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Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897) created some of the most haunting paintings ever made of Russian landscapes. He was a founding member of the Wanderers, which, for a time, unified many of the greatest 19th century Russian artists, and he was a famed pedagogue at what was originally known as the College of Painting and Sculpting in Moscow. It is now known as the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpting and Architecture, and is run by Ilya Glazunov, one of many controversial figures who have pushed their way to the top of the fine arts in Russia in recent decades. That’s a topic for another time, however. Today I’m interested in Savrasov.
Savrasov was born into a merchant family in Moscow and, when he began exhibiting a talent for art as a young man, his father tried to discourage his interest in painting. Fortunately for us, the young man remained true to himself. In 1844, at the age of 14, he entered the school you see here (it looked somewhat different at the time, although my understanding is that it hasn’t changed terribly). It wasn’t long before the young man’s paintings were catching the eye of his elders, even if today you can read that some of his earliest works were “uneven.” But the fact of the matter is that Savrasov’s innate ability to express the soul of nature was obvious to all, even if it was appreciated to lesser or greater degrees depending upon the painting. He graduated from the College in 1854 and two of his paintings, including View of the Surroundings of Oranienbaum, were included in an exhibit at the College. View is a spectacular piece, an entire universe of natural details crammed tastefully and forcefully into a single image. As one might expect of a young artist (he was just 24 at the time), there are lovely touches of optimism and lightness – the sun streaming through young leaves; the sunlight falling on an old, aged rock, illuminating it as if it has enjoyed a rebirth; light, white, fluffy clouds in a blue sky; a carefree sailboat skipping over the waves in the background; an apparently curious individual in the distance following the “events” of the painting; bright colors preparing to burst out in the coming days or weeks… These are all things one can say with certainty about this painting. But when you know the full sum of Savrasov’s work over a lifetime, you also see here the beginnings of what would become a personal style – elements of fear, foreboding, and death.
See in the left foreground the tree cut dead. See, in the upper left-hand corner, the white, fluffy clouds beginning to darken. Note in the right foreground the almost impenetrable black gloom on our side of the lichen-covered rocks. And as for the bits and pieces of red that I suggested above might be a sign of impending flowers in bloom – we can read that another way. In fact, if we know Savrasov’s later work, we see signs of alarm in these bits of red.
Later in his life, time and time again, Savrasov would paint landscapes as if the world were in conflagration, either already in full burning flame, or on the verge of exploding. Consider his paintings Evening or Sunset – they are washed in a bloody red in the not-too-distant background that bodes nothing good. Furthermore, the bloody, fiery red is almost always mixed with a daunting darkness in which details can barely – if at all – be made out. The more I peruse the work of Savrasov, the more I think he was one of the great painters of impending doom.
People are rarely of interest to Savrasov. The vast majority of his pictures either lack people at all, or offer such tiny little figures that their only function appears to be to demonstrate how insignificant an individual is against the fiery, gloaming onslaught of nature. He occasionally painted graves in the wilderness, giving them a prominence that he almost never gave a living human figure. He has a lovely painting of a shipwreck, in which everyone surely is going down in the deep.
He has a painting called Landscape with Rainbow. You see a title like that and you have lovely, lyrical thoughts of happiness. But then you actually look at the painting and you are taken aback. The almost colorless rainbow peters out in mid-picture, wasted and useless. It hangs ominously over a dead and dying bog. There appears to be some bright sunlight way off in the distance, but hovering over this patch of light is a black, black cloud.
Savrasov’s most famous painting – it is even depicted in the background, so to speak, of the memorial plaque that hangs on the wall of the Academy of Painting – is called The Rooks Have Arrived. And, again, we are witness to an eerie, unsettling image that makes us want to look over our shoulder to see what calamity is gaining on us from behind. It is a beautiful painting, like so many of his works are, but it is clearly the beauty of danger, catastrophe and even horror.
You can read all kinds of nonsense about Savrasov. His student, the famed landscape painter Isaak Levitan, did him a great disfavor, in my opinion, but saying, “Lyricism in landscape paintings, and an endless love for his native earth, appeared with Savrasov…” Thanks to Levitan, one can read over and over again about Savrasov’s “love” either for his “native earth,” or for his “motherland.”
Yes, he loved the earth and the land that give rise to his sensibilities, but it was no “lyrical,” sappy love. This was the love of a man who felt pain and fear for the land around him. The Russia that he painted is a dangerous, threatening place. It is dark and ready to explode. It is drowning and dying even as it gives off spectacular flashes of beauty and power.
Another opinion you can read is that Savrasov was the author of two or three great paintings, but that the rest of his work is sloppy and unrealized. Ba-lo-ney! Google his paintings. Look at them long and hard. You can’t help but be moved, I would think. They are too strong, too brave, too powerful to leave one indifferent.
Apparently Savrasov suffered from alcoholism increasingly after 1870 and he ended up dying destitute. I’ve seen a few comments on the net that seem to use that information as proof that he should be considered an artist of lesser significance. I think all that means is that, yes, the darkness we see in his paintings was something he knew intimately. It takes nothing away from him; it only confirms that he “knew his song well.”
The plaque pictured above hangs on the rotunda wall of the building at Myasnitskaya Ulitsa 21, today the Russian Academy of Painting, etc. It was unveiled in 1980, and is the work of sculptor Oleg Kiryukhin.