Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery
This year marks the 160th anniversary of both the National Portrait Gallery and Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. To celebrate the event, the two institutions have organised a rare cultural exchange that sees some of the main pieces of the Russian collection come to London, while the Tretyakov Gallery simultaneously hosts an exhibition named British Portraits: Elizabeth to Victoria. The London exhibition not only serves as an introduction to the key figures in Russia’s cultural history, it also gives credit to some notable Russian artists such as Nikolai Ge, Vasily Perov and Ivan Kramskoy.
Curated by Dr Rosalind P Blakesley, the exhibition presents a visual historical account. The works are grouped by field and include portraits of writers, theatremakers, musicians and patrons, with each category reserving a highlight or two. In the theatre section the full-length portrait of actress Maria Ermolove in a red dress certainly stands out, as does the powerful painting of Chekhov, which perfectly depicts the bittersweetness caused by his illness and his first taste of success. A section entitled The Thee Great Novelists reserves the spotlight for Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Dostoevsky’s portrait is especially noteworthy as it is the only likeness of the author to have been painted from life. As such, the image has gained cult status and been produced on stamps and various merchandise.
Every section sheds light on different issues relating to Russia’s mutating national identity. The room dedicated to writers and critics reminds viewers that, in some cases, authors acted as spokespeople for the masses with their dissenting voices. In the music room, a selection of compositions by the most prominent names, from Tchaikovsky to Mussorgsky, accompanies the viewing experience and changes the mood by revealing another equally complex dimension.
The display will be of interest to anyone wanting to explore Russian culture through the people who made it great. It gives an idea of the development of the country from a historical, creative and artistic perspective. Through the stories of each celebrated personage, one gets a sense of the political atmosphere and the shifting dynamics within society. While the exhibition does not provide depth, and it can seem to be little more than a pictorial hall of fame, it will certainly be complemented by the talks and events organised around it, as well as a little off-site background research.
Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 17th March until 26th June 2016, for further information visit here.