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Isaac Levitan, the Russian Master

by Colin Fell in Cornwall

Autumn 1879

Before me on my desk as I write is a thin sheet of orange plastic. It is the outline of what was, to a child growing up in England at the height of the Cold War, the known world of Europe. In our geography lessons we would place this template on our paper, and with our pencils laboriously describe a geopolitical journey; I imagine my adolescent self, voyaging vicariously around Britain’s intriguing yet familiar coastline, then along the North Sea coast, before arriving at the mysteriously named triad of Baltic republics of which we knew so little. Beyond Estonia, the map’s own iron curtain descended, in the form of its plastic frame. Here Endeth Europe, was the message clearly implied to our young minds; beyond lay…what, precisely? The TV was little help to one attempting to imagine the unknowable, unmapped vastness we knew to exist – grainy, smudgy black and white newsreel of the occasional Russian dissident, or coverage of the May Day parades of military hardware in Red Square.
But I did know differently – my father, a Russophile, bought LPs of the Russian orchestral canon – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich – and as was the wonderful fashion of the time, those tempting canvases, the record sleeves, were decorated with art work offering a visual key to the emotional content of the music etched into the shiny black vinyl within. And so it was that I came to discover a love, not only of the music, but of the art of someone still very little known in the West, Isaac Levitan. This was developed when my father, ever keen to encourage learning, managed somehow to obtain a gorgeously printed and bound book of Levitan’s work, from the Aurora press in Leningrad.
Born into a lower middle class but educated Jewish family in a shtetl in Kybartai, in what is now Lithuania, Isaac Levitan suffered from the Anti-Semitism of the period, and was briefly banished from Moscow as a Jew in reaction to the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II. Interestingly, my Aurora press book makes only passing reference to Levitan’s Jewishness, and none of his banishment. His later friendship with Chekhov, with whose sister he was rumoured to be in love, helped to secure his return to Moscow and his ability to continue working, until his untimely death at 40. His subject matter was unfathomable dark lakes and mill ponds, mysterious onion-domed churches rising from hayfields, and paths, lots of paths, and roads, winding mysteriously to who knew where. As a 16-year-old keen for any new artistic experience, I absorbed these hungrily, and when I came to read and love the stories of Anton Chekhov, which I preferred to my A-level English Literature set texts, there was formed for me a satisfying triptych in which the music of Rachmaninov, the stories of Chekhov and the paintings of Levitan were fused together, inseparable as the coloured glass panels in a church window.

March 1895

Levitan’s first success, in 1879, was Autumn in Sokolniky Park, bought by collector Tretyakov; the gallery he founded still has the largest collection of Levitan’s work. It is both typical and untypical of Levitan’s output. Characteristic is the autumnal setting, evoked here with his fondness for a palette of muted colours; the sky, brushed by the darkening firs and pines, seems heavy and indeterminate, non-committal, the only colour the fiery gold of the young saplings bordering the path where walks a woman in black, wispily evoked as she hurries along meditatively. Less typical is the interesting figure, as Levitan included them so rarely – his landscapes are largely unpopulated; he is in a sense the perfect artist for our current lockdown, imagining the world without us. Apparently it was Chekhov’s brother who suggested the addition of the woman to what would have been one of Levitan’s many images of winding paths and roads. Into this solitary, melancholy figure, Levitan seems to invite us to read a narrative, a silent mourning reverie. Is it coincidence that Tolstoy had published Anna Karenina the year before? Where is she going, on what is she reflecting, this woman in black?

Spring in Italy

Knowing what we know about the trajectory of Russian history, it’s difficult to look at the art of the end of the 19th century without imagining some kind of political agenda – yet Levitan was the least obviously political artist, his interests more in the timeless quality of landscapes in which human life is largely eclipsed. Of particular interest is his remarkable 1892 work, The Vladimirka, a study in landscape, but with obliquely political content. Again there is a road, and I’m always reminded of the novels of Thomas Hardy, which so often begin with a lone figure traversing a landscape; I wonder whether the common artistic preoccupation with roads in the second half of the 19th century was in part attributable to the transport revolution – as people travelled faster and faster across greater distances, artists increasingly reverted to slower, timeless forms of travel, exploring it as metaphysical metaphor. Here, Levitan suggests by the merest brush strokes a vaguely defined human figure, clearly diminished by the vastness of the great empty skies and the apparently interminable road stretching ahead; surely in the allegorical tradition, the road is life itself, hard and desolate. There’s something of Hardy’s Egdon Heath about it, but this is not Wessex. This road has a particular resonance for 19th-century Russia; the medieval route from Moscow to Vladimir, Nizhny Novgorod, it also led on to Siberia, and was traversed therefore by chained prisoners, many of them political. Did Levitan’s Jewishness and his experience of exile from Moscow give a particular force to his imagination here? It is a landscape without any comfort, the small cross on the right hand side of the composition and the presence on the immense flat horizon of what appears to be a church serving only to emphasise the overwhelming, existential emptiness of the scene.

Over Eternal Peace (1894)

Eternal Peace, of 1893, to some extent complements The Vladimirka, apparently offering succour to life’s traveller in its reassuring title. In the foreground, shaped by Levitan to resemble the prow of a ship, about to set out on its final voyage, is a green promontory; upon it, a wooden church. Yet what one notices above all is how small the church is, its modest cupola scarcely rising above the trees which grow beside it, the crosses scattered in its graveyard signalling its eschatological metaphysic. Before it lies the sea of eternal rest, stretched out in a curiously lifeless way, the paint applied flatly to suggest the texture and colour of bleached bone; an islet appears from its perspective to be sucked into the void of the painting’s vanishing point, mirrored in the streak of a stratus cloud above it. And then, lowering over the whole, the great, vast skies, their towering cumulonimbus completing a palette dominated by greys. Here is rest indeed, but not, perhaps, a solution to life’s mystery; Levitan is too subtle an artist for that.
His own death at 40 followed a few years later; he did not live to see the Revolution which systematised the countryside he so lovingly painted, and closed the monasteries and churches whose cupolas rise shimmeringly over his lakes and forests – it is impossible to know what he would have made of it. When I acquired my Aurora Press edition of his work as a teenager, I was unaware of the significance of the Aurora* in Leningrad’s history; but there must surely be a painful irony in the work of this gentlest, most mystical and poetic of artists being celebrated in a publisher whose name is associated with violence, turbulence and bloodshed. It is time for Isaac Levitan to be better known.

* On October 25, 1917, the gunshot from the Aurora sent the signal to storm the Winter Palace. The symbolism of the name ‘Aurora’ was its meaning as ‘the dawn of a new era’ in history.

 

Volume 34 no 5 May / June 2020

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