Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley was educated at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and spent a year affiliated to Moscow State University while completing a doctorate on 19th-century Russian painting. She was then a junior fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford, an affiliated research fellow at the Russian Institute of Art History in Moscow, and held teaching posts at the universities of Newcastle and Kent before returning to Cambridge in 2002. Her latest book, The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia 1757-1881 has just been published by Yale University Press. Our Editor Theodora Clarke met with Dr Blakesley to discuss her experience of curating the exhibition Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery.
Theodora Clarke: Why did you decide to curate an exhibition on Russian portraits in the age of Tolstoy?
Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley: Many years ago I realised that the State Tretyakov Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery share an anniversary, as they were both founded in 1856. They emerged for very different reasons, but nevertheless both ended up housing their nations’ preeminent collection of portraits. It felt like a timely point to bring them together, because this year is their 160th anniversaries. The first point is this is an exchange, as there is also an exhibition going to Moscow with some of the greatest portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. It The result is a partnership between the two institutions, as at the same time that Russia and the Arts is on show in London, some of the greatest portraits from the National Portrait Gallery are being exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. For the London exhibition, I decided to focus on the fifty years leading up to the First World War, because it was such a rich period for Russia’s various art forms, and exemplifies how vibrant, interconnected and contested they all were. The artists, musicians and writers tended to know each other, make friends and fall out. We wanted to think about these relationships and the intriguing tapestry of artistic endeavour that they spawned.
TC: Some of the names exhibited, such as Repin and Serov, are household names in Russia but not so well known here in Britain. Could you explain the background of these artists and why they are important in the history of art?
RB: The exhibition focuses on the richest fifty years ever of Russian portraits, starting with the great Russian Realists, of whom Repin is the best known. They and other Russian painters of the period are less known abroad than writers and musicians are, so one of the aims of the exhibition is to use the better known names of people like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky to attract people in. Once in the exhibition, visitors are buzzing with excitement about the artists, even if they are not as well known. We wanted to show the greatest examples of Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism, and did not want these to be overshadowed by the better-known names of Kandinsky and Malevich. The exhibition is therefore emphatically figurative, and not about Abstraction and the Avant-Garde.
TC: What are the highlights of the exhibition?
RB: An undoubted highlight is the portrait of Dostoevsky, which the Tretyakov Gallery was particularly generous in lending. By the time he was painted by Vasily Perov in 1872, Dostoevsky was a seminal figure in the nation’s cultural consciousness. He had been arrested in 1849 and sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted just as he and his collaborators were about to be shot by a firing squad. They were exiled to Siberia for a decade instead. He later returned to write novels as gripping as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This portrait, the only one painted from life, shows the ambition of the show and how cooperative the Tretyakov Gallery was.
Another painting which encapsulates many of the themes of the exhibition is Repin’s portrait of Modest Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky was a superlative composer but was hospitalised because of his alcohol-related health problems. Tretyakov learnt about this and sent Repin overnight by train to paint Mussorgsky in the hospital in St Petersburg where Mussorgsky was being treated. Repin painted him for three days, hoping for a final sitting, but Mussorgsky died ten days after they met. The result is a beautiful portrait, which also shows the ambition of Tretyakov’s patronage.
TC: It must have been quite shocking for contemporary audiences, more used to seeing society portraits. Repin has depicted this very high-profile cultural figure on his deathbed with bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair. This must have been a very unusual portrait which shows another view of Mussorgsky, the darker side to his private life…
RB: Yes, these Russian artists produced works of real character. One of the things I love about that portrait is that the composer is wearing an embroidered shirt underneath his hospital gown. It is touching that Repin included what Mussorgsky himself chose to wear, and lends the painting a particularly poignant note.
TC: How interconnected were the cultural figures of the day? You have mentioned artists, composers, writers… I was particularly struck by the relationship between Tolstoy and Repin and these parallels that you can see in writing and painting of the same period.
RB: So many of them knew each other, and the section of the exhibition which shows that best is the section on patronage and estate culture. There we have an enormous portrait of Mamontov, whose estate of Abramtsevo was a crucible for many different art forms. At Abramtsevo, Mamontov hosted some of the greatest artists and musicians of the generation, including Repin and Serov. Vrubel, who painted his portrait that we have included in the show, was the beneficiary of Mamontov’s hospitality for years. We have also included an intimate little portrait of Shalyapin, the singer, painted by Korovin, who is yet another artist of Mamontov’s stable. Collectively, these works exemplify the remarkably congenial environments in which patrons, artists, writers and musicians lived and worked together.
TC: I see the first painting in the show is the portrait of Pavel Tretyakov standing in the gallery he founded in Moscow. How important was the role of the collector, especially in light of the Wanderers Group gradually isolating themselves from the Academy of the Arts?
RB: The second half of the nineteenth century is conspicuous for shifting patterns of patronage, which is no longer dominated by the court or aristocrats. Instead there are new figures coming up through the ranks, many of them merchants or industrialists who choose to spend their extraordinary wealth on paintings, but with a different focus to that of previous patrons. They are not looking at Western painting, for instance, and are not necessarily looking for state sponsored artists, but are much more innovative and non-conformist in what they choose to buy. We wanted to open the exhibition with the portrait of Tretyakov because he led the charge, and is the reason this exhibition happened at all.
TC: As a curator, how did you go about approaching the exhibition? Is it a chronological or thematic? How did you decide to present the works?
RB: The exhibition is thematic, but there is a chronological continuity as well. It is divided in two main halls, each of which includes different art forms. It starts with critics and writers, such as Alexander Herzen and Vasily Stasov, who introduce some of the ideas that artists, musicians and writers were tussling with. Within the section on writing there are the three great novelists: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Then there is a section on theatre, featuring Chekhov but also playwrights such as Pisemsky and Ostrovsky whose work is not performed abroad to the same degree. These portraits are complemented by those of some of the actors and actresses who brought their plays to life. Maria Ermolova, so successful as an actress that later she had a planet named after her, is portrayed by Valentin Serov, the great Impressionist, in one of the most striking portraits in the exhibition.
The second room of the exhibition focuses first on music with the portrait of Mussorgsky, as well as those of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. There is then the section on patronage and estate culture. We end with two portraits of radical and innovative poets of the early twentieth century, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. This gives us pause to think about what was to come, because they both suffered horrendous persecution under the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes. Gumilev was executed in 1921, Akhmatova’s son was repeatedly imprisoned, and her partner, Nikolai Punin, was also incarcerated and killed. While we did not want to focus on the Avant-Garde and the Revolution, these last two pictures, both sensational Symbolist portraits of 1914, point to what is going to come in the decades ahead.
TC: What is your favourite work in the exhibition?
RB: Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky, without question. That was the portrait which I showed to Sandy Nairne, then director of the National Portrait Gallery, when I first started thinking about the exhibition five years ago, as it encapsulates everything that I hoped the exhibition would achieve. It is wonderful to have it in London after all these years of negotiation and planning.
TC: This brings me to my next question. I have just heard about an American Fabergé exhibition, which is being put on hold because of the frosty political climate at the moment. Has it been a challenge working with Russia?
RB: Not at all. The political situation has not been ideal, but we could not have met with greater cooperation and generosity than we did while working with the Tretyakov Gallery under two successive directors, Irina Lebedeva and Zelfira Tregulova. They have both been astonishingly welcoming, and understood the ambition of the show. The only key painting we were unable to borrow is a work painted on metal and therefore never travels for condition reasons, which I totally respect. We had some important conversations to explain why we needed paintings such as the portrait of Mamontov, which is huge and hangs in the hall of the Tretyakov Gallery which is used for concerts. That was a big ask, because people go to concerts in the Tretyakov expecting to see that picture, and they mind if it is not there. But Zelfira Tregulova understood that we needed that particular portrait to show what this seminal patron was actually like, and agreed to the loan.
TC: How many works in the show in total?
RB: Twenty six.
TC: And they are all exclusively from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow?
RB: Yes, they are. The point of the exhibition is the celebration of the partnership between the two museums.
TC: You mentioned the exhibition is part of a cultural exchange. What show will be travelling to Russia with NPG works?
RB: The Tretyakov Gallery has borrowed forty-nine paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. They have chosen to explore a much broader time-frame, and their exhibition, From Elizabeth to Victoria, covers a period of some 300 years. We asked for their ‘Crown Jewels’ and they asked for ours, which is fair enough. The National Portrait Gallery has accordingly lent to Russia The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare, which, with inventory number 1, was the first work ever to enter the National Portrait Gallery. We are also lending self-portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough, and portraits of people who have enormous resonance in Russia such as Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Byron, and Charles Darwin.
TC: Were you involved in that show as well?
RB: The exhibition in Moscow has been curated by Tatiana Karpova, my counterpart at the Tretyakov Gallery who has been a wonderful colleague. We have both been assisted enormously by Dr Peter Funnell in the National Portrait Gallery. I have been involved in some of the discussions and negations, for example in shaping the partnership, but the exhibition in Moscow is very much Tatiana and Peter’s show.
TC: Can you explain as a curator the process for creating the exhibition?
RB: You come up with a concept, a story: what do you hope people will leave the exhibition with, what understanding they will acquire, what narratives are you trying to tell. Then you have to decide what works will enable you to tell that narrative. It is really important to have a coherent and compelling proposal, because no gallery is going to lend a particular painting just because you like it. They need to understand why it is essential to your exhibition. In our case, we went to Moscow 3 or 4 times over the five-year period, and our colleagues in Moscow came to London a couple of times. The first trip was with the director, the deputy director and the head of exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery to present our initial proposal to the director of the Tretyakov Gallery and ask them if they would be interested in an exchange of exhibitions. The entire project has been very cooperative but has involved a lot of forward planning, as you have to start negotiations years before you want the pictures – partly so you have time to persuade the lending institution of the importance of the show, but also because these are great works and other museums wanted to borrow them as well.
TC: You are British but you have become a well known expert on Russia. What was it that attracted you to dedicate your academic career to Russian Art?
RB: I started learning Russian at school in the late 1980s, which was an amazing period to study the language. Gorbachev was in power, British newspapers were full of Russian stuff every day, and Russian plays were on in London. It was in many ways a Golden Age of Russian culture in Britain. Then I started visiting Russia, the first time when I was seventeen, and I was hooked.
TC: I heard your paper at Cambridge University several years ago where you were talking about Imperial portraiture in Russia. I know you have been working on another project which is a book. Could you tell us more about this?
RB: It is called The Russian Canvas. Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757-1881, and is a book I always wanted to write to correct the misapprehension in the West that Russian artists did not really do anything of note until the late nineteenth century. It considers a period of approximately one hundred and fifty years from the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in the mid eighteenth century. I take the story up to 1881, the year of the assassination of the Tsar. The book charts the rise of professional artists in Russia, with both their strengths and weaknesses, and considers their place was in a much broader European context. They are often described as some strange creatures on the periphery of Europe, but that perception is highly misleading as many were travelling to Britain, France, and Germany, and Western artists were travelling to Russia, so there was a lively and cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. I am trying to recover the amazing community that they were part of, and stop them being treated as isolated figures on the fringes.
TC: You have mentioned this exchange between Russia and the West. How well aware were these portrait artists you have been talking about of the developments of Western art?
RB: Many were hugely aware of these developments, as they were educated, curious, and well-travelled. There is a whole chapter in my book which looks at Russian artists abroad. More than that, they had access to newspapers, prints and fly sheets that were considering what was happening in the West. Of course many Russian artists wanted to do things differently, but that did not mean they were ignorant of what was happening abroad. It was a conscious decision to plot their own course. Secular painting took off relatively late in Russia, in the eighteenth century. It is therefore a relatively compressed development, but an extraordinarily vibrant one as well. The Avant-Garde would not have happened without these two centuries of brilliant artists who came before.
TC: Thank you Polly. Would you like to add anything else about the exhibition?
RB: One of the things that have been really gratifying is the response from Russians. When we opened the main doors to the Gallery for the press view there was a veritable stampede of Russian news crews, and the opening of the exhibition was on Russia’s main news channels that night. The Russians are thrilled that this event is happening when the relationship between Russia and the UK is tense in other ways, and have been delighted to see such stellar works on show. We made a conscious decision to hang everything at eye level, because paintings in Russian museums are often displayed quite high. The more iconic the sitter, the higher the portrait. Curators from the Tretyakov Gallery who have come over said they are able to look at these pictures in ways that they cannot in their own institution, and other visitors have commented on their excitement at looking into Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s eyes. The response is fantastic. The exhibition is bringing twice as many people as we expected, reviewers have been captivated by the quality of the artworks on show, and the catalogue had to be reprinted just a couple of weeks after the opening, so all is going well.
At the National Portrait Gallery
Until 26 June 2016