Russian Winter in India

Print edition : April 09, 2010

Winter (done between 1895 and 1905), oil on canvas, by Yuly Yulievich Klever (1850-1924)-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT Winter (done between 1895 and 1905), oil on canvas, by Yuly Yulievich Klever (1850-1924)

The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, a city better known to our generation as Leningrad, was established in 1895 by a decree of Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor, and was first opened to visitors on March 19, 1898. This was just some 20 years before the Russian Revolution. The Soviet state not only preserved the wealth of the people but expanded it. Today, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the museum has a collection of 400,000 exhibits. The permanent exhibition is housed in the Mikhailovsky Palace and the Benois Wing, but the museum has grown to include the Stroganov Palace, the St. Michaels Palace and the Marble Palace in the complex that includes the Mikhailovsky Gardens, the Engineering Gardens, the Summer Palace and Gardens, and the House of Peter the Great.

This collection, which includes works from the 10th to the 20th centuries, can be said to be the most representative in the world. So an exhibition culled from it, which highlights Russian Winter and which will be shown in some 70 countries, with India as the first, is an important one. India was chosen to mark the visit of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the 45th anniversary of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in New Delhi, where the exhibition opened on March 12. It is on until April 4 and features works of Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

March (1971), oil on canvas, by Yury Ivanovich Penushkin (born 1935).-

For Indians, the Russian concern with snow and mountains is not unfamiliar as India was home to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and his son Svetoslav for over six decades. Nicholas works are being shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi from March 13 to April 11.

Caught in a Storm (second half of the 19th century), Oil on canvas, by Nikolai Egorovich Sverchkov (1818-1898).-

So one can see elements of what caught the elder Roerichs eye in the Himalayas: the light and shade and the hues of blue, red and yellow reflected in the snow in works such as Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatovs (1876-1945) oil on canvas Old Town (1911) and the serenity of the snowscape as in Igor Emmanuilovich Grabars (1871-1960) oil on canvas Clearing up (1928) and in Kirill Alexandrovich Gushchins (born 1932) oil on canvas Red Church (1966).

The familiarity, however, is not limited to Roerich alone. Firs Sergeyevich Zhuravlevs (1836-1901) oil on canvas Children Beggars (of the 1860s), which is part of the museum collection but not in this show, reminds one of the work of his Indian contemporary Raja Ravi Varma, who also painted a family of street minstrels in the early 1900s. Clearly, from the mid-19th century on, the depredations of the onward march of unfettered capitalism and the human price it exacted was becoming a matter of serious concern in art and literature, from Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, to Anton Chekov and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Later, writers such as Maxim Gorky, Lu Hsun, Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto carried it forward to the birth cry of the triumphant masses in turmoil in the struggle to free themselves from the shackles of imperial rule. It is no accident that Russia, China and India all got rid of their emperors. So this exhibition, in more senses than one, reflects our own life experience as well.

If the 19th century shocked the sedate sensibilities of the feudal mind at the doorsteps of its gods, as in Ivan Silych Goryushkin-Sorokopudovs (1873-1954) oil on canvas Boyar Arriving at a Monastery (1912), the 20th century had learned to become a more austere and determined observer-participant, as in Vasily Nikitich Kuchumovs (1888-1959) oil on canvas For Water (1942), which shows the inhabitants of Leningrad harvesting water from the frozen Neva river during the Second World War when the Russians paid a very high price in lives.

Shrovetide (1889), oil on canvas, by Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky (1885-1892).-

Sometimes, the time-tested symbols of state power, like the 1942 painting of the Kremlin clothed in the blue light of evening, also done during the War, in a gouache on paper by Mikhail Pavlovich Bobyshov (1885-1964), remind one that as long as states survive they share a certain commonality of the grim symbolism of power. But not without hope. This is evident in the oil on canvas March (1971) by Yury Ivanovich Penushkin (born 1935), where the blue-and-white expanse of snow in the foreground and the white barks of trees against a blue sky at the back frame a mud wall of ochre, orange and crimson that glows like a fire, reminding one of Shelleys verse: If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Winter in the Countryside (1910s), gouache, graphite and tempera on cardboard, by Alexei Stepanovich Stepanov (1858-1923).-

Indeed, the search for spring in the snowbound winter finds many moving images in this exhibition, but none as masterly as Start of Spring (1885), an oil on canvas by Ivan Ivanovich Endogurov (1861-1898) in which a flowing river gives depth and movement to the snowbound farmland against a sky tinted with a delicate pink, which bursts out from behind trees in burnt umber, almost setting the branches alight.

Boyar arriving at a Monastery (1912), oil on canvas, by Ivan Silych Goryushkin-Sorokopudov (1873-1954).-

But more than anything else, the stark presence of winter brings human endeavour to the forefront, reminding one of Shakespeares lines: Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York. Indeed, one can see this human intervention highlighted in works such as Boris Mikhailovich Kustodievs (1878-1927) Shrovetide Festivities (1919), an oil on canvas that reflects the joy, even in hard times, of a festival akin to Holi, in which a Russian version of Holika is burnt. In another work, Sergei Alexeyevich Luchishkins (1902-1989) oil on canvas Skiers (1926), we see how the masses of Russian people came through the struggles of the First World War and the years of revolution and foreign intervention to celebrate a new era. It seems a far cry from the struggle for survival portrayed in Fyodor Alexandrovich Vasilyevs (1850-1873) oil on canvas Thaw (1871), which reminds one that art too moves ahead with the history of human empowerment.

November, Little Porch (1905), tempera on cardboard, by Nikolai Vasilyevich Meshcherin (1864-1946).-

Perhaps, the most powerful image in this respect is Nikolai Efimovich Tinkovs (1912-1995) powerfully evocative oil on cardboard Silvery Day (1963). But it is not the shimmering expanse that catches the eye, but the small red figure on a pavement, to the right of the work. Even the mere shadow of the human presence, like footprints in the snow as in Grabars oil on canvas March (1939), is enough to give one a sense of hope in the hardest of times.

The celebration of human presence shares a common heritage both in Russia and in India. The snow may seem unfamiliar to us, but what makes the paintings memorable is the presence of human beings. And both Russians and Indians relate to that easily enough as they do to the struggles in the day-to-day lives of rural and urban working people and to the joy they unleash from inside themselves at festivals. Seeing this exhibition, one feels that the locations may be unfamiliar, but familiar sentiments permeate the works, reminding one once more that art is an activity close to the human condition and its images are understood beyond the borders of both language and time. The choice of an unfamiliar subject (barely 100 works of the whole collection are concerned with winter, of which 33 are exhibited), however, reminds one of our common human heritage.

Start of Spring (1885), oil on canvas, by Ivan Ivanovich Endogurov (1861-1898).-

The exhibition is a result of the curatorial effort of Evgenia Petrova, the Deputy Director of the Museum.

At the Mars field (1942), oil on canvas, by Vasily Nikitich Kuchumov (1888-1959).-

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