Russian icons, masterpieces and avant-garde in the Vatican
14.06.2018
In November, the exhibition "The Russian Path. From Dionysius to Malevich" will open in the Vatican. Its co-curator Arkady Ippolitov reveals which works were selected in order to combine iconography with the XIX-XX centuries and show the spiritual path of Russian art. The article below is translated to English, please read the original interview in Russian by following the link here.

The exhibition titled “Roma Aeterna. Masterpieces of the Vatican. Bellini, Raphael, Caravaggio” in the State Tretyakov Gallery opened in November 2016, the reciprocal exhibition was promised in a year, however it will be held in two — in November, as part of the “Russian Seasons” program in Italy. Initially, the exhibition was supposed to feature the work by Alexander Ivanov, then — Russian art of the XIX century. Now it’s been named "Russian Path. From Dionysius to Malevich."

The exhibition has a long and, as I understand it, a complicated history. First you wanted to show Alexander Ivanov, and now the selection will be — from Dionysius to Malevich. Is this change connected with a desire to make the exhibition more attractive to the audience?
AI: "Malevich" sounds better than "Ivanov", no? The Vatican exhibition — now there‘s two of them — is a long story. Initially, the joint exhibition with the Vatican was negotiated by Mikhail Shvydkoi and the Russian ambassador in the Vatican, Alexander Avdeev. Shvydkoi turned to Zelfira Tregulova, the head of ROSIZO at the time. The exhibition was meant to be single, and it was supposed to be a joint one. The first idea — paintings of the Vatican and biblical subjects in Russian painting of the XIX century. It didn’t seem strong. Then Tregulova suggested that I come up with something. I, having warned that this project is grandiose, but hardly feasible, suggested the idea of ​​"Raphael and Ivanov". It was discussed at at the meetings of the board of directors and the idea was liked by the Italians. This was the first option. It was exaggerated, and wasn’t clear whether we were going through with it or not, when, in September 2015, Zelfira Ismailovna informed me that the exhibition has been divided, that the Vatican was prepared to send its works to Moscow, and offered for me to be its curator.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, The bathing of the red horse, 1912

Is that when the reciprocal exhibition was agreed on?
AI: Yes, in parallel, negotiations were held about the reciprocal exhibition. The original idea to send biblical stories from the nineteenth century was rejected: it wasn’t very expressive. Also, I didn’t want to simply collect the masterpieces, as that had already been done at the exhibition "Russia!" In the Guggenheim Museum. Then Tregulova put me in touch with Tatyana Yudenkova and Tatiana Samoilova, both curators of the XIX century painting and iconography. We settled down, and as a result, the idea formed, so to speak, to show the spiritual path of Russian art. In Russia, art has never been considered art for art’s sake. The canon in the Russian tradition has always been more important than mastery. This reflects in the iconography, in which individual physical qualities were much less important than the artwork’s metaphysical meaning. The result was that in the nineteenth century, the definition of "the main painting" appeared in Russian criticism. It meant not just a picturesque work of high quality and a milestone in artistic life, but an important milestone on the spiritual path of the nation. At the same time, the skill and quality of the painting was not neglected, but it would fade to the background in comparison with the spiritual significance of the work.

And which paintings turned out to be the main ones?
AI: The main paintings are reproduced in textbooks, they are known or should be known by every schoolboy — they are imprinted in the mind as a matrix of national identity and accompany you all your life, whether you like it or not, in numerous reproductions, slogans, advertisements and cartoons. This is an exhibition of these main paintings that we have collected, connecting iconography with the XIX and XX century art.

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the desert, 1872

Which works have you selected for the exhibition and how many of these main paintings will the Vatican see?
AI: A total of 56 works, from Dionysius to Malevich. There will be wonderful iconography, "The Appearance of Christ to the People" by Ivanov (the Russian Museum version), "The Troika" and "The Drowned Woman" by Perov, "Christ in the Desert" and "The Desolate Grief" by Kramskoy, "Did Not Wait", “The Procession in Kursk Province” and “Before the confession” by Repin, “Above the Eternal Peace" by Levitan and "The Seated Demon" by Vrubel, Filonov, Kandinsky, Malevich, Petrov-Vodkin, Kustodiev and the devil in a mortar. All of this is a reflection on the Russianness of Russian art.

The path from Dionysius to Malevich took five centuries. Mark the main steps of this path. And how would you characterize it?
AI: The main stages of the path are: baptism — Petersburg — revolution. The way I would describe it, is by using the characterization made up by Tyutchev: "Dejected burden of the cross, / All you, the native land / In slavish form, the King of Heaven / Exodus, blessing."

How successful were you at collecting the optimal, or ideal composition for the exhibition? What will be missing from the exposition, that should have been there?
AI: I can say that we, all thanks to the efforts of Zelfira Tregulova, managed to get everything we wanted for the exhibition. It was not easy.

To go to the Vatican with your art is rather risky.
AI: The exhibition should be located neither more or less than in the right colonnade of St. Peter's Basilica, called Braccio di Carlo Magno, the wing of Charlemagne, that is in the holy of holies of European spirituality, art, history. This obliges.

Aleksander Ivanov, The appearance of Christ before the people, 1837–1857

Still, what will your exhibition emphasize: the special Russian path or the world-wide responsiveness of Russian art?
AI: First of all the Russian path. The first name that came to mind for the Russian exhibition was La Russia è fatta a modo suo, which is the canonical Italian translation of Tyutchev's lines "She has a special place" from the famous quatrain, and in the reverse translation into Russian it literally means: "Russia is made in its own, a special way." At first the Italians liked the name, but then they realized that the banner on Piazza San Pietro with La Russia è fatta a modo suo was too much, and asked to change the name. In reality, rightfully so: Tiutchev's lines, although beautiful, have long been compromised by their irrepressible constant quotation, even the higher authorities have managed to pervert them at some celebrations. Then I proposed a new option, and the exhibition became known as Pellegrinagio della pittura russa. Da Dionisij a Malevič, and in Russian — "The Russian path. From Dionysius to Malevich."

Olga Sedakova is writing an article in the exhibition catalog, you indicated a topic for her — which one? And why did you address this author in particular?
AI: The involvement of Olga Alexandrovna was my decision. It was accepted unconditionally by the director of the Tretyakov Gallery, and all of the staff. The article was ordered as a free essay by one of the main thinkers of our time, who took the place of Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev. Olga Sedakova is the personification of ecumenism in its best manifestations, a name well known to the Vatican. In addition, she is an excellent writer about art. Of course, I did not select any topics, but instead sent her a list of works and my preliminary concept. The fact that Olga Alexandrovna agreed to cooperate was our great achievement and proved that what we came up with was a worthwhile thing. Her article is not the only one in the catalog, there will be another article by Tatyana Yudenkova, one of my own, as well as beautiful, large texts for paintings, written by the staff members of the Tretyakov Gallery.