The major retrospective exhibition of one of the greatest artists of Russian realism of 19 – 20 centuries  – Ilya Repin – is currently taking place at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The curators Tatyana Judenkova and Nina Markova managed to bring all major works of the artist and to include paintings and sketches completed during the lesser known period of Repin’s life – the years spent in Finland’s Kuokkala, now Repino near St Petersburg. Repin’s life stretched through the crucial moments of Russian history from the 1840s (the era of Nikolai I) until 1930 (Soviet Russia). Repin is the monumental humanist who portrayed several eras he lived through and defined our way of perceiving the vibrant period at the turn of the centuries.

Ilya Repin. The Tretyakov Gallery. Installation view. Photo: the Tretyakov Gallery

We visualize Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Pavel Tretyakov, the actress Polina Strepetova, important government officials of 19 – 20 century Russia and many others through his works – whether we are conscious of it or not. The same goes for his most important non-portraiture works: his historic paintings and depictions of contemporary Russia define the nation’s self-perception today, and form part of our visual memories to the point of being instantly recognizable. Who wouldn’t know and name ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’ (1873) or ‘Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan’ (1885, unfortunately undergoing restoration after a visitor attack), ‘They Didn’t Expect Him’ (1886) or ‘Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ (1880-91)? And there are also powerful and striking ‘Sadko’ (1876), ‘Religious Procession in Kursk Province’ (1880-1883) and ‘Princess Sofya at the Novodevichy Monastery’ (1879). From the early school years we see this images in textbooks, continuously encounter them in the major art museums and even can spot their elements used in the commercial advertisments or Internet mems. When visiting the exhibition, we actually have to make effort to distance ourselves from our internal images of these paintings to be able to see then with fresh eyes.

Ilya Repin Barge-haulers Wading through Water. 1872 The State Tretyakov Gallery

Curators of the exhibition offer ample opportunities to do so. We learn about Repin’s development as an artist chronologically, tracing his life from the years in his hometown Chuguev, then in St Petersburg, Moscow, again in St Petersburg and then in emigration in Finland. This allows to put the already familiar works into the context of their production. There are also many lesser known works covering the late period of his life which were brought from private collections. One of them is ‘Gopak. The Dance Zaporozhian Cossacks’ (1926-1930) that was the last painting of the 85-year old master. The works of this period include portraits of the fellow émigré Daniil Andreev (who also had a house in Finland) and his second wife and companion Natalya Normand and many of them have never been seen by Russian public before. In the rooms displaying Repin’s drawings and watercolours we can witness how meticulous the artist was in capturing details of everyday life and portraits and gestures of people he saw. These works allow us to see the new angles in the legacy left by the renown and beloved master through revealing that his major paintings were not fixed masterpieces but constant work-in-process refined through observation and sketches.

Ilya Repin. Princess Sofia Alexeyevna a Year after Her Incarceration in the Novodevichy Convent (during the Streltsy Execution and the Torturing of All Her Servants in 1698. 1879 The State Tretyakov Gallery

There is also a chance to trace how Repin painted his beloved ones: at the earlier stages of his life his first wife Vera (‘Repose’, 1882) and his daughters Vera (‘The Dragonfly’, 1884), Tatyana and Nadezhda and then portraits and scenes from everyday life (including himself) with the writer Natalya Normand during his year in Finland. There are also pictures and documents tracing Repin’s life, and many of them uncover the period in emigration and his unwillingness to return to Soviet Russia, while being warmly welcomed in Finland. Through these carefully collected testimonies Repin steps down from the artificial pedestal of the 19 century master painter and becomes a human who had always worked hard and who had lived through the tumultuous development of Russia before the abolition of serfdom to the post-Revolutionary Soviet times.

Ilya Repin. Unexpected Return. 1884-1888 The State Tretyakov Gallery

Repin has always been in the midst of intellectual and artistic development of Russia, and his life is a perfect mirror of that period. He was part of Peredvizhniki art movement, he was the mentor of Valentin Serov, he was one the many Russian painters of that period who had received the Gold Medal to go and study abroad. Additionally, although following the trend of the period, Repin was immensely interested in Russian history as many of his artist colleagues – Vasnetsov, Surikov, Nesterov, – were. It was true not only for painters: Repin’s major work ‘Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan’ was directly influenced by operas of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov dedicated to the period of Ivan the Terrible’s reign. He depicted the religious Russia and the official Russia. His famous painting of the ceremonial sitting of the State Council in 1901 (1903) is presented as a sketch at the exhibition, while the painting itself was too big to be brought from the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. At some stage of his life Ilya Repin befriended Lev Tolstoy and drew him during the intimate moments when he was writing, resting or plowing at his estate, and we can see these paintings at the exhibition.

Ilya Repin. Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate. 1881-1883 The State Tretyakov Gallery

The history marched on as Repin developed as a master of Russian realism, and so he captured it, bringing his trademark touch of insight and humanism. For Repin and his contemporaries it was Russia and its history that they witnessed themselves and re-discovered, but for us there is time distance created by the century that has passed. The exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery allows the public to revisit the image of 19- 20 century Russia and acknowledges how much of our perception of the era has been formed by Repin’s paintings. And what’s more, Repin’s creations have gradually formed the contemporary Russians’ perception of themselves as they have been part of their visual experience from the school age, so if you want to get closer to answering the question of what Russianness means, you should see this exhibition.