Grigory Ostrovsky on Isaak Levitan

One of the most common notions of our lives has become the Levitanian Autumn: scarlet gold foliage of September, slender straight birch trees stood in thought upon the riverbanks, the freedom of Russian rivers, the villages slumbering at dusk.” Everyone recognises Levitan – both the supporters of the old style and its opponents, fans of Aivazovsky, Shishkin and others. The difference in tastes takes a back seat, and few people are indifferent to Levitan’s paintings. He lived a short life, scarcely forty years. He had a hungry orphaned youth, and his later life was meagre, inwardly tense, filled with unfulfilled hopes and bitter disappointments. It is no accident that the name of Levitan is usually associated with a mood of melancholy: autumnal decay, the evening twilight, tray and overcast days. ‘Autumn Day, Sokolniki’, ‘Evening. Golden Reach’, ‘At the pool’, ‘Vladimirka’, ‘Above Eternal Rest’ – these are characteristic of Levitan’s motifs.

Evening. (1877).

Autumn day. Sokolniki. (1879).

Evening. The Golden pool. (1889). (picture by 'lack of imagination')

At the whirlpool. (1892).

Above Eternal Rest. (1894).

Life didn’t ruin the artist, and his work organically enters into these sentiments, guided by his desire to capture and convey the depth of feeling and thoughts that exercised him and his generation. Russian nature and its incessant change, the attachment to one’s native land, and finally, man’s relation to nature – these are the essential contents of Levitan’s oeuvre. This was not a departure from reality; in the genre of the lyric landscape, Levitan remained at all times deeply personal and at the same time keenly sensitive to the trends and spiritual mores of his times.

Once – this was in 1892 when Levitan lived in Boldin, in the former province of Vladimir – the artist wandered about with a hunting rifle. Lost in the woods, he stumbled upon an unfamiliar road late in the evening. Towards the horizon it went, far into the distance, a wide, firmly trodden road. An old pilgrim woman trudged along the winding path, by the side was cross with an icon, and all around was the boundless valley, hillocks, mounds, shrubs, trees. Clouds stretched across the sky and hung over the hushed earth. This was the Vladimirka, the infamous road to Siberia, upon which for years and years were driven prisoners. How many of them would have walked upon this road of grief! It seemed as though human suffering had penetrated nature itself, forever colouring the unhappy deserted fields and the road cracked from the summer heat. As Alexey Tolstoy wrote in ‘The Convicts’:

The sun on the steppes in sinking
And gold in the distant grass.
The convicts' fetters are clinking
On the dusty road as they pass.

Returning home, the painter, filled with fresh impressions and from memory, sketched a study in the fading light of a paraffin lamp. On the following day, he returned to the road with a big canvas.

‘Vladimirka’ is a landscape that in all of its generic features and in its own sensibility is a truly historical picture. The artist was able to express a great social statement upon the landscape form, without resorting to overt explanation and commentary, and social and civil ideas merged with his own personal experiences and deep and anxious involvement with nature. Everything in the painting has an independent meaning and value: the leaden, dull sky, the solitary figure of the pilgrim; everything emphasises the emptiness of the road; but behind it all is a subtext, not a straightforward analogy but a complex and mediated association that results not just in understanding but also in an emotional experience of the painting. ‘Vladimirka’ portrays a broad image of unhappiness and grief among the people, a grief as endless and unbounded as that sky, that land, that road and its winding paths. At the same time, it is full of grandeur and epic scale, seething with huge, unspent force.

Nature in Levitan’s oeuvre is not a dispassionate object of art. She lives and breathes on his canvases, and in her one hears both grief and joy and philosophical reflections of the artist and his melancholy and his tranquil mind. In his landscapes, the image of a human is rare, but it is all the same invisibly present. Sometimes it is evident from the traces of his endeavours – village huts, bridges over the river, barges on the shore, a horse harnessed by the porch; but these are always his feelings and thoughts and impulses and experiences. With Levitan, there enters into Russian art the landscape of mood, by nature inspired, filled with a complex and rich inner life, responding to the spiritual demands of man.

March. (1895).

Take, for instance, ‘March’ (1895). With a free and easy brush, the artist conveys a state of awakening of nature, a fresh and moist air saturated with the breath of the warming earth, the spring sun, casting blue shadows on the darkening porous snow. The viewer not only sees but very nearly hears nature, filled with the sounds and rustlings of spring: the murmuring wind in the branches, the gently swaying treetops, the window shutter swung open into the sunlight, the door still swinging on its hinges after just having let in a visitor, the shiver of the horse harnessed to the low-slung sledge. So there you have an image of nature – not static or frozen, not ‘a stopped moment of beauty‘, but nature quivering, pulsing, filled with life. Levitan was able to see and enthusiastically, eagerly enjoy the magnificence of shining colours, the rapid brooks cutting their paths through the snowdrifts, the March sun heralding the arrival of spring, the play of light and shade in the birch forest, the expanses of the Volga beneath the bracing wind. In his hardest years, the artist remained true to the dream of joy and good fortune and of hopes for a life as free and lovely as this nature.

И.И. Левитан "Золотая осень", 1895 г.

Golden autumn. (1895). (picture by Irena T.)

Fresh breeze. Volga. (1895).

Spring. Big water. (1897).

Such pictures as ‘Fresh breeze’, ‘March’, ‘Spring – big water’, ‘Golden autumn’ and others are among the brightest and most life-affirming images of nature in Russian painting. But at the same time, the joy in Levitan’s art is special, with a Levitanian melancholy. “When you look at ‘Spring’ by Levitan,” wrote A. V. Lunacharsky, “her innermost mood captures you with a strange power: you feel a sweet sadness, a quiet cheeriness, which is almost inexplicable and which the sensitive soul feels in the spring; life is reborn with a sad smile, a number of thoughts quietly come to you by themselves, you feel that it’s good to be alive and to live is sad, and in this sad joy of life, restrained, almost sighing, it is as though everything is clear, not to the mind, but to the heart.

Levitan travelled in Crimea and Switzerland and Italy and Paris, but his thoughts were always given to Russia – Muscovy, the Volga, the primal Russian lands of Tver, Vladimir, Ryazan. From Nice on the Mediterranean coast, he wrote: “I can imagine how lovely it is at home now in Russia – the rivers have overflowed, everything is revived… There is no better country than Russia! Only in Russia can there be a real landscape artist…” And his last picture which he left not quite finished, Isaak Levitan named ‘Lake. Russia.’

Lake. Russia. (1900).

[This is an essay by Grigory Ostrovsky on Isaak Levitan, from the book titled ‘Essays on Russian Art’. I have (loosely, as usual) translated it.]

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