Where choice cannot be swayed by desireCommissioned by the future Tsar Alexander III, the natural and supernatural worlds become one in Ilya Repin’s Sadko, a rich pageant of Russian orientalism depicting a scene from the Novgorod epic poem of the same name. Loosely following the Orpheus tale but in an underwater setting, the emphasis here is on the minstrel-merchant presented with a bevy of beautiful potential brides ranging from the siren, the supplicant, the aristocrat, the eager to the numerous faceless fit for any European salon of the period – his gaze is fixed on the peasant girl Chernava standing on the shore who presents her back to him with an almost rebuffing demeanour. The canvas itself is slick, containing all the mythic elements necessary to fuel a collective vision of a submerged kingdom – inquisitive fish, phosphorescent creatures, lithe kelp floating amid the bubbles and ruins, right down to the cold clay sea bed. At the time of its execution, Repin was at the Imperial Academy of Arts in France and perhaps longing for his native soil had written, “The idea expresses my true state and perhaps the state of our as-of-yet still Russian art.” Fantasy and mythological subjects were, unfortunately for the viewer, not to be pursued. Repin turned his prolific talents to the more realistic portrayal of events transpiring in his homeland and the immortalization through portraiture of some of Russia’s great political and cultural figures.
Repin’s fascination with the sea is still present in the canvas above painted almost thirty years later: much had changed in Russia, with its worldview shifting from one of Empire to Nationalism, the overriding pre-revolutionary atmosphere enveloping the common man is clear in its components. There is no land in sight, the horizon is vague and one can feel the weighty power of the ocean buffeting the figures. He embraces the experience while she clings to notions of propriety with one hand on her hat and the other gripping his hand for reassurance. The choice of subject is perhaps an unconscious visual addendum to the Sadko saga – not a true fairy-tale ending but one moment of pure, childlike joy in which the couple are free from the stifling control of state ideology.
As Fan and Stephen Jan Parker write in their book Russia on Canvas, “Western art historians and critics have minimized Repin’s achievements and contributions either because his very “national” identity has not been grasped, or because – and this is most likely – Repin was neither a technical innovator nor the creator of a school of painting. Moreover, he was a realist and not a modernist. Yet in the esteem of both prerevolutionary and Soviet Russia, Repin occupies a position alongside Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Musorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was and is Russia’s foremost national artist, whose oeuvre adheres to the requisities for national art as proposed by the noted painter and art historian Igor Grabar: it must reflect the spirit of the people, expressing their thoughts and aspirations; it must excite; and it must be understandable to the people”.
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