Step inside for the outside view

Isaak Brodsky, Fallen Leaves, 1915, Oil on canvas
Isaak Brodsky, The Fallen Leaves, 1915, Oil on canvas

Two posts ago, when we began talking about octobers and what they mean to people and artists, Levitan’s Golden Autumn and Brodsky’s Fallen Leaves were the two landscapes mentioned most often in the comments.

In my previous post, I’ve taken you through Levitan’s Golden Autumn, demonstrating that a seemingly uncomplicated landscape can be an involving 3-act play.

Now is the turn of Isaac Brodsky and The Fallen Leaves (click on this image to save a larger copy for your reference).

I will take you through it, for it is indeed a very good work of an exceptional talent, and in the next post we’ll talk about talent’s ability to dissolve into nothingness, once its owner decides to abandon truth and moor itself at the pier of Client’s Ambition, be it a tyrant or a leading art gallerist. Isaac Brodsky went on to become the top Soviet painter ripening into, eventually, the icon of the hollow Social Realism. He is almost forgotten now. But at the time of this work, in 1915, he was seen as a potentially great name in Russian art.

I usually recommend to start analysis of a painting with a careful examination of colours, shapes, lines, forms, etc. that can be seen in it. This time, we would first try to understand what we, the viewers, are looking at, and from where.

The interior of the house from which we are looking at the outside park is not exciting, unless you like coldness, desolation, and the general feel of abandonment and deprivation. I asked people to imagine themselves standing there and then tell me what they felt they were doing. Most of them answered, “I stand still, looking out, at the park”. They were not moving to the door, they were not trying to get outside, they were just standing, watching, looking at the leaves hurried inside by the wind.

There is a bit of a paradox here, given that it is much more pleasant outside, and the house, obviously, doesn’t offer much in terms of shelter.

GA1Could the artist create a more charming painting, were he to cut the right wall in a way that would still leave us inside, but without the sad monotony of lumber boards obscuring the lovely autumn view?

Suddenly, we discover ourselves a bit unsteady and insecure. No one feels themselves a peaceful observer any more.

People say it is very difficult to explain the feeling, but they feel as if the painting gets tilted to the left. It is quite logical for the left lower corner becomes much darker than the rest of the painting, and dark colours are usually seen as heavy.  The balance between dark-cold and light-warm colours disappears and the painting starts doing the Pisa tower trick.

Perhaps, the artist could do better by taking his easel outside, right to the terrace. There’s not much of beauty on the inside anyway, and the old chair is just making the matters worse. Why not focus on the most interesting part, the park outside? The autumn leaves could be still crawling up the stairs, surely?


It is amazing how boring the scene becomes, how empty of content and feeling!

The red fence becomes the only important element that attracts the eye. It dominates the painting and prevents the eye from traveling elsewhere. The red fence effectively kills interest in the landscape.

And there’s no point in painting a fence, even as craftily made as this one, unless it is an object lesson in painting fences.

You can suggest not painting the fence at all might be a good idea. Now, imagine what we are left with, if it is not there: a messy maze of elegant trunks with a few leaves on the branches. A world champion in the lack of interest category.

The paradox of this painting: when we cut the painting to show its most interesting part, it becomes not in the least interesting!

So, let’s step back inside, to the spot on which we were standing at the start.

It is, I must admit, the same simple rule which Levitan also used: the Golden Ratio. It makes the viewer feel at ease while being inside, and exactly at the spot where the easel was placed.

Golden ratio 2

The right line is placed at the “golden ratio” point of 3/8th of the painting’s width, from the right side. The left line, at exactly 1/8th of the painting’s width, from the left side.

Painting the door along these lines gives us 1/2 of the painting showing “indoors” with the other half showing us the golden autumn.

We, the viewers, are 50% outside and 50% inside at the same time. We are in harmony of the kind the air bubble experiences when the level ruler is perfectly horizontal.

This photo (to which I hold no rights whatsoever) illustrates the point with engineering clarity:


Once we have established that the landscape in this painting doesn’t make any sense without the part showing the interior of the house, let’s look at what we can learn about the latter.

Obviously, it is an abandoned house. Perhaps, it was left to its own devices not so long ago, for the red paint on the fence is still quite freshly red, not peeling away that much. There’s no wallpaper, the chairs have been torn but not broken. The place has not been used, but it has not been destroyed or vandalised. It is a very typical summer cottage of a family that has the means to buy or rent a country house for the summer but lacks the funds needed to maintain it in order.

We don’t find much to entertain us inside the house, so we are looking outside and, obviously, find the landscape more charming than whatever we could see behind our back.

We are standing. At least, most people say they are not sitting in this painting. And not just because of the elevation of the artist’s point of view. We don’t want to sit in these chairs (unless, again, you get excited by sitting on surfaces that offer you a decent chance of free acupuncture), and something tells us we are not going to discover a better chair.

Why doesn’t the artist want us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view?

Because there’s a conflict that we must attend to, and participate in.

Application of the Golden Ratio to painting produces four “attraction” points to which a human eye tends to be drawn:


As we know now, Brodsky used the Golden Ratio in this painting, so he must have left us a clue about the conflict he wanted us to attend. And there’s no better place than one or all of the visual centres to direct us to the clues. Let’s see where these “centres” lead us!

Golden ratio 3

What do these cues tell us about the painting’s conflict, its contrapunto?

We observe nature, from behind a wooden wall. The red fence elevates and separates us from nature. it is through the conflict of nature with man-made things (the chairs, the house, the fence, which as a borderline has a man-made natural design to it) we can see the nature’s beauty. But are we the rulers of nature? Probably not. Having been abandoned, everything that’s man-made in this painting is crumbling. Will nature deteriorate if it is abandoned? Definitely not. At least, it didn’t seem so in 1915, when it was painted.

As we observe Nature, it comes up the stairs, and begins to reclaim what once was a Man’s stronghold, the house: the yellow leaves are unstoppable in their desire to fill out everything. Of course, they do not have a mind of their own, but Nature has. 

That’s the gist of the conflict. The artist was not trying to give us answers, his intention was rather to set us on a path of our own thinking about the relationship between Man and Nature.

And yet, there is a sign the artist made his first step on the road of twisted truth. It is a small element, a small lie to create a big metaphor, but it is still a lie used to create a painting that the public would love.

Look at the right side of the doorway, and you will see the butt end of the red door. It is 1915,not a turbulent year of the Civil War when a door would be stolen if it was left without a Revolutionary Soldier guarding it 24/7. The fallen leaves could pile up like this only if the door was left open for a very long time. The artist made them pile up either with his own hands, or with his imagination. It created the desired effect: the painting tells a story, we like it. But it is a story of fiction that the viewer would easily understand and readily like.

Another aspect of this story, impossible to overlook, is that uncontrollable forces of Nature seem to bring a lot of light and fresh air into the house, which can hardly be seen as a bad thing. 

Given the historical context of 1915, some critics believed this work was a metaphor for the 1917 Revolution, when new and uncontrollable forces would change the run-down Czarist Russia forever.

It was a bad year for Russia. 

Russian trenches, 1915
Russian trenches, 1915

At the beginning of 1915, the Russian army suffered a series of defeats on the German front. The first signs of the coming revolutionary changes could be seen everywhere. The Russian Czar was setting his empire on a path of self-destruction.

The artist was not immune to all this. he was a Jew, and antisemitism was on the rise, as Jews were seen as German supporters.

it is tempting to see prophetic signs of the 1917 Revolution in The Fallen Leaves, but I seriously doubt a relatively young painter deeply in love with his wife and newborn daughter would care much about “the Proletariat masses”. That is, until the “masses” became a very tangible force burning country cottages of middle-class artists and lawyers for loot and entertainment. Houses like the one shown in the painting. All revolutions lead to victims, except in those rare cases when revolutions are sexual (victims of those are normally born some time later). Brodsky’s talent happened to be one of the casualties, and in my next post we’ll talk about how it happened. 

Stay tuned, the tragedy of talent story is coming up!

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  1. I saw a house like this right on the hill in Ples last year (interesting coincidence cause you know it was Levitan who used to spend time in this small town). It was abandoned but not ruined, doors and windows were open, there was some old furniture inside. The view from that point was something and i believe if I were there alone I would get inside to feel the place and think there. About life and the ‘autumns’ of our lifes, about nature around. Our personal troubles are nothing when we are able to see and feel Nature, learn from Nature its patience and strength to overcome difficult times and stay beatiful in different ways ) I can spend long hours meditating like this))

  2. Fantastic! Thank you!
    I just thought of a bit different story, but the general idea is the same.
    I thought it wasn’t a cottage, I thought it was some kind of park rotonde, since the walls have angle, the building seems to be a hexagon, what is not a common shape for summer cottages in Russia, and both chairs repeat this form. So to me it’s a summer place of joy, mon plaisir for St.Pete’s clercs, and now it’s abandoned. It’s not a place where people leave, but a pkace, where they spend time, play, talk, drink. It’s just waiting for the next summer. That’s why the door is opened. Nobody cares to lock a rotonde, there’s nothing in it anyway. Only pleople, when they are around. And the viewer – is the last one to stand there and remember.

    1. I like your story, really ) But I think – with Brodsky being a symbolist – he’d paint a sign of summer joys that the last-standing viewer would be remembering. It could be a toy, a parasol, or something. Brodsky – even then – was an artist who was criticised for enhancing beauty. It is interesting (though not surprising) that today, when we live in the mass media world that enhances everything (both beauty and ugliness), it is the work of Brodsky that has a better potential than that of Levitan.

  3. Another wonderful post! I’m not sure I feel what you describe here, but then, I do tend find beauty in the dilapidated. I like the color story, and the heaviness on the bottom, and I like imagining ducking up into this place to explore while out on a hike. I’m not arguing with you on what it means, and the historical context, just saying what it makes me think of! I especially love how you show the aesthetic breakdown of space.

    1. Thank you. Look at it as if it were a movie. You are standing inside, not walking, not hiking, you’re in harmony. There’s autumn happening outside, and you are curious about what is happening outside. Yellow leaves are coming up the stairs, are crawling over the terrace and settle inside the house, around your feet. This is what really happens. Now, you are free to relive associations that this movie generates personally for you )

      My interpretation is based on Brodsky’s tendencies to exaggerate beauty, make it more sophisticated than in reality and on the logic he used in some of his other works. But the beauty of this painting is that – with all its exaggerated charm – it offers a lot of opportunities to continue the story into something personal! )

      1. Thank you. I definitely see it a big differently now, taking that moment to stop. We do this when we hike and explore – pause, drink in some feeling, be it joyful or deliciously desolate, or something that has a haunting effect on us, but then later most of us focus on the continuous experience as we barrel through a succession of experiences. I forgot to stop and look at the painting as one crystallized moment, rather than as a moment in succession, and then prioritized the succession.

        I’m not sure if that made sense, but your comment response was really helpful!

  4. Well, to me, who knew nothing of Brodsky to date, this piece tells a different, much simpler and poetic story. The two empty chairs are two human presences – this what I saw immediately when I looked at the painting. Once there was a couple inhabiting this house. Now one of the chairs is in darkness – one of the partners has departed. But the pair of chairs is empty – because they are not a pair anymore. It is autumn – the autumn of life, happy summers with children’s cries and white nights are gone. We look at the world through the eyes of the surviving partner who chooses to remain inside where the presence of the other is still felt. The sky at the distance may be blue but the baring branches of the trees remind that winter is coming. The way out is blocked by a fence – red like a warning sign – you cannot bring back time. Memories flock in like dry leaves blown by the wind.
    Now, I think I am going to cry …
    But seriously, I think this is a piece about love, loss and mortality.

    1. It is great when a painting brings to life powerful personal associations. It is indeed an ambiguous painting that allows for different views on its meaning. Interpretation, however, needs to uncover artist’s motivation via tools he used. He used the golden ratio principle. Now, any interpretation needs to give a coherent story that explains why and where he targeted the visual centers of the grid. Knowing the artist’s circumstances helps to narrow down the list of possible motivations and to exclude irrelevant ones. I understand what you are saying, but the tools he actually used + his circumstances prevent me from backing your story. He dabbed in symbolism for some time before painting this, but his symbolism had always been much more direct. If he wanted to mean one of the chairs to stand for someone departed, he’d break one of its legs and at least one of the chairs (the deseased or still “alive”) would be painted whole. )

      Thanks again. It is amazing to read your comments, and share in your insights!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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