Over time, the meaning of Repin, the great Russian realist, has undergone substantial transformation. During modernism, art like that came across as total anachronism. The so-called peredvizhniks were played like broken record, Repin dominating the talk as Russian realism’s chief figurehead. Who wouldn’t know his masterpieces like Burlaks on the Volga, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, Ivan the Terrible and his Son, plus loads of portraits of Russian cultural greats. As top example of literary realism, I’d consider the painting They Did Not Expect Him: a man returns home from jail, his wife and children are taken aback.
In days past, Repin really did make me sick. However, time makes its corrections. In the middle of 1990ies, as I happened to visit Moscow, I decided – out of curiosity – to pay a visit to the newly renovated Tretyakov Gallery. All of a sudden I caught myself thinking that 19th century Russian realism was very interesting and thought provoking. The breath of Russia came across as most authentic in the works of Repin.
Let’s take the Burlaks on the Volga. Worn out, tired burlaks hoisting the barge, a lad with his head held high right in the centre of the composition. Here, many detect Repin’s faith in Russia’s future, even a prophecy of the coming revolution.
For Russian culture, Repin means as much as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. Many of those, he made a portrait of. He did also do representative portraits. However, the personalities he most valued and esteemed are pained as emphatic psychologism, such as the portrait of the great Finnish classic Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and Mussorgsky. Repin’s work was of striking variety.
He evidently was a deeply religious man, as conveyed by our painting of the boy with the icon (probably a copy), and portraits of various religious leaders. He did pictures on everyday life of peasants, as well as marvellous landscapes. Overall, Repin’s art is ambivalent. Next to sunny landscapes and idyllic scenes (such as Double portrait of Natalia Normann and Ilya Repin) one finds a fair share of dramaticism.
I’d also dare to question that matter of realism. Repin was, in no way, an academic realist. In 1863, the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts students rebelled, refusing to draw contest-paintings according to topics prescribed. A new approach towards painting was being born and Repin went along. Some paintings at the Kadriorg exhibition, however, border on impressionism. However, as we may read in his memoirs The Distant Near, while visiting Paris, he took a critical approach towards more modern art.
Perhaps we should explain, also, the large volume of Repin’s work at Helsinki’s Ateneum. Namely that Repin used to live in Koukkula Karjala (now: Repino), which, after the empire splintered, remained under Finland. The Soviet authorities made great efforts to lure the great classic back. However, Repin chose to stay in Finland. What’s more, he quite integrated in Finnish art life, also doing group portraits of Finnish greats – one of which features at out exhibition.
After World War II, Finns didn’t want much to do with the Russian artist. Neither did the Russians, considering him a traitor. Only in the 1990ies did Repin spring back to orbit. A symbol if integration it well may be, the roots of Repin’s two homelands meeting thus at Kadriorg.
The exhibition Repin. A Russian Master's Life and Work in Finlandmay be visited up to August 18th, in Kadriorg Art Museum.