Painting Surprise: Impossible?

Darling, I want you to surprise me this Xmas.
I want the kind of surprise that would make me cry out something like, ‘Wow! A Lexus!’

Creating surprise is easy in a story or movie, which can offer a surprising end to an ordinary beginning. Narratives always have the beginning, the climax, and the epilogue, if the narrator does not fall asleep in the middle of the story.

Most contemporary art puts surprise and shock (and a deadly dose of the two ingredients mixed up into something disgusting), right at the centre of what it serves an unsuspecting observer. I often think that the ultimate objective of the contemporary artist is to make viewers wet their pants or puke, or both.

This is why contemporary artists resort to installations, bigger-than-life hyper-realism, and crazy materials (like elephant dung for paintings or artist’s own blood for a self-portrait head sculpture): it is almost impossible to PAINT or SCULPT a surprise using traditional methods or media.

I have a special term for this kind of shocking art: yabrakadabra, which means “abracadabra” (or gobbledygook)  produced by Young British Artists who count Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn among their ageing numbers.

But do they really know how to surprise a viewer? Surprise is not easy. It is often ambiguous. Pride, for instance, is easy. Always positive. Disgust is always negative. Surprise can be both. We can be positively surprised by an unexpected Xmas gift, but just as easily, a new frying pan may not send your girlfriend reeling with joy, given there’s a 90% chance she was expecting the rather usual diamond ear-rings.

There was a realistic Russian painter who pulled off the trick of painting surprise, and not just positive or negative, but mixed the way James Bond would hate, were it applied to his Vodka Martini. Very well mixed, not just shaken.

The painter’s name was Ilya Repin. He was 40, when he did this painting, surprisingly named by a verb, not a noun. “Didn’t Expect”, painted in 1884.

Repin wanted to show a revolutionary, from an upper middle-class family, who comes back home from exile.


The image has become a generic illustration, a visual synonym for something unexpected that raises a tempest of mixed feelings.

How did Repin achieve this effect?

He positioned his main character at a very unusual spot.


Yes, halfway from negative to positive reception. The prodigal son is watching his mother, who rose from her chair, unsure of what to do. No one is smiling except the boy who is probably unaware of how much the family was disappointed at one of its members becoming a revolutionary.

The servant at the door watches the reaction of the house-master, the mother. Servants need guidance about how to treat the guy, for they were hardly very approving of his actions.

In fact, everyone is waiting for the mother’s reaction.

What do you think it would be?

To understand it, we need to do a bit more doodles ruining the masterpiece.

If I draw a vertical line through the “positive” spot, to which the hero would arrive if he is forgiven, and then the line of sight between him and his mother, I get this cross (which a viewer inevitably, and not very consciously builds in their mind):


The horizontal tension line is built because we always look at where other people are looking to understand their intentions. The vertical line appears, actually, not because we really think about the spot which attracts the hero. It is simply one of the four Golden Ratio lines that define the painting’s composition (a trick introduced by Leonardo da Vinci, and one of the foundation principles of the Russian school).

This is the “frame” that Repin designed for this painting:


The imaginary cross is a very Russian thing about destiny. You have to carry your personal Cross just like Christ was carrying his, no matter what. So, the broken family and the revolutionary have to keep carrying their crosses. You can’t say, ‘Mother, can we put our crosses aside for a minute and just enjoy the reunion, peace, and life in general until I go and try to spark a revolution one more time? Please?’ No. It is not the Russian way of doing things.

We can’t say whether the mother would forgive him. We only know she’d have to carry the cross of the decision she’s about to make.

There are many more interesting symbols that can work as hints though.

It is a very conservative family. Look at the neatly organised family photographs. They are about “husband” + “wife” + children below. Tradition squared. The father of our hero had obviously died some time ago: first of all, he’s not present (only in the form of a photograph on the wall), the mother is definitely dressed in mourning clothes, and, finally, it is her reaction that would define the behaviour of everyone else present.

What would you do about a relative that goes against everything your family has been standing for?

Would you be able to forgive, to accept a non-repentant son or daughter?

These are the kind of questions this painting keeps asking today’s audiences; questions, just as relevant today as 100 or 150 years ago. And it does not impose a single answer on you, it makes you think instead. It makes you try a cross on your shoulders.

Yeah. That’s Russian art for you. Never easy-going, never light-hearted. Asking questions in the form of gut-punches, and watching you gasp for air while you search for answers. 

Very similar to mafia interrogations, don’t you think? I think I was trying to write about this painting in a light-hearted manner because I don’t want to confront it on a deep personal level. At least, not right now. 

If you missed some one the posts on Russian art, here they are, easy-to-reach:

Why are Russians so serious about stuff other people aren’t?

Art to watch vs. Art to see (painting Christ the way you want to believe)

The most famous Russian icon: why it is a masterpiece worth coming over to Moscow

Now, the serious part of this post is over. These are my favourite alterations to the “Didn’t Expect” painting.

Didn’t Expect. Didn’t Arrive.


Star wars version, inevitable.


Russian police with a surprise search


To sample stuff this blog offers, just click on the About page to get an overview of the best posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.

I have to thank the yesterday’s prompt for their surprise inspiration!


  1. This post is very interesting, I have never analysed a painting before in this particular way. Normally art is open to interpretation and you never really have a concrete way of knowing what is right and wrong in terms of character placement etc

    1. Normally natural phenomena had been open to interpretation as god’s will, until explained scientifically. Why should art produced by people with certain motivation be immune to interpretation in the age when neuropsychology can offer brain scans? )) I am glad you liked the post. There are more like it further down the archives ) Thank you for your thoughts!

  2. Great post. The mother’s pose makes me think that the next thing she would do is to run and hug the son. And even the son seems to be striding in without hesitation …. moving from the negative point to the positive of your analysis.

    1. Thank you )
      I am not sure the mother is going to actually run and hug the son. I don’t know. They are painted in different “squares” so Repin wanted the viewer to keep guessing what’s gonna happen… but anyway, I think the very Russian concept of wholesale forgiveness would win.

      1. Worse, personal stuff.
        Back to school too, though indirectly. There was a painting titled ‘Опять двойка’ – to my shame I do not remember the name of the artist, though the image is still vivid in my mind. In our Russian class we had to create a story based on it. I loved the painting and the task!

        And that brings me to the question I meant to ask you – in your blog about the Empty Handed piece, you mention the 5 letter – 4 sound Russian equivalent of a certain English word, relevant to the subject of the painting. Which is it? Have been going though all eligible Russian words I could remember, but nothing 5 letter-4 sound comes to me.
        In BG we studied Russian from 3rd to 11th grade. In my case much more, as in university I learned another language through Russian books and dictionaries due to the non existence of Bulgarian ones at the time.
        You see, it is serious, I am losing sleep here.

        1. OK. I hope I don’t get banned for it.
          F@#k (Shit/Crap) = 4 letters
          Блять = 5 letters, which is 20% more )

          Both words are used to flush out frustration mixed with tiredness )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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