Pen Shows Up Sword at Tretyakov

Tretyakov GalleryThe works on display include studies, sketches, book illustrations and more, all united by their singular medium.
Every painting, before acquiring its array of colors and fleshed-out shapes, begins as a skeleton of its future self as a drawing. Surveying the walls of most art galleries, these beginnings are nowhere to be found, but for the next five months at the Tretyakov, they get an entire wing for an exhibition titled "Mastery of the Pen," which features over 300 sketches, studies, travel-sketchbook snippets and other ink-drawn works by Russia's artistic greats.

Drawing on their vast archives, the Tretyakov Gallery makes clear that although rarely displayed, artistic labors of the pen by the country's artists have been accumulating for centuries.

"Pen drawing showed up in Russia around the 18th century, and from that time on it was ceaseless," said Yevgenia Iliukhina, curator of the exhibition. "The pen was constantly the instrument of artists when traveling and during special expeditions they were sent on."

The illustrious list of artists with works on show proves Iliukhina's words not to be exaggerated: acclaimed Cubo-Futurist Natalia Goncharova, realist Ilya Repin and even the man who made a black square into art, Vassily Kandinsky, all have products of their visual brainstorming included in the exhibition.


Tretyakov Gallery
Shchedrin's 1799 "Landscape with Ruins" is laden with intricate detailing.
The contributions from the avant-garde set are preceded, however, by those from much earlier wielders of the pen. Ample space is provided, for instance, for works by Semyon Shchedrin (1745-1804), a representative of a time when pen drawing was attached to the severe lines and tranquil harmony of Classicism. The way ink was harnessed by fellow 19th-century master Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), the outstanding exponent of Symbolism in Russia, also features in the show, perhaps most prominently in an illustration for Lev Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" that depicts Anna meeting with her son.

"In the 19th century, pen drawing was actively used in illustrations, while in the second half of the century it was intimately connected to text in newspapers," said Iliukhina.

The real valuables fished out of the Tretyakov vault, though, are the many avant-garde works on display. Futurism, for instance, appears in ink with illustrations by Ilya Larionov, such as one from 1920 that accompanies Aleksander Blok's poem "The Twelve." "Crack -- crack -- crack! / ... So they march with sovereign tread ... / Behind them limps the hungry dog, / and wrapped in wild snow at their head / carrying a blood-red flag," wrote Blok. And there in Larionov's image is the vividly drawn little dog, marching with the privates.

After the works by other masters of the early 20th century, the kaleidoscopic palette of Kandinsky appears. Alongside three other works, his "Dami v Krinolinakh," or "Ladies in Petticoats," stands out in particular, with its bright Fauvist-inspired pastels that take the shapes of hills, parasols, little houses and palms, making the environment his women inhabit more closely resemble a tropical Latin American retreat than the temperate climes of Russia, Germany or France, where Kandinsky spent his life.

"Mastery of the Pen" is the latest in a series organized by the Tretyakov that exhibits rarely seen specimens from their extensive, and mostly hidden, collection. Early November saw the close of "The Magic of Watercolors," and following the close of "Mastery of the Pen" in April of next year will be a show devoted to works in pencil, charcoal and sepia. Each six-month segment, limited in time because of the delicacy of the graphics' materials, gives the public the rare chance to check out unpublished works, some of which are unknown even to experts.

"Mastery of the Pen" runs until April 12, 2009 at the Tretyakov Gallery: 10/12 Lavrushinsky Pereulok. M. Tretyakovskaya. 951-1362. www.tretyakovgallery.ru.