Essay: Varying progressive and conservative contradictions in the creative output of the Wanderers

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  • Varying progressive and conservative contradictions in the creative output of the Wanderers
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The Wanderers or Peredvizhnik were a group of Russian Realist artists who formed in 1870 in protest at academic restrictions and the status of the artist within Russian society at the time. The group was active for several decades and artists were not recruited according to aesthetic or political persuasion. For this reason, the group’s work is multifaceted including both radical subject matter as well as a large body of more conservative work. I will discuss the varying progressive and conservative contradictions evident throughout the creative output of the Wanderers whilst keeping their original aims in mind, as it is clear that their history and concerns have been manipulated by influential contemporaries such as Vladimir Stasov and the Soviet re-writing of history as propaganda. The critically charged works of Makovsky and Repin among others have made the Wanderers synonymous with progressive art that sought to highlight the troubles of Russian Tsarist society and move painting away from its aristocratic hold, featuring Russian people, namely the peasant population. They saw a need for Russian art for uniquely Russian problems and it is here that nationalist sentiment appears in the debates over the direction of their work. The concept, that where you are from shapes who you are, is characteristically conservative and in this case was accompanied with strong anti-Western and especially anti-French sentiment. Furthermore, the consistently strong body of landscape work, celebrating the Russian countryside highlights how progressive claims should be viewed with caution. Additionally, the group’s rekindling of associations with the Academy during the reign of the pro-nationalist Tsar Aleksandr III after the revolutionary period ended in the mid 1880s, saw a huge reduction in radical themes. The Tsar was also influential in pushing them onto a more conservative pathway with the Slavic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. This saw a resurgence of traditional craftwork such as woodcarving. In terms of painting, it was seemingly absorbed by artists such as Mikhail Nesterov into themes harking back to peasant folk tales. I will argue further still however, that despite these disparities in subject and style, the group remained consistent to their original progressive aim of, as Blakesley puts it, the ‘nurturing of public interest and improving the market for artist’s work.’

The Wanderer’s conception during the 1870s was in the midst of an enlarged awareness of the ills of Russian society and debates among the intelligentsia about how to deal with these problems. Chernyshevskii’s ‘Aesthetic Relationships of Art to Reality,’ published in 1855 was influential in Kramskoi’s decision to lead the original break from the St. Petersburg Academy in 1863. He presented art as a moral activity and a vehicle for comprehending and articulating life’s problems. Clear comparisons can be made between this and Kramskoi’s Christ in the Wilderness, which conveys the importance of the moral decision each person has to make in their lifetime regarding ‘serving the ideal or succumbing to petty interests.’ This is a clear analogy to the role that the artist saw himself playing in the intellectual attempt at reforming the country. It is clear that the group were extremely sensitive to the contemporary issues and it is in the ten year revolutionary period from 1874 to 1884 where their work can be shown to most embody the progressive societal role of art as put forwards by the left-wing side of the intelligentsia. This is most clear in the canvases of Ilya Repin, who was willing to push the boundaries of the state censor further than most. Repin showed himself to be extremely sensitive to the artistic and political situation of the time. His work, after completing a scholarship abroad in France, was hugely influenced by contemporary themes of the day, such as the Populist’s quest to enlighten the uneducated peasant population in the spring of 1874. This is the theme of Arrest of a Propagandist (figure one), in which the composition and physiognomy of the figure, serves to portray the Populist as a Christ like figure. In this painting, all of the types in a peasant village are represented in a microcosm of Russian rural life, which also serves as a compendium of the activities and goals of the populists. His work embodies Chernyshevskii’s claims for art as a moral activity and is progressive in terms of its portrayal of social classes previously denied a place in fine art, as well as the social critique he provides. The fact that this work took twelve years to complete, is emblematic of the pressure of Tsarist censorship and as Hilton points out, some artists clearly toned down their political significance to get exhibited.
Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (figure two), finished prior to being a member of the Wanderers, marked a watershed moment that redefined the group’s radical associations. Blakesley states that the revolutionary theme was deficient in their exhibitions prior to this. In fact, over fifty percent of paintings exhibited in their initial show were landscapes; however, this is not to assume that there was nothing featured that didn’t give rise to political and social readings. For example, Nikolai Ge’s Peter the Great Interrogating Tsarevich Alekei Petrovich at Peterhof was received as a ‘less than subtle jibe at the tyranny and whimsy of autocratic rule.’ The vast letterbox shaped canvas of Barge Haulers and colour scheme reminiscent of a scorching summer’s day, highlights the monotony and discomfort of the haulers’ daily lives. In comparing the final piece to the preparatory work, the composition becomes less chaotic and more static, making the figures appear as though they are the walking dead. Yet the critic Stasov looked towards the youngest figure and his stance in comparison to the other men in the composition. Through the straightening of his back and positioning of hands under the strap, as if about to be thrown off, he saw embryos of revolt against the quiet compliance of the older men as embodied by the fading figure at the rear of the procession. This is perhaps symbolic of hope for the next generation of lower-class workers realising the desperation of their situation and overthrowing their passive attitude that is holding them down. It is important to note however, the actual role that the academy played in this painting’s conception, actually being commissioned by the Tsar’s brother, the Grand Duke Vladimir Aleksadrovich. This highlights an irony at the heart of the painting as well as the movement, whose initial aims concerned rejecting the academy and evidences a subjectivity of the claims of critics such as Stasov that it was a painting strongly critical of Tsarist society, as they were invested from the start.

These critical realist pieces have played a major role in producing the present-day progressive conceptions of the Wanderers; however, these politically motivated canvases had strong nationalist links associated with more conservative factions. As mentioned previously, the Wanderer’s were influenced by the debates among the Intelligentsia before their conception. These intellectuals were also interested in a ‘search for a genuine expression of national spirit.’ Stasov was further important in this development among the Wanderers, as the hugely influential critic advocated a distinctive Russian school with a ‘well defined national character’ after the dismissive reception of Russian art at the III International Exhibition. This led to an increased emphasis and appreciation of Russian people and traditions as dissimilar from the West during the 1870s. The intelligentsia saw a need to move away from the centuries old traditions of Western idealism, and instead paint what was uniquely Russian, believing differences in national psyche were traceable to religion, with the classical Western church being poisoned with ‘rationalism and hubris’ whereas orthodoxy remained true to Christian ideals. Dostoevsky wrote in 1873 that ‘everything that is ours…is unintelligible to Europe.’ One of the key developments of this in terms of the art produced by the Wanderers was a new found interest depicting the peasant population, as Louis Edmond Duranty states, ‘Russian painters should link their future, not to the depiction of the shaven faces of Ancient Romans, but to the thick beards of Russian peasants.’ Peasants were seen as true Russians and the furthest away from Western European influence. This demonstrates how the claims to the aim of moving fine art away from the tenure of the aristocracy, as mentioned previously, who made up less than two percent of the population, compared to just under eighty percent peasant, had strong ulterior motives of nationalism and conservatism linked to it. Moreover, it is evident in the lack of naming of peasants in their portraits, such as Kramskoi’s Peasant With a Bridle, that the group had an interest in the peasant as a type of people and not as individuals, something that did not occur in portraits of famous figures in society such as Perov’s painting of the famous playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky.

This attention to peasants, it is interesting to note, came in tandem with similar developments across Europe. This testifies to a pan-European concern in the democratisation of the subjects of art and demonstrates how the claims of a distinctly national art, as advocated by Stasov, should be viewed with caution. Stasov in fact showed himself willing to do everything in his power to reduce the influence of the West on the Wanderers, this included keeping a watchful eye on Repin during his years studying abroad. Even publishing doctored versions of his letters showing an active aversion to Western artistic developments, when in fact Repin saw growing sympathy towards the aims and techniques of the modern French art. Repin’s work can actually be shown to evidence Western stimulus; for example, They Did Not Expect Him, (figure three) is painted illusionistically and is often sited as placing French influence over Russian subject matter. The light and bright room with sloppy lilac on the back walls, applied in a painterly manner, combined with the actual feature of a French door affirms these associations and puts doubts over Jacobs’ statement that Repin admired the impressionists for ‘their realism and not their technique.’ It is also not just the weighty critical genre paintings that allude to foreign influence, even the more conservative landscape painters of the group exhibit a keen interest in Western art, with a growing access to it within Russia from the 1860s onwards, which provided an important stimulus. For instance, Shishkin chose to spend his travels abroad in Düsseldorf following the nurturing of his interest in works by the Achenbach brothers among others. His painting, Pine Forest: Mast Timber in Vyatka Province (figure four) resembles Achenbach’s ‘stereoscopic relief,’ in enhancing the illusion of depth, which Shishkin so admired, through his feature of an immersive foreground with naturalistic detail. It is also in landscape painting where issues of technique over content are perhaps best demonstrated, due to the difficulty in conveying social messages. Blakesley states that the artists ‘advanced a painterly realm independent of any castigatory message,’ which was at times reactive to cultural prompts abroad. This is evident with the incorporation of plein air techniques that saw a ‘rendering of shadow by means of colour,’ demonstrating the reliance of colour on light. In this sense, these works can be seen as artistically progressive and the issue further highlights the network of interactions between Russian artists and Western European art.

Yet it can be argued that the landscape genre itself, no matter the level of foreign influence, reinforced the nationalist tendencies of the group’s output. These works in fact appealed to the more conservative in Russian society at the time and were bastions of national pride in the country’s vast and flat landscapes. Savrasov’s The Rooks Have Returned (figure five) is a perfect example of a Russian landscape, evoking the modest theme of the universal arrival of spring, a theme written into peasant folk law. The artist still employs a brighter and more emphatic use of colour to depict in a realist way the dirty snow and brown pond associated with the winter thaw. Through this and with reference to the small village and classically Russian onion domes visible in the background, the painting is seen as an authentic portrayal of Russia’s everyday beauty in a specific setting. In fact, Savrasov was an artist who stayed within Russia during his career, something that a minority of members did, with over half of the original associates completing at least twelve months abroad as part of their studies at the Academy. However, as Sarabyanov’s discusses, there were two peak periods of Russian Realist landscapes during the 1870s and 1890s and the latter phase saw a merging of genre and landscape as demonstrated best in Polenov’s work that ‘tinged landscapes with narrative.’ This enabled landscapes to carry the crucial questions of the day and demonstrates a re-emergence of critical themes even in more conservative subject matter. It is important not to underestimate the role that the state censor played in forcing artists onto a more conservative pathway in terms of radical subject matter. Not only did they face repercussions if a work was deemed too politicised, they also needed to get their works past the censor to make a living, which was after all one of the main motivations of the group and this may explain the amount of landscapes produced rather than an overt interest in nationalist sentiment.
It is evident that the concerns of the Wanderers and the political content of their work was greatly dependent upon their relationship with the Academy, itself an institution of Tsarist society. The rekindling of relations with the academy that occurred after the coronation of the pro-nationalist Tsar Aleksandr III had severe influence on the Wanderers in enhancing the prominence of more conservative concerns in their work. The new Tsar was keen to introduce a policy of Slavic revival that returned to the traditional handcrafts of the peasantry. Jacobs discusses the artist colony of Abramstevo, established by Savva Mamontov, a wealthy industrialist, and a place frequented by many members of the Wanderers, including Repin and Levitan. Here, concern lay in the protection of traditional arts and crafts from the impact of industrialisation on the peasant population. For example, a church built on the estate features traditional craftwork including a mosaic floor; there are also paintings alluding to traditional icons including one by Repin, here academic painters were doing the work of peasant craftsmen. Other such features of the estate include the ‘chicken-legged house’, alluding to the Russian folktale of the witch Baba Yaga. It is clear that attention had turned away from portraying the ills of contemporary society and this is evidenced by the work of Mikhail Nesterov such as The Vision of the Boy Bartholomew (figure six), which employs a real location and boy, but also an apparition in a mixture of real and fantasy. The influence of Byzantine and early Russian art is clear in his often symbolic work as they are highly decorative with a rough application of paint and pure colour making them appear as flat, as well as frequent stiff, unnatural poses of figures, similar to the religious icons produced in medieval Russia. Furthermore, the defection of key Wanderer’s members including Kramskoi and even Repin back into the academy under the new Tsar, highlights the changing ethos of members. This wavering of social commitment resulted in precedence of concerns of technique over content, something Stasov was vehemently against, in their later work, This includes Repin’s The Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a mocking letter to the Turkish Sultan 1671, (figure seven), which celebrates the traditional values of the artist’s Ukranian Cossack forbears. Its political inoffensiveness invited closer association with painterly and technical characteristics of the canvas, including such features as the employment of cut-off characters to ‘decrease the notion of finite space.’

In conclusion, aspects of seeming conflict regarding conservative and progressive issues do in fact dilute claims to the Wanderers being a cohesive school with consistent aims. The tangled issues of nationalism and conservatism that coincided with more progressive concerns in the Wanderer’s output, demonstrates that the Russian realist school was not the outcome of scrupulous theorising. I would argue that the artistic output of the group is largely reactionary to the fluctuating state of affairs within Russian society from their conception than possessing consistent aims throughout. The group’s work can be placed into three time periods centred around the revolutionary decade of 1874 to 1884 that saw a body of paintings highly critical of the state. It was during this time that the group’s associations with the academy were most disjointed and more progressive artistic concerns dominated. Yet, it is important to consider the exaggeration of their social commitment by Soviet historians as well as by Stasov among multiple aspects. After this revolutionary period, the dying down of politicised content in line with the societal change under the new Tsar Aleksandr III and the development of the Slavic Revival, led to an increased interest in Russia’s past in line with conservative interests. The statement by Miasoedov that ‘there were absolutely no humanitarian illusions or patriotic feelings in (their) foundation at all,’ highlights how these polar concerns were nothing to do with the original conception of the Wanderers, itself demonstrating the adaptation of their attentions. However, it does establish one consistent aim of the group in improving the status of the artist within Tsarist society, itself something that can be regarded as progressive. The fact that their initial concern lay in improving the market for their work also perhaps demonstrates the prominence of landscape paintings, rather than due to concerns of nationalist sentiment, as they were much easier to sell to Russian buyers.

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