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August 2019, No. 1397 – Vol 161

Ilya Repin. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Exhibition Review

Ilya Repin. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

by Isabel Stokholm Romanova

Over the past decade the State Tretyakov Gallery has had great success in reviving the popularity of Russian painters of the pre-revolutionary era. So high was attendance at the Valentin Serov exhibition in 2016 that a new phrase was coined (‘to queue for Serov’ means to wait an awfully long time). The Tretyakov now turns its attention to the most celebrated of Russia’s late nineteenth-century masters in a retrospective dedicated to Ilya Repin (1844–1930). To present an artist of such national stature is a daunting task, made more daunting still by the vast scale of Repin’s output, comprising over 2,500 paintings and innumerable graphic works. This, the first major exhibition on Repin in Russia since the Tretyakov’s 1994 retrospective, includes works from twenty-six museums and private collections, with illustrations in the 592-page catalogue compensating for the absence of items from Ukrainian collections.

The show’s first exhibit is not actually present: a large white rectangle marks where Repin’s most controversial canvas should hang. The Tretyakov’s Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan, 16th November 1581 (1885; cat. no.84) depicts Ivan IV cradling his dying heir. Pale and grief-stricken, the tsar tries to staunch the flow of blood from his son’s temple, while his own blood-spattered brow betrays his crime. Repin’s meditation on father and son, the state and its subjects, was so provocative that it was banned from display when it was first shown. In 1913, it was slashed three times in a shocking attack – an act that was sadly repeated in May 2018. Following this event, the painting has again been withdrawn but its very absence attests to the emotional force and relevance that Repin’s subjects continue to have.

From here the display develops chronologically, with works organised into fourteen thematic sections. Repin’s gift for psychological penetration is apparent even in early portraits from his time at the Imperial Academy of Arts. His monumental treatment of exhausted labourers heaving a barge upriver in Boatmen on the Volga (no.5; Fig.14) highlights the young artist’s willingness to innovate. Commissioned by a Grand Duke (a rare honour for students), the work’s epic treatment of labourers ignited clamorous debates and made Repin a highly public artist before the age of thirty.

Two suites with pictures of prominent figures from Russia’s high society reveal Repin’s popularity as a portrait-painter. The pantheon includes such prominent figures as Modest Mussorgsky, painted in 1881 shortly before the musician’s death (no.58; Fig.15) as well as images of the artist’s family, which offered room to experiment: a touch of Édouard Manet’s impressionistic brushwork is discernible in Repin’s 1876 portrait of his wife, painted while living in Paris (no.26). Indeed, his interest in Impressionism is also conveyed through plein-air scenes, and the role that Old Masters played in Repin’s work – Rembrandt especially – is emphasised throughout the exhibition.

A selection of such lively works as Village party (no.55; Fig.16) and the Zaporozhian Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan (1880–91; no.120) addresses Repin’s dual Russian–Ukrainian identity and suggests that he associated Ukraine with dance and laughter. Cossack dancers and mirth are also depicted in Gopak (1926–30; no.202), an outstanding yet little-known work from a private collection. As the final exhibit, completed shortly before Repin’s death at the age of eighty-seven, Gopak closes the show on a positive note. Despite long years of suffering that Repin endured following the October Revolution, his last canvas brings us back to one of his most joyful subjects.

Assembling over 300 of Repin’s canvases and preparatory studies reveals that the artist often repainted his works, even at times obsessively. A mezzanine floor dedicated to X-radiography and macrophotography traces the development of works such as Rest (1882; no.66) and They did not expect him (1884–88; no.110). This is an excellent addition, although the small number of screens and their size makes it difficult to see them among the crowds. Repin also made alternate versions of works, some of which are exhibited here or reproduced in the catalogue. Of note is his play on Barge haulers in the Cattle of imperialism (1917; no.194) and a pendant to Religious procession in Kursk Province (1881–83), completed forty-one years after its predecessor. 

Although relatively unfamiliar abroad, in Russia Repin has always been one of the most celebrated national artists. Under Stalin, a few sanctioned works that highlighted social ills under the tsars were selected for mass reproduction, rendering Repin a ubiquitous but narrowly defined artist. The curators dispel lingering clichés by highlighting Soviet distortions (such as the renaming of works) and the diversity of his style and interests. For example, an unusual study flaunts Repin’s readiness to break the bounds of realism: Demonstration (1905; no.186) shows a crowd marching through an indecipherable landscape, while black-clad figures float in the fiery sky above. Are these dark forces or a benevolent chorus guiding the protest? In Bolsheviks (1918; no.196), Repin’s intention is clearer, as he bestows goat’s legs upon a jeering soldier stealing bread from a child.

The exhibition concludes with three rooms of late works. Once taken as signs of creative decline, their loose brushwork and expressiveness of colour are now celebrated. Included are numerous portraits of Repin’s second partner, Natalia Nordman. A writer and tireless campaigner for women’s rights, she was instrumental in ensuring that Repin could paint without interruption. A young lady painted in a striking scarlet blouse is revealed as his illegitimate daughter, a once taboo subject (1913; no.177). These late works, painted on linoleum, remind us of Repin’s Soviet ‘afterlife’. After the redrawing of borders in 1918, Repin’s home was left in Finnish territory; with his properties and accounts seized, and ties to friends and family disrupted, Repin’s final decade was one of hardship and isolation. Previously unpublished correspondence in the catalogue offers insight into his old age, as do the show’s first and final self-portraits. Whereas a self portrait from 1887 (no.96) shows him as a confident man at the height of success, a 1915 self-portrait, painted in an energetic style, shows him with the palette strapped to his waist (no.179), after having lost most of the function in his right hand. Another shows Repin working in a warm coat and hat (no.198); it dates from the 1920s, the cold and hungry years of the Civil War, yet his expression suggests that nothing will prevent him from painting.

The curators have struck a good balance between Repin’s popular and lesser-known pieces. New research is presented in a series of publications, together with a lecture programme and two-day conference, and a display of over 130 graphic works is an unrivalled sampling, drawn from the storerooms of the Tretyakov and State Russian Museum (unfortunately, however, few of Repin’s watercolours are included). As the first in a series of projects in Russia, Finland and France to mark the 175th anniversary of Repin’s birth, the Tretyakov Gallery has set a high benchmark.

1. Catalogue: Ilya Repin. Edited by Tatiana Karpova and Tatiana Yudenkova. 592 pp. incl. 503 col. ills. (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2019), £40. ISBN 978–5–89580–260–1. The catalogue is in Russian, with a brief summary and full list of exhibited works in English.