It would be impossible to find a Russian whose memories don’t contain an image by Kuindzhi – his ‘Birch Grove’ (1879), Moonlit Night on the Dnieper (1880) and Evening in Ukraine (1878-1901) seem to be ingrained in our vision of nature landscapes. As always with great art, we find ourselves haunted by Kuindzhi’s visions of the effects of light, and sometimes paradoxically find the ‘Kuindzhi’ effects while walking in sunlit parks or forests and noticing how the sun shafts form intricate patterns on grass or earth. Arkhip Kuindzhi was Claude Monet of Russian art, as his sensitivy to light and colour was, as was proved by Dmitry Mendeleev and Fiodor Petrushevsky, many times higher than a normal person and even an everage painter had. He was the priest and prophet of light, with its illusion being its God, in Ilya Repin’s words, leaving us with legacy of about 250 works that reflect his constant exploration of the cathedral of nature and making us realize that it is a temple where one can discover all philosophical truths of the world.
His biography includes years in Taganrog (he was born in 1842 came from a Greek family, but his parents died when he was young), apprenticeship in Ayavazovsky’s workshop in his teens, 5 years in a photography studio back in Taganrog and then private lessons in St Petersburg’s Academy of Arts, then a breakthough with his pictures bought by Pavel Tretyakov and his works exhibited and admired, and then 30 years of voluntary seclusion during which he continued to paint and experiment with light. He died in his studio in St Petersburg in 1910, and a year before formed a Society of Art appreciation that now holds his name to which he bequested his works and his estate in South Crimea. Kuindzhi has travelled very extensively in Russia, and his paintings include such regions, as the North – ‘Lake Ladoga’ (1883), ‘On the Valaam Island’ (1873), the region of Caucasus mountains – ‘Elbrus’, (1890-1895), Crimea where he travelled and lived a lot – ‘The Sea. The Crimea’ (1908), Ukraine (famous Dnieper paintings) and Moscow and St Petersburg.
The Tretyakov Gallery, organizing an exhibition to mark 175thanniversary since the painter’s birth (their last retrospective was in 1992) made a thematic rather than chronological presentation of Kuindzi’s works dividing them into four halls with the following titles: ‘The Attraction of the Earth’, ‘The Mystery of Night’, ‘In the Vastness of Eternity’ and ‘Outpacing Time’. The Tretyakov Gallery managed to bring the works not only from Moscow and St Petersburg (Russian museum holds a large collection of Kuindzi and held his most recent retrospective in 2007), but also from Azerbaijan National museum of Art, National Art Museum of Belarus, National museum of Buryat Republic and from many other towns in Russia. The ‘Attraction of the Earth’ features many well-known Kuindzi’s paintings of Russian forests (with its beautiful birches and pines), as well of oak-trees, Ladoga lake and Valaam island, and the effects of the nature after rain. The technique Kuindzi uses varies dramatically and ranges from realistic and academic to impressionist and symbolist. The stones beneath the water in Ladoga lake, the long perspective from the above Kundzhi uses in depicting the North (resembling Levitan’s ‘Over Eternal Peace’), his trademark sun patches in the ‘Birch Grove’ – all that makes us enter into the painter’s world and at least for the moment acquire the same sensitivity to the nature’s magnificence as he had.
‘The mystery of night’ section, paradoxically, makes the sun and the moon the centre of its attention and shows how the painter developed his vision of the effects of sunlight and moonlight on surfaces of the earth. Sunsets, dawns and moonlit nights have long fascinated Kuindzi, and here one finds several versions of one of his most famous works ‘Moonlit Night on the Dnieper’ (1880) where the effect of the moon on the Dnieper had been explored in meticulous detail, creating almost a wonder of a painting with its almost photographic, yet so poetic and mysterious rendering of the night. The same softness touching upon the hidden corners of our souls is in my personal favourite ‘Evening in Ukraine’ where the setting sun over white mud huts creates the hues of peach and orange that are so beautiful that one almost feels the scents and the richness of this summer night.
‘In the Vastness of Eternity’ is the largest section on the exhibition, and features paintings of the untouched nature under hidden and unexpected angles – usually at dawn (‘Volga’, ‘In the mist’) or on the contrary under the bright sunlight, as it is is the case with many Crimean paintings. There are also pictures reflecting Kuindzhi’s travels to the Caucasus mountaints. With Kuindzhi it is always difficult to describe the effect of the painting on you, as it doesn’t have a plot apart from the landscape and its effects of light and its detailed colour schemes, but you spend minutes before them and you get saturated with the feeling that nature contains answers to all questions, and that it is in its eternity, calm and acceptance we should heal our souls. It also makes your eye instantly more attentive to visual compositions in space: Kuindzhi likes to search for a new angle and sometimes cuts the view or makes it much lower than normal, almost if he has been searching for it from a camera viewfinder. This section also has sketches and drawing of the master, and there is a special place with video content where one can explore how the painter created the desired effect by applying certain paints in certain progression, with the components never fitting the final result and always surprising. Then one suddenly notices butterflies in the grass, or patches of sun on the Elbrus mountain or reddish or brownish hues in a seemingly green landscape – for Kundzhi all details matter, but it is an overall impression that he is after, and the impressions he makes mysteriously acquire their own deep philosophy without saying much verbally or through a storyline.
The final section of the exhibition is dedicated to experiments with light and with technique that Kuindzhi got involved during his seclusion years. Interestingly, this section features some views of St Petersburg roofs seemingly done from his Vassilyevsky Island studio. The painter seems to have done similar things as Monet once did with Rouen cathedral – he painted similar (in this case winter) landscapes during different times of the day to explore the effects of light. Thus, ‘Sun Spots on Hoarfrost’ (1876-1890) and ‘Spots of Moon Light in the Forest. Winter’ (1900s) explore the same clearing covered with snow that has most mystical and beautiful sun and moon patches on it one has ever seen. Both are from Russian museum, and I immediately realized that these two paintings have taught me to appreciate the beauty of winter from the early age. There are also explorations of dramatic sunsets and autumn colours here. The exhibition has been done with detail and care and gives a comrehensive overview of Kuindzhi’s output, making the visitor learn more about his life – thus, for instance, one could still visit his studio in St Petersburg. It is a rich sensual experience that is hardly compared to that made by any other of Russian landscape painters (Shishkin, Levitan, Polenov) and verges of the symbolism of his disciple Nikolai Roerich. The exhibition is open till February 17, 2019 and is a must for all art lovers visiting Moscow and wishing to understand the mysterious Russian soul: it is explored masterfully by Arkhip Kuindzi, the genius of Greek origins. It is housed in the Engineering Building on Lavrushinsky lane 12, to the left from the main gallery entrance.