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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tretyakov Celebrates Ilya Repin's Masterworks

"Ilya Repin," observed Alexander Benois, in awe of one of Russia's foremost realist painters, "could be compared to Velazquez or Rembrandt. He was a genius in the World Parnassus."

The genius that the Russian artist Benois so admired is now the focus of a vast exhibit at the New Tretyakov Gallery, which is marking the 150th year since Repin's birth. The display includes works from 20 museums in Russia and Ukraine as well as from foreign private collections. Among Repin's well-known canvases are works from Finnish collections that have never been shown before in Russia, as well as a wealth of archival material drawn from the artist's life.

The exhibit reveals the great variety of Repin's palette and displays the range of his themes over a long career that ended with his death in 1930.

Repin was born in Chuguyev in the Ukraine in 1844. He began studying art at an early age and in 1864 was admitted to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. When he graduated in 1870 he presented "The Resurrection of Iair's Daughter," a monumental religious painting-- on view in the current exhibit -- that demonstrated his consummate skill as a realist painter and his mastery of academic subjects. It also won him a gold medal and a grant that took him to Europe. At the same time he also completed the "Barge Haulers on the Volga," also given prominent display in the exhibit.

Repin became a central figure in the Wanderers, or Itinerants, a society of painters including Ivan Kramskoi and Isaac Levitan that in 1870 broke away from the Academy of Arts. Their revolt was in reaction to academic art requiring strict adherence to academic rules in painting and treatment of only religious, historical and classical themes executed according to strict aesthetic conventions. The Wanderers sought to establish a "democratic" art movement that would appeal not only to an elite class of intellectuals and educated aristocrats, but would also have meaning for the "common people." The creed of the Wanderers was to represent scenes of the people in contexts that they could comprehend, replacing aesthetic considerations with ones of content. They were then to be shown in exhibits all over the country as part of the Society of Traveling Art Exhibitions, hence the name of the art movement.

Though narratives from Russian history occupy a large part of Repin's oeuvre, he treats them in a way faithful to the principles of the Wanderers. The depiction of the Tsarina Sofia in "Tsarina Sofia Alexeyeva a Year After She Was Banished to the Novodevichy Monastery" is more of an unflinching study of her emotional reaction upon learning that she must spend the rest of her life in a monastery for her betrayal of her brother Peter the Great than a mere rendering of a significant event in Russian history.

Likewise, "The Procession in Kursk Guberniya," Repin's famous portrayal of a religious procession in Kursk, is not so much an account of an event as it is a portrait of the people -- the exalted and the lowly -- who are involved in it. "The Procession" shows a multitude emerging from the horizon. The throngs in the background give way to a cast of characters in the front who are painted in arresting detail -- from the harsh faces of men keeping order, to the haughtiness of a wealthy woman at the head of the procession, to the serene determination of a poor hunchback boy who is being kept from limping too close to the respectable folk. There are also many fine sketches and studies of the various figures.

It was this kind of critical social commentary that made Repin a controversial figure.

"They Did Not Expect Him," painted between 1884 and 1888, after the Wanderers disbanded, is, like "The Procession," imbued with narrative meaning: The painting depicts the unexpected and tragic return of a political prisoner to his family.

Repin's portraits of celebrated Russian intellectuals are not necessarily flattering in their candor and register dramatic expressions with an unrelenting, often somber, palette. The portrait of Mussorgsky, considered by many critics as Repin's greatest, and painted in a mere three days, presents the composer's dissipation frankly and convincingly, though the composer's gaze remains sober.

Toward the end of the century, the Wanderers became less of a significant force when their work degenerated into the realm of decorative arts, appealing more to the philistinism of the bourgeoisie than to those for whom it was originally intended.

After Repin broke away from the Wanderers, he became a professor at the academy and explored various different, if not unusual styles, producing works such as the oddly composed "What a Great Expanse!" which shows two people standing in a wave in the sea.

Repin's later works are featured in the exhibit, and include "The Coronation of Nicholas II," from a private collection in New York, as well as "The Duel," also from a private collection and completed in 1897, after the artist had a stroke.

Repin retired to Finland toward the end of his life. There are innumerable paintings included in the exhibit from that period. Their style is considerably different though still realist, and executed with less sharpness in detail after his stroke, which forced him to paint exclusively with his left hand.

The exhibit of Repin's works is complete except for two notable omissions: "Ivan the Terrible and His Son on November 16, 1581" showing the tsar with his son that he has just killed in his arms, and "The Zaporozhians Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan," both of which were deemed too valuable to transport from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. There are, however, smaller versions of both paintings as well as some preliminary sketches.

The Repin exhibit can be seen at the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krimsky Val until Dec. 15. The museum is open from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M every day except Monday. Tel: 230-1116. Nearest Metros: Park Kultury, Oktyabrskaya.