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Stuart Staniford : The Peredvizhniki

Stuart Staniford : The Peredvizhniki thumbnail

I have been in Stockholm for a business trip the last couple of days (hence no blogging). This afternoon I visited the Swedish National Museum which is having an exhibition on the Peredvizhniki – a society of Russian painters which formed in reaction to the conservative tastes of the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Art in the late nineteenth century. The academy’s announcement in 1863 that the annual gold medal contest would have the subject “The Banquet of the Gods in Valhalla” provoked a rebellion: the artists wanted to paint real scenes of life from Russia, not Viking mythology.

This led to several decades of movement that was devoted to trying to paint the realities of Tsarist Russia. The exhibition here I found deeply moving – these are big heroic-scale paintings – often six or ten feet tall – but focussed on the lives of very poor peasants. Apparently the paintings are not well known in the west (but deserve to be!).  Clearly the artists were leading the way here – as they so often do.  Fifty years later, the society had reached the point where the Tsars were overthrown in a bloody revolution but I imagine young artists starting to tell the truth about the old order was one of the first bricks pulled out of the wall.

I took photos of a couple of paintings that relate in some way to the themes of this blog. Both are poor substitutes for the grand scale of the originals. Above is “Barge-Haulers on the Volga” by Ilya Repin from 1870-1873. It’s hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the benefits of modern energy sources: this is what it takes to move even a fairly modest-sized boat without them (Repin visited the Volga region to study the haulers before painting the work so presumably it’s fairly true to life).  To me, this painting is suffused with political consciousness: the artist does not think that human beings should live this way and intends to express it passionately and directly to the viewer.  It’s the first painting when you enter the exhibition, it’s really big and really well done, and I was completely blown away by it.

Next is one for my romantic agrarian friends (I’m looking at you Sharon Astyk 🙂  This is a nineteenth century Russian farming village:

This is Pyotr Sukhodolsky – Midday in the Countryside:

Sukhodolsky’s fascinating work is typical of the growing sense of realism in the 1860s – an authentic view of a scruffy Russian village with it’s dilapidated buildings and dirt tracks.  The foreground, where academic tradition lead the eye to something worthy of contemplation, focuses on a rusting harrow and a sleeping sow having fleas pecked from its hide by a magpie.

Local food taken to it’s logical conclusion!  Admittedly, Russia was the poorest of the pre-industrial European societies.  At an earlier time when England and the Netherlands could support 20-30% of the population in cities, Russia had only 5% – indicating that it’s agriculture generated very little surplus beyond the bare minimum required to support the peasants – and not in style, as the painting documents.

I realize few of my readers are in a position to visit the paintings in Stockholm, and probably even fewer after they return to their homes in Russia – but if you can, it’s well worth it.

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