The retrospective of renowned classical 19th century landscape painter VASILY POLENOV (1844 -1927) at the New Tretyakov is attracting record visitor numbers. This is largely due to the inclusion in the show of Polenov’s religious masterpiece “Christ and the Sinner”, which has been lent for the first time to the Tretyakov Gallery by the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The painting is currently hanging alongside dozens of his famous Russian landscapes.
Some of the 400,000 strong visitors were very much in evidence when I visited. The public has far outstripped numbers for ILYA REPIN’s show at the Russian Museum. Crowds, mainly women, were jostling 10 deep in front of “Christ and the Sinner” in a room filled on all sides with his biblical studies. Religion was banned for so long during the Soviet era, that people didn’t get to see these paintings for many decades. Polenov worked on this painting for many years, completed in 1884, it was purchased by Tsar Alexander III for 30,000 roubles – a huge figure then – worth about half a million pounds in today’s money. The cash enabled Polenov to buy a dream estate – named Polenovo – on a sandy hill overlooking the magnificent Oka River in the Tula region 130 km south of Moscow.
For Vasily Polenov, a landscape painter who was inspired by nature, the Polenovo estate became an exalted influence on his art, day and night and in all seasons. Recently I went there on a recce for a new film about the Russian landscape painters from the Golden to the Silver age. His descendants still live there and run the estate. It was extremely cold – minus 13 degrees – and the ice flow cracked noisily as the wide river pushed unceasingly past the frozen river bank. The landscape and the climate seem unchanged since Polenov’s day and, looking at his paintings with their magical light, mirrored ponds and verdant greens, his works embody both Russian and European traditions of painting.
Polenov said that “Art should promote happiness and joy” and his art certainly does. As a humanist, he was philanthropic towards the local population, setting up schools in the village, and it was his artistic nature that would eventually spare him from the events of the Revolution. His great granddaughter Natalia Polenova, the museum’s director, told me: “Polenov is in fact very modern, particularly his understanding of tradition, history, culture and public education, all his thoughts are highly relevant for the life of today’s generation and future generations yet to come.”
Ironically, it was on the Oka River that the German Eastern Front advanced in 1941, threatening Polenovo’s existence again. Bullets were fired across the river, but because it was so late in the year, the icy river couldn’t be crossed and Hitler’s army stopped there.
Looking at Polenov’s work today, around 130 years later, you can see why he was known as the Knight of Beauty. And you can understand why the crowds keep coming.