And We labour (1921-1922)
It is one of the six paintings of the Sancta series realized during the painter’s journey to the United States. Each painting depicts key points of the teaching of Saint Sergius of Radonezh (14th century), spiritual guide and inspirer of the Russian monks. In recreating scenes from the lives of the saints, Roerich shows us the beauty of the inner world of man and speaks to us in a pictorial language of the horizons of spiritual asceticism.
On a canvas filled with gilded light the monks descend toward the river to take water. Their assiduous work is simple but symbolic: physical action opens the way to spiritual development. A sinuous undulating river, curved silhouettes of monks and arched shoulder yokes find their echoes in the humped forms of the hills. The rhythm of these elements gives the painting a light and mysterious aspect, and evokes in the spectator a sense of harmony and calm attainable through daily work. Roerich’s metaphor is very simple: the true value of work lies in the moral and spiritual perfection of man. It is Roerich-philosopher who manifests himself through such paintings.
Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was one of the greatest figures of Russian culture of the twentieth century. Painter, philosopher, mystic, writer, explorer, archaeologist, public man. During his life, he made some 7,000 paintings and wrote about 30 volumes of literary works. Nicholas Roerich is the author and initiator of The Roerich Pact, founder of international cultural movements Pax Cultura and Banner of Peace, knight of several Russian and international decorations. From 1917, he lived abroad. He organized expeditions to the Central Asia and Manchuria, founded the Himalayan Urusvati Research Institute and more than a dozen cultural and educational organizations and associations in different countries. Beginning in the 1920s, Roerich museums and societies were created all over the world. Communities of supporters of his philosophical and religious doctrine Living Ethics (Agni-yoga) appear. Roerich’s ideas greatly influenced the establishment and development of the New Age movement in Russia.
The Rape of Europa (1910)
Valentin Serov is one of the most famous Russian portraitists. His first teacher was Karl Koepping in Munich; then for many years he was a student of the great Russian painter Ilya Repin. It was thanks to Repin that at only fifteen, Valentin Serov was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. At the age of 22 he created his famous Young Girl with Peaches and later became one of the most popular Russian artists. At the Salon of Rome in 1911 his paintings received the highest distinction, proof of artistic skills of the European scale. He died suddenly of heart attack at 46, leaving some two hundred inimitable works.
The Rape of Europa is one of Serov’s last paintings. This Greek myth was then very popular in the artistic milieu. Zeus fell in love with Europa, daughter of the Phoenician king Agenor, and presented himself before her as a bull. He tricked the princess into climbing onto his back and carried her away to the island of Crete where she became his wife. Three heroic sons were born of their union. Titian, Paolo Veronese, Rembrandt, Guido Reni, Claude Lorrain, Francois Boucher, Gustave Moreau, Francesco Albani, Nicolaes Berchem, Luca Giordano and many other artists found their inspiration in this myth.
The idea of this great painting was born during Serov’s journey to Greece in 1907. His realization of the scene of abduction nevertheless departs from academic canons: he uses a stylization characteristic of modernist aesthetics. The high skyline, the dynamism of the scene is emphasized by diagonal composition with silhouettes of the bull and slender dolphins, for even more movement. Waves, diving dolphins, Europa herself on the back of the enormous monster are depicted without too much detail, in a symbolic and highly decorative style. All colors are bright and saturated. Critics say that the choice of colors for the painting was greatly influenced by the ancient frescoes that Serov studied on the island of Crete.
Low Marks Again (1948-1949)
No citizen of the Soviet Union was unfamiliar with this painting by Fyodor Reshetnikov. It is true that the subject is closely related to school life, and therefore one day all Soviet pupils had to write a composition on the painting in their Russian language class. The painting even inspired a cartoon: Murzilka, an imaginary character, learns that the unhappy protagonist has received a bad grade for geography; they travel together on a journey to the North Pole, helped by a magical globe.
At first the artist wished to paint a good pupil. He went to a Moscow school in search of a model. As he attended a course, he sketched a demoralized boy, incapable of finding the solution to an uncomplicated problem. Thus emerged the idea of the painting. The scene was to take place at the school, with the boy and his teacher in the foreground. But the initial sketches seemed rather boring and Reshetnikov moved the scene into the typical atmosphere of a Soviet house. Thus was born this story of a bad pupil, ice skates in his satchel, his disappointed mother, his strict sister and the faithful dog who does not understand his master’s sadness. Reshetnikov had created an incredible number of sketches and studies. He was very attentive to detail, worked carefully on the characters’ expressions and structured the composition so as to render the scene sincere, lively and emotional.
Fyodor Reshetnikov (1906-1988), named the People’s Artist of the USSR, two-time winner of the Stalin Prize, knight of several decorations, was known for his academic works and portraits of his contemporaries. From a family of icon painter, an early orphan, he completed a school for young workers in the late 1920s (such schools were created at the dawn of the Soviet era to offer young workers access to schooling) and then graduated from the Higher Institute of Technical and Artistic Studies in Moscow. Known especially for his easel paintings, he also created excellent drawings and caricatures.
Daisies (years 1930)
Nicolai Fechin was born in 1881 in the Russian Empire and died in the United States in 1955. In Russia he is known as a brilliant representative of the Kazan school; in the United States he is considered a national American painter. He was a painter, graphic artist, sculptor and engraver who worked in impressionist and modernist styles.
The son of an engraver of Kazan’s iconostases, Fechin studied at the Repin Studio of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg and subsequently became director of the Kazan School of Fine Arts, which today bears his name. Having received strong academic training, Fechin early on developed his own style combining impeccable mastery of all artistic techniques and unique skills in the use of colors. He soon gained recognition in Europe: from 1910 until the beginning of the First World War his works were regularly exhibited at the salons of Rome, Munich, Venice and Amsterdam. Unable to accept the October Revolution, he immigrated to the United States in 1923. His first solo exhibition at the Chicago Institute of Fine Arts was a great success and attracted customers, marking the beginning of a long and fruitful artistic journey. He produced a total of more than two thousand paintings, which are currently in more than thirty museums and private collections.
His still life paintings are appreciated as much as his portraits, landscapes and genre scenes. Filled with light and contrasts, they impress the viewer with a flow of energy and lively emotions. Daisies, created in the 1930s are a fine example of this type of paintings.
Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876)
«And then the King of the Sea sent a tempest to drive away the ships of the celebrated merchant Sadko, and an offer of sacrifice was made to him. The famous merchant descended into the waves and was admitted to the underwater feast. The King of the Sea wished to give Sadko as his wife one of the beautiful princesses, but Sadko chose a simple girl. The merchant fell asleep after the big wedding feast and found himself waking up in his hometown of Novgorod.» Dating back to the 12th century, this ancient song about Sadko, a Novgorod merchant, is a fine example of popular Russian epic poetry that reached us from that distant time.
Ilya Repin (1844-1930), one of the leading representatives of Russian realism, selected the moment when Sadko on the order of the King of the Sea chose one of the princesses as his wife. Amazing beauties dressed in the best ethnic costumes of different countries appear out of the greenish waters to stroll before Sadko. The merchant, however, looks at a girl dressed in a Russian peasant’s dress, and who stands aloof. And all this is happening in the wonderful underwater world.
This mythology-inspired painting is quite unusual for the artist, known especially for his historical representations, portraits of contemporaries and scenes of Russian life from the late nineteenth – early twentieth century. Viktor Vasnetsov, a painter who later became famous for his canvases inspired by Russian folk tales, served as a model for Sadko’s character. Aspiring to absolute authenticity, Repin, an adept of realism, studied atlases of marine life and even went to visit the Aquarium in Berlin. However, the painting clearly displays elements of symbolism and a new artistic style. Later, it was this painting by Repin that inspired stage designers working on the eponymous opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
The painting was exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon in 1876, but without much success. At the same time, the painter became famous in Russia: it was thanks to this masterpiece that Ilya Repin received the title of Academician of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, where eighteen years later he was to direct the painting workshop and train Filipp Malyavin, Ivan Bilibin, Nicholas Fechin, Valentin Serov and many other great Russian painters.
The Comrades (1893)
Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940) is undoubtedly a remarkable representative of Russian genre painting of the late nineteenth – early twentieth century. And this is not only due to his indisputable talent, nor to his passion for the scarlet colors that fascinate the viewer. Malyavin was the only Russian painter who could feel and transmit a popular element untouched by civilization: the temperament, spontaneity, beauty and a childish side of the muzhiks and Russian women who made up the majority of the population at the turn of the century. The Comrades is an example of this type of painting.
Filipp Malyavin came from the peasant background and was a novice in the monastery on Mount Athos. A chance encounter with the sculptor Beklemichev, overwhelmed by his ecclesiastical paintings, changed the young man’s life. He was twenty-three years of age, without any training or money, but with an apparent talent. He was admitted as a free student at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. From the beginning it was the subjects of peasant life that interested him particularly. His final work, a representation of five peasant women in scarlet robes bursting with laughter, was rejected by the Academy’s Art Council as deprived of creative ideas, but applauded with enthusiasm by the general public at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. The Laughter caused a sensation, won the gold medal and was bought for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Venice. The French newspapers competed to compliment the force of the young painter’s temperament. Simple Russian peasants, scarlet and ardent colors, became his distinctive mark. His many canvases and drawings are mostly found in museums and private collections abroad.
Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power (around 1952)
Vladimir Serov (1910-1968) is a remarkable representative of socialist realism in painting, author of a series of paintings on Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), the leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the USSR.
A painter of great talent with a recognizable personal style, representative of the Leningrad school of painting, Serov received excellent academic education. He is famous mainly because of his paintings on historical and revolutionary subjects. His other works – landscapes, portraits and his beautiful illustrations of the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Nekrasov, although less well known, equally reflect the artist’s great talent.
Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power gained strong recognition in the Soviet Union and became one of Serov’s major works. It was for this painting that the artist obtained the Stalin Prize in 1948. Critics noted that the painting demonstrated the unity of the leader of the Russian revolution and the people, the unfailing link between the people and the party. Lenin, at the rostrum of the Second Congress of the Soviets of Russia, proclaims to the people the victory of the socialist revolution. His speech provoked strong emotions in the hearts of soldiers, sailors and peasants gathered in the Smolny Institute. The Second Congress of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Russia was held in Saint Petersburg on October 25, 1917. It was then that Russia was proclaimed the Soviet Republic of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, and the program of soviet power was elaborated.
Serov created the first version in 1947. Among the members of the first Soviet government he depicted Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yakov Sverdlov. Later, after Stalin’s death and the condemnation of his policy, the painter created a second version, replacing the disgraced leaders with workers and soldiers.
The Legendary Heroes (1881-1898)
The Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) put almost thirty years of his life to create this masterpiece. The three bogatyrs, the great heroes of the folk poems, protectors and guardians of the Russian people – Ilya Mouromets, Alyosha Popovich and Dobrynya Nikitich – stopped in the middle of a field on the confines of the Russian lands.
It is Ilya Mouromets who is at the center. Powerful and vigorous, this bogatyr is so strong that he does not seem to feel the weight of the heavy club hanging from his hand lifted to his forehead. He miraculously combines this remarkable strength with greatness of soul and generosity of heart. Ilya Mouromets is a historical figure and the folk poems that sing his extraordinary exploits reflect a very real life. He later became a monk in the Kiev Monastery of the Caves and is today an Orthodox saint. Ivan Petrov, a simple peasant, a tall and strong man with an open and generous heart, served Vasnetsov as a model for Ilya Mouromets.
On the right hand of Ilya we see the valiant Dobrynya Nikitich. Always ready to protect his native land, he holds a sword half out of his scabbard. His chest exhibits a golden cross. Thus the painter reminds us that there is a connection between this hero and a legendary warlord of the army of Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev who had brought the Christian religion into the Russian lands. The image of Dobrynya is a composite representation of the Vasnetsov family: the painter himself, his uncle and his brother. It is not by chance that art experts have pointed out the resemblance between this bogatyr and the artist.
Alyosha Popovich is the younger of the bogatyrs. He is an elegant young man, brave and skillful, capable of defeating his enemies by force, intelligence, and sometimes even by cunning. Sergei Mamontov, the son of the industrialist and patron Savva Mamontov, who had done much to support Russian art and artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lent his image to Alyosha. The painter was able to reflect the serene and friendly character of Sergei on the canvas.
At any time every bogatyr is ready to defend his native land and the weak. The helmets on the heroes’ heads resemble the domes of Orthodox churches and symbolize the rightfulness of their cause and their exploits realized for the good of the people. The heroes epitomize the best qualities of which the Russians are proud: courage, spiritual power and love for the country.
The Flying Carpet (1880)
Viktor Vasnetsov is one of the most famous Russian painters of the late nineteenth – early twentieth century. He was the first to find his inspiration in folk and mythological subjects, convinced that «fairy tales, songs of gesture, legends, dramas etc. reflect the people in their entirety, their appearances and aspirations, their past, their present and, who knows, perhaps their future.»
Vasnetsov imagined the flying carpet from a popular fairy tale as an enormous bird with the back curved upward and the wings wide open. Ivan Tsarevich returns on this flying carpet from his daring journey to the end of the world and brings back with him the magical firebird capable of fulfilling wishes.
The canvas was initially commissioned to Vasnetsov by Savva Mamontov, a great industrialist and patron who contributed enormously to the development of Russian art, architecture and theater at the end of the 19th century. Various artists stayed and worked for long periods in the house of Mamontov, who often helped them and supported them financially.
Created in 1880, the painting is astonishingly persuasive. It is the incarnation of the irresistible human desire to fly, create and conquer. The Flying Carpet is the first of Vasnetsov’s paintings with mythological subjects. The artist, then aged 30, chose a subject hitherto unimaginable in art, undertaking to express the dream of free flight and giving his work poetic connotations. The canvas caused much debate and made its author famous. Vasnetsov was the founder of the so-called particular «Russian style» within Pan-European symbolism and modernism. The artist transformed Russian historical painting, combining medieval subjects with the moving atmosphere of poetic fairy tales. The same principles of «Russian style» were applied by Vasnetsov in architecture and design: the Church of the Holy Face in Abramtsevo (1881 – 1882) and the facade of the famous Tretyakov Gallery (1906) were designed based on his drawings and are reminiscent of ancient Russian art. But the culmination in the monumental and decorative work of the artist is the frescoes of the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir of Kiev (1885 – 1896) in Ukraine. There, Vasnetsov set himself the goal of renewing the traditions of the Byzantine icon by introducing lyrical and personal notes.
Viktor Vasnetsov, a painter of extraordinary talent, became famous thanks to his series of paintings inspired by Russian folk tales. The illustration for the tale Sister Alionushka and Brother Ivanushka, created in 1881, is a vivid example.
Who among us, when we were young, did not listen, moved, to the story of this courageous young girl in search of her little brother, undeterred by the length of her journey, the impenetrable forest and the wicked witch? It is perhaps the reason why Alionushka became one of the most recognizable and popular Russian paintings of the nineteenth century. The painter surprised her at the moment when, exhausted after her long and vain searches, she sat down for a moment of repose. It seems that all nature around has immobilized to preserve the tranquility of this brief moment. It is impossible to remain unmoved in front of this painting, which reflects the sadness and weariness of this girl with an incredible sensibility and technique. Alionushka sits at the water’s edge in her old dress, disheveled, barefoot, while thinking about the fate of her brother Ivanushka. Swallows above his head bear hope – they are harbingers of a happy ending for this sad story of brother and sister. The realism of the girl and the surrounding nature gives an impression that it is enough to take a step to meet her, smell the lake and engage in a conversation. It stands to reason that this canvas is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian art.
Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) was a painter and architect specializing in historical and mythological representations. He was born in the village of Lopyal in the province of Vyatka, in the family of an Orthodox priest. After finishing his studies in the small seminary of Vyatka he entered the ecclesiastical seminary in the same city. With the blessing of his father he abandoned the seminary before the beginning of his last year, and went to St. Petersburg to study at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. At the age of 21 he began to exhibit his paintings, first at the Academy, then at the exhibition of Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers).
Alionushka is a painting in which Vasnetsov was able to most fully and soulfully embody the lyrical poetry of his native people. «It seemed as if Alionushka lived inside my head for a long time, the artist later said, but really I saw her when I came across a young girl with disheveled hair who instantly captured my imagination. There was so much grief, loneliness and Russian melancholy in her eyes… Somehow she simply embodied the Russian soul.»
The Swan Princess (1900)
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) is one of the most mystical and romantic Russian painters.
He began his artistic career as an adult and cultivated man. He soon gained success, yet he had little need of glory. What interested him was the creative process, the moment of artistic inspiration. Vrubel was among the very first Russian artists to embark on the path of symbolism, he may be considered the founding father of the modern Russian style. He brought a new type of artist into the cultural life of Russia – that of a universal artist. Vrubel painted large panels, and cathedral walls, created stained-glass artworks, painted illustrations and ex-libris, imagined theatrical decorations, studied applied arts, sculpture and architecture.
The Swan Princess is the result of the painter’s work on the set for the musical show inspired by Tsar Saltan’s Story, a poem by Alexander Pushkin, which premiered at the private opera of Savva Mamontov, a famous patron of the arts. Vrubel was hired to create sets and costume sketches, while his wife, singer Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, sang the part of the Princess.
Of all the characters it is The Swan Princess, the mysterious woman-bird that particularly interested the artist. Hot and cold, water and air, light and dark – this natural dualism attracted the attention of the painter. The magic character, the combinations of incompatible elements became his main messages. He knew how to capture the essence of the magic moment, that of transformation. Look carefully at the face of the Princess: her large expressive eyes already display avian traits; her lips are about to turn into the beak. The silk and the feathers of the clothes are masterfully painted. Many poets admired the painting, and the painter’s colleagues studied it seriously in order to understand the secret of the mother-of-pearl texture, the imperceptible movements and the mixture of colors.
It is said that it was the wife of the painter who served as a model for The Swan Princess. They met for the first time at the opera. Contemporaries said that her voice was «incomparable, very homogeneous, light, soft as a flute and full of colors». The artist, enchanted, found her backstage. Thus began a love story, which was one of the most romantic and tragic in Russian art. Fifteen years later, suffering from an atrocious mental illness, during moments of lucidity he wrote to his wife in his last letters: «My beautiful, my treasure, idol, mia farfalla, allodola». However, it is very likely that the face of the Princess is actually a combination of real and mythical traits, coming from the memory, imagination and talent of the great Russian painter.
And We Are Not Afraid (1922)
A conversation of two monks, an inoffensive bear who listens attentively to solemn speeches of the serene old men. This reminds us of a well-known episode in the life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh who tamed a bear during his lonely ascetic life in the forest. This is the idea of universal greatness, of the primordial unity of all living beings. Delicate shades of pink fill the evening sky. And even dark shadows on the horizon will not interrupt the peaceful conversation of the monks. The calm and spiritual connection with the Higher Forces can protect a pure man from all evil – that is what the philosopher and the mystic Roerich tells us through this painting of the Sancta series.
Pavel Belikov, a great connoisseur of the life and work of Roerich and his biographer, wrote:
«In these paintings Roerich recreated with masterly hand the nature of his country that he cherished, and ancient Russian architecture. They serve as background for the scenes of life of Russian ascetic monks. Their simple labor and the purity of their souls are rendered so sincere that even now, decades after their creation, they never cease to stir emotions in the spectator.»
Artist, philosopher, traveler and writer, Roerich left an important spiritual heritage. At the beginning of the twentieth century he gave a clear definition of the concept of culture and launched the idea of an international treaty to protect it. This treaty, known as the Roerich Pact, served as the basis for UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention. Roerich’s concept of culture brings together the greatest achievements of human genius in religious experience, science, art and education. He is the Russian philosopher who formulated the main difference between culture and civilization: while culture touches on the spiritual world of the individual, expressed in his creative actions, civilization remains the external organization of human life in its material and civil aspects. If we assimilate civilization to culture, we risk underestimating the human factor in the development of humanity, Roerich emphasized. «Wealth alone is not the bearer of culture. Yet the widening and sharpening of mental activity, the sense of beauty, give the refinement and nobility of mind that are peculiar to the cultivated man. And it is this man who is capable of building the future for his country», Roerich wrote in 1928.
Gagarin (With God!) (2011)
The expression «With God!» have long lost its religious connotation in the common Russian language. It is a simple wish of good luck. Making a skillful use of traditional iconographic techniques and juggling with meanings of the words of his mother tongue to reconstruct broken semantic links, Anatoly Gankevich realized the portrait of the first cosmonaut. Gankevich’s Gagarin is an icon, a saint. The halo around his head, his gesture of blessing, and the geometrical shapes of his clothes are all symbols peculiar to the pictorial language of religious paintings. The Gagarin of Gankevich is the first man who has conquered space, a legend for an entire generation, a kind of religious fetish, and a mythological hero.
This Soviet icon takes us back to the artistic aestheticism of the thirties of the last century. Imitation of mosaic, Deyneka’s grandiloquence, and happy and smiling faces – Gankevich’s style echoes the mosaics of the Moscow metro, the great utopian monuments of the USSR’s National Economy Exposition, and the Soviet posters. By playing with styles and time, the painter has broadened the limitations imposed by the subject and created his own artistic world filled with colors.
Anatoly Gankevich was born in Odessa in 1965. He attended classes at the National Center for Modern Art in Moscow and took private painting lessons. He started as a painter in 1990. He lives and works in Odessa and Moscow.