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For me Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin was a case of love at first sight. I don’t recall where it was I saw it – in a book, as a print, or on television – but the instant I saw the painting Bathing the Red Horse I was slayed forever. I had to know right then who was it who could paint something like that, and the lovely sounding name Petrov-Vodkin sunk comfortably into my brain, taking up permanent residence there. Later I saw the original painting in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and I had to pull myself away from it. (There are many paintings you must pull yourself away from at the Tretyakov.) Petrov-Vodkin had a way with the color red. There is something personal, something electric, something deeply and richly rewarding about his use of red. He doesn’t use it all the time, but when does you remember it. Check out Morning. The Female Bathers or even Midday. Summer and you may see what I mean.
Of course, it’s not just the reds that made me love this painter. There is the cleanliness of his lines, the way he juxtaposes near and far images, the mix of classical and modern approaches, the understatement of emotion mixed with often near-solid blocks of color… But these are all subjective things, more or less. They are what I see and love. You may see something else.
Petrov-Vodkin was born in the town of Khvalinsk near Saratov in 1878. The son of a shoemaker father and a mother of former peasant stock, his prospects for a grand life were not necessarily the best. He didn’t do particularly well in school, and didn’t really try, apparently. He is said to have noted that the pupils in his local school showed more respect to fellow pupils for hazing the teacher than for knowing one’s lessons. The young man showed some talent for painting and drawing in school, but it wasn’t until after he finished school – and failed to gain entrance into the railroad academy in Saratov – that he truly began to pursue his talent for art. The local painter Fyodor Burov recognized his gift and invited him to attend his school in Saratov. However, Burov died two years later and Petrov-Vodkin went back home. There he was “discovered” by the St. Petersburg architect Roman Meltser who was impressed when the young artist showed him his portfolio. Aided financially and morally by Meltser and others, Petrov-Vodkin made the trek to St. Petersburg where he entered the Stieglitz School of Technical Drawing in 1895. Ultimately, he would graduate from the prestigious Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1904, having studied with the great painter Valentin Serov.
Following graduation, Petrov-Vodkin did what any self-respecting artist of that era did – he set out on a year’s travel throughout Italy and France. There he not only discovered a new approach to art and his own particular talents – “having holed-up as a barbarian in a workshop in Montparnasse, I reconsidered and discarded much of what I had learned in my Russian schooling. With the diligence of a student, I did hundreds of studies and sketches in the academies of Paris, re-establishing my attitude to nature and portraiture” – but he also found a wife, the daughter of the owner of the hostel in which he lived in Fontenay-aux-Roses, south of Paris. She did not speak Russian, which, apparently, was no hindrance to them at all. They were married in a civil service in Paris, then joined officially in an Orthodox Church back in Khvalinsk.
Upon returning to Russia, Petrov-Vodkin first met with a less-than-enthusiastic Valentin Serov, who is said to have remarked, “So, you’ve become Frenchified.” But, by now, serious changes were taking place in the young painter’s life. As so often happens in art, and especially Russian art, the catalyst was by way of a scandal.
Petrov-Vodkin exhibited his painting, Dream, in 1910 and it was either hated or loved by many of the big painters of the time. Ilya Repin called it “the hideous work of an ignoramus.” Leon Bakst and Alexander Benois, among others, came to Petrov-Vodkin’s defense, and by the end of the year he had joined their influential World of Art group. He painted Bathing the Red Horse in 1912, and this time won Repin over immediately. “Yes, this artist is talented,” Repin is reported to have said. (This quote, like others in this text, as well as links to paintings, are taken from the fine article about Petrov-Vodkin on Culture.ru.) Whether or not the bright red horse was a premonition on the part of the artist of the coming Revolution, I, unlike many other commentators, cannot say. I just know that it’s stunningly beautiful, and that I find it a dicey activity, reading too much philosophy and politics into a specific color…
Whatever the case, Petrov-Vodkin was one of the most respected painters in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) by the time the Revolution arrived. He was a supporter of the monumental changes taking place, and he took up official positions in the Petrograd Council of Arts, and at the Academy of Arts, where he taught for approximately 15 years. By the late 1920s his health had begun to fail, and he was not able to paint nearly as much as he would have liked. He was given an apartment in a beautiful complex built in 1935 by architect Demyan Fomichev specifically for art workers. Petrov-Vodkin moved into apartment 20 at 14 Kamennoostrovsky Prospect in the Petrogradsky District in 1936, and he officially remained a resident here until his death in 1939. Dmitry Shostakovich was Petrov-Vodkin’s neighbor in apartment 4 from 1935 to 1937.
3 thoughts on “Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin plaque, St. Petersburg”
What a splendid little essay! I had known a couple of his paintings (Red is probably the only one I would have known was his right off the bat), but was ignorant of his career as a whole. I would add that he was also a writer — Самаркандия, Хлыновск, and Пространство Эвклида have, I think, become fairly well known in recent decades.
(Oops, I meant Red Horse — how did the last word get lopped off?)
Interesting, I did not know about his writings. I’ll have to look for those. Painters (Chagall!) are often very good writers… Thank you for the tip, LH!