[Loosely translated excerpts from Diana Machulina’s ‘To the Free Arts‘, at Polit.ru. June 30, 2012.]
In 2006, there was an exhibition at the Tretyakov of works by Whistler, and everybody said that he had had an enormous impact on Russian art between the 19th and early 20th centuries – and, for comparison, there were also exhibits by our own classic artists. Having looked and compared, I joyously confirmed that Whistler’s greying, muted and decadent art wasn’t all that similar to ours – rich, dense, dashing and often very daring Russian painters. There’s a similar story with Korovin that he had been largely inspired by French impressionist, as though he were merely derivative.
But in the biggest ever exhibition of Konstantin Korovin’s work at the State Tretyakov Gallery (till 12 August 2012), it is evident that this is completely untrue. Here you have his earliest works, executed when the ideas of the Wanderers were strong: where they had subjects, he was all about impressions. ‘Bad luck’ (1896) is an expressive example – a fellow stands in the midst of a swamp, in a fog, with a sadly lowered gun – he has missed. But the chief idea here is not the story of the hunt, but the scarcely visible trail of tray smoke from the muzzle. In the painting ‘At the baths’ (1890), where another might have concentrated on the voluptuous body of the bather, Korovin’s main intent is the background flicker of the green lake in the evening, and the bright shout of the red bathing cap on the head of the girl.
The paintings of this period are still somewhat timid – the face of the singer Lyubatovich is painted uncertainly; evidently, he was restraining himself; yet how he infused life into the fresh reflections of the summer light through the window on her skirt and on the two small shoes and patterned banquette on which she has placed her feet. It is difficult to gaze at her face, the attention wanting to wander to the greenery outside the window, or to her feet. But there is a sensibility of the era: not to look alone at each another but rather to look together at something else and enjoy the resulting understanding. And later, in other portraits, when Korovin stops thinking about the picture, when he forgets what things ought to resemble, then the faces manifest themselves from the same pictorial matter as everything else.
Arguments about whether drawings are primary or impressions can appear old-fashioned, but this is a natural declaration of the autonomy of art, that it arises not from contempt of the surrounding world but on the contrary from joie de vivre. To this day this is felt – it’s not Korovin’s subjects that excite, but what they don’t appear as, or rather what they don’t resemble at all. I overheard a conversation at the exhibition: a young woman admired the fact that as she approached the painting all she could see were crazy brushstrokes, but if she stepped back, everything became clear. A young man agreed with her: ‘Yes, it is an optical illusion – we love it when we are fooled.’
But we don’t really like it when we are given the truth: the two original set decorations of Korovin for the ‘Golden Cockerel’ from the collection of the Bakhrushin Museum appear to everyone as somewhat rough and dirty. Few people can appreciate that this may be the only chance to consider so closely how stage scenery was constructed, and also how it appeared to the workers in the theatre. The rules of contemporary theatre design cannot be applied to those of the past, and likewise, the sets of the time can hardly be judged by the rules of easel painting. When Korovin became the chief designer of the Imperial theatres, there was considerable criticism of the luxurious sets from both the newspapers as well as the Treasurer of the Imperial court, who also wanted to find fault, and was surprised to find that the new productions cost four times less than previous ones. The sets appeared magnificent from a distance – this was only one component of the finished dish, where the process of its production may not have been quite as attractive. It is necessary to switch on one’s imagination and imagine how magically the shadows between the sets continued into the painted shadows, and how it all blended with the music and light…
With respect to the monumental series on the Far North, made for the Nizhny Novgorod Fair and commissioned by Savva Mamontov, and then hung up at the Yaroslavl station until 1961 – it can be said that the organizers really did right by placing it in a separate enclosure. Rather than trying to swing along with his artistic gifts on a grand scale, Korovin restricted himself to a dry modernist style, and it ends up unspeakably sad. On this occasion, he was unable to reinvent himself.
Korovin is written about in the exhibition literature as though he were a Russian singer, but he did, with equal enthusiasm, artistically explore Spain and France, and one could easily think that he was a consummate cosmopolitan. But no – in the 1920s, he was forced into exile, and it appears that he could be excited by foreign lands only as long as he could convince himself that in his homeland, his friends and home awaited him. Abroad, he wrote memoirs. And it turns out that even outside of art and without his homeland, he remains true to himself – his words are as precise, characterful and expressive as impressionistic.
In his autobiography he recalled the story of Mamontov. “The Empress Catherine, when serfdom was legal, ordered that the words ‘To the free arts’ be engraved on the building of the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. The nobility seethed in dismay. ‘Calm yourselves, my noblemen,’ Catherine said. ‘This is not the abolition of serfdom, don’t worry. This is freedom to those who are able to be inspired towards the arts.'” This autonomous, inner freedom was something Korovin truly understood.