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by Vadim NARTSISSOV, art critic, State Tretyakov Picture Gallery, Moscow
There is a small outhouse standing deep within one of Moscow's little courtyards. A place many would like to see. Grossing the threshold of this rather unprepossessing annex, you enter a real kingdom of painting. This is the memorial museum of Pavel Korin, an eminent Russian portrait-painter and restorer. A branch of the Tretyakov Picture Gallery today, the Korin art studio offers a rich collection of exhibits acquainting guests with the artist's heritage and with the world-famous sampling of Old Russia's art he has gathered.
Pavel Dmitrievich Korin was born in 1892 at Palekh, a village in the Vladimir province, whose name is known to every art lover here. His father was a peasant icon- painter. Reared in the atmosphere of lofty spirituality, the boy imbibed folk art motifs from the tender nail and learned the ABC of painting which he further developed to proficiency in 1912 to 1916 at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture under such famous masters of the day as Konstantin Korovin and Sergei
Malyutin. At age 20 Pavel Korin became a full-fledged master of the brush.
One of his tutors, a prominent Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov, saw a rare combination of talent, diligence and sublime inspiration in the young man and compared him to a "youth from Del Ghirlandaio's fresco". That's how Nesterov pictured Pavel Korin in 1925-after the image of a High Renaissance maestro. The canvas shows Korin holding a palette and contemplating his creation, unfinished yet. The artist's visage is radiant, all agleam against Our Lady's image showing through a backdrop of darkness. In this wise Nesterov sought to depict Korin's self-sacrificing feat and religiosity in his dedicated service to his Fatherland and its people: the young painter undertook his epic God-loving work, Requiem , in the years of rampant atheism.
Much later, in the grim war year of 1942, Nesterov wrote these lines to his disciple: "...I heartily congratulate you on your eventful life in art, no easy one and thus all the more precious. But let bygones be bygones. Like everybody, we have lived through our past that had many wonderful, unforgettable experiences... as well as days and hours best to be forgotten, and we had better forget them... You are destined to leave many beautiful creations for our Motherland. May the Lord give you soul vim and good health for this exploit..."
Pavel Korin is best known as a great portrait-painter of the twentieth century. From the late 1930s on his portraits came to represent people of what we call "the creative intelligentsia"-artists, scientists, musicians, and the like-the professions, in short. Korin portrayed remarkable men, purposeful and full of lofty intellectual verve, such as Konstantin Igumnov, the pianist; Vassily Kachalov, the stage actor; Nikolai Gamaleya, the microbiologist and honorary member of the USSR Academy of Sciences... The artist finds a proper setting and shades
to picture his heroes as historical witnesses of their time. Every detail, every touch of the brush is eloquent with profound meaning.
In 1932, his longtime friend, the writer Maxim Gorky, sat for a portrait. Korin depicted the tragic figure of an intellectual and thinker who had a long life behind him. We see the old writer at the crossroads, as it were, deep in thought: where to go? What's his next step going to be? His sad, lackluster eyes betray the horror of a man who saw the light and who knows he is foredoomed. The setting emphasizes Gorky's anxiety and confusion: scattered clouds scudding across the sky overhead, the cold azure of the alien, Italian sky, the puny stems of sere grass blown by the wind against the background of a deep blue sea rough with an approaching storm.
Five years after, Pavel Korin painted a portrait of his teacher and friend Mikhail Nesterov. This canvas holds pride of place among the maitre's brilliant creations. In its exquisite execution and in its in-depth philosophical imaging, the portrait surpasses many works of this genre.
Every stroke of the master's brush is meaningful. The portraitist concentrates on Nesterov's person as something all important: the artist is represented without such attributes as palette, brushes or easel. The model finds itself amidst things harking back to old Moscow - we see none of the decor of the 1930s. The portrait is extremely laconic, and willy-nilly our gaze is riveted to the cynosure of the composition-the sitter's skinny, wizened body placed in the middle of a square ground. The maestro leans forward as if taking pains to prove certain obvious truths. His very posture, his passionate emotions and polemic ardor (what was characteristic of Nesterov's makeup) are the salient features of this portraiture.
Nadezhda Peshkova's portrait stands out among the other images of women that have come from under Korin's brush. The black fabric of the sitter's gown is set off against the pallid face and bare arms. The rather small dab of a scarlet booklet in her hand strikes the eye. All that puts us in mind of the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya and his style.
The request for this portrait came from Peshkova's relatives who were worried over the woman's depression after the tragic end of her husband (Maxim Gorky's son) and the demise, a few months later, of the father-in-law (Maxim Gorky, 1936). Korin depicts the drama of this lovely and
clever woman in her very look - directed at us and at the same time inward, into the innermost recesses of her soul crushed by pain and sorrow.
As most art critics see it, Korin has reached the pinnacle of his genre in the portrait of the artist and stage director Leonid Leonidov (Wolfenson). This canvas is peerless in its psychological depth. The maestro did not paint just an extremely gifted man with all his contradictions and soul searchings. Here before us is not just a great actor-we perceive a strong-willed and tragic personality that has no illusions whatever - a man who has witnessed revolutionary turmoil, civil war and the horrendous purges of the 1930s. The hands tell us a remarkable lot about the lean ageing man in the picture, his inner concentration. As a matter of fact, the hands are always much eloquent in Korin's works, and so are they in this very portrait: outwardly calm and steady, the model betrays irritation. The fingers of his left hand, like the claws of a winged bird, clutch at the elbow-rest. The black arm-chair, accentuated by cold sharp patches of light, stands like a somber sarcophagus that has gobbled up the still living actor. In two years he will depart from this world.
But said he, while still in the land of the living: "Should our offspring wish to picture in their minds what the actor Leonidov was like, let them look at this very portrait. It's a perfect match! Thank you ever so much, sir!"
Likewise impressive is the full-dress portrait of Marshal Georgi Zhukov. It was painted in the spring of 1945, during the historic V days in Berlin, where Korin was dispatched by the State Defense Committee and the Ministry of Culture.
The master was elated, he worked with abandon. The marshal peered into the canvas, into the face above all. "Thank you, sir! I guess it's not bad; it's a field face." - "What do you mean by a 'field face'?" - "That's when you watch the battle right in the field, that's what you look like," the marshal explained.
For his dedicated work Korin merited the top national award, a Lenin Prize, in 1963- namely for the portraits of the artist Martiros Saryan, the stage actor and director Ruben Simonov (both portraits produced in 1956), for the portraits of the three eminent artists who went by the col-
lective name of Kukryniksy (1958), and for the portraiture of the Italian painter Renato Guttuso.
But one canvas, painted in 1932, stands apart. They who have seen it but once shall never forget it. This is Our Savior the Bright Eye . A part of the grand image of Jesus Christ comes through from the dense reddish twilight of a church, from under its large pendant, icon-lamps and a massive candlestick. The Lord's orbs express both wonder and anxiety - His fixed all-forgiving look is drawn slightly askew. Deep in the thick dusk we perceive the divine features of Our Savior in outline. Here and there around His countenance glow the red lights of the icon-lamps. These lights, together with the ruddy bands of the halo around Our Savior's head, intensify the feeling of anxiety and horror against the backdrop of what looks like reflections of distant big fires.
Praskovia Korina, the artist's wife, said Pavel Korin had also painted the Savior in Ostozhenka, a street in inner Moscow. The harsh realities of the 1930s could not but impact the artistic interpretation of the holy image. Those were the days when smoldering ruins lay on the site of the just demolished Church of Christ the Savior, and when a violent waterspout, breaking loose from the Kremlin, wrought havoc in Moscow and all over Russia, turning her holies to wrack and ruin.
In those ghastly days of rabid theomachism and atheism, as the powers that be cracked down on the Russian Orthodox Church, Pavel Korin began his Requiem which, at Maxim Gorky's suggestion, came to be named Russia Going Away. In its epic depth, this canvas can be compared to the historical panoramas of the Russian painter Vassily Surikov, or Michelangelo's fresco GIUDIZIO UNIVERSALE (The Day of Judgment) on the altar wall of the Roman Cappella Sistina. Although Korin did not finish his epic work, its concept was grandiose, as proved by the many completed sketches (twenty-seven in all, with 32 images and by the study of a general composition. Let's take a closer look...
Even he who is uninitiated will see that he looks at a genuine epic of the
global scale. The action takes place in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, once Russia's main church. The master unfolds the tragic slaying of a great nation. Even though the author abides by realism and by the historic method in his presentation, the painting carries a good deal of symbolic in it. What strikes our notice is that both the clergy and the flock face the viewer, with their backs turned to the altar (!). The archdeacon's gesture explains every thing. Standing in front of the top hierarchs, he raises his right hand with a chandelier in it, begging a blessing ("Bless the censer, Sovereign!") from God Himself directly. Both this gesture, coming as an overture to the liturgy, and the very name of the painting (Requiem) carry one and the same message: we attend the last divine service in Russia.
There is yet another paradox in store for us: standing behind the archdeacon are three figures with the cowls on (cowl is a hood worn by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church), which is downright impossible. These are the three patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church: the now canonized martyr Patriarch Tikhon (1917 - 1925), who is in the middle; on his left side, is Patriarch Sergius (1925 - 1944), and over to the right-Alexius I (1945 - 1970). But the most shocking thing is this: portrayed in the foreground is a young hieromonk, Pimen (Izvekov), twenty-five years old then.
His very gaze, and the high church hierarchs depicted behind his back as
though he were their shepherd presage a great future to Pimen, a humble monk. Now, Korin painted this study in 1935; and by some sheer miracle he could see in this hieromonk the future, fourth, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pimen (1970 - 1990), who became head of our church after the artist's death.
Right in the middle spreads a red carpet, it stretches from the feet of the clergy and expands in the foreground. This is an eloquent symbol of blood spilled by thousands and thousands of Russian Christians. Still and all, the Requiem is rather in a major key due to the golden core of the epic picture from which, on strong dark wings, rises a huge human wall of the faithful (monks for the most part). The top hierarchs, however, are portrayed in festive attire. And yet, for all their monumental significance, it is Metropolitan Trifon (Turkestanov) who is the pivotal figure of the composition: attired in fiery-paschal garb, he is like a burning torch inflaming each and every among the present. This image embodies the artist's credo: the human spirit emerges stronger than the mortal flesh. Here before us is the eternal stand-off of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, and the prophecy of the ultimate triumph of Truth. Indeed, true Christians believed that after man's physical death (especially if in martyrdom), he will be in for life eternal; this optimistic certitude added strength to bear the unheard-of persecutions and tortures...
The artist did not live long enough to fulfill the grandiose conception of His Requiem and paint it on the clean giant canvas we see in his studio.
Pavel Korin had an abiding faith in his people: "Russia was, Russia is, Russia shall be?" he would say. This thought keynotes his historical canvases. During the Great Patriotic War of 1941 - 1945 and in subsequent years too, the painter created works permeated with great verve and a sense of the invincibility of the Russian people. The gamut of forms and images enhanced by a tense palette of colors serves this end. The triptych Alexander Nevsky is in the gallery of such creations.
It was in 1942 that Korin turned to the image of Prince Alexander Nevsky. He portrays the prince against a backdrop of Novgorod the Great,
Russia's outpost in the northwest. In the distance, on the other bank of the legendary Volkhov * , we perceive the St. Sophia Church. "Where St. Sophia, there Novgorod is," said Alexander's kinsman and forerunner, the hero Mstislav Udaloi (the Brave). The princely standard with another Novgorodian holy, the Savior of Nereditsa (masterpiece of 12th-century Novgorodian monumental painting), flies over the prince's head.
The robust figure of the warrior prince is clad in the famous Novgorodian armor, the strongest and the best for wear in those times. On this head Prince Alexander has the genuine helmet of his father, Prince Yaroslav (now in the custody of the Armory Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin). His brave, dauntless face is turned west. A brilliant warlord and strategist, Alexander Nevsky was not a warmonger, but he urged his countrymen to be always on their guard. His sword is in the sheath, but he warned the foe: "He who takes the sword against us shall perish with the sword!" And proceeding against the superior force of the King of Sweden, the prince encouraged his host: "God is in truth, not in strength!"
A separate hall in the memorial studio-and-museum features another facet of the artist's multidimensional talents, namely in the art of mosaic that he has revived in Russia. Korin is the author of the grand inlaid panels in the main edifice of Moscow University and on the vault of the Komsomolskaya subway station in Moscow. Crowds of guests admire the illuminated stained-glass panels at another subway station, Novoslobodskaya. For these inlaid pictures the artist was awarded a USSR Stalin Prize (1952).
Besides, Korin made a name for himself as a gifted art restorer and an heir to the veteran artist Academician Igor Grabar. In 1932 to 1959 Korin was in charge of the restoration workshop of the A.S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. And with war's end in 1945 he, together with his brother A. Korin, restored the canvases of the Dresden Picture Gallery.
The artist did not finish his last monumental painting, Splashes of Fire (1966). But he did complete the central part of the triptych, while the "wings" remained unfinished on the easel.
Now, "splashes" or "flashes of fire" means big bonfires which the people of Old Rus built as warning of the approaching enemy. A chain of such fires connects the three panels of the painting representing the high forested bank of the river Klyazma near Vladimir, Russia's capital city for some time. As always, Korin has a poignant sense of history, and in this triptych he urges unity of the feudally divided Russian state (12th century), then an easy prey to enemy attacks.
The left panel of the picture illustrates Russia's national tragedy. The battle over, the Russian host takes away its wounded (or slain) prince and retreats to the gold-domed town of Vladimir. The crimson standard on which his body reposes carries the emblem of the Vladimir principality, a winged griffin. We see a gray-haired warrior, now the captain of the host. The soldier's left hand shows the way and points at a figure of a young and handsome hero with his sword drawn, who stands against a dark thundercloud at his back. His left hand restrains the faithful steed. The figure symbolizes a valorous defender of the Fatherland determined to crush the foe. This epic hero knows no fear, and he shall overcome, even single-handedly! He shall defend a small rowan-tree, a trembling symbol of Vladimir Rus.
* See: V. Darkevich, "Republic on the Volkhov", Science in Russia, No. 5, 1998. - Ed.
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