Day 10 – Ilya Repin, ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’, 1870-73, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.
Russia had the most wonderful artists in the 19th Century, and it surprises me a little that, although we are so familiar with the name ‘Tolstoy’, most of us have never even heard of the likes of Shishkin, Kramskoy or Repin. But words and dots are easy to reproduce, so novels can easily be exported across the world. Paintings can also move easily, I know (although, like us, they are stuck where they are for the time being), but the Russians took care to hold onto what they knew was good.
I was reminded of today’s painting, Ilya Repin's ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’, while I was writing yesterday, because the first time I saw it, in the company of the lovely Irina Polevaya, I realised it has some connection with Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ (#POTD 9). It’s not just that both show ships being towed: both paintings also use this as a metaphor for progress. Admittedly Turner’s is about making progress, while Repin’s shows a society failing to move forward, even if it does show the human will triumphing against great odds. It is about the failure to progress, although, like the ‘Temeraire’, it is not without optimism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Repin entered the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1863 just as some of the students were finding the academic training restrictive, and the proscribed subject matters they were assigned irrelevant. They broke away to form their own Society, much as Gustav Klimt and his Viennese contemporaries would do some three decades later. From 1870 they started organising exhibitions that would take art to the people in the provinces, and for this reason, they became known as ‘Peredvizhniki’ – ‘The Wanderers’. As well as Ilya Repin, the group included two Ivans, Kramskoi & Shishkin. The second image I’m showing you is a detail of the former’s superb portrait of the latter, partly because it allows me two for the price of one, but mainly because The Wanderers painted the best beards!
For more, and for the full painting - the format of which doesn't suit Insta - see my FB page, @drrichardstemp