Following occasional eclectic leads instead of broad tendencies in collecting can uncover interesting and sometimes startling things. I recall seeing years ago a large format Russian language publication on the life and work of the prominent artist Ilya Efurmvich Repin (1844-1930). Some small sections of the text had been translated to English by a Russian acquaintance in Sydney and the volume was profuse with colour reproductions of Repin’s works, largely portraits and crowd scenes, but including a small number of quite unforgettable landscapes, mainly of forests and lakes.
Repin was born in a small Ukrainian village, not far from Kiev, where from age fourteen he was apprenticed to a producer of icons for the Russian Orthodox Church. He went on to become the leading artist of Russia and is still largely regarded as such today.
Over the years I have occasionally seen Repin reproductions in cards and book illustrations, mostly portraits, and one way or another I have often felt a desire to know more of Repin’s work and if possible to acquire prints. Some months ago, as I was on the point of writing to the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, in this regard, someone sent me a Repin volume in the mail.
It is not a Russian publication, but was published as recently as 1980 by Pennsylvania State University Press, under the title Russia on Canvas: Ilya Repin , from the manuscript of F. and S.J. Parker. It is quarto-sized, has a heavy black binding and is printed on attractive glossy paper, so that, despite its mere 170 odd pages, it is a heavy volume, replete with a very interesting text and numerous colour and black and white Repin reproductions, portraits and crowd scenes, as well as a number of photographs. No landscapes, but then Repin became known mainly for his portraiture.
Apart from family portraits, there are others depicting Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gorky, Tretyakov, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst many others, one of the most interesting of the Tolstoy, portraits being perhaps of the writer ploughing a field with two horses yoked awkwardly to a somewhat primitive-looking plough.
But there are also religious processions, cultural and political gatherings and, arrestingly, a painting entitled “Bargemen on the Volga” (or “The Volga Boatmen”), not oarsmen as my life-long imagination had depicted them from the old song, but eleven men, of recognisably different Russian ethnic groups, harnessed to a barge as they trudged along the banks of the river. Another cherished illusion destroyed by life’s harsh realities! Obviously from some of these paintings, Repin, a realist at any time, would have had no trouble adapting to the “Socialist Realism” demanded by the Soviets.
There is certainly enough in this absorbing and beautiful volume to appease my interest in Repin for some time to come.