Russian Artists’ Message to Eternity

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It is often said in Russia that modesty suits only a young girl, and artists who worked on some of the country’s most famous chef d’oevres were definitely not lasses. Some of them were so fond of their works, that they would actually get themselves depicted or depict themselves in or on their creations for all the world to know the authorship. There are three most famous Russian artists, who, so to speak, became immortal in their art, and their three amazing stories.

Note that one of the first European artists having pictured themselves in their own work of art was Diego Velazquez, with his self-representation in Les Meninas. The BBC called Velazquez painting himself into the royal commission “the world’s first photobomb,” even though the painting was made 175 years before the invention of photography.

Ivan Vitali’s depiction of Monferrand
Ivan Vitali’s depiction of Monferrand

Ivan Vitali’s depiction of Monferrand

One of the most tragic stories related to this somewhat narcissistic streak has happened to A. Monferrand, a French upstart architect commissioned to build St. Isaac’s cathedral, one of St. Petersburg’s top places of worship, which took about 40 years to complete. At the end of 4 decades of construction works, the architect’s fellow creator Ivan Vitali sculpted Monferrand into the cathedral’s low-relief situated on the building’s western facade, depicting the blessing of Theodosius, a Roman emperor by St. Isaac, a saint. The architect is set in the leftmost corner of the low-relief, sitting half-naked with his back defiantly upright and holding a model of cathedral, a hint at his authorship of the cathedral, whilst all the people around, emperor and his spouse including, assumed a very reverential, almost prostrate, position. This upright posture was deemed verging on profane and as a result at the opening ceremony Russian Emperor Alexander I, who inaugurated the cathedral, refused to shake the French architect’s hand. Humiliated, his 40 years of creative labor left unappreciated, Monferrand died.

His last wish to be buried in the cathedral, thought by Christians the house of God, was denied, but his sculpture was to remain forever in the low-relief, upright and undaunted by the saint’s presence, — looking over St. Isaac’s Square, one of the most beautiful plazas of the city.

  • Contact Russian travel agency Pradiz to arrange a tour of the St. Isaac Cathedral, one of the prime examples of Russian architecture.

Briullov’s depiction of himself in the Last Day of Pompey

Briullov’s depiction of himself in the Last Day of Pompey
Briullov’s depiction of himself in the Last Day of Pompey

Like a Burmese woman carrying a plateful of fried-fish on her head, Briullov depicted himself toting artists’ equipment on what must be the artist’s seat of creativity. The painting, a little bit awkward due to the blend of classicistic representation of people in it and the theme of a human destroyed by powerful nature, characteristic of Romantism, then prevalent in Europe, is definitely a must-see.

There a group of people of all stages of nakedness flee for their life from an eruption of a volcano. Women supine on the cobbles, grieving lovers unable to accept their second half’s death, a thief clutching his booty, and mothers lovingly hugging their kids, before the impending doom, are all present. It is in the midst of them that the architect’s pale visage appears quite contemplative and unswayed by the disaster about to kill everyone.

It is on display at State Russian Museum St. Petersburg and draws many of both amateurs and connoisseurs

The painting has made a lot of noise at the time, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol would say about the author of the canvas the following: “His colouring is possibly brighter than it has ever been; his paints burn and hit you in the eye”.

Actually some people read into this painting the apocalyptic view of the political situation in Russia of the time; quite hot after a failed anti-tsar uprising of the Decembrists, and torn apart by underdevelopment, poverty, and the scourge of serfdom it must have felt on the verge of collapse.

Whatever is the true meaning, if there is any, the painting is noteworthy for its detail and intense color.

Ivanov’s depiction of himself in the Appearance of Christ to the People

Ivanov’s depiction of himself in the Appearance of Christ to the People
Ivanov’s depiction of himself in the Appearance of Christ to the People

Ivanov, Briullov’s contemporary, a fervent Christian and a great artist painted what is regarded his “self-aware” magnus opus on a Biblical subject, too.

Briullov is said to have worked on his Appearance of Christ, in Rome, where his studio was somewhat dank. As a result, one of the characters in the painting had his face somewhat greened.

His wall-size canvass depicts Christ appearing before the people. Present are, flamboyantly handsome John the Baptist, standing by the Jordan River in his camel skin and leather as represented in the Bible, and people from all strata of society: some of the apostles, soldiers, recent converts, Pharisees, Sadducees, well-healed citizens and green-faced slaves included, with the composition centered on Messiah, quite modest in appearance and almost unnoticed.

This work is also often interpreted as a political statement. It is thought that the painter’s message was that Russia, exhausted by years of underdevelopment, serfdom and its military failure in Crimea, is ripe for a Messiah-figure but barely knows how to notice. The interests of different members of society were starkly different, the country being so polarized by economic inequality.

It is interesting that, being quite a puritan, Ivanov did not picture any women folk in his picture but nevertheless did not fail to stick in his own face immersed in deep thought; the artist’s depiction can be found on the right hand side of John the Baptist. He is pictured as a wanderer, seated, bearded, wearing a small brim hat. Also portrayed is his friend and author of “Dead Souls” Nikolai Gogol. He stands closer to Jesus Christ, a brown-clad figure.

Just like Monferrand, who died soon after unveiling his creation, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with the sculpture of him on one of its facades, to the Russian tsar, Ivanov would die 25 days after showing his masterpiece, to the Russian tsar, as well. The eerie coincidences are not limited to this, both died in the middle of July 1858.

  • The work is showcased at Tretyakov Gallery, one of Moscow’s top tourist attractions. It is often believed that even more beautiful than the huge canvas in Moscow is sketches made by the same painter hanging in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, they have something of Impressionism in them, which would emerge in France decades later.

Sum-up

The 3 men, great masters, some of whom apparently good chums, are by far not the only Russian artists whose depiction can be found in or on their work, but they are for sure the most famous ones. Their representations made in mid 19th century seem to emphasize the artist’s role as a calm observer and someone challenging social conventions, a creator reflecting the main trends of the time and not forgetting about his own importance.

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