TITLE: 'Deplorable Aestheticians' (1877)
AUTHOR: V.V. Stasov
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2002 Carol Adlam; all rights reserved. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator(s).
Introduction to the text
Mr Repin, one of our young artists, has dared not only to create paintings of great talent, but also to be a distinctive and bold thinker with regard to art. This is an incomparable misfortune, one must agree.
All went well for as long as he simply painted his pictures and was silent about others': our gentlemen critics remained satisfied with him and had nothing against him, while his talent did not disturb them. Doch' Iairova [Jairus's Daughter], Russkie i slavianskie muzykanty [Russian and Slav Musicians] and Burlaki [The Barge Haulers] were good pictures, worthy of praise and approval, and their creator was viewed as an artist who inspired great hopes. But then the event took place which turned everything upside down. I published excerpts from letters Mr Repin had sent me from abroad in the journal Pchela [The Bee].
I thought that I was doing a very good thing in doing this, that I was rendering a service to our public, since I was showing it what vigorous, distinctive people there are amongst our artists - people capable not merely of passing a brush over a canvas and rehashing artistic opinions and prejudices that have long stuck fast in everyone's mind, but also of looking long and hard, and with their own fresh, independent eyes, at works of art both old and new.
It turned out that very many people thought it was nothing of the kind. To scrutinize and to be discerning about something essential was nothing more than to plunder it and set it alight. A multitude of brows were ominously creased, lips were unpropitiously pursed, and everyone then cried out in horror and outrage: 'Repin does not recognize authority! Repin is a rebel! He must be punished!' (i) And when pictures painted recently by Mr Repin arrived from abroad and were exhibited in the halls of the Academy of Arts throughout November and December, oh! then our art critics immediately surfaced and made themselves known to this rebellious, dangerous, immodest and judgmental artist Mr Repin. They immediately began to say (if not all, then the majority): 'Well, dear chap, do come over here and let us take a good look at you! What on earth have you started here?! Throwing your elders on the scrap heap, casting doubts on great people, dragging artists who have long been recognized and awarded the highest marks to some sort of self-styled tribunal? Why do you regard everything so disrespectfully, and cast judgement even more so?!' And at that point Mr Repin was attacked from all sides, crushed, and trampled underfoot. His pictures, it turned out, were senseless, meaningless, worthless, while he himself was a miserable greenhorn who should teach himself sooner than judge others; and the entire reason alone for his new pictures' lack of success lay in their creator's unbecoming self-regard and inexcusable arrogance.
To be sure, the zeal of these artistic conservatives deserves all praise and encouragement, but one thing is a shame: the fact that there is not a single word of truth in anything they say about Mr Repin. While one half of their accusations - their attacks on his views - are the most hollow fictions and slander, the other half - their attacks on his new paintings - are nothing other than evidence of their utter lack of understanding in matters of art.
We have so very few art critics, and opportunities for them to show themselves to full advantage are so very rare, that surely it is an insult when we realize that when they do finally appear we can expect nothing from them but tall tales or the most profound ignorance?
I will not begin going through over all our critics one by one and listing all their views, but I think it will be fully sufficient if, for example's sake, I set out here the words and thinking of two of the most opposed of them - one an idealist, and one a positivist. Their views are the most dissimilar, their ways of thinking and conclusions poles apart, and yet they utterly concur in their main point: annoyance and indignation about their common enemy, and about this greenhorn's disrespect towards his elders. These two may be taken as the best exemplars of this, since these are respectable, trustworthy people who stand up for themselves and answer for others.
First of all their fictions and slander must be displayed for all to see.
Both the idealist - who signs himself 'Dm. St.' (Russkii mir, No. 280) - and the positivist - who signs himself 'M.' (ii) (Golos, No. 332) - claim that Mr Repin did not come across a single painting which was worthy of his attention in any European gallery, and that he has denounced painting's finest representatives. This, however, is the most inadmissible falsehood! In his letters to me he said that Rome was an outmoded, lifeless, priestly city: they then proclaim that Mr Repin brushes aside all of Italy with a single flourish of his pen, and are reluctant to recall that at the same time he sings the praises of Venice and its galleries. He felt little for sixteenth-century artists from Rome: they proclaim that he trampled all Italian schools into the dirt, forgetting, as if on purpose, that he was at the same time enraptured with many other artists such as Michaelangelo, Veronese, Titian, and Murillo.
So, then, what precisely is it that Mr Repin in fact fails to recognise? Just a few Italian classical artists? But there would seem to be no great misfortune in that. Even Raphael himself has been attacked more than once, and in our time, by Western European artists; specifically by all those who have distanced themselves from the 'idealist' school, which now seems to them to be as notably outdated in painting as in everything else, and who have now sided with the school which they think is the most true and vital - the 'realist' school. And what is so terrible about that? What is so trangressive and improper about that? This is the most commonplace way of things. But it would seem easier to find fault with the paintings of new European schools: whoever sets off on a route which he believes is new, true and just, but is distracted by trivialities along the way and fails to realise his calling, must, of course, be called to account, and more so than the simple-hearted or naïve artist who, in times gone by, when there was barely a hint of the demands that are currently placed upon art, would paint only minutiae or mortal remains. How, in our era, could we fail to attack realists who, regardless of school, are richly accomplished and conversant with current thinking, understanding and techniques, but who suddenly begin to reiterate the habits, the philistinism, vulgarity, and entire vacuousness of the previous era, as now frequently occurs with the best French and German artists? Surely we cannot praise them for this, just because they are no longer idealists? But apart from all this, in their pious indignation Mr Repin's critics have also overlooked one other thing: namely, that there have been artists on this earth who have outclassed the Italian old masters (those painters of the idealist, i.e. false style), and their names are Rembrandt and Velasquez. Mr Repin has never attacked these artists, as, of course, no artist who seeks truth and vitality above all ever would. So then, Mr Repin is not such an unpardonable, mindless hooligan and depredator of everything past as he is now made out to be. Even in painting, it seems, one may have one's own likes and dislikes.
But even were Mr Repin wrong a thousand times over, from start to finish, in what he has said about artists of former times, this should merely serve as a reason to feel sorry for him. The question arises of what sort of connection there is between an artist's 'useless' convictions and his own works. If you were to tell people that whoever believes in all the old masters will undoubtedly be a good artist, would it not be the case that people would laugh at such a stupid statement - even Mr Repin's critics? So why do they not laugh in just the same way at the similarly stupid argument that whoever does not believe in the 'old masters', the 'greats', will undoubtedly be a bad artist? Why is this? But no, on the contrary, they are convinced that salvation lies in such a credo alone (apparently having forgotten that nowadays many artistic credos are possible). Mr 'M.' preaches to Mr Repin on decent morals, explaining that 'his whole trouble' (i.e. the unsuitability of Mr Repin's current paintings in Mr M.'s eyes) lies in the fact that he has far too high an opinion of himself, that he thinks studying is unnecessary, and considers himself to be in the right when he regards the most distinguished authorities with disdain. At the same time Mr 'Dm. St.' announces that it is Mr Repin's published letters which now threaten most to damage him, since doubtless all people (?) now approach his paintings with expectations of something far more significant than they do those they do not recognise. 'First do better than others, then attack them!': what sort of old wives' morality could be more infelicitous than this?
For the sake of curiosity let us nevertheless examine whether our good gentlemen critics have got far with their beautiful ideas and articles of faith.
To begin with the idealist tells us how he went to look at Mr Repin's painting Burlaki specifically with the idea that whoever attacks others must himself be better than them. This is the first untruth. It was with no such idea that Mr 'Dm. St.' approached Mr Repin's painting, since Burlaki was painted and exhibited to the public long before the publication of Mr Repin's letters from abroad... This 'approach' of his is the purest of fabrications, born of his hostile imagination.
Mr 'Dm. St.' then graciously acknowledges various qualities in Burlaki, but at the same time declares that Mr Repin's lack of respect for the great exemplars has given rise to many problems, and that he suffers from flaws which the 'great' artists of whom he disapproves never did: specifically, he 'cannot sustain himself at the necessary height of artistic ideas.' This is a weighty and very uncomfortable accusation to level at the artist in the dock.
And in what way does Mr Repin's inability 'to sustain himself at the necessary height of artistic ideas' manifest itself? In the fact that his Burlaki is nothing other than a poem by Nekrasov transferred onto canvas; full of abundant civic tears for the suffering men, and an exposure of boat owners - and all this is expressed by means of two figures: a youth with a sunken chest, and a sick old man.
This would all be dreadful were there but a single grain of truth in it. In the entire picture there is nothing like a 'youth with a sunken chest', and one would have to be completely blind to mistake the jolly, brave, sprightly, noisy boy, who is calling out, and whom Mr Repin places in the very centre of his horde of barge haulers, for some sort of unfortunate, crushed 'youth with a sunken chest'.
In exactly the same way there is not a shadow of anything like Nekrasov's poem, with his old-fashioned, plaintive, sickly-sweet style, in the entire painting. Before us lies a living scene drawn from what can be observed every day on the Volga: a mixed throng of people who have come from all corners of Russia, dressed in rags, powerful and cheerful, and almost throttled by the heavy straps of the tow-rope as they clumsily shuffle their bast shoes across the damp sand. And all this is enclosed by the wonderful Volga landscape, where a river stretches out like a tablecloth in the background, where sails glimmer here and there on distant horizons, while above the hot sun saturates the entire painting, and in the foreground the sand burns as if scattered with fiery gold. Where is there a single whining or satirical note in this?
Mr 'Dm. St.' assures us, furthermore, that were it not for the extraneous, incidental Nekrasovian notes in Burlaki the painting would be impeccable. Yes, for idealists, perhaps. By 'incidental minutiae and details' he means illness, suffering, all sorts of burdens and misfortunes: these, don't you see, are nothing but 'incidental' minutiae which idealists find unpleasant and which shatter their innocent, perfect peace. After all, to raise art to its true heights one must never touch upon reality, and must always fabricate and add a bit of colour to beautiful art. But we do not want to have anything in common with such art. On the contrary, we believe that were there not an ill, jaundiced old man who is forced to pull at the heavy straps along with the rest of his comrades - strong, carefree tramps and buffaloes of men that they are - were it not for his emaciated figure as he wipes the sweat of his helpless weakness from his face, there would be a hundred times less truth in Mr Repin's painting, and it would have a thousand times less significance for all those who number amongst Russia's best.
And it is with just such ideal (i.e. supremely false) notions that Mr 'Dm. St.' also undertakes an evaluation of Mr Repin's new painting Sadko v podvodnom tsarstve [Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom]. For a start, our 'Dm. St.' once again muddles his facts, and, clearly ignorant of Russian folk epics [byliny], assures us that the painting depicts 'Sadko with the Queen of the Sea'. He therefore tries to determine exactly who is the Queen of the Sea and who her 'cortege' amongst the crowd of women represented there - little suspecting, poor man, that all the women in the painting are queens of the sea, that no one of them is the leader, and, therefore, that there is no cortege at all. The good critic does not suspect that the whole point is that Sadko has to choose for his bride the one whom their father, the King of the Sea, has in mind. Is it any wonder that Mr 'Dm. St.' understands nothing (as he himself admits) in the painting, since he does not know the subject? He holds only one thing dear and close to his heart, and that is the fact that Mr Repin has taken his subject from some folk bylina or other. Ah, a folk subject! Ah, art's pure wellspring! Oh Lord, what happiness! And he needs nothing else apart from that. Everything has worked out excellently: Mr Repin no longer lingers at the crossroads uncertain of which way to turn. But then the critic suddenly recalls Mr Repin's disrespect for his elders, his denigration of the European classics, and hence it then turns out that in vain did Mr Repin fail to consult with the great masters of the galleries on the subject of whether an artist should or should not choose a fairytale for his subject - and this is why the pure wellspring of folk poetry has given Mr Repin nothing, and why nothing has come of his painting other than 'delightfully depicted tones of the water, crisscrossings of rays of sunlight, and their reflection on fish, molluscs and such like'.
The other critic, a positivist, puts forward notions that are far less airy than these, yet are in no way inferior to them. It is utterly incomprehensible to him, with his immense pragmatism, how people can be shown underwater, but with dry clothes. He cannot in any way grasp how it is possible to depict an underwater kingdom full of colours and delights when, according to the evidence of such and such a scientist, utter darkness reigns in the sea at a depth of so many feet, while even further down there is nothing but a world of infusoria. And even if we were to grant the discrepancies between Mr Repin's painting and the teachings of Schleiden and Haeckel, (1) it remains inexplicable how Mr Repin could have studied the sea bed, since in order to do so he would have had to become a diver. 'The question arises', says Mr M., 'of whether it is at all possible to use colours to depict a complex fantastic scene immersed in the single homogenous medium of the green-blue sea environment, without breaking the laws of beauty (?!)?' These are genuinely profoundly thought-out ideas, apart from the fact, of course, that everyone would immediately want to say, 'well, that's fine and dandy, but how do you suggest we approach those thousands of paintings in European museums before which you are silent in boundless admiration? These show people shown sitting on clouds - so should they be painted by angels, and appreciated by those who can fly? How do you suggest we should approach these paintings? Should they be cast out of museums for "destroying the laws of beauty", or should we also forgive Mr Repin this?'
And yet another reproach to our artist is not out of place: why does his Sadko eye up one of the daughters of the Sea King, a Russian girl, when he's long since married and even has a son of his own in Novgorod? This concern with moral decorum is extremely touching, but here Mr M. clearly did not want to be outdone by his comrade-in-arms Mr 'Dm. St.'. Here all his references are deliberately made only to Count Aleksei Tolstoi's poor, clumsy, angular, rough ballad, which is full of modernization all over the place, in order in so doing merely to show, firstly, his utter lack of taste, and secondly, the fact, in addition, that he does not have the slightest idea of the real, the ancient, the pagan Novogorod bylina, full as it is of mythological detail and morals.
After this Mr M. now boldly sets about making short work of Mr Repin's painting: he declares that the best thing about the painting is the lighting, and that the protagonists are all unsuccessful - the shoulders of one are too broad, some of them look like courtesans, while the legs of others are invisible, etc.
It is with such pedantic remarks that the positivist critic distinguishes himself. In this way, with his depth of thought and factual (even almost scientific) pragmatism, he arrives at the same result as the idealist critic: both very successfully make a fool of and vulgarize both Mr Repin himself - one of our best, most remarkable artists - and his new painting Sadko - one of the best, most remarkable paintings of our entire new Russian school.
But that public which, little by little, is starting to emerge amongst us, and which is capable of forming its own opinion notwithstanding the reviews, evaluates Mr Repin's painting entirely differently. The public has begun with what is completely inaccessible and imperceptible to our good gentlemen art critics, with that to which they were incapable of raising their unseeing eyes. From the very first glance the public understood that Mr Repin's new painting is full of poetry and beauty; they sensed from the first that a shaft of some unprecedented emotion passes from his painting into their souls; they sensed the note of wondrous beauty and innovation that is given off by the painting. Before their eyes there lies a magical scene, seen through a silvery crystalline column of nebulous water: a shaft of light penetrates the sea's depths, momentarily illuminating them with its pale ray; magical lamplights burn like multicolored little stars, twinkling in the cloudy darkness; bubbles of air, like little pearls, rise from the bottom and fly upwards in long strings; on the left, in the illuminated area, a whole mass of sea horses and all sorts of beasts cluster and rush around in the column of light, while the bright, staring eyes of golden fish gleam straight out of the impenetrable darkness into the viewer's eye, like the lights of an approaching locomotive. And in the midst of this fairy-tale scene there is a procession of beautiful women, passing by as if on parade for Sadko. The foremost figures go off into the left foreground edge of the painting, while those at the rear, with the girl Chernavushka at the tail-end, move down from the Sea King's dimly visible palace. The entire middle part of the procession disappears behind the waves. What beauty of colours, gleaming with bright tones and softened by the translucent crystalline veil of the column of water - what a magnificent impression overall! Think of all the various Russian paintings you have ever seen and tell me, has any one of them ever made such an unprecedented poetic impression as does this?
I do not wish to say that, yes, I believe that Mr Repin's new painting is the height of perfection, that its creator is infallible, that with this he has given us one of the most major creations of our new era (and no one in the public thinks this). Absolutely not: one could say much about the painting's deficiencies. There is insufficient magic contained or shown in the painting; and as for the animals and plants, we have long since been trained to expect more, in theatre, drawing, and painting, by the drawings of new artists who have an enormous imaginative capacity at their command for depicting the most extravagant magical forms. Furthermore, Sadko himself lacks character and is atypical; while, finally, certain of the women's bodies are drawn perhaps a little carelessly.
But these are flaws which can be left to the experts and technicians to tear apart: in the majority of cases the public is not aware of them, and they are frequently unimportant. The public always forgives shortcomings and inadequacies when it senses the presence of poetry, the astonishingly expressed, profound feeling that has filled the artist. And this is exactly what it has found again, as always, in Mr Repin's painting. In Doch' Iairova the public was amazed to the depths of its soul by the poetry of the death room, the poetry of the dim lights glimmering at the head of the pale, dead girl stretched out upon her poor bier; in Burlaki the public was even more astounded by the profound truth of the scene that was taking place on the banks of the Volga, the bright sun pouring its burning rays down upon the throng of humble and content men-buffalo who have not yet evolved any level higher than that of a pack animal. And this time the musicality and the ineffable poeticism of the underwater procession of beautiful women could not fail to astonish.
We must nevertheless give truth its due and acknowledge that Mr Repin's critics have been not only crude castigators who have understood nothing; rather, amongst those aestheticians who have written about this talented artist there are also those who have lauded him to the heavens without sense or thought, and who in this way are like the former. Amongst them the main place is held by a certain person who writes in Pchela under the name 'Layman.' (iii) This gentleman, who aspires to be the Russian Diderot, does not realize that innate original talent and artistry is necessary in order to write criticism of artistic paintings, scenes, and stories as Diderot did. With regard to Mr Repin, he attempts to heap endless praise upon him, contrary to both the idealists and the positivists. But what can we expect of a critic who there and then declares that an artist's greatest quality is to be 'unconcerned whether he is in the decline or the ascendant, just as the soil cares not whether it produces nettles or wheat'. Good Lord! What wretched nonsense! Can such an aesthetician be capable of anything? Naturally, he understands nothing about the talent and nature of such an artist as Mr Repin, and fancies that he is advancing Lord knows what sort of praise for him when he assures us, as he puts it, that Mr Repin is capable of 'creating with equal perfection both the half-savages of the Volga region and the sophisticated everyday life of the refined centre of contemporary culture' (such a fancy way of saying 'Paris'), unaware that he who is as indifferent as the soil is to both nettles and wheat is capable of expressing both the negative and the positive, or whatever comes to hand, with equal indifference - and that that person is not an artist but a dauber. Since he understands absolutely nothing in Mr Repin, the Layman tells us that Burlaki is elevated and good in such and such a way, that 'here there are no subtle psychic undercurrents, nor psychic characters' (!), after which one can only regret that Mr Layman was ever shown Mr Repin's Burlaki: he would have been better off gawping at some sort of classical rubbish. This is also why, for all his 'raptures' over Mr Repin, he says the most absurd things about him to the reader: for instance, that what is most precious in the painting Sadko is its 'artless delight', its truth and simplicity, while at the same time he says that everything here is 'mysterious and sleepy, like in a real dream'. An artist of the decorative manner, he says, would have organized all possible groups with striking lighting and so on, but Mr Repin has not done this. But what is the lighting that we see in the painting Sadko, if not 'striking', and 'striking' to the highest degree? And what sort of painting would this be if, disregarding the magical subject, there were no 'striking' lighting?
Finally, it is interesting to examine the incredible muddle that emerges from Mr Layman's presentation of Mr Repin's painting to his readers. He assures us that, 'in the foreground, laughing with evil glee, there swims a red-haired water-nymph [rusalka] - Italy; she casts a final, malicious glance at the Russian gusli player who disdains her beauty; behind her, a black butterfly, perhaps Spain, is preoccupied with her thoughts; further on a sumptuous queen steps proudly forward amongst these underwater beauties - France with her full, blonde hair, her golden necklace, in magnificent rose-coloured costume', etc. This is genuinely just like the saying: 'he heard the call, but doesn't know where he is'. Mr Layman has incoherently confused all the artist's intentions, which, incidentally, are very simple, logical and comprehensible. And at the front of the procession he places India and Persia: two of the most elemental creatures, and representatives of the ancient world. India is half woman and half fish, chestnut-haired and angry, with no thought of laughter (what does she have to laugh about?). She is in despair that she, the first one, has been rejected by Sadko, and she tears at the necklace on her neck, ready to plunge herself into the abyss for eternity. Behind her is Persia, a celestial Peri with a regal crown on her head, in rich, eastern clothing, with wings behind her back: in contrast to fierce India, she is meek, quiet, and pensive; her eyes are full of tears, and she leans forward, mourning her rejection quietly. Behind these two come the new world: Spain in an Emperor Charles V costume and hat, smiling contemptuously and coldly, and Italy, a grandiose blonde beauty, in a marvellous rose-coloured costume from Titian's time, with a golden necklace and coiffure (other critics who are well-versed in history and costumes have assured us that this is a marquise from the time of Louis XIV); behind her there comes England, an island dweller; then France, a coquettish beauty in her dress made of shells, confident in herself and smiling seductively. Further behind her other figures blend together in the cloudy waters. One stands out clearly and distinctly: the girl Chernavushka, the poor, homely Russian girl. Whoever she may be, Sadko prefers her to all the rest - whatever beauties they may be - out of a profound, heartfelt kinship and even more profound force of habit. This is no Slavophilism, since Sadko understands that all the other historical figures are not ugly but are beauties. Here there is only a profound feeling and the truth, which evidently Mr Repin himself feels. And it is this very truth and conviction, from which Mr Repin's entire, poetic painting was conceived and launched, by which our aestheticians - both those who castigate and those who praise - have distorted and deformed Mr Repin.
Can we still not call these people 'deplorable'?
(i) Mr Turgenev also thought so; cf. his letters: 1) to V.V. Stasov, of 3/15 April 1875, in Severnyi vestnik, 10, 1888, p. 173, and; 2) to Ia. P. Polonskii, of 9 March 1875, in Pervoe sobranie pisem I. S. Turgeneva (St Petersburg: 1884), p. 255. (V.S.)
(ii) A.M. Matushinskii (V.S.)
(iii) A.V. Prakhov (V.S.)