The twenty-six (for the most part, stunning) paintings that make up Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky have traversed Europe and now hang spellbindingly in the their temporary London home. With work by some of the finest Russian artists from the second half of the nineteenth century up to the start of the first world war, these portraits feature some of the greatest and most celebrated of that country's cultural icons.
Russia is deeply proud of its artistic heritage a crew from the state-owned TV channel Russia 1 was at the press view – it is hard to imagine anyone from BBC News packing their bags to cover the reciprocal show, From Elizabeth to Victoria, when it opens in Moscow next month. Tatiana Karpova, Deputy Director of the Tretyakov remarked though that “this art belongs no only to Russia but to all humanity.” The idea that the subjects of the paintings and the geniuses who painted them were capable of uniquely deep insight is given extra weight by the low position of the canvases along the walls. From one to the next, their eyes meet directly with yours. This simple detail is a revelation.
Pavel Tretyakov, the merchant whose collection later became the eponymous gallery, greets visitors to the exhibition in a calm, almost shy portrait by the celebrated master Ilia Repin. He is shown amongst his artwork and Repin paints his patron very much the quiet connoisseur.
Tretyakov commissioned many of the works on display, perhaps most dramatically a portrait of the composer Modest Mussorgsky, painted as he lay dying in a Leningrad hospital. The ravages of decades-long alcoholism are plain to see in his translucent skin and dirty beard – he looks every inch the composer of his dark masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov. Repin knew Mussorgsky was dying and painted him accordingly, but the 1883 portrait of Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov which hangs next to it and has that composer's face loom like a spectre from the almost monochrome scene is all the more captivating now since Tchaikovsky's death later that year was so sudden.
The exhibition is a veritable who's who of Romanov Russia, with poets, musicians, writers and their patrons all on show. but it consciously stops short of the avant garde which became a defining artistic force in Russia after the 1917 revolution. One of the final paintings, though, seems to anticipate that time. Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya captures Akhmatova's sombre Roman profile against clouds which race kaleidoscopically across the canvas like the great poet's tragic verse. Prefigured in this portrait is the surreal charge which would come to preoccupy later Russian artists but the strength of this show is in the intensity, living and dying, of its gloriously real art.
|What||Russia and the Arts review: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, NPG|
|Where||National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Charing Cross (underground)|
17 Mar 16 – 26 Jun 16, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10.00 – 18.00 (Gallery closure commences at 17.50) Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10.00 – 21.00 (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm)
|Price||£6 / Concessions £5|
|Website||Click here for more details|