Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy
The exhibition of Russian landscapes from the 19th century on show at the National Gallery should be seen by all those who like good painting, wonderful landscapes and have a real sense of history. So far only Paul Johnson has noticed them, in his huge book on art; everybody else has consciously ignored them. Now is the time to make up this deficiency and be surprised.
The pictures date from the mid-19th century to 1914, though there are a few preliminary canvasses of earlier landscapes of Rome and the country round Florence and Naples as a kind of stimulus. With the defeat of Napoleon, Russians started to travel all over Europe to a degree unheard of in the preceding century. Russia and Europe started to get to know each other as they never had before. The visiting of Europe, and the sight of so many paintings in private houses and galleries stimulated those from Russia who hoped against hope for a change in the Russian political structure. As in western Europe, all the art of the time was to be acquired by private individuals. It was in no way “museum art”, however locked into the atmosphere of a museum the pictures are today. A visual difficulty of this exhibition is that the framing is largely of 19th century Parisian derivation, and it is too insistent and too elaborate. Some 70 per cent of the framing should have been extracted from their belle époque suffocation and the result would have improved beyond belief.
Why has Russian landscape painting been so neglected in the West over the last hundred years? Partly because the pictures were not immediately available. Who would travel to Leningrad or Moscow to see third-rate art — as these pictures were then thought of — at a time when the intellectual atmosphere of France, Germany and England was hopelessly biased in favour of itself. Art that counted was in western Europe. Everything else was derivative. The exhibition in the National Gallery succeeds in denying the intellectual premises of self-congrat ulation in London, Paris or Berlin. Many of the pictures are of originality of subject and beauty of treatment in their presentation and technique. They vary enormously from the quite small to the extended and very large indeed. It is difficult to say which is “of importance” — as if that really mattered. Of all the painters on show, Nesterov seems to have been influenced by the PreRaphaelite vision. Many canvasses are not unlike those of the American Sublime which we saw some two or three years ago here; a perfect instance of this is Klodt. Levitan is marvellous in a Russian variation on the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, but his sense of the vastness and enduring quality of nature against the transience of man and his artefacts is always present in his art.
Shishkin’s woodland scenes are unforgettable, as are, in a totally different way, the highly dramatic paintings of moonlight on water and snow in the forest of Kuindzhi. There are many more artists worth mentioning, but the best thing is to go and see the show for yourselves, allowing a good two hours.
When everything has been absorbed in this exhibition (and that takes a long time) a ghostly feeling of worry and inquisition hovers over these landscapes. It is as though one is a spectator over a land of infinite extent, that is waiting for a shift, a seismic shudder, a metamorphosis, a calamity of identity. The landscapes are waiting for something to happen. Is this feeling because we know the subsequent history of the Communist Revolution, and the isolation of Russia from the rest of the world for the next 70 years? It could be that, but there is something under the surface, menacing, and ready to change in a way that would catch one off one’s guard in the whole of this marvellous exhibition.
If, in the next three weeks, those who see the Russian exhibition could go on some 300 yards to the front of Somerset House and see the “Talking Peace” exhibition, of the Somerset House Conference of 1604, which patched up the quar rel between Spain and England after some 80 years of deadly enmity, the sense of history too, in these few paintings, echoes that surrounding the Russian paintings in the National Gallery. For we witness the flow of history through these paintings, and it is worth remembering that, without the conference of 1604 there might not have been an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, even though disagreeing on things religious, that succeeded in encouraging other activities. The consummate portrait painting of Van Dyck in English country houses might never have occurred; likewise the painting of the Banqueting Hall ceiling in the grand new Palace of Whitehall by Peter Paul Rubens might never have been commissioned. (This is to say nothing of the possible absence of potatoes, tomatoes, vanilla, quinine and sweet corn.) Culture hangs on trust. Trust is engendered by respect. The absence of such qualities renders the language of the imagination incapable of operation.