When Ilya Repin died in 1930, The New York Times proclaimed him the “soul of Russia” and “the greatest genre and portrait painter” the country had ever produced. The writer was referring to the works Repin painted as a young man, mostly before his 40th birthday, the ones that made him famous. By contrast, this exhibition at the Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia, concentrates on the intimate and domestic work Repin produced in the second half of his life – and it provides a few shocks for those who only know his “big” paintings.
Repin began his artistic life in his teens, as a painter of icons; by the age of 19, he had been awarded a place at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. “Barge Haulers on the Volga” (1873), a powerful depiction of the drudgery of labour in the lowest classes, brought him acclaim as a new interpreter of Russian life. Courtesy of a scholarship, he travelled to Italy, Switzerland and France, absorbing a rich marinade of European influences. A stay in Paris brought him into contact with Impressionism, an influence that persisted in his use of light and colour. He remained, however, closer in style to the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez, whose portraits of everyday life and historical or Biblical scenes are echoed in his works.
The subjects of Repin’s works over his long life ranged from Russia’s cultural elite – Tolstoy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin among them – to the commonplace and oppressed in his much-lauded genre paintings. It was the latter that led to Repin’s veneration in the Soviet Union. Party intellectuals judged Repin’s depictions of the struggles of Russia’s workers in pictures such as “Barge Haulers” or of society’s strata in “Religious Procession in Kursk” (1883) to be perfect examples of socialist realism. And this notion of Repin as an “ethical painter” and as the standard-bearer of 19th-century Russian realism has largely stuck.
The Kadriorg show, a collaboration with the Ateneum Art Museum of the Finnish National Gallery, displays a quieter artist, apolitical and concerned with the personal. The focus is on his life in Finland. In 1903 Repin moved to Kuokkala, Karelia, then part of the Russian Empire, with his partner, Natalia Nordmann. There he established the residence he called Penaty, after the Roman gods of the household, and the paintings at this show were either created at Penaty
or were kept there.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Repin found himself stateless, as his home fell within the borders of a newly independent Finland. (The territory was ceded to Russia after the second world war; Kuokkala is now called Repino in the artist’s honour.) But in spite of pleas from Soviet officials and arts organisations, Repin never returned to Russia. His most famous works remained in the Soviet Union and his property and wealth were nationalised.
Portraiture, always important for Repin, is the mainstay of this show, and his quest for the essence of his subjects animates these works. They are marked by empathy and the same attention to detail that embodies his great works of critical realism.
His pictures of loved ones are particularly important. “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter Nadezhda Repina” (1898) shows a bright face that gazes forth with dark, sensitive eyes, and clothes that merge into an almost black background. Above her head is a splash of colour, an illumination of the kind seen in paintings of saints. Nadezhda is a source of light in darkness – the fact that she later succumbed to menal illness makes the picture all the more poignant.
A candid glimpse of domesticity is seen in “Double Portrait of Natalia Nordmann and Ilya Repin” (1903), the couple seated outside with ubiquitous Finnish conifers forming the backdrop. This picture displays the skill in en plein air painting that Repin acquired during his stay in France. He was fascinated by the effect of sunlight on colour and would spend days in the Normandy countryside working on its representation. Here he appears still very much the young man, with his dark beard and hair, staring at an object he is drawing in his sketchbook. He sits in the shade of his wife, who is brightly lit; his drab clothes, by contrast, emphasise his craftsman status.
Repin’s Parisian stay is reflected in “Nobility’s Summer Festivity” (1894), for all the world a work of Impressionism. The use of light and colour is redolent of Manet’s “Un bar aux Folies-Bergère”, but the subject of the painting, a fancy-dress ball for wealthy Russians, shows attention to elite themes, as much a part of his work as his portrayals of the everyday.
But perhaps the most revealing picture in the exhibition is its most modest. The French critic Louis Réau once noted: “For Repin, more than for any other Russian artist, painting existed on its own, not only as a means of depicting ideas and narrating history.” “Self Portrait”, a small watercolour from the 1920s, shows the artist gazing up from his always-present sketchbook above a pince-nez, his hair and beard turned white. He is sketching with his left hand. In old age Repin’s right hand became feeble and could not hold a paintbrush or pencil. As ever, he is the working artist renewing his craft.
Until August 18, www.kadriorumuuseum.ee