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This would be fairly typical.

I watch a film about Tolstoy, and decide I should read War and Peace.  Superego punishing me for having reclined on the sofa all evening not doing something worthwhile.

I start reading War and Peace and discover that it is all about bloody beautiful younger sisters and horrible older sisters.  Mope about on bed feeling ugly and horrible for several hours and indulge in some serious self-flagellation before regrouping.  Decide to find out why Tolstoy prefers younger sisters.  There is always a reason.  Do copious research on internet which only makes my crocked arm (my husband’s compassionate phrase) feel much worse.  Discover lots of interesting things and make lots of mental notes.  Find that there is a biography of Sophia, Tolstoy’s wife which I *absolutely* must read.  Buy second hand copy on Amazon, thus increasing the depletion of the rainforest and our bank account simulataneously.  Wait a day or so until brown parcel appears, along with several others.  Devour biography of Sophia and, after only a few pages, emerge triumphant.  There!  Now everything is clear.  And, bingo!  The need to read War and Peace has suddenly disappeared since it is written by a man whom I don’t like who prefers younger sisters.  Ergo it would be a waste of my time and just make me feel bad.  So I’ll just write this instead.

Tolstoy is the fourth son of five children of the Count and Countess Tolstoy. Countess Tolstoy is an only child.  Count Tolstoy has two sisters.  Their marriage is arranged.  She is described as “plain” and five years older than him, but brings a huge dowry with her.  He has debts to pay.

Two years after his birth and six months after the birth of his younger sister, Tolstoy’s mother dies.  He has no memories of her.  He is cared for after the death of his mother by two “aunts” and his paternal grandmother.  Only one of the aunts, his father’s older sister, is a blood relative.  She lives with the family because her husband tried to shoot her and cut out her tongue.  The other aunt, Toinette, was adopted by Tolstoy’s grandparents.

Tolstoy is orphaned at nine when his father dies; his paternal grandmother dies only three months later.  The five siblings are split between the beloved Toinette and the blood aunt.  Tolstoy stays with Toinette, but not for long for the blood aunt also dies and the remaining sister of Tolstoy, Pelagya, takes on the whole family.  Pelagya is not happy that Tolstoy should stay with Toinette because her husband had proposed to Toinette,  was refused, and only proposed to Pelagya afterwards.  Pelagya and Toinette remain life long enemies.

Such was the hotbed that bred Tolstoy.  And he was nurtured in the hothouse.  One of his brothers took him to a brothel when he was sixteen and many years of whoring and gambling followed, punctuated by periods of self-loathing and making of resolutions never to be kept.  He chronicled it all in his diaries.  Fast forward to his 34th year and Moscow and switch to Sophia, his soon-to-be wife.

In comparison to Tolstoy, his wife came from a conventional family.  Her father, Andrei Behrs was, according to Tolstoy, “a very straightforward, honest and quick-tempered man” though “a big womaniser” who had sired several illegitimate children before his marriage to Sophia’s mother.  Sophia, whom Tolstoy married after an engagement of only one week when she was just seventeen, was the middle of three daughters born close together.  She had an older sister, Liza, and a younger sister, Tatya, and ten other siblings of whom five died in infancy.

Tolstoy was a regular visitor to the family over the years.  Alexandra Popoff, in her biography of Sophia, suggests that Sophia’s family stood in for the two-parent family that Tolstoy had never known.  Tolstoy writes of Lenin, his autobiographical character in Anna Karenina, that:

“Strange as it may seem, Konstantin Levin was in love precisely with the house, the family, especially the female side of it.  He did not remember his own mother, … , so that in the Sheherbatsky’s house he saw for the first time the milieu of an old, noble, educated and honorable family, of which he had been deprived by the death of his father and mother.”

Tolstoy tells his sister, Maria, that “if I ever marry, I will only marry in that family”.  Liza, the elder sister, and still unmarried, is the obvious choice.  She is diligent and bookish, nicknamed “The Professor” in the family and given the role of policing her siblings which makes her unpopular.  But Tolstoy has other ideas of a wife, and has fixed on her younger sister, Sophia.  He turns up unexpectedly at a dance at their grandparent’s house and, as the evening draws to a close, asks Sophia to stay with him on the terrace and read what he would write.  He only writes the initial letters of words, but she guesses the whole sentences.  First “Your youth and need for happiness too vividly remind me of my age and incapacity for happiness”  and then later he writes that he has been misunderstood: his intention is not to marry Liza.

The Behrs parents have not realised where his interest lies, and he is always sat next to Liza.  Liza intimates that she expects an announcement on Tolstoy’s 34th birthday on 28th August 1862.  Tolstoy, on the other hand, admits to his diary that he is “beginning to hate Liza as well as pity her”.

Sophia’s name day is just over two weeks later, on 16th September and Tolstoy’s present to her is a written proposal which is immediately accepted.  Sophia and Liza greet the guests at the name day party and, when Sophia’s mother announces an engagement, all the guests assume that is it Liza who is to be married.

But a week later Sophia and Tolstoy are married.  By this time Sophia’s image of her husband has been smashed – he has insisted that she read his diaries of his earlier sexual encounters so that there should be no secrets between them.  She learns amongst other things that he has fathered a child.  On the wedding day Tolstoy has last minutes doubts, is an hour late for the service, and Sophia spends much of the day in tears.  The day ends with her losing her virginity in a cold, dark carriage, an experience she later described as a rape, and about which she wrote in her diary at the time:

“I could only hear … his breath, hasty, frequent, passionate.  Conquered by his power and intensity, I was obedient and loving, although crushed by the agonising physical pain and unbearable humiliation.  And again, again, all night, the same attempts, the same sufferings.”

Some writer, Sophia.  She’d already written a short novel based on the three Behrs sisters called “Natasha”, and had read it to Tolstoy before destroying it.

“When Lev Nikolaevich (Tolstoy) depicted [Natasha Rostova] in War and Peace he drew on my novella and borrowed the name for his heroine … he read it a month before our wedding and praised me for pure demands on love.”

But let’s not stray to Natasha Rostova just yet.  Back to Sophia.  Sophia is pregnant now and taken away from her family to the country.  She gives birth to a son in late June, almost exactly nine months after their wedding – to the day.  But any happiness at the birth is short-lived. Sophia disappoints Tolstoy who is adamant that she must breastfeed even though she has agonising mastitis.   She describes Tolstoy in her diary as “murderous” and wanting to wipe her from the face of the earth.  Her father intervenes and writes to them both:

You think you are a thoroughly unhappy mother because you found yourself forced to engage a wet nurse; the husband comforts his wife by promising not to enter the nursery because the atmosphere disgusts him … I see you have both gone out of your minds … Can it be unknown to you, good husband, that mental suffering has a harmful and injurious effect on the organism and especially on a woman after a recent confinement … Stop acting foolish, dear Sonya … Is it such a disgrace that you could not manage to breastfeed your baby, and whose fault is it?  Your own, and especially your husband’s, who, without considering his wife’s condition, forces her to do things which prove injurious to her … He is a great master of words and of writing but when it comes to deeds, it is a different matter.  Let him write a story about a husband who tortures his sick wife and wants her to continue nursing her baby; all the women will stone him.”

So, the scene is set.  Tolstoy is married to a woman half his age.  He has all the power and she has none.  He withholds affection.  She is desperate for it.

But what of her two sisters?  What, especially, of Tatya?

Lola B’s visit to London could not be complete without some culture. I was very keen to see a collection of Russian paintings which had almost not made it to London and which had never been exhibited there before. Lola B yawned a lot and skipped through the paintings very quickly. I felt a bit disappointed. Afterwards she went through the catalogue with my husband, and I was surprised by how much she had taken in. She had quickly decided which pictures she liked (and disliked) and could tell us why. My disappointment was acquired cultural baggage. Like her, my approach to painting is instinctive and immediate, visceral, in the gut, and I have never really understood how an intellectual understanding of art history could add to my delight in a picture which, rather, appeals to my sub-conscious. Yet we are told that we need to understand the rules of composition, the literary allusions, the symbols, the metaphors before we can understand a piece of art.


In 1897 Leo Tolstoy wrote his book entitled “What is Art?”.   His answer to the question typified the Russian approach, so different from the French insistence on aesthetics.  For Tolstoy, art is not just a pretty picture that gives pleasure.  Above everything else, it is a means of communicating between the creator of the work and the viewer and between the single viewer and all the viewers who have gone before and will come afterwards, and so a means of union between men “joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity” (Ch 5.12):


“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s experience of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.  To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow.  A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind.  By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others.  A man suffers, expressing his suffering by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons and phenomena.


And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”


Tolstoy writes of an artist “infecting” the viewer with his emotions.  These emotions may be any from the huge range that humans experience, and may be strong or weak, but it will only be “art” if the viewer is infected.  So art may be found in the smallest happenings of an ordinary life, yet not everything that happens will be art.  It is the degree to which a work is capable of infecting others that will distinguish it from other works.  Only authentic art is capable of infecting others: counterfeit art will not be capable of producing that feeling of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those also infected by it).  In fact, such is the degree of infection, that the viewer comes to regard the work as his own:


“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist – not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art.  In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.” (Ch 15.27)


How infectious a piece of work is will depend, according to Tolstoy, on three factors:


  • The individuality of the work
  • The clearness of expression
  • The sincerity of the artist


In each case, the more individuality there is, the more clarity of expression there is, the more sincerity there is, the more the viewer will be infected, but it is sincerity – above all – that is essential.  Sincerity includes the other two notions.  If an artist is sincere he will express his own unique being through his art: he will be individual.  Similarly, if an artist is sincere he will seek the clearest means to convey his meaning.


For Tolstoy, sincerity found its true home in “peasant art”, and is entirely absent from upper-class art.  Art was not something that could be taught since to teach art is to destroy its spontaneity and the individuality of the artist  as the artist is encouraged to copy the art of others.  So, too, the professional artist is unlikely to produce “good art”; the art produced in order to earn a living is likely to be false and insincere.  Good art requires no explanation, and so the criticism and interpretation of art is irrelevant and unnecessary.  Good art is intelligible and comprehensible by most people, and great art is universal, that is, it is intelligible and comprehensible by everyone.


Russian paintings have recently been shown in London at the Royal Academy in London as part of the “From Russia” exhibition which closes on Friday, 18th April 2008.  The exhibition has transferred from Dusseldorf and is sponsored by German utility giant, E.ON to coincide with the delivery of the 500 billionth cubic metre of Russian gas to E.ON Ruhrgas and is divided into two equal halves.  The first half comprises French paintings dating between 1870 and 1925: the second half comprises Russian paintings from the same period. 


The French paintings were not new to me, or at least the artists and their instantly recognisable styles were not new to me.  The Russian paintings, however, were something quite different.   Until the middle of the nineteenth century, promising artists had been sent from Russia to Italy to learn how to paint.  Now painters went instead to France and brought back with them to Russia the trends of contemporary French painting.  At the same time wealthy Russian individuals began collecting works by French artists and bringing them back to Russia to exhibit in public, and to display in their homes.  Many artists painted in the French style, but out of this grew a reaction against the imported art, determined to create a body of work owed its genesis to the Russian spirit.  These new Russian paintings were different from the French paintings, defined by a need to use art to express political beliefs and coloured by the Orthodox religion.  The “still life” was an anathema to the Russians, and nudes were an insult to Orthodoxy.  Russian painting was “engaged” in an existential sense long before the French discovered the meaning of the word.


Many paintings had a religious subject, although for artists such as Ivan Kramskoi this was sometimes no more than a convenient, acceptable device in which to explore aspects of the human condition.  I posted Kramskoi’s picture of Christ in the Wilderness a couple of days ago.   Kramskoi had an ambiguous relationship to Christ and to religion. 


“On the one hand, Christ is a moral authority for him.  However, Kramskoi sees Christ as a figure more legendary than real.  Grounded in this conviction, the artist attempts to “purge” the image of Christ of his divine hypostasis.  Moreover, by desacralising Christ, he attempts to locate in him the seeds of atheism – and find them!  At a certain point, Christ stops being God for Kramskoi, “a man who destroyed God in the universe and placed him in the very centre of the human spirit, and goes to his death calmly for that reason.”  “What is a real atheist?” asks Kramskoi rhetorically, and answers the question: “He is a person who draws strength only from himself”.  

For Kramskoi, Christ, contemplating in the desert his role in the life of his people, whom he is leading to a new religion, is a metaphor for the conflict of opposing principles within man: strength and weakness, faith and disbelief.”


(from an essay in the exhibition catalogue entitled ‘Personal Religiousness and religious consciousness among Russian artists at the turn of the 20th Century’ by Yevgenia Petrova of the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)


This is my favourite painting from the exhibition. It’s a large painting, 210cm by 125cm. It is exuberant, full of movement and colour, predominately bright red. At first you don’t notice the woman’s head, only the shattered mosaics of pattern.

It was painted by a painter with a peasant background.  Philipp Malyavin was born into a large peasant family.  Kazanki, his village, was visited regularly by travelling Orthodox monks who brought religious icons from Mount Athos.  These fascinated the young Malyavin and he convinced his parents to allow him, at the age of sixteen, to travel to Mount Athos to study icon-painting.  He discovered to his disappointment that icons were only copied in Mount Athos, but he had no money to go back home and so entered a monastery on Athos as a novice and began painting icons.


When he was 22, his work impressed a visiting Russian professor of art and his return to Russia was made possible.  He was enrolled in the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and chose to be accepted into the studio of the Russian realist painter, Ilya Repin.  Repin was a member of the Wanderers group of painters and a great friend of Tolstoy and painted the portrait at the top of this post of Tolstoy barefoot.  Repin epitomises the new spirit of critical, socially oriented, Russian painters.  He rejects the French insistence on the importance of light above all:


“You say we need to move towards light and colour. No! Here, too, our goal is content.  The character and soul of the person, the drama of life, impressions of nature, her life and meaning, and the spirit of history – that is what concerns us, it seems to me.  For us, paint is a weapon: it exists to express our thoughts …”


His student, Malyavin, loved colour.  He used his favourite colour, red, in most of his paintings, and most of them depict peasant women.  He became a popular portraitist but his work was not accepted by the art establishment.  It was too different and too colourful.  He found more acclaim in Paris, although he became popular again in Russia during the Revolution as he had continued to exalt the peasant folk he had grown up amongst.  He travelled abroad frequently with his paintings and died on December 23rd, 1940, in Nice, France.

More Malyavin