Misunderstood Repin, the provocateur
25.02.2019
Татьяна Юденкова, куратор ретроспективы Ильи Репина, которая откроется в Государственной Третьяковской галерее 16 марта, поговорила с TANR о художнике и о предстоящей выставке. Оригинал интервью на русском можно почитать здесь , а RA Gallery предлагает перевод для наших англоязычных читателей.

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Tatyana Yudenkova, curator of the upcoming Ilya Repin retrospective at State Tretyakov Gallery, spoke with TANR about the artist and the exhibition which will officially open on the 16 March. The original interview in Russian can be accessed here , and RA Gallery is offering an English translation for our English-speaking readers.

TANR: In his text on the death of Repin, Alexander Benois wrote that he was a wonderful artist, but that his time had passed. Since then, another 100 years have passed, and Repin's time has passed, it seems to me, several times over. The older generation is familiar with his paintings from "Rodnaya Rech", but not the young people.
TY: You know, Repin believed that he was misunderstood by his contemporaries. And he was very calm and sensible with the critics who constantly criticized him. All his main works were received ambiguously.

TANR: Hold on, but wasn’t he incredibly popular? Especially among the democratically minded public.
TY: Yes, he was a popular, cult artist. But his first independent work, “Tsarevna Sophia”, was not accepted either by critics or by the people close to him. Both Stasov, Mussorgsky, and the artist Pavel Chistyakov judged the painting. He received support only in the face of Kramskoy. Same story with “They did not expect him” and with “ Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate ” 1880-83. He was accused of anti-patriotism, and of being anti-Russian. They said that idea for “They did not expect him” — was idiotic. And “The ceremonial meeting of the State Council ...”, ordered by the Ministry of the Imperial Court, was not accepted by the customer, because Repin connected several events into one. As an artist, he cared about the composition; verticals and diagonals were important to him, rather than who sat with whom. Being a realist painter, he, depicting a specific event, always combined several events into one, and violated the very matter of real life.

TANR: He was building a composition — how else?
TY: He built compositions and changed a lot, he gave his own interpretation of the event and his own vision. Therefore, it often caused a negative reaction. All of his paintings were accompanied by controversy. Repin liked provoking and was aware that he was a provocateur. All his paintings were daring, so they gathered big crowds at traveling exhibitions. Repin once said: "I might be understood in about 50 years."

TANR: He sure was appreciated in the Soviet times.
TY: In Soviet times, in the years of ideologized science, Repin was turned into a role model. In the 1930s there were, as they said, three “Rs”: Rembrandt, Rubens and Repin. It seems like Repin caused an active rejection from the generations which were formed in the 1960s, the 1970s, even in the 1980s. There were and still are barriers which these generations can no longer overcome. I feel it, when I’m communicating with people. But today, when we look at Repin and in general at all the art of the second half of the XIX century, at the Wanderers, they open up to us from a different side.

TANR: Obviously, the Repin you want to show at the exhibition, is one freed from these preconceptions?
TY: I do not know how well we will succeed in this, whether we will be able to bring new meanings that have not been revealed before. For example, at the Tretyakov Gallery there is an idea of ​​so many portraits as unsuccessful. It began with Grabar. But if you look closely at the "Portrait of Turgenev", you will see in the style of this portrait, in its composition, in how the figure itself is painted, how the coloristic solution is developed, by the old masters, Velazquez. Also in "Portrait of a Father" from the Russian Museum by Rembrandt, whom Repin adored. He studied the old masters in great detail and for a long time both in the Hermitage, in the Louvre, in Madrid and in Dresden. For some reason, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Repin was spoken of as a stupid artist, as an artist without reflection, an intuit of some kind, and he was actually a very well educated person. According to the memoirs of contemporaries, he was the most educated artist. He read a lot, knew Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, quoted Dante, Shakespeare and Pushkin, and it was not by chance that he attracted intellectuals to himself. He communicated in the 1870s – 1880s with the critic Stasov, the surgeon Pirogov, the writer Pisemsky, the poet Fet, and in the 1890s — with the writers Merezhkovsky, Gippius and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. He was a welcomed guest in Moscow and St. Petersburg salons.

He was always at the center of political discussions, he expressed a lot of bright, sharp statements in letters and publications. He always supported the opposition. When Leo Tolstoy was excommunicated, he painted the picture “Leo Tolstoy Barefoot” 1901. And the people who came to the exhibition, put flowers at the feet of Tolstoy. The portrait had to be removed because it caused, so to speak, an unhealthy attitude. Repin always caused an unhealthy attitude, was a provocateur.

And there is no other artist in the history of Russian art with such a biography. He lived 86 years. He was born under Nicholas I, died three years before the arrival of national socialism in Europe. He was a contemporary of Tyutchev and Gogol, as well as Picasso and Duchamp.

TANR: He had to survive his time.
TY: And he survived it with dignity. He was very sharp and subtle to respond to the present. He gave his answers to important, relevant questions every time, in each new decade.

TANR: Including the revolution. Many people remember his painting “Bolshevik” at the exhibition “Nobody 1917”.
TY: Yes, “A Bolshevik who takes bread from a child,” and it is no coincidence that this Bolshevik has a goat’s leg. The painting resembles Bosch or Goya, Repin himself called it a caricature. In general, this is a very interesting topic: Repin and revolution. They always wrote that he enthusiastically accepted the revolution. He wrote that he wants a revolution to stretch over the planet, cleanse it, heal, free people, and so on. But at the same time he has, for example, the painting "Manifestation. October 17, 1905" 1907, where this manifestation of the intelligentsia — women in fancy hats, gymnasium students, Stasov and art historian Prahov — are depicted as a procession of absolutely crazy people. Vasily Rozanov, who once lived in Kuokkala and communicated very closely with Repin, gives a detailed analysis of each person in this picture. Rozanov, on the other hand, is such a poisonous, biting writer. And after reading it and looking at this picture, you understand that Repin welcomed the demonstration, welcomed the possibility of creating a city duma and freedom of speech — but he painted this inspired crowd prophetically, he saw its rotten essence, as we now see it today, from the top of the XXI century. At the upcoming exhibition this section on revolution will be called “Cursed Days”. Repin was very fond of Bunin. In the 1920s, according to tradition, guests would visit him at Penaty on Wednesdays (not the same guests as before, but communication and admiration were important to him), and there they read Bunin, the memoirs of Tolstoy. And Repin lived by it.

TANR: He lived in exile, but he was honored by the Soviet authorities. How come?
TY: He was very much invited back, he we invited to his exhibition in 1924, which was held in Moscow, and then in Leningrad. But Repin perfectly understood what was happening in Russia and did not want to return, and at the same time he had a very flexible policy. He was sly, he knew how to lie a little.

The thing is, that he had to help the large family of his youngest daughter get out of Russia. They lived in Zdravnevo (Vitebsk region in Belarus), in his former estate, and were subjected to repression, they were simply mocked. Many people take credit for helping this family to get out. Involved were people like Voroshilov, Gorky, Lunacharsky — artists. In September 1926, Repin corresponded with Voroshilov, wanting to help his daughter. Voroshilov sent a letter to Stalin, he left a resolution on him: "I think that the Soviet government should support Repin in every possible way." And in October Voroshilov wrote to Isaac Brodsky: “Act as you wish, but so that Ilya Efimovich is returned to his homeland.” He was offered the title of national artist and a personal pension, but Repin declined. He, as I said, was very sly. When a delegation of artists led by Brodsky came to visit him, it seemed like he never declined, he made a gift — a portrait of Kerensky, a study for the “Manifestation”.

TANR: We know almost nothing about the paintings executed by Repin in exile.
TY: Until now, art historians and museum workers have maintained a negative attitude towards the late Repin. And he has a lot of interesting late paintings, stunning even. In the 1920s, in the emigre period, he leaves the subject of modern life, he does not see it. He begins to paint subjects from the gospel. The strongest works! He joined the church in the 1920s. And what was going on in Finland with the Orthodox Church? We learn from Repin's correspondence that the Finns forced the priests not to wear robes, not to wear crosses, to cut their hair, to celebrate holidays in a new style. And Repin was always on the side of the humiliated and the insulted. He begins to sing in the church choir, although, when Tolstoy was excommunicated, Repin swore not to step on the threshold of church. But faith in God never left him, I am deeply convinced of this.