The Immortal Iron List of Ilya Repin’s Masterpieces

The Immortal Iron List exists to emphasize those things which stand out among their peers. Those things which are a little different in a huge way. Like the hero The List is named for, it stands as a testament to the immortality of ideas. The List might be ranked, it might not. It might be humorous, or it might not. The only thing The List always is, is Iron, definitive and everlasting.

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Self Portrait: 1878

Art has a place in society similar to Literature, yet it is not taken quite as seriously as a means of social and societal change. The Communist Manifesto sparked a movement that shook the entire globe for a hundred years, its effects have surely not been full felt. For the rest of human history, those in charge will see such works as a warning, they will be forced to use it for themselves as a method of control. In much the same way Fine Art, specifically paintings, can have a similar result. Ilya Repin sent shivers through the Russian art world when he first gained recognition for the painting Barge Haulers on the Volgaa haunting yet bright portrayal of the ways in which the rulers were stomping on the throats of the poor. Repin was warning the elite to look upon the faces of these men and see one thing, while most of them are broken, a few are looking right back, plotting a violent revenge. Art is most visible to the rich and ruling, for they have the luxury of time and money. Repin wanted them to know that what they were doing would have consequences. He painted a “manifesto.” This list exists to show that the power of such an idea has not subsided, though the standing of Fine Art has seemed to change.

Barge Haulers on the Volga: 1870-1873

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Barge Haulers is about 5 feet tall and 9 feet long. The people at the front of the yoke are not much smaller than life size. Their faces just a little smaller than yours.

The most telling feature of this painting, besides the brightness of the landscape contrasting with the burnt skin of the workers, is the face of the fourth man from the left. The warning. The entire Bolshevik movement, the entire communist revolution, can be found in that face. He sees you, estate owner who might not actively abuse his servants to this extent, but perpetrates the society that places some men so far above others as to make them Gods. He’s coming for you.

This painting fittingly hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersberg, a building erected by the final Tsar, repurposed by the Communist Party, and sitting still as a reminder of the power of Art.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom: 1876

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The story of Sadko is simple enough. He is a man who plays the gulsi, a string instrument not unlike a steel guitar, with his young wife. He most enjoys to play his music at the shores of a lake. The Sea Tsar, an underwater king, is a fan of Sadko’s music and decided to make the man rich. When Sadko would see fisherman he would bet them that he could catch a fish far beyond his means. The fishermen would take his bet, knowing that catching such fish was even beyond their skill, but the Sea Tsar would send the fish to Sadko, who would win the bet and take the fisherman’s money. With his new wealth Sadko became a merchant, trading on the very same lake. He got a big head though, and stopped paying his respects to the Sea Tsar, he stopped playing his gulsi, and left his young wife at home. Eventually the Sea Tsar stopped Sadko’s ships and demanded respect. The crew threw gold and riches into the lake, to no avail. Eventually the crew threw in Sadko, hoping this could appease the Sea Tsar, which it did. In the depths of the lake Sadko performed for the Sea Tsar and his queen, who in turn offered him the hand of their daughter. This is the scene depicted in Repin’s wondrous painting.

Sadko looks up to see the young wife he has forgotten about, while the Sea Tsarinas look upon him with intrigue. There is an abundance of real, human emotion on display in this seemingly fantastical image. Repin once again uses a technique where he focuses detail on the faces of his subjects. He finds the character and paints their life upon their face. He uses light like Rembrandt, and darkness like Caravaggio. He is a master of faces like Rafael. No wonder then that Repin sparked a Russian Renaissance, which was short lived, and died with the last Tsar.

The story of Sadko ends with the Sea Tsar returning him to the surface, to the wife he had forgotten, who tells him he has simply been dreaming while asleep upon the shore of the lake. The story has been adapted many times, with various authors adding and removing details, but the scene depicted in Sadko always remains. Repin has a way of capturing the most important aspects of his subjects, he eternalizes them, he builds them a legacy.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin: 1884

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Ilya Repin was mostly a portrait painter, as was a common means of income for painters at the time. Though many of his portraits manage to capture something striking in their subjects, this piece, of short story writer Vsevolod Garshin, is his most haunting. Never before or since have such sad eyes been rendered so effectively on canvas. Repin’s signature technique of creating a nucleus of detail around the face of the subject is perhaps most effective here. Garshin’s papers, hands, desk, even clothes are blurry and out of focus. But his eyes say more than his writing ever could.

Garshin had volunteered in the Russian Army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and was wounded in action. He wrote about his experiences as a soldier, providing a glimpse into the effects of PTSD in the story “Four Days,” in which a wounded soldier is left for dead for four days and nights, silently staring at the corpse of a Turkish soldier he had himself killed. The narrator experiences overwhelming empathy for the dead man as we waits for aid. The story made Garshin a success, but nevertheless just four years after this portrait was painted, Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin leapt from his fifth story apartment, dying five days later.

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581: 1885

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Ivan the Terrible has just struck his son, his only heir, across the head with his scepter, he clutches his son in his hands, looking upward to God to pray for the younger Ivan to live. His son, Ivan Tsarovich, had come to confront his father because the senior Ivan had assaulted his son’s pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. Ivan the Terrible earned his name in blood. Repin chooses to focus on the single moment of regret, immediately following the deathblow that would end the Rurik Dynasty. Repin, once again the master of faces, shows the horror of Ivan in a way that a portrait of his bloodshed never could. To paint a terrible man committing atrocities shows the monster, but to paint him confronting the consequences of his terror shows the man.

In the days since Repin’s time this painting has come to be his most well known. The tiny, almost stuttering eyes of Ivan the Terrible show the realization that he has destroyed his legacy, ended his dynasty, and cemented his name in the annals of history as a villain. Another haunting example of Repin’s mastery of eyes.

St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death: 1888

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The final piece on this list speaks to the “immortality” of Repin’s work. St. Nicholas looks away from the executioner as he grabs the man’s sword by the blade. He is the patron saint of thieves and murderers because of this very act, one committed in the fourth century that lives on. This act of mercy is still celebrated seventeen hundred years later, every year on December 25th, through the legacy of Santa Claus.

Though many other groups claim him as their patron saint, children and seafarers most notably. His definitive act is mercy for a group of thieves and killers. Repin makes the man feeble, his body incapable of truly stopping the execution. Instead he focuses on the man’s face, his unmistakable white beard, and his frowning, lipless mouth pleading for mercy. The man to the left wears the stolen clothes of a woman, he is a thief, but now in this world of transphobia and the demonizing of men who dress or act or even live as women, this man seems so much more relevant. St. Nicholas saves these men’s lives, he did so with his voice, his words, ultimately his face. Ilya Repin paints him not as jolly Santa Claus, but distressed and afraid. He fears for the souls of the executioner, he fears for the life of the man beneath the blade. This is a glimpse of mercy, but Repin uses the face of terror once again to show something much deeper.

Ilya Repin was one of the finest painters to ever live. His work lives on, more studied now even than he was during his life, when he was the only Russian artist given attention by Western Europe. He was the Tolstoy of the canvas. Or rather, Tolstoy was the Repin of words.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Featured image is Reply of the Zoporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire: 1880-1891, by Ilya Repin.

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