Levitan's Golden Autumns

The 19th-century Russian landscape painter Isaak Levitan

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The great 19th-century Russian landscape painter Isaak Levitan was born 150 years ago. To celebrate this anniversary, the Tretyakov Gallery has just opened a special exhibition dedicated to his life and work. The curators have gathered 200 paintings and drawings from the gallery’s own collection and 20 other museums as far afield as Minsk, Astrakhan and Penza.

Levitan was a prolific artist, and his works are scattered in art galleries across Russia and the former Soviet Union as well as among the houses of friends, mentors and collectors. The Tretyakov’s exhibition brings together some of these masterpieces at its Krymsky Val branch through March 20. Besides famous paintings, there are sketches – for instance a cycle of variations on his last unfinished work, “Lake (Russia)”, that shed light on his attempts to express the Russian landscapes he loved. The exhibition also contains thematic and conceptual strands, such as Levitan’s connection with the “World of Art” movement. Finally, photographs of Levitan and his circle of friends add an intimate subtext.

‘Not entirely on the earth’

“He was always melancholy,” wrote fellow painter Konstantin Korovin. “He lived somehow not entirely on the earth… in the summer, Levitan could lie on the grass all day and watch the sky.” Levitan was born in 1860 in Lithuania, to a poor Jewish family. Despite his poverty, he managed to study in the 1870s at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. His tutors included Vasily Polenov and Alexei Savrasov, whose influence is clear in Levitan’s work. The school, in an 18th century mansion on Myasnitskaya Ulitsa, has a commemorative plaque on the wall, showing Savrasov in front of his famous painting of bare trees with birds and ragged nests, a dilapidated Russian church and thawing, snowy ponds – “The Rooks Have Come Back”.

Despite early successes, Levitan faced obstacles in his personal life. Anti-Semitism increased dramatically after the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and many Jewish families were forced to leave the big cities. In the summer of 1879, the artist had to move out of the capital to the dacha village of Saltykovka, just east of Moscow. It was one of Levitan’s most difficult periods, when he even contemplated suicide. But friends and fans in the art world lobbied for his return, and in the autumn he moved back to Moscow where he painted “Autumn Day. Sokolniki”.

Pavel Tretyakov, founder of the Tretyakov Gallery, bought “Autumn Day. Sokolniki” for his collection in 1880. It is one of Levitan’s earlier attempts at creating a “landscape of mood”, where the viewer is drawn into a vista which seems to symbolise emotions and spiritual qualities. Sergei Morozov, of the wealthy, arts-loving Morozov family, gave Levitan sanctuary and a studio in the garden of his mansion, near Kitai-Gorod. The house is still there, a fine neo-Russian style edifice in white and turquoise on Bolshoi Tryokhsvyatitelsky Pereulok, but the garden is walled off from sight. There is no sign of the studio, nor even a plaque to say that the artist lived here. Levitan hardly ever painted urban landscapes and his spirit might more easily be traced to the countryside.

‘Inexpressible charm’

During the 1880s, Levitan experimented with a range of styles and became lifelong friends with the playwright Anton Chekhov, whose brother had been a colleague of Levitan’s in Moscow. Chekhov’s country house in Melikhovo contains several small paintings by Levitan. The painter was a frequent visitor to Melikhovo, and the small hill overlooking the house became known as “Levitan’s hill” because he sat there so much. Several incidents in “The Seagull” are drawn directly from Levitan’s life, including the shooting of the eponymous gull. A shared interest in hunting and fishing was one of the things that drew the friends together.

Levitan probably stayed in the guest annex at Melikhovo where Chekhov wrote “The Seagull”. This is actually the only original building that survives from Chekhov’s day, although the reconstructed house has plenty of atmosphere. The garden with its cherry trees and dinner bell, and the neighbouring village with its wooden church and chickens seem little changed since the 1880s.

Orlando Figes, in his cultural history of Russia, “Natasha’s Dance”, argues that Chekhov’s landscape descriptions try to achieve with words what Levitan showed in his paintings. They both admired the other’s “spiritual response to the natural world”. Chekhov told a journalist after Levitan’s death that he regretted not buying his favourite Levitan painting, “The Village”. Although it was simply a dull and godforsaken village, Chekhov said: “The picture imparts such an inexpressible charm that you can’t take your eyes off it.”

Levitan and Chekhov also shared an interest in womanising and visiting brothels. Figes suggests that “perhaps it was because he knew his friend so well that, when the artist fell in love with Chekhov’s sister, the writer told Maria not to marry him.”

Levitan’s wanderings through Russia and abroad made him more often a visitor than a homeowner. He became a member of the famous “Wanderers” (Peredvizhniki) group of painters, who took their exhibitions on tour.

Although there is a small house-museum near Plyos, and another rather inaccessible one at Andreyevskoye near Petushki, it is in the places he visited that you can sense the presence of Levitan’s restless spirit. Polenovo, the wonderful estate-museum of his teacher, Vasily Polenov, is another house that contains Levitan’s works (although some of them have been borrowed for the current Tretyakov exhibition). Polenov’s Art Nouveau house and studio on a cliff above the river Oka make a long, but rewarding daytrip from Moscow.

Levitan also visited the artistic estate at Abramtsevo, where he turned his hand to stage designs.

‘‘Above Eternal Peace’

Levitan’s quest for beautiful landscapes led him through many areas of the countryside around Moscow. Some of the places he is known to have visited are now sanatoria, generally closed to the public. The 18th-century Vvedenskoye Estate, for instance, where Levitan was a guest, is now hidden behind a tall fence, but the neighbouring monastery and riverside landscapes around the town of Zvenigorod are well worth visiting. Likewise, there is no trace of the dacha Levitan lived in on the shores of Lake Senezh, an hour or so north of Moscow near Solnechnogorsk, but it is still a pleasant place for a stroll.

In 1892 Levitan painted “Vladimirka Road”, a lonely road with a solitary figure stretching towards a lowering sky. His lover and companion, fellow-artist Sophia Kuvshinnikova, recalled the moment of inspiration. As they admired the peaceful scene Levitan suddenly said: “This is the Vladimirka, the one on which so many people died on their long walk to Siberia.” In the silence of this beautiful landscape, they were suddenly overwhelmed by an immense feeling of sadness.

In his last paintings Levitan achieved, in Chekhov’s words, a “simplicity and purity of conception… I do not know if anyone else will ever achieve anything like it”. The haunting lake scene with the isolated church – “Above Eternal Peace”, painted in 1894 – is one of those pictures that stays with the viewer. Levitan wrote to Pavel Tretyakov: “This painting represents me completely, all my psychology, all my being.”

Levitan died in 1900 and was buried in the Jewish Cemetery. His remains were relocated in the 1940s to the Novodevichy Cemetery. You can find his simple headstone near the wall of the older section, two rows beyond the white arch of his friend, Chekhov. Several Russian towns have roads named after him, including one in Moscow’s “artists’ village” near Sokol.

Source: The Moscow News
21 October, 2010