- Ilya Repin and the World of Russian ArtBy Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier
- The Russian Vision: The Art of Ilya RepinBy David Jackson
Important Art by Ilya Repin
Barge Haulers on the Volga was the first painting completed by Repin after he left the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. It depicts 11 male burlaks, or haulers, dragging a barge upstream on the Volga River. The strenuous and exhausting work is evident from the posture of the figures, who are slumped over from the physical exertion. The light, warmer tones of the river and bank are in stark contrast to the dark, shadowy group of men in the centre. One figure alone stands out from the group, with his more brightly colored clothes and youthful appearance. He is also more upright than his fellow haulers, and he seems to be in the process of unburdening himself from the leather binds, perhaps in a spirit of protest, if not sheer trauma at the exploitation to which he realizes he is condemned. The viewer may also be drawn to the man immediately in front of the young boy, as the only figure who makes direct eye contact. His questioning if not accusing gaze, contrasted with the exaggerated downward angle of his body, suggests a powerful sense of combined strength and weakness - oppression and dignity.
Repin made frequent visits to the Volga to make preparatory sketches of the area, as well as the haulers themselves, creating a highly accurate portrayal of working life which was nonetheless synthetic in composition. It is an example of Repin's concern with naturalistic detail that the 11 men are not presented as anonymous, interchangeable beasts of burden, but as individuals with carefully distinguished appearances and ethnic backgrounds, a thematic conceit representing the diversity of the Russian Empire. This is an example of how Repin avoided a sentimental vision of working-class life - one that was becoming familiar from some of the work of the French Naturalist movement - instead focusing on the harrowing, multifaceted reality of the scene.
Repin's unflinching depiction of the working lives of Russian laborers brought him instant notoriety, launching his career. Far more than a tearful depiction of lower social classes - as in some earlier work of Russian Realism - the painting speaks to both the national and the universal. The viewer observes not only the mighty river running though Russia's land and the individuals who labour along its banks, but also a social message, of the pent-up force of the people, a message reminiscent of Courbet's Stonebreakers which contributes to the painting's crucial position in the history of Russian art.
Rich with detail and expansive in scope, this painting shows a procession of people following behind various religious reliquaries. The crowd, large and diverse, follows behind the primary religious icon in right foreground. The mass of people is marked by a distinct gulf between the poorer figures to the left and the more finely dressed elders, land-owners and clergymen on the right, closer to the icon itself. The lively scene is dominated by golden tones, with a subtle rendering of sunshine and collective kinetic movement. A barren hillside marked with tree stumps lies in the background.
Baked in sunlight, the scene might initially seem to offer an unambiguously joyous celebration of Russian culture and religious tradition. However, closer inspection unsettles this interpretation, revealing marks of social unrest and agitation beyond the obvious division of the scene into rich and poor. One of the peasants holding up the platform supporting the primary icon appears to be inebriated, while a disabled beggar boy struggles forward leaning heavily on his wooden stick, apparently ordered forwards by a stern superior with a cane. Meanwhile an elaborately-dressed priest, oblivious to the unfolding events around him, adjusts a lock of his hair. Thus, although the painting is ostensibly about a religious event, this aspect is not the primary focus. Like the great social commentator of an earlier generation, Breughel the Elder, Repin evacuates the nominal subject to the corner of the canvas, confronting the viewer instead with the collective reality encompassing it.
Repin's focus on the lives of ordinary people can be seen as a continuation of his oeuvre as established in earlier works such as the Barge Haulers. With Religious Procession he thus reaffirmed his reputation as a critical commentator. It reflected the current-day political order in the countryside, highlighting the abuses of both church and state, with the collective movement of people hinting at a sense of revolution in the air. The Russian Post Impressionist Igor Grabar said of the work: "[i]t presents a panorama of types and characters unequalled in any other genre canvas in the Russian school of painting."
This emotionally charged work (also known as Unexpected Visitors) shows a maid opening the door to a living room and lingering as she observes the response from a family gathered inside to an unexpected guest. A dishevelled, hollow-eyed visitor walks hesitantly into the room while an ageing woman dressed in black rises from her chair in reaction. Exhibiting the extraordinary attention to detail and emotional nuance typical of his oeuvre, Repin shows each character reacting individually to the event. A young woman seated at a piano halts her playing, while her and the child at the table strain to recognise the guest, their faces registering a mixture of surprise, horror, and excitement. As for the unexpected visitor, we are to believe that he is a political exile, returning half-starved to a middle-class family home after a long period of banishment in Siberia.
In compositional terms the scene is fraught with tension and ambiguity. The sunlight pouring into the room, and the use of light yellow and blue tones, creates a sense of newly kindled warmth and positivity. But this is offset by the awkward dynamic between the figures, suggestive of a once easy family dynamic riven by tragedy. One critic reportedly asked: "[d]o we witness the end of one tragedy, or the start of a new one?" Repin apparently altered the composition continuously, as well as the facial expressions and positions of the subjects, suggesting a desire to render this tension as acutely as possible. In earlier versions, the returning man reportedly represented a confident and invulnerable revolutionary, but in the final version Repin replaced political drama with personal tragedy. At the same time, he seems to underscore moral condemnation of the exile using symbolism of the crucified Christ, two beams of light intersecting at the young man's feet.
This painting was the final in a series which focused on political oppression and insurrection in Russia in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Amongst the short-term contexts for its composition was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, following which Alexander III enacted harsh anti-terrorism laws and curbed freedom of expression. The enigmatic quality of the scene, and the mixed and by no means wholly positive reaction to the exile's return, shows Repin's finely attuned sense of the clash between political idealism and family loyalty. At the same time, the use of a compositional format which might also be found in historical genre paintings, shows him attempting to place contemporary Russian culture in a long historical trajectory. As with his other works, the realism of his art combined the everyday, political, and visceral.