: he hammers away with a hammer and chisel, but he himself is as spotless as if he's just come out of a bath; his collar is white as can be, and what agility! what art! It's written all over his face that, despite his young years, it's as easy for him to do this task as it is to down a glass of vodka; tip-tap, and it's the Venus of Milo! We could also turn to the middle style, but we shall leave this for critics who are better than we at classification.
However hard we tried to find an organic link with the general path and development of art amongst the mass of paintings exhibited, we could not. It seemed to have been created as if it were a discrete entity, completely separated from whatever has come before; nothing can be learnt from them either for our time or our society; this is some sort of arbitrary phenomenon that has not arisen out of any sort of necessity. This is everywhere the work of the hand and not of thought. Now and again some vague recollections come to mind. Thus (in order not to select too many) in Mr Khlebovskii's Empress Catherine II receives a Delegation of Zaporozhian Cossacks at Tsarskoe Selo Palace, (16) the ladies in waiting on the left (the best figures in the whole painting) remind one of Watteau's 'Marquises', (17) and almost even of pictures in enameled snuff-boxes; Mr Khudiakov's Roman Shepherd (18) (a very sweet thing, by the way) is also like an old acquaintance, and although you cannot determine exactly where you have seen it, you know only that you have seen it many times before. We shall not even speak of two paintings of Pensioner Sverchkov (19) that are truly remarkable in both their lack of talent and their shameless eclecticism: Reading a Letter by the Hearth and An Internal (but it seems to us, external) View of a Medieval Staircase. This, you see, is somewhat in the Netherlandish taste, and this is why, for example, the figure of the woman in the satin dress in the first picture belongs not so much to Mr Sverchkov as to Meyers or to Caspar Netscher. (20)
Apropos of satin. At each step you are astonished by evident, and sometimes even very successful efforts to depict satin, cloth, velvet, fur, in such a way that a customer approaching a picture could say without error that the satin, cloth or velvet depicted costs so many roubles per yard, and was even manufactured at such and such a factory. This quality, perhaps, would not be so unnecessary if the artist were to have regarded it as a means of producing a greater effect in the picture as a whole; but the misfortune lies in the fact that clearly it frequently serves as the goal of an entire work, and, despite the exceptional liveliness of the costume, there is no life to be found in the people themselves. It is strangest of all to see this in portraits, where, it seems, the artist's entire attention should have been directed on the face of the original. Mr Zarianko is particularly acclaimed amongst us in the field of portrait painting. (21) We have never considered as portraits those works of his which adorn museums after they have ceased to be the precious domestic possessions of their sitters, and Mr Zarianko's new portrait which is exhibited here has not moved us in this opinion. Again, there is an excessive working of accessories, again, there is meticulousness and accuracy in the copying of each feature of the sitter's face, and, again, there is lifelessness. There is something akin to the faces of good waxwork figures in Mr Zarianko's faces. One could also say the same of Mr Maliarenko, (22) who has taken Mr Zarianko's inadequacies to an almost comic extreme (inadequacies which even now many consider to be first class qualities). The portrait exhibited by Mr Maliarenko seems to us to be a deliberate parody of the manner of drawing jackets and fur coats instead of faces.
There are generally many portraits at the exhibition, but almost all of them are related to craft rather than art. Their place is sooner in the windows of a portrait painter than at an exhibition. The only exceptions appear to us to be a female portrait, by Mrs Alad'ina, (23) a portrait of Prince Cherkasskii, which is not devoid of life and expression, and in particular a portrait of General Ermolov by Mr Dmitriev-Mamonov. (24) Notwithstanding the fact that we see in these a complete absence of tradition, an utter disregard for all accessories, and daring and power in drawing, before us, in addition, is a living, almost speaking face, living and speaking precisely because the artist has not drawn every hair and every little wrinkle with the punctiliousness of a petty craftsman who makes decorations for objects whose significance he does not understand. This punctiliousness, this pettiness - is it not the same in art as it is in literature? We shall remind the reader of what we said at the beginning of our article. By giving himself up to meticulous copying, the artist ceases to be an artist. His activity turns into a kind of mechanical activity. Of course, machine-made lace is more even and more smooth than hand-made lace, but should it be valued as better and more precious for that? Having recalled one of Mr Dmitriev-Mamonov's portraits we will also say a few words about another. It was unpleasant to see in it more striving for effect; just the face alone, without the poetic surroundings of a Childe Harold or a Pechorin, would have spoken to us far more. Why all these autumnal woods, this raccoon fur coat, when the man is standing there without a hat? Pretension has spoilt the portrait, and without it we would have had a fine picture. (i)
Only two paintings may be excluded from the list of genres to which everything we have said above about the copying of details without penetration into the inner idea is applicable: Mr Popov's Inside a Tavern, (25) which has earned him praise, and Mr Miasoedov's The Spinner, (26) which has earned him no praise. In the first picture a remarkable power of observation is evident, and an attempt to convey not only the small details of the situation but the whole character of the event. These efforts have met with success to a certain extent. The second picture is full of the melancholy poetry of our rural life. The pretty girl who is pressing against her grandmother's shoulder may have been worth a Gold Medal if the artist needs that medal and doesn't already have it. Until now the measure of an artist's quality, it seems, is once again considered to lie in an ability to copy details, and as for the inner idea, it may in fact be completely lacking. That is the only explanation for the appearance at the exhibition of pathetic pictures: these pictures are worthy of the late 'Merry Fellow' (27) (and only then its later days), such as Mr Przhetseslavskii's Consultation, (28) or Mr Shil'der's Money-lender. (29) Which is to say: the shawl and dress on the lady in the second picture, the dressing gown on the Jewish man in the same, and the jacket and dressing gown in the first, would do the displays of any fashionable shop proud; but ... in a word, we've almost begun to say for the tenth time what has already been said. The qualities which we see from this point of view in Mr Przhetseslavskii's and Mr Shil'der's pictures appear to no less an extent, if not greater, in Mr Iakobi's picture Kazan Tatars, Dressing-Gown Sellers. (30) To a flawless rendering of accessories here is also added a typicality of the faces of the vendors themselves, and were it not for the fact of the dry figure of the purchaser, which is utterly irrelevant in the picture as a whole, we would, without a moment's hesitation, have called this one of the most talented pictures of the present exhibition. But, to those with rigid views, evidence of tastelessness in Mr Iakobi's study equals that of the above-mentioned Consultation, while the combination of tastelessness with pretentiousness that is characteristic of the Money-lender places it above this study.
We have noticed some other successful figures in several pictures, but one figure alone, however good it may be, cannot embellish a whole which is devoid of elegance; this is why we will say nothing about the pictures exhibited in the second gallery of antiquities, of which the majority are the result of [Academic] programmes. We admit our stupidity: we cannot in any way understand how an artist, even one with great talent, could display anything other than his outer, technical side in a work done to order. Unfortunately, even the majority of those works not done to order show something involuntary about them. If you pause before any history picture it is clear to see that the idea for painting it came to the artist not as a result of the study of history, where his imagination might have touched upon some vivid characteristics of time or place - far from it. And this too is, in its way, a sort of set theme; the difference lies only in the fact that it was not others who set it, but he himself. This is how it is usually done. The artist says to himself: 'I should do something historical, something with a bit more impact. More people, more movement. There should be lots of drama and the costumes should be bright!' And with this task in mind they flick through thick textbooks where, after a search, they come across some well-worn subject. If this is not how it is in reality, then our presupposition is not to blame: what is to be done if such a presumption appears involuntarily in our heads when we stand before our historical paintings? We shall not even begin to speak of the utter lack of familiarity with poetry, which is such a rich source of inspiration for European artists. We shall merely recall Ary Scheffer (31) and his wonderful paintings which, we might say, augment Goethe's Faust for us; never mind Cornelius (32) and Kaulbach. (33) Perhaps you will say to me that we are unjust, and that, after all, Mr Tiutriumov was inspired by Pushkin and Shakespeare, and that there are two more pictures at the exhibition which evoke a reading of Pushkin, namely: Father Pimen and the False Dmitrii in a Cell of the Chudov Monastery, by Mr Zotov, (34) and Mr Peskov's Little House in Kolomna. (35) There is no need to respond to such an observation to those who have seen the three paintings mentioned. We shall merely mention that one must have very little artistic sensitivity to be inspired by Bakhchisaraiskii Fountain, (36) and to choose as a subject an anecdote about a man who cross-dresses as a female cook. As for Ophelia and the chronicler, in our opinion, one must be utterly lacking not only in imagination but also in understanding to imagine each of them thus. Once again there is an arbitrary element, and an insufficiency of both serious study and a serious view of art.
Must we really return to the age-old scholastic definition: 'art embellishes nature', which has long been accepted as useful surely only for the Chinese. Somewhere on a signboard for a French hairdresser in Petersburg, either on Nevskii Prospect, or maybe on Morskaia Street, there is written, in huge gold letters, and against a dark background: L'art embellit la nature. This is where such aesthetics has led, and no one finds it out of place in the motto of a M. Georges or Emil. And yet, many of the paintings exhibited brought to mind this coiffeurs' catchword. Savoyards in ribbons and silk, peasant children who, in their cleanliness and elegance are like those dolls dressed in silk shirts and velvet coats which little girls take out to walk in the Summer Garden - all this is blindingly, clearly absurd. And again, it is not a lack of observation or even of a passing acquaintance with life that is to blame, so much as it is a lack of serious artistic education. Only this - alongside general development, it goes without saying - will direct observation towards worthwhile subjects and will reveal the brilliance in more than satin and velvet, but in the life which surrounds the artist.
Even now it is no rarity to see an artist's expression of astonishment when he is told that his picture has no concept. Some may be prepared to ask what sort of concept there can be in the dirty street boys of Murillo. (37) It is clear that by 'concept' in the work of art he means not its 'truth' with regard to life, but a sort of didacticism which is utterly alien to art. Thus, when we remarked to one artist that this year's exhibition suffered above all from a lack of 'idea', he objected that 'of course, the exhibition is poor. But there are things in it which are distinguished by the imprint of the idea'. And in support of his words the artist indicated to us a small, fairly meticulously painting by Baron M. Klodt, The Sick Husband, (38) saying, 'one may, you see, ponder over this.' This painting depicts a sad woman at the sick man's bedside. Her facial expression has not been badly captured, but this expression somehow strangely contradicts the elegance of her clothes, although the artist has been astute enough to undo her bodice. Everything else in the painting is lower than any sort of mediocrity, even with regard to the finish, never mind the fact that, judging by the walls, the room is a pauper's, but judging by the drapes it is an aristocrat's, that God knows what sort of bed the husband is lying in, while the wife is sitting next to him practically dressed in silk. Having taken a good look at this picture we couldn't help recalling Zakhar from Oblomov (39) with regard to our artist-acquaintance's argument. For isn't 'one may ponder over this' rather like Zakhar's 'pathetic words again'?
We did want to turn to landscape painting, but we recalled that we might be accused of a terrible inattentiveness. Numbering amongst the historical pictures is a work by Professor Duzi, (40) which has been awarded the palme d'or at the present exhibition. If we take into account its artistic richness then we cannot avoid noticing that this 'palme' isn't very flattering. As for us, personally, we do not find Mr Duzi's picture to be the best at the exhibition, nor is it remarkable in any way in general. In this case we ourselves find ourselves playing the role of Oblomov's Zakhar. For us, to admire A Gathering at the Artist Tintoretto's House in the Sixteenth Century (41) in the Russian city of Petersburg in the last half of the nineteenth century is as difficult as it was for Zakhar not to weep at Il'ia Il'ich's [Oblomov's] 'pathetic words'. 'But look at the grouping! what variation of people and costume! what details!' My God, details again, costumes again! Haven't we seen all this a thousand times already - not just the details and the costumes, but the crowds and the people! All this has been dragged up from old recollections of others' paintings, and put side by side, as children line up dolls for the annoyance of adults and their guests. And why is this particular evening with Tintoretto so interesting? What business do we have with Tintoretto? Why do we need Tintoretto? It even starts to become funny.
Mr Moller, author of the famous Kiss , has exhibited a small painting which appears in the exhibition as Portrait of the Artist's Son. (42) And we thought it was John the Baptist's little boy. He is embracing a lamb in his bare arms. This painting wouldn't be bad for a beginner, but for Mr Moller, despite the explanation in the catalogue, it flounders around in routine.
Apropos, we should note that this is the only piece in the exhibition with a naked figure. Perhaps progress for our artists consists in ceasing to draw the human body. It is easier this way, and more modern: beaverskin coats and satin dresses have long replaced the naked gracefulness of Antigones and Venuses.
Two words on landscape. There are many of these, and most of them are not bad; for example, Mr Bogomolov's (43) Swiss views and Mr Lagorio's (44) Norse views. The successes of landscape painting in Europe have not passed without trace amongst us as well, and about this genre we shall not say what we said of genre painting, portraits, and historical drawing. Two paintings by Mr Meshcherskii are particularly good: View of Part of the Lake of Four Cantons, (45) and Ice in Landeck, in Switzerland. (46) Mr Meshcherskii is a pupil of Calame, (47) and his paintings are full of the romantic poetry of his teacher.
This is all that we have found to say about this year's exhibition. Having heard our foolish judgements, some may well ask - what do we want?
We do not want anything, since we have no pretensions to be a lawmaker: we would not want our artists to disregard the strict lessons of the history of their art and to turn the paintings of the nineteenth century into the twelfth; or, besides, that the present state of enlightenment should not be an extraneous thing to them; nor that they should be citizens of their country and their time, and not some sort of ideal cosmopolites without birth and tribe; or that the subject of art should be man and not the dressing gown he wears; or that they should be inspired by history and the movement of contemporary society, and not by out-dated sentimentalism, by life, and not a fairytale world; or that they should abandon their habitual rut and emerge into the open, where their steps would be firmer and their horizons more expansive; or that, in a word, they should above all be modern people if they wish to be modern artists!
It is strange to express these wishes in an exhibition which contains Ivanov's painting: but how else? Nowhere is there evident any trace of influence from this painting, from which we expect so much! And will we still have long to wait?
(i) There is in the exhibition a portrait of Ivanov, the painter of The Appearance of the Messiah. It was painted by Mrs Khvoshchinskaia as a memento after Ivanov's death, since in his lifetime Ivanov never allowed his portrait to be painted. Unfortunately, we found that this portrait bears no resemblance to the late artist. His face, which was full of playfulness and life, has turned out immobile and deathly. The features do not bring the original to mind in any way, especially the dull eyes, which are devoid of all expression.