An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery features paintings of some of Russia’s legendary creative figures. Russia and the Arts, which draws attention to a generation of overlooked artists, is curated by Dr Rosalind P Blakesley. This month also sees the launch of Blakesley’s new book, The Russian Canvas, a work set to expand our understanding of a century of painting through periods of remarkable social and political change.

Blakesley reveals the powerful part that the Russian Academy played in the development of a flourishing arts scene that looked first to western Europe for its inspiration before turning to the traditions of Russia itself.

The Russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky sat for just one portrait in his lifetime. He was painted by Vasily Perov, an artist whose exquisite sketches conveyed some of the harshness of the imperial regime. Perov shows Dostoevsky wrapped in a heavy woollen coat, his slender frame almost lost in its mouse-grey folds. The writer’s hands are clasped and his eyes are downcast. The survivor of a decade of imprisonment, exile and hard labour, Dostoevsky had suffered unthinkable pain yet lived to write novels that continue to enthral.  

Perov was commissioned to paint Dostoevsky by the industrialist Pavel Tretyakov, founder of Moscow’s famous Tretyakov Gallery. Tretyakov was responsible for encouraging a generation of Russian artists with purchases and commissions of work that reflect the rumblings of pre-revolutionary Russia. In 1892 Pavel Tretyakov donated his entire gallery to the city of Moscow, a move of stunning generosity that prompted further investment in the arts.

Until 26 June, visitors to London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) are able to gaze into the faces of some of Russia’s foremost writers, composers and dramatists – including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, Turgenev and Chekhov.  The 26 portraits, on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery and the majority seen for the first time outside Russia, were selected for Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky by Rosalind Blakesley, a trustee of the NPG and, from October 2016, Head of the Department of History of Art at Cambridge.

Blakesley is also author of a forthcoming book which, in looking at a neglected era in Russian painting, is set to recalibrate our understanding of Russian history of art. The Russian Canvas is a scholarly yet highly readable account of painting in imperial Russia from 1757 to 1881, a period that saw the country’s artistic movers and shakers explore and develop a distinctively Russian identity – and, in many cases, outperform its European neighbours in the range and quality of its creative output.

The exhibition Russia and the Arts is the culmination of five years’ work to bring to London some of the legendary figures in the arts who defined Russia between the 1860s and the start of the First World War, a period when growing discontent developed into full-scale revolution.

In an exchange, the NPG has sent some of its famous artworks to the Tretyakov to be enjoyed by the Russian public. Among the portraits to have travelled east are paintings of Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Darwin and, on the 400th anniversary of his death, a priceless portrayal of Shakespeare.  Known as the Chandos portrait, it was the very first work to enter the collections of the NPG.   

Opened in March, Russia and the Arts struck an immediate chord with a British public already awakened to an interest in all things Russian by the success of the BBC’s acclaimed televising of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The exhibition is seeing twice the anticipated visitor numbers, with up to 900 people attending each day – and has benefited from enthusiastic press coverage. The catalogue, with colour plates of all the exhibits set within a beautifully illustrated account of the development of portraiture in Imperial Russia, had to be reprinted within just a few weeks of the opening of the show.

In staging the exhibition Blakesley’s motivation is twofold. Ever since school, she has been passionately interested in the language and culture of Russia. She hopes to “give something back” to the UK’s Russian community as well as to many scholars and art historians in Russia who have long supported her work. Most importantly, she wants to bring to public attention the phenomenal talent of the artists whose work is held by the Tretyakov Gallery but who tend to be overshadowed in western understanding by the work of Russian avant-garde artists such as Malevich and Kandinsky.

Too often under-recognised outside Russia, the artists whose masterful work features in Russia and the Arts range from Perov, whose studies of Russian peasants (not on show but reproduced in the catalogue) convey the grinding poverty of the Russian countryside, to Valentin Serov whose painterly style embodies the best of Russian impressionism.

Male portraits predominate. Among the most striking are Repin’s study of the composer Modest Mussorgsky, captured in a mood of defiant brilliance in hospital less than a fortnight before his death, and Perov’s portrait of the philologist Vladimir Dal, whose haunted eyes shine with enquiry. Dal was a tireless collector of Russian proverbs, folksongs and fairy tales.

Just six of the portraits on display at the NPG are of women. Perhaps the most arresting is Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s portrayal of Anna Akhmatova whose poetry, in giving voice to the horrors of the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes, led to her persecution. The portrait of Akhmatova is shown next to that of her then husband Nikolai Gumilev, painted by the same artist. The couple, whose marriage became a casualty of long separations, are united by the way in which Della-Vos-Kardovskaia captures their languid beauty and sense of solemn composure.

Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas has been some seven years in the making. The book takes as its starting point the foundation of the Russian Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in 1757, almost a full decade before the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768. In meticulous detail, Blakesley reveals the powerful part that the Russian Academy played in the development of a flourishing arts scene that looked first to western Europe for its inspiration before turning to the traditions of Russia itself.

In telling the extraordinary story of the first century of the Academy, Blakesley upturns the claim of the Soviet era that the institution was exclusive and elitist. Early on, professors were recruited from France and students enlisted in their teens after training elsewhere. However, in 1764, in something akin to a social experiment, the Academy opened its own boarding school which took pupils as young as five years old, retaining them until their graduation at the age of 21.

Boys (until 1873 they were all boys) were enlisted from various ranks of a highly stratified society. Some were drawn from the lower ranks of the nobility but many were the sons of soldiers, tradesmen or even serfs, born into a class of indentured poor. Pupils were provided with uniforms and followed a rigorous curriculum. Parents were obliged to agree not to withdraw their sons from the Academy until they had completed the course, and pupils were shielded from contact with members of the lower orders who might tarnish their character. Conditions were so harsh, and the accommodation so bitterly cold, that in a ten-year period in the late 18th century, 73 of the school’s 380 young artists-in-training died.

While history painting – the depiction of epic scenes of historical, biblical or mythological content – was seen initially by the Academy as the supreme test of an artist’s skill, portraiture soon came to the fore. Portraitists to emerge from the Academy, either directly or indirectly, include many of those whose work informs the exhibition Russia and the Arts. Orest Kiprensky, whose bold self-portrait features in the catalogue, was the illegitimate son of a landowner and one of his serfs. Kiprensky entered the Academy boarding school at the age of six and became one of its star students.

Also on show in London is Ivan Kramskoy’s thoughtful painting of the actor Alexander Lensky as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The hot-headed Kramskoy, who studied at the Academy as a young man, led ‘the Revolt of the Fourteen’, in which a group of artists protested their right to choose subjects suited to their own artistic temperament rather than work within set parameters. Blakesley shows that too much has been made of this supposed schism, which in fact did not witness the battle lines drawn up as sharply as many commentators have assumed.

Blakesley is a fearless investigator and tireless teller of human stories. In researching the exhibition Russia and the Arts and her book The Russian Canvas, she ventured into national and regional archives that have remained unexplored for many years. What she found, in official records and private correspondence, prompted her to challenge accepted narratives. In bringing the work of often overlooked eras of Russian creativity to public attention, she shines a welcome light on the phenomenal talent on Europe’s doorstep, and reminds us of just one of many aspects of Russia’s remarkable cultural heritage that is all too quickly overlooked amid the current political concerns.

Inset images: Vladimir I Dal by Vasily Perov (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow); Pavel M Tretyakov by Ilia Repin (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

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