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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