Alexandra Tolstoy

Russian Landscape in the age of Tolstoy

Throughout his life Tolstoy entertained a profound interest in the significance of the visual arts. At the end of the nineteenth century he published his celebrated essay 'What is art?', in which he sought to provide broad rulings applicable to all artistic productions, by reference to which it would be possible to establish whether a particular work belongs to the realm of art or not. Tolstoy began by condemning all previous aesthetic definitions of beauty, on the grounds that 'people will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, that is to say, pleasure…'

He went on to develop his own definition, which comprised three principal factors. The first of these is the transmission of feelings: '…it is on this capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling and to experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.' Next came form: however individual or sincere the feelings of the artist, his capacity to influence depends on the clarity of his expression. Finally, and most importantly, art 'should be universal, and therefore it should unite all men. And only two kinds of feeling unite all men: first, feelings flowing from a perception of our sonship to God and of the brotherhood of man; and next, the simple feelings of common life accessible to everyone without exception…' Having established his own definition of art, Tolstoy characteristically dismissed most of his contemporaries for failing to meet his criteria. He was particularly critical of painters, asserting that it was equally difficult to find topics of universal appeal in their works as Christian feelings of love of God and one's neighbour.

It is surely hard to accept this argument in toto. The Russian painters of the nineteenth century created vivid images of vast landscapes of which the outside world had hitherto been unaware. Furthermore they are replete with man's love for God, and related truths of deep concern to Tolstoy. It is not necessary to have travelled to Siberia to comprehend the infinite and impenetrable nature of the taiga from Shishkin's masterful paintings of woodland scenes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau painted prose portraits of landscapes in order to draw urban dwellers back to an awareness of nature, and censured such people for the thoughtless greed which even then was beginning to endanger the natural world. Shishkin in contrast suggests that the Russian landscape is too vast for human comprehension. The power of Shishkin's representations comes from a combination of monumental expansiveness and meticulous skill in rendering of detail. Shishkin's contemporaries, Isaak Levitan, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Mikhail Nesterov, and Alexei Savrasov - to name but a few - similarly reveal the sublime eternal qualities of nature in the Russian landscape.

Savrasov's painting The Rooks Have Returned creates a poetic yet realistic view of an unremarkable village at the end of winter: trees budding, snow melting and beginning to reveal the warm earth beneath, rooks returning to their gaunt deserted nests. From such prosaic material Savrasov fashions an image of arresting beauty and meaning: the spring thaw, the end of the unimaginably long dark harsh, Russian winters, the awakening of nature and human activity, so eagerly anticipated and celebrated in folk culture.

It is immediately apparent that in the nineteenth century the Russian landscape was portrayed in a manner quite different from that prevalent in Western and Central European painting. A view of Russia is provided which transcends the physical landscape, immeasurably grandiose as it is. The works of the great Russian painters of Tolstoy's time make manifest the deepest feelings of the Russian soul: the nostalgia, indefinable longing, and intimate involvement with the alternately severe, grandiose, and lyrical Russian landscape that has exercised such a profound influence on its inhabitants and their culture. It is an engagement that people in the West recognise principally from Russian literature, through the works of Turgenev, Chekhov, and Tolstoy for example, and in Russian music from composers like Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Musorgsky. Although pen-portraits undoubtedly achieve a great impact, it is one much more immediate and real to those who are familiar with the landscape than to those who are not. Painting in contrast possesses power to convey a much more universally accessible impression, and an uninitiated viewer will understand much of Russia and her character through the Russian Landscape exhibition.

Landscape has always played a crucial role in Russian culture. An overwhelmingly rural and widely uninhabited land, encompassing great mountain ranges, immeasurable steppe land, forests measureless as Mirkwood, gigantic rivers arising from arid deserts meandering through the featureless expanse of the taiga to disappear in the frozen Arctic or disgorge themselves into seas as disparate as the Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific: nature, the land, and its people - an idea emotively encapsulated in the word rodina ('motherland') - are concepts which permeate the Russian psyche and the arts that give it expression.

Landscape painting in Russia became a popular genre in which artists excelled. Academic tradition laid emphasis on picturesque but idealised portrayal, and students regularly based their representation of natural phenomena on studies of the Old Masters, the Italians in particular. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, there was a major shift towards increasing naturalism in landscape painting. It was at this time that the great debate was opening up in Russia between the Westernisers and Slavophiles. The Westernisers were convinced that Russia's destiny lay in adopting liberal western models of government, while the Slavophiles held that indigenous tradition provided the natural basis for the country's evolution. These questions were aired most influentially in literary works such as Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and the writings of Dostoevsky, but also permeated the artistic world. Realism in landscape painting became increasingly popular, evoking pride in Russia's hitherto neglected native scenery, and asserting her cultural independence of Europe.

Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album played a particularly significant role in the development of realistic painting. Turgenev showed that peasants and serfs were individuals in their own right as much as their social superiors, offering writers and artists an entirely fresh range of topics for depiction. Now that Turgenev had demonstrated that the Russian countryside was an appropriate topic for artistic representation, and that the peasantry and the natural setting in which they lived and worked could be portrayed without either idealising them or adopting a dangerously propagandistic approach, there arose a consequent burgeoning of peasant portraits, while his prose descriptions of the landscape were equally inspirational. Artists became eager to bring the often bare, barren and inimical landscape to the attention of the social elite and urban society generally. In this way society was made aware of the extraordinary spiritual wealth of their colossal Empire. Deep in the Russian consciousness lies the conviction that this forbidding climate, the poverty of the soil, the social stresses - even the coarseness and alcoholism, repugnant as they are - represent in reality well-springs of the resilience, energy and spirituality of the Russian people.

Feodor Vasilev's painting, The Thaw, shows a miserable izba, or cottage, a peasant with his child, and a few rooks set in a broad, dully overcast landscape. Yet there is present also a feeling of spiritual regeneration and hope as the child lifts its arm towards the birds. It is clear that, despite their harsh surroundings and utter isolation from the rest of the world, these simple people feel the Christian brotherhood of man of which Tolstoy writes. The Little Fox, perhaps the most moving painting of the exhibition, shows three monks, wearing bast shoes, sitting on the edge of a lake, enthralled by a fox that has approached bravely close to them. It displays at once the simplicity and profound mysticism of the Russian people, and their close relationship with nature and God.

We have to thank Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov for many of these paintings. A wealthy Moscow merchant who lived during the second half of the nineteenth century, he was the greatest collector ever of Russian paintings. In 1892 he presented his entire collection to Moscow, since when they have been housed in one of the greatest museums in the world, the Tretyakov Gallery. Tretyakov supported the movement of Russian landscape painting, preferring works that depicted his native countryside, and sponsoring young and unknown painters, who would go on to become amongst Russian's greatest and most famous artists. Without his discernment, much of the richness of Russia's culture would either have perished, or never come into existence.

Largely as a consequence of the Soviet policy of cultural isolation, Russian painting is insufficiently appreciated in the West. The Russian Landscape exhibition goes far towards reversing this tendency.