Russian and Soviet Art: Levitan and Pimenov


Isaak Ilyich Levitan, Vladimirka Road (1892)

Like the term “erotic fatigue,” there is probably a term for looking at too many Russian landscape paintings, i.e. “landscape fatigue.” One starts with good intentions, but after twenty or so—they all tend to merge into one Ur-landscape of the nineteenth century. A lot of it has to do with the problem of foreground and field. If you’re looking at the usual stock of trees, skies and a few buildings, nothing stands out. If you’re arrested by a detail or a sharp contrast in the style, then you can make out something significant.

But there are long aisles in these galleries. In one such gallery, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, one might yawn and beg for a respite after viewing a number of Russian realist and impressionist paintings. Nevertheless, it pays to stop and look, especially when considering the dramatic changes in Russian painting from the 1890’s to the 1960’s. What does a painting entitled Vladimirka Road (1892) by Isaak Ilyich Levitan have to offer?

At first glance the painting seems redolent of the Barbizon school of art, particularly Jean-Baptiste-Corot (1796-1875) and his landscapes where nature is depicted as it is, rather than idealized according to classical and formal rules. In the Barbizon school which was a realist and naturalist school of art, there was a political and social agenda too. Often, if there were humans in the landscapes, they were of the peasant class. There is something similar in Levitan’s painting. The road is a famous highway from Moscow to Siberia where thousands of prisoners were exiled. Levitan himself had been moved as a result of the anti-Jewish policies after the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Jews were implicated in the assassination and seen as convenient scapegoats. In addition, the emancipation reforms of the serf classes took a step backward.

This painting then symbolizes the struggle of the serf against the regime. The oppressive sky which commands three-fifths of the canvas echoes the melancholic lot of the Russian serfs. The lonely figure, common in the Barbizon school, almost disappears into the dull earth colors of the land. However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope toward the left-hand side of the painting; in the horizon one sees what looks like a white building and a church with golden fields. Whether the woman is walking towards or away is not initially clear. On closer inspection she is walking away. This suggests, as was common with the Peredvizhniki or wanderers, salvation might come in a socialist future. This belief was espoused by the peasant’s champion, the Slavophile novelist and propagandist Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), in his novel What is to be done? (1863). We should also note that the woman is walking past a roadside shrine with an Icon for veneration that would have dotted the Russian landscape of the period.

Isaak Ilyich Levitan, The Overgrown Pond (1887)

Despite the division in Russian art (as in France) into the academic and the romantic/realist schools, in Russia, the landscapes refused to take a step closer to the impressionist art where nature stands for herself, or the abstract “fields” of paint whereby one enjoys the design and texture. The story is sacrosanct. When we survey Levitan’s enormous ouevre, we find few landscapes that are not narratives. Yet when he focused on nature, as he did in The Overgrown Pond (1887), he could be objective in a manner that bridges the realist school and the later impressionist schools.

This painting indeed has a touch of the Dutch earthy colours and the stippled light of the impressionists. But I find myself drawn to the peace and spirituality of the place. Once we see these qualities—we realise, perhaps like the icon, the locus of veneration, we should spend more time looking at each of Levitan’s works.

Yuri Pimenov, New Moscow 1937

Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977) had participated in the experimental period of Soviet Art during the New Economic Period, but decided with others to bring back the figurative and the canvas in the style of the Society of the Easel Painters. Pimenov’s New Moscow contrasts sharply with Levitan’s Vladimirka Road. A lot seems to be going on in the painting. At first glance, the picture reminds one of New York, as if it were based on a Bernice Abbott photograph. It is a young woman at the wheel. She is driving directly towards the newly constructed buildings (we do not see these monuments to Stalin in full). She is emancipated and young—having the freshness and ease of her counterpart in the capitalist world. However it was only flappers and modern women in the US that took the wheel in the 1920s and 1930s; the norm was to become a housewife.

Someone is in love with her; because there is a red carnation next to the side window. This is Soviet iconography. The red carnation is the symbol of socialism, and this motif is repeated in the pattern on her dress and in the red flags on the Union building straight ahead. The cars look like Fords. They might be, but the convertible she is driving and most of the cars belong to the latest Soviet versions of Western automobiles. There were not many of these cars around—not many could afford them. If we look closely we see that most of the women in the painting are dressed as if they are going to see a show on Broadway. In other words, they are not peasants or workers. We get the feeling that the driver is on her way to the theatre, and this interpretation is not too far-fetched as Pimenov loved to do posters for the theatre, often for foreign plays.

This painting forty-five years after Levitan’s is telling of the incredible changes that had undergone in Russia. She is driving to Moscow as the site for salvation. In Levitan’s landscape the woman is leaving Moscow on the way to Siberia. Pimenov’s painting is a celebration of the city and the worker. Those Soviet skyscrapers were built on the land of churches. The young, emancipated woman will drive past the Union building with the red flags and the statue of Stalin or Lenin. Stalinism was the new religion. The heroes of the realists, upon which they based their Christ in the wilderness, were now the enemies of the Stalinist state.

Many peasants and small hold farmers, the Kulaks, were killed in 1934 as the State moved toward total collectivization. In addition, nice as this city painting is, tens of millions were killed in the purges, and more to die as a result of collectivization of agricultural practices. She may be the grand-daughter of the peasant woman on the way to Siberia, but it is tragedy behind her. Both Levitan and Pimenov faced censorship and restrictions. The latter however was able to travel and paint much of what he liked, as long as he painted Socialist Realist paintings once in awhile. One feels he did not really have his heart in these.

Yuri Pimenov, A Wedding on Tomorrow Street 1962

Here we see his painting A Wedding on Tomorrow Street which symbolises the Soviet faith in progress and at the same time the artist’s preference for slim young women like those found in Western movies of the time. This was painted in 1962 in the post-Stalin period. It could be a theatre or film poster painting, the genre he liked best, if it were not for those pipes and the construction site. We may find the painting distasteful, yet in the West after the war there were many movies extolling the future cities.

Yuri Pimenov, Waiting 1959

For me, Pimenov’s Waiting is the painting equivalent of The Overgrown Pond, showcasing the talent of Pimenov. It is just a telephone, but the Soviet citizen would have decoded the title. The painting conjures up many thoughts and associations. I find myself in a state of overinterpretation wondering if it was a call from the KGB? Something sinister is going on. The cityscape outside is melancholic and foreboding. But the upward strokes of yellow and white also suggest a Degas delicacy. Could it be romantic? To do with love and relations? Throughout his career, Pimenov painted young couples in love. Perhaps it was to distance himself from the nightmare of the 1920’s when as a young artist he was an ardent expressionist.

He preferred the decorative nudes of Pierre Bonnard to the excruciatingly painful satire of the German expressionists, George Groz and Otto Dix. He also had a preference for women as sexual objects rather than tractor drivers. His movie poster for The Plumo Woman (1934) shows that he sided with the aristocratic, anti-academic schools of the nineteenth century. She is pure Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887).

Yuri Pimenov, The Plumo Woman 1934

Ivan Kramskoi, Portrait of an Unknown Woman 1883

I was born in London in 1956. I studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. I worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. I have had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. I am a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.