Levitan in Petersburg

The weekend of June 13th we took a train to St. Petersburg to see an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of Isaak Levitan’s birthday. Levitan was one of the 19th century’s greatest landscape painters. He may still be Russia’s most loved landscape painter. For anyone working with the landscape, the exhibition would be a must-see. The entire holdings of his work from the Russian Museum and loans from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, meant almost all of his greatest works were there, alongside of short sketches, drawings, pastels and prints that you can’t find in reproduction. It was additionally important for us because Levitan is a part of the same landscape tradition we were studying. A part, because his work is universally known and studied by all Russian painters, but also because his artistic lineage – who taught him, and who he worked with – overlaps with the lineage of all of the painters with whom we were studying in Russia.

Levitan was taught, by Alexei Savrasov, Vasily Perov, and Vasily Polenov. Savrasov  and Vasily Polenov also taught Konstantin Korovin, who taught Alexander Gerasimov, one of the major Soviet painters. Gerasimov taught Yuri Kugach and Olga Svetlechnaya, whose son, grandson, and students we worked with in Volochok.The Kugach family is also tied to the great 19th century teacher Pavel Chistyakov, who taught Polenov, who taught Levitan. The entire artistic family tree is better described visually, but suffice it to say that Levitan’s work shares many of the same artistic values that are still being taught at the Academic Dacha.
At the exhibition I saw Eternal Peace and Spring Flood along with almost all of Levitan’s most famous paintings. Yet, where I found myself lingering the longest was near a few display cases holding small etudes. It was fascinating to see how Levitan dealt with essentially the same assignment I set myself every day. In these small oil sketches, and in his drawings, the process of his work was much more transparent than in his large paintings. I was struck by what modest compositions he chose for his sketches – a flat expanse of land, a wall of trees and a band of sky – scattering of birch trunks – and by his straightforward handling of paint and color.
It’s very tempting at times to make decorative decisions when painting the landscape – to distort the way you paint a tree branch, for example, so that you can render it in a masterful little swoop of your brush, or to find some dramatic composition. The inclination to create something with a “wow-factor” is something I think every painter struggles with working from life. Looking through Levitan’s studies, on display in a huge museum, in rooms swarming with people, there was no appeal to the oohs and ahhs of his audience. His larger works aren’t out to impress either, but for his small work in particular there was a complete sense of ease, looking at them. It can be exhausting at times to go to the museum and be confronted with so much genius. And then some paintings in the midst off endless towering achievement feel like running into some a kid your own age at a Christmas party you’re at with your parents.

You “I like this one of the muddy field”
Kid ” Really?”
You ” I mean, yeah. It’s pretty nice.”
Kid ” What do you like about it?”
You ” Oh I don’t know. Reminds me of a park by my old house.”
Kid ” Where’d you live?”
You ” Over by Bon Air Elementary”
Kid ” No way, that IS the field by Bon Air Elementary!”
You “How do you know?”
Kid ” I painted it”
You ” You’re Isaak Levitan? But you’re only 10 years old!”
Kid ” Yeah, I don’t know. Let’s go get more chili.”
You “Done.”

Whenever I tour museums with my brother he does his best to reproduce the kinds of questions that his Russian teachers posed him on their museum visits. These range from picking the “best” painting in a given room, and then defending your choice, to topical questions like, ” What do whathisname and suchandso have in common?” or “What’s the biggest problem in this painting?” Maybe the most meaningful of these little games, I think, is to ask whether a given painting is a “Я” (me) or a “Mы” (we) painting – to say whether you feel like the painter is talking with you or shouting at you. Of course, in a certain sense, it’s impossible to say – and yet more often than not it’s easy to reach a consensus. And while there might be a time and a place for a painter to shout, “People are dying!” or “I’m alive!” – I think in general I am drawn to, and return to, paintings that don’t scream for attention, but seem willing to be approached.

Back to “research,” seeing this straightforwardness in Levitan’s etudes made me think how foolish it would be for me to try and produce something impressive during an hour or two of painting in the field. It would be ultimately much more valuable to stay involved with with the subject, and allow the product to be as unimpressive as it needed to in order to stay involved. If Levitan’s brushwork doesn’t look pretty, mine definitely shouldn’t – and if I think it does it’s just a sign that I’ve gotten distracted. So I tried to take that to heart.