Tretyakov, the greatest Russian art collector of all time, had one criterion for art. He wrote:
“I do not need any rich nature, no great composition, no spectacular lighting, no miracles, give me even just a puddle of mud, but let there be truth in it, poetry …”
Just Give Me Truth
That’s exactly what Ivan Shishkin, the famed Russian landscape artist did from childhood until death. He drew poetry from puddles.
He had quit school at the fresh age of 16, so as “not to become a civil servant” and come home to Yelabuga in rural Russia, to his mother’s intense irritation.
There weren’t stupendous snow-capped mountains in Russia, no Grand Canyons, no oceans or volcanoes, so for four years straight Shishkin drew exactly what he saw: swamps, felled trees, endless dry grass, midday sunshine and always, roads.
Ivan would wake and leave before dawn with his drawing bag. He came back after dark.
His love affair with nature started then and kept growing deeper throughout all of his life. Friends would later say
“And when he is in front of nature … he is exactly in his element, here he is both bold and nimble. Here doesn’t have to stop to think; he knows how what and wherefore ..”
Ivan came from a strict and traditional merchant family. His relatives bristled against his shenanigans and wanted him to pursue a stable career, complaining that he was a worthless, gloomy loner.
Only his father understood and quietly sympathised with his son. He finally blessed his wayward 20-year-old son to leave the village and study art first in Moscow, then in St. Petersburg.
A Stoic Philosophy of Art
Having finally been allowed to follow his passion, Shishkin threw all his passion into his studies.
For four years in Moscow (1852-1856) he worked under the guidance of the renown artist A.N. Mokritsky, who taught that the way of an artist is work, restraint, and sacrifice.
“Who wants to be a true, that is, a great artist, must follow Christ – take up the cross and bear it, renounce the worldly goods and love art”
“The artist’s characteristics are sobriety, moderation in everything, love of art, modesty of character, conscientiousness and honesty …
He deeply believed that art, true art, could only be born from a moral character, toughened by restraint and honesty. He approached it as a duty and an act of love, one which would be defiled by a shade of pretence or dishonesty.
Professional Success and Personal Struggles
After Ivan finished in Moscow, he studied industriously in St. Petersburg (in the same academy that his future friend left with a scandal) and received a scholarship to go study in Europe.
Success came relatively easily to Shishkin. In Europe, he quickly gained acclaim and when he returned to Russia, he joined a famous art society called “the Wanderers.” Artists, Russian and European, and public were charmed by his work and his paintings sold easily.
Shishkin’s personal life followed a more tumultuous path. In his 30s, he married his friend’s sister and fully dedicated himself to his young family. However, within the span of three years, he lost two sons and his first wife, who died of tuberculosis.
Some time afterwards, as he slowly regained a semblance of normalcy, he fell in love with his talented female art student, Olga Lagoda. They soon married and had a daughter. However, a year later, Olga, too, died.
The twice-widowed man was beyond himself from pain. He moved back to his homeland and spent time in nature, struggling to not succumb to alcoholism. It was nature and his deep-rooted sense that he had to continue working always that helped him resurface and, once again, throw his energy into art.
Here, too, perhaps his faith came into play. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were toying with alternate faiths and atheism, Shishkin consistently believed in God throughout his life.
From his correspondence with his parents in 1956:
“But what about God? He has showed me the way which I am pursuing now. It is He who guides me and, as God does, will all of a suddenly lead to my goal.
A firm hope for God comforts in such cases, and throws off shell of dark thoughts off me
Art and Science Are Partners in Truth
Many of Shishkin’s ideas were surprisingly modern, such as the belief in the artist’s close connection with the scientific discoveries and technologies of the era.
Shishkin was not just a landscape artist–he was an avid learner of science, technology and photography. He believed that an artist had the duty to understand, to the furthest possible extent, what he was trying to depict, and to depict it as precisely as possible.
Once, he came to his friend’s, Repin’s, art studio, (another very famous artist) and carefully looking at his new painting of raft on a river, asked what which wood it was built from.
“What’s the difference?” Repin asked in surprise.
Shishkin answered very simply. If you build a raft from one tree, the logs swell. If you use another other, they sink. It’s only from the third, the right one, that you can get a buoyant sturdy raft.
It is this attention to details, precise, perfect details, that characterizes Shishkin’s art. His fellow artist friend Kramskoy said called him “a realist, a realist to the very marrow of his bones” but one who “deeply felt and heatedly loved nature.”
Indeed, one can tell that Shishkin had touched moss and bark with his hands, that he had examined the texture of what he drew intently and passionately, with both the rigorous mind of a scientist and the singing heart of a poet.
Just truth for the realist
Unlike many artists of the time, who produced lavish, saturated, over-romanticized nature scenes, Shishkin’s paintings give off an earthy believability.
In fact, his tenacious insistence upon portraying reality annoyed some of his contemporaries, who believed in more abandon and free interpretation of the natural world.
But Shishkin had an almost reverent approach to nature, as though it had the right to be represented exactly as it was, a perfection that man couldn’t improve. He believed that even the smallest things held the grandest idea, the reflection of the grand scheme.
In it, as in the artist, there is no pathos, but only a deep and sincere admiration of the greatness of the earth, his country.
His close friend, a priest-academic named Nevostroev, wrote to Shishkin that:
“The beauty surrounding us is the beauty of the divine thought diffused in nature, and the artist’s task is to convey this idea as accurately as possible on his canvas.”
That’s why Shishkin is so scrupulous in his landscapes. He was not trying to make nature reflect his own individuality or genius. He wanted to use his drawing to bring about the moment for when the great creating power he so worshipped, would touch the hearts of the viewers.
He was waiting for the moment when:
“Russian nature, alive and spiritualized, peers out from the canvases of Russian artists”
Where Did All the People Go?
People don’t show up often in Shishkin’s landscapes, and when they do, they are but a humble, though lovely, chord in nature’s grand symphony, a symphony he believed was conducted by God.
Towards the end of his life, Shishkin’s always triumphant, sun-drenched paintings sometimes gave way scenes of more gloomy forests and even of winter.
It seems that a sense of foreboding shadowed Shishkin’s final years, as his reply to questions posed by a newspaper in 1893 suggest:
“The main feature of my character: straightness, simplicity.
My main virtue: Frankness.
My current state of mind: Anxious “.
Shishkin was deeply concerned by the “fermentation of minds” that characterized the last decades of his life, the decades that were swiftly bringing the nation to the catastrophe of the Revolution of 1917.
New, materialistic, heated, revolutionary ideas were crowding out ancient traditional values. The growing tendency for ‘utilitarian insanity” (an expression coined by Shishkin’s contemporary philosopher Leontiev) viewed everything as a means for progress.
Perhaps this human-oriented, disrespectful, and conflicted approach to nature that threatened to disrupt the peaceful interaction between man and nature that Shishkin so valued was what made him more reticent about inviting humans to his later canvasses.
Shishkin very rarely expressed his worry, but he did say:
“The kingdom of mediocrity is coming in. And after all, it happens for one reason, for one reason – the person departs from the Church and forgets the idea, the ideals of the nation.”
The Death of an Artist
Ivan Ivanovich died, like a true artist, with a brush in his hand. On March 8, 1898, aged 66 years, Shishkin was sitting at the easel and working on a new painting “Forest Kingdom.”
His student, who was working with him in the studio, said that the artist raised his hand to make a stroke on the canvas, when his head fell helplessly on his chest. The doctor named the cause of death as a heart attack.
Shishkin’s last painting was ‘the Animal Kingdom”
At the exhibit a few days before, a critic had exclaimed:
“The picture plays, a strong, wonderful note – I congratulate you, I’m not alone, everyone is delighted, bravo …
It smells of pine at the exhibit! Sun, light has arrived! .. »
Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube
Are you resisting the urge to set fire to historic structures in downtown Moscow? Are you still stinging from your foray into the world of self-mutilation as protest?
You may be suffering from Poser Rip-Off Artistic Tourette’s (also known as PRAT). Fortunately, for sufferers of PRAT, there is help for your frustrated artistic urges. I’ve compiled a list of some great Russian-Language films available for viewing on the interwebz (with English subs) in their entirety. All of these films are excellent listening practice for those who are learning Russian, or for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in Russian culture and art offerings sans the need for antibiotics.
Downton Abbey what?
For those who like their foreign films with a side of war footage and people sobbing in corsets, I highly recommend Admiral. Taking place during World War I and the October Revolution, and based on real events, Admiral details the tragic love story between the married Aleksandr Kolchak, and the lovely and equally married Russian poet Anna Timiryova. Comparisons to Dr. Zhivago are not without merit, so if you are looking for a romantic movie set against the backdrop of Russian history, and you need a good cry, put this in your YouTube queue. The film stars Konstantin Khabensky as Aleksandr (Night Watch, Day Watch) and Elizaveta Boyarkskaya as Anna. Andrey Kravchuk directs.
Brest Fortress (Брестская крепость)
I have seen Saving Private Ryan. I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I’m pretty solid on my Hollywood World War II epics. Hands down, Brest Fortress is one of the best World War II movies I have ever seen. This gem hails from Belarus, and details the early days of Operation Barbarossa, as told through the eyes of the orphaned Sasha Akimov.
Sasha and his brother are living at Brest Fortress in Belarus SSR, under the care of the 33rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army. Sasha plays the euphonium in the regiment band, and nurses a crush on Anya Khizevatova, the daughter of the outpost leader Khizevatov. Sasha’s life centers around the fortress and its inhabitants, until one day in June of 1941, when the fortress comes under attack by the Wehrmacht and Lutfwaffe. The Nazi assault on the Soviet army and citizens is brutal and heart-wrenching, although the surviving Red Army forces manage to hold onto the fort for nine days. The resistance is led by Efim Moiseevich Fomin, who proudly declares to his German executioners that he is all the things they despise: a Red Army commissar, a Communist, and a Jew.
“We are here to save you from the Bolsheviks and Jews. No, for real, you guys. You should totally surrender.&rdquo
Misfits/ Inadequate People (Неадекватные Люди)
Basically, this is a modern-day, less icky, comedic retelling of Lolita, and if anyone is entitled to do an update on Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic, it is his compatriots. Misfits is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve included it here for those who might have an outdated view of modern-day Russia.
Ilya Lyubimov stars as Vitaly, a thirtysomething who moves from a rural part of Russia to Moscow after his girlfriend is killed in a car accident. In Moscow, he develops a close, if odd, relationship with his sassy 17-year-old neighbor, Kristina, while having to stave off the advances of his vampy new boss.
Misfits was shot on a budget of about $100,000, raised by writer/director Roman Karimov. It’s a really great piece of independent Russian cinema (Wait! I thought there was no independent media in Russia! I’m confused!)
Olympus Inferno (Олимпиус Инферно)
Every time someone watches this movie, Victoria Nuland has to clap her hands really hard so that Mikhail Sakashvili doesn’t fall down dead.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accused the film of “pushing the Kremlin’s line” on the Georgian conflict. By “pushing the Kremlin’s line,” they mean “what actually occurred.” Wired called it awesomely bad, but that’s only because Wired is used to made-for-TV movies that involve marine creature-themed weather events, or weird, inaccurate opi starring that one girl from Heroes.
Of course, since Olympus Inferno aired on Russian television, it does take a sympathetic view of the Russian side of the conflict. However, if one does look into the actual facts behind the Georgian war, it is easy to see that, although there was tension mounting on both sides, Georgian forces were responsible for attacking South Ossetia.
The story follows Michael Orraya, an American entomologist who is studying butterflies, and a former classmate, a young Russian woman named Zhenya, who is working as a journalist. They develop a close relationship, but are caught up in the chaos of the Georgian war.
“What can we do? The Georgian president only wants to live in gentrified neighborhoods, like Brooklyn.”
Russian Ark (Русский ковчег)
I really like this movie. Granted, I am probably distracted by the fancy costumes.
A disembodied voice guides the viewer through the dream-like quality of Russian Ark. The narrator is in conversation with “the European,” symbolized by the Marquis de Custine, this super racist 18th century travel writer. His travelogue, La Russie en 1839, decries the “backwardness” of the Russian Orthodox church, and the “Asian” overlay to the society and culture. (La Russie en 1839 was later published as an illustrated collection of bedtime stories for U.S. State Department employees.)
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, we are taken on a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the “ark” of Russian culture, with cameo appearances by Catherine II and Peter the Great. Gorgeous cinematography and high production values certainly helped this 2002 film win a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Visions Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Russian Ark is also available on Netflix streaming, but for the poor unfortunates who do not have Netflix, and thus are also robbed of the Pussy Riot documentary, there is YouTube.
The Return (Возвращение)
Remember everyone in Hollywood falling all over themselves to praise Andrey Zvyagintsev for Leviathan because he bravely portrayed today’s Russia as a bleak and hopeless wasteland? Well, it actually turns out that bleak is sort of his oeuvre. Like Leviathan, The Return received widespread critical acclaim when it was released internationally in 2004. Although Hollywood acknowledged the film with a Golden Globe nomination, there was no obsequious praise for Zyvaginitsev’s earlier offering.
The plot centers on two boys, Andrei and Ivan, who are reunited with their father after his mysterious twelve-year absence. Their mother reluctantly allows the boys to go on a road trip with their father through the Russian wilderness, and the tension between Ivan and his father mounts to a tragic conclusion.
The Return is driven by the subtle, yet effective, performances by the film’s two young actors, Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan). Desolately beautiful Russian landscapes add to Zyvangintsev’s gray-blue palette and the overall meditative quality of the piece.
Of course, there are many Russian films available on YouTube that I have not listed here. These are a few that I have seen and enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy them as well.
Remember, If you or a loved one is experiencing PRAT, don’t suffer in silence. There is help.
Unless you are a pyromaniac exhibitionist. In that case, there is probably a selfie with Hillary Clinton in your future.
Irish Times poll lays bare pandemic’s impact on political landscape
Sinn Féin is on top again, with its highest-ever rating in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of support for the parties. Our latest such poll shows Sinn Féin on 31 per cent (up three points), ahead of Fine Gael, which has slipped three points to 27 per cent.
Fianna Fáil remains some way adrift of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, although it has closed the gap considerably in this June poll, jumping six points to 20 per cent. The Green Party (on 6 per cent) and Labour (on 3 per cent) are unchanged. Independents and smaller parties combined attract 13 per cent of the vote (down six points). Within this bloc are People Before Profit/Solidarity (on 2 per cent) and Social Democrats (on 2 per cent).
Serravalle Designer Outlet unveils new state-of-the-art leisure facility (IT)
Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube
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