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The Unusual Story Behind Russia’s Most Famous Painting of Christ – Ivan Kramskoy’s ‘Christ in the Desert’

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A few months before he was due to graduate with honours from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887) organized the notorious ‘Revolt of the 14.”

He led a group of his best friends (who also happened to be the most promising students of the graduating class of 1864) as they marched into the university main office and furiously presented a list of complaints and demands to the administration.

They proudly denounced the unbearable constraints of academic art, it’s strict delineations between high and low art, it’s deadness and impotency.

The administration expelled them on the spot, suggesting to the police authorities that they keep a watch out over the unwieldy bunch.

Nonplused, the ex-students formed a tight-knit, intensely philosophical and energetic, independent artistic society which they called ‘The Wanderers” (Передвижники).

Less then 10 years later, “the Wanderers” brigade set the beat in the thriving cultural and artistic scene of Russia in the late 1800s. (They produced some of the most incredible Russian spiritual paintings. More here)

At an 1872 exhibit in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy revealed his long-awaited work: “Christ in the Dessert.”

A TRIP INTO THE PAST

It had taken him years work and thought to complete. Before he had even attempted to start painting, he roamed through Germany, France, and Italy, a man on a mission.

He knew needed to see everything that had been done on the topic before.

How had others seen that particular scene of Christ’s life? How had others imagined it, what colours had they used, what feelings had the artists of old communicated?

In his letters home, Ivan praised the Italian artists, but something about their Christ deeply disturbed him

“He’s divine, but an alien to our time, it’s terrible to say … in my opinion in them he is blasphemed”

“He has the look of an Italian aristocrat ….one with a dry heart, a look that could not belong to a person of all-encompassing love.”

Kramskoy also visited the Crimean peninsula in the southwest of the Russian Empire. It was the closest thing he could get to the climate of Palestine.

He walked the terrain from sunrise to sunset, trying to decode the feelings of someone who was left one-on-one with his reveries in a rocky, bare and mountainous desert.

WILL THEY UNDERSTAND?

The painting caused an uproar at the exhibit, sparking discussion, debates, confusion on the spot. Arguments about it continued outside, in the newspapers and magazines.

Vsevolod Garshin, a writer of the time, took it upon himself to resolve the elusive and unresolved sense about the painting.

He wrote an anonymous letter to Kramskoy asking him to settle the debates once and for all.

Is this the morning of the 41st day, when Christ has already decided and is ready to go meet suffering and death? Or is this the moment when ‘the devil came to him’, as my opponents argue?

In the letter, he explores also his own ecstatic understanding of the painting, reading into the painting and offering his own explanation even as he asks for one.

The features that you gave to your creation, in my opinion, do not at all serve to excite pity for the “sufferer”…No, they immediately amazed me as an expression of enormous moral strength, a hatred of evil and a complete determination to fight it.

He (Jesus) is absorbed with what the actions that he must undertake, he searches in his head all that he will say to the despicable and unfortunate people, whom he had left when he went to the desert to think in freedom

Suffering does not concern him now: it is so small, so insignificant in comparison with what is now in his chest, that the thought of it doesn’t come to Jesus’ head.

Garshin mentions that there were even people who questioned the identity of the hero of the painting. He mocks them for not seeing what to him is absolutely evident.

A certain someone even directly blurted out that your Christ is Hamlet!

Now, if we are looking for literary types to compare him to, he is more like Don Quixote…

But, this comparison is also bad, because your Christ–is Christ.

….

A SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE

Kramskoy replied to Garshin’s plea immediately, in the form of an entire article. It was as though he had just been waiting to be asked.

He never conclusively answered Garshin’s question but described with openness the doubt, fear and sense of urgency that had haunted him in his search for the right form for Christ.

Here are his own words:

“… For each person, imperfect, maybe, but still created in the image and likeness of God, there comes a moment in life, when he falls into contemplation: should he go to the right or to the left? Should he ‘take a ruble’ for the Lord God or not to yield a single step to evil?”

“In the morning, weary, exhausted, suffering, he sits alone among the stones, sad, cold stones; hands convulsively and tightly clenched, legs injured, head bowed down …

He is thinking hard, has remained silent for a long while, so long ago that his lips are baked, his eyes do not notice objects …

His reply relays an unexpected, raw pain and sense of immediacy, as though the painting process became a matter of intense importance to him.

He does not feel anything, it’s a little cold, just so that he seems to be stiff from long and motionless sitting.

And around him, nowhere and nothing rocks even a bit, only on the horizon black clouds are floating from the east … And he is still thinking, thinking, terror begins to take over  …

How many times have I cried before this figure!?

Like so many other artists, the closer Kramskoy came to capturing the image he had imagined, the greater the vision loomed. He felt more and more inadequate in his attempt to convey even the shadow of his great ideal.

How does one proceed? As though this is possible to draw! And you ask yourself, and you ask justly: can I draw Christ?

No, I can not, I could not, yet I still drew, and didn’t stop drawing until the painting was inserted it into the frame.

I kept drawing until the others saw it, too – in conclusion, I committed, perhaps, a blasphemy , but I could not NOT draw … “.

As time went on, the search for artistic forms morphed into a search for spiritual truths.

“Christ in the desert” – is my first thing that I worked on seriously, drew with tears and blood …,

it is the result of my deep suffering … the result of many years of searching … “.

He wrote to his friend and student Fyodor Vasilyev (another talented artist).

How afraid I was that they would drag my” Christ “to an international court and all the slobbering monkeys would poke their fingers on Him and drool their criticism … “.

….

When the exhibit was ending, Kramskoy was approached by a famous art collector. The artist named a handsome sum for the time: 6,000 rubles.

The painting was sold on the spot. Today, it can be seen in the most famous art gallery in Moscow, the Tretyakov gallery.

Perhaps it had been hard for Kramskoy to part with that particular painting, but it was part of the philosophy of the Wanderers to sell what they created.

Their dream was for art to populate and change Russian society from the inside.

Indeed, if a painting like “Christ in the Dessert” fails to change us, what will succeed?


Sources:

https://foma.ru/xristos-v-pustyine-luchshaya-kartina.html

http://garshin.lit-info.ru/garshin/pisma/letter-129.htm

https://www.culture.ru/persons/8239/ivan-kramskoi

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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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Ryanair reports €273m loss as passenger traffic rebounds

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Ryanair has reported a €273 million loss for its first quarter even as traffic rebounded during the period.

The carrier said it carried 8.1 million passengers in the three month period, which cover April to June. This compares to just 500,000 in the same period a year earlier.

Revenues increased 196 per cent from €125 million in the first quarter of 2020 to €371 million for the same quarter this year. Operation costs also rose however, jumping from €313 million to €675 million.

Net debt reduced by 27 per cent on the back of strong operating of €590 million.

“Covid-19 continued to wreak havoc on our business during the first quarter with most Easter flights cancelled and a slower than expected easing of EU travel restrictions into May and June,” said group chief executive Michael O’Leary.

“Based on current bookings, we expect traffic to rise from over five million in June to almost nine million in July, and over 10 million in August, as long as there are no further Covid setbacks in Europe,” he added.

Ryanair said the rollout of EU digital Covid certificates and the scrapping of quarantine for vaccinated arrivals to Britain from mid-July has led to a surge in bookings in recent week.

First quarter scheduled revenues increased 91 per cent to €192 million on the back of the rise in passenger traffic although this was offset by the cancellation of Easter traffic and a delay in the relaxation of travel restrictions.

Ancillary revenue generated approximately €22 per passenger the company said.

Mr O’Leary foresaw growth opportunities for the airline due to the collapse of many European airlines during the Covid crisis, and widespread capacity cuts at other carriers.

“We are encouraged by the high rate of vaccinations across Europe. If, as is presently predicted, most of Europe’s adult population is fully vaccinated by September., then we believe that we can look forward to a strong recovery in air travel for the second half of the fiscal year and well into 2022 – as is presently the case in domestic US air travel,” he said.

However, the airline warned the future remains challenging due to continued Covid restrictions and a lack of bookings and that this meant it was impossible to provided “meaningful” guidance at the time.

“We believe that full0year 2022 traffic has improved to a range of 90 million to 100 million (previously guided at the lower end of an 80 million to 120 million passenger range) and (cautiously) expect that the likely outcome for the year is somewhere between a small loss and breakeven. This is dependent on the continued rollout of vaccines this summer, and no adverse Covid variant developments,” said Mr O’Leary.

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Switzerland’s Credit Suisse settles with star banker over spying scandal

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CEO Tidjane Thiam was forced to resign in February 2020 after admitting the bank had hired investigators to follow Khan, head of international wealth management, because he had opted to move to arch-rival, UBS.

As well as sending shockwaves through banking circles, the case sparked a criminal probe in Switzerland.

“All parties involved have agreed to end the case,” Credit Suisse spokeswoman Simone Meier told NZZ am Sonntag, which revealed the agreement.

Meier declined to comment further when contacted by AFP.

The public prosecutor of the canton of Zurich has also ended his investigation, as the complaints have been withdrawn, NZZ am Sonntag reported.

Thiam’s resignation followed a torrid six-month scandal that began with revelations in the Swiss press that Khan had been shadowed by agents from a private detective company hired after he joined UBS. 

At one point, Khan physically confronted the people following him.

In October, chief operating officer Pierre-Olivier Bouee resigned, acknowledging at the end of an internal investigation that he “alone” had ordered the tailing without informing his superiors.

He had wanted to ensure that Khan was not trying to poach other employees, according to the internal investigation.

The case was reopened in December 2019 when the bank admitted to a second case of espionage, this time involving the former head of human resources, and then in February after media reports that the surveillance had also targeted the environmental organisation Greenpeace.



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