The question of where Russia belongs – whether in Europe, in Asia or its own unique sphere – is one that has exercised the world and the country itself for centuries. With relations between Russia and the West at their tensest since the Cold War, these are matters that confront us now every time we hear the news. And they permeate this fascinating exhibition on the period that produced Russia’s greatest writers and composers, 1867 to 1914.
As you walk into the exhibition, the great figures are all there in their most iconic portraits on loan from Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery: Chekhov, in pince-nez and goatee beard, looking like an avuncular GP (he was a doctor by profession); Dostoevsky, hunched and haunted in a voluminous overcoat; Tchaikovsky, looking up frowning, his mouth open, as though interrupted in the middle of a grumpy monologue; Tolstoy, thickly bearded, working at his desk.
We encounter figures we know about, but whose appearance we may never have considered: Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons and A Month in the Country, belligerently imposing with a full grey beard; Rimsky-Korsakov, in little round spectacles, busying himself over his scores like some diligent music teacher. And we meet notable writers who may be little known here, such as the satirist Alexei Pisemsky and playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, but who feel vividly present in portraits by Ilya Repin and Vasily Perov respectively.
From Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karinina) to Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake), here are the creators of some of the central works of the Western tradition. Yet the vexed question of Russian identity makes itself apparent in a slip – or I assume it’s a slip – in one of the first text panels, where the writer Alexander Herzen is described as having “emigrated to Europe” in 1887. While you’d be forgiven for thinking that Russia, or the parts lived in by most of the great writers, always have been part of Europe, the notion of the country’s alienness from the continent’s centre, and what that means to its people, is felt throughout Russian culture during this period – from the longing of Chekhov and Turgenev’s characters to escape the isolation of the countryside to Rimsky-Korsakov’s pride in indigenous musical traditions.
While the latter part of the period saw avant garde painters such as Kandinsky and Malevich, drawing on Russia’s richly decorative folk art, there’s little evidence of that here. The overall impression is of highly competent, slightly dour Western-style naturalism, with the very slightest of Russian twists. The leading painters of the time, the romantic realist Ilya Repin and the impressionist Valentin Serov, certainly thought they were bringing a profound Russianness to the mix. But it’s hard to know if we can sense a genuinely different light and space, the immensity of the steppe beyond the dacha door, or our imagination is filling this in for us. What isn’t in doubt, though, is the way these paintings cover the fundamental base of traditional portraiture in creating the illusion that we’re actually meeting the person.
Repin’s bright-eyed Pisemsky is an extraordinary, near-photographic tour de force that appears to confirm his contemporaries’ opinion of him as the Tolstoy of the brush, though that idea is let down by his over-egged, sub-Impressionist image of pianist Sophie Menter.
Despite striking full-length portraits of actress Maria Ermolova and society hostess Baroness Varavara Ikskul von Hildenbrandt, the women portrayed here can hardly compete with the men in terms of personality or celebrity-power, though Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s vividly coloured, art nouveau flavoured image of poet Anna Akhmatova is one of a number of works in the last stages of the exhibition that hint at the impending Modernist revolution, if not the violence of the Russian Revolution itself. It’s chastening to reflect that the lissom and rather haughty 25 year old, who appears framed in a distant golden age, lived on through the abominations of Stalinism, and kept on writing till her death in 1966.
This relatively small show provides not only a vivid and intimate survey of an extraordinary period, but a kind of advert for the virtues of the painted portrait itself, a form that is in abeyance in our own time. Repin’s watery-eyed image of Modest Mussorgsky, completed just 10 days before the composer’s death from alcohol poisoning, may have a sentimental, crowd-pleasing quality, but it sticks in the mind. Indeed we’d be lucky to find anything like that degree of genuinely memorable populism in portrait painting today, either in Britain or in Russia – a country that is physically closer than ever, but in other respects seem to become more distant by the day.
March 17 – June 26. Details: npg.org.uk