The image of Moscow as a city deeply connected to its people’s life has been carefully preserved by national artistic tradition. A pictorial chronicle of Moscow shows its abundance, its historic import, its soul and character. All genres of the fine arts were engaged with the city – landscape, portrait, historical portrayals – from the 16th century onwards. Russian and, later, Soviet painters and graphic artists depict an evolution of the city that is not only of historic notability but also of artistic interest. We can trace the development of the urban landscape; the works devoted to a single topic vividly demonstrate the specific features of artin different historical periods, reveal the complex processes taking place over the centuries, and reveal the creativity of individual artists that propelled the genre.
Three works depicting the Moscow Kremlin allow us a comparison. First, we have Simon Ushakov‘s icon of the Kremlin painted in the 17th century; second, we have Maxim Vorobiev‘s landscape from the first half of the 19th century; and, finally, the Soviet painter Pyotr Ossovsky‘s nocturnal vision.
Ushakov’s icon ‘In Praise of the Virgin of Vladimirsk‘ depicts the Kremlin as a part of a larger composition accomplished in the tradition of Russian iconography. Convention, abstraction, symbolism are inherent in this work. His intent is to glorify Muscovy, pleasing to God, a Russian state under divine protection, richly flourishing in the reign of Alexei Mikhailovich. The Kremlin on the icon is a symbol of Moscow. Iconographer does not depict a realistic view of the Kremlin. He shows only its basic elements: a part of the ramparts from the direction of the Red Square, Spasskaya and Nikolskaya Towers, and the Cathedral of the Assumption, from which the genealogical tree of Muscovy grows. The figure of the king and members of the ruling family appear above the walls and towers. The icon of the Vladimir Mother of God is almost twice the size the building of the cathedral. The architectural forms themselves – the crenellated and double-walled Kremlin ramparts separated by a moat, towers, five-domed Cathedral of the Assumption – have been handled by the painter accurately to the smallest detail. He has maintained the correct ratio of levels and proportions of the cathedral towers. The depiction of the decorations, windows on the drums of the domes and so on is correct. All this suggests that the real world for the Russian icon-painter of the second half of the 17th century was already only a sign, a symbol. He was interested only in the beauty of forms, proportions, colors. But for all his interest in the real world Simon Ushakov did not transgress, as we see, the strictures of the iconographic convention. They are rendered in the overall structure of the work, in its character, composition and colour. In the red brick walls and the illuminated Assumption Cathedral we see conditional, decorative colours. The dark pink and light green tones of the walls and the temple, combined with the gold background, domes, brocaded royal robes, give rise to a lighter mood of festivity, and merge into a chorus of colours of the icon, expressing a “Panegyric to the Virgin of Vladimir”, whose patronage was thought to be enjoyed by Muscovy.
In Maxim Vorobyov’s ‘View of the Kremlin from the direction of the stone bridge’, we already see a realistic view of the Kremlin complex as it appeared at the beginning of the 19th century. The brick fortress walls now appear golden-brown and the cathedrals and bell-towers in the sunlight glow gold and white. Everything appears natural. However, the artist has not restricted himself to what he saw from a fixed point. The landscape is imbued with patriotic ideals as the ancient capital of Russia has only recently survived the ‘great storm of 1812’; it is filled with a sense of immortality and eternity. One of the brightest representatives of the Russian academic landscape art of the first half of the 19th century, Vorobyov expresses this idea by the means available to the art of the time. The artist was not so much attracted by the monumental Kremlin itself; rather, seeking integrity and a clear structure to the composition, he wants to show the entire complex in organic union with Russian nature. Shrouded in a blue haze, illuminated with soft sunlight, the Moscow Kremlin in Vorobyov’s depiction appears as a perfect castle, light, elusive and bright. The idyll is accentuated by the figures in the foreground – fishermen in boats, washerwomen cleaning cloths in the river. Vorobyov’s painting is infused with serenity and harmony, aided not only by the three-part composition, but also the soft palette constructed with blue and golden-brown tones that creates a chiaroscuro through which the artist reveals the architectural forms and conveys the scarcely perceptible movement of water in the river and clouds in sky.
Pyotr Ossovsky’s ‘Moscow Kremlin at night’ is a romantic painting. For the Soviet artist, too, the Kremlin – as for his predecessors – is a symbol of Moscow, of Russia, of the Motherland. But Ossovsky speaks of this in the language of today, and in his creation is permeated with the sensibilities of our time.
On a large horizontal canvas, the majestic silhouette of the Kremlin appears in an alarming red glow, combining in itself history and modernity; this is a Kremlin with its white-stoned and gold-topped churches, and it also a Kremlin from the Spassky tower, crowned with a red star, a Kremlin with a red flag fluttering above the dome of the Council of Ministers.
Ossovsky paints the Kremlin from a viewpoint that suggests a layering – St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum and other buildings – so that, in contrast with the free space of the sky, the bottom half of the picture suggests weight, and the Kremlin appears to be fused with the ground, inextricably linked to it. The artist has boldly and confidently established the architectural forms out of large planes of colours. His language is lapidary. He constructs an image on the comparison of large generalised masses. Energetic lines delineate the light silhouettes from the dark background. The colour contrasts are sharp, the colour is intensely decorative. The landscape is filled with romantic elation, internal tension and solemn grandeur. That is how our contemporary saw and artistically expressed the Kremlin.
[Loosely translated from Moscow Streets – Moscow in the eyes of artists.]