Could a 5-year-old boy from a middle-class Jewish family dream of becoming the chief “court” painter of a country that hadn’t yet come into existence when he took a pencil and started drawing everything he could see around himself?
Could he imagine his mentor, a great artist himself, would name him the new Rafael, but then refuse to see him or even hear of him when he was at the summit of his career?
This posting covers the story of Isaac Brodsky, an artist who studied under Ilya Repin, fell in love with the working class, and charmed its leaders to achieve wealth and fame. His tale is the story of trade-offs artists had to make in 1920s. Malevich, Kandinsky and many other artists had stayed true to their talent and became famous worldwide, post-mortem (as usual). Isaac Brodsky went on to become the most famous painter of the Soviet Union and descended into obscurity less than eighty years after his death.
You may want to step back to Part I and Part II of the series to better understand the type of moral dilemma we are to experience in a few pages. Part II covers one of the most important paintings of Brodsky’s main influencer: Ilya Repin. It is an attempt to explain how infatuation with the Common Man of Labour had been shaping art in Russia by the time Brodsky was born.
Isaac felt the burning need to draw and paint anywhere, everything, all the time. It was the same kind of passion that made Leonardo’s dad drop the idea of a notary career for his illegitimate son, and take him to Verrocchio’s workshop. So, when Isaac turned 12, his parents sent him to Odessa’s art school, in which he would spend the next 6 years studying under exceptional artists, who are nonetheless barely known outside Ukrainian art history community today.
Odessa was a bustling trading city in the Black Sea where fortunes were made, lost and remade again. The city had a very European front, with a very Russian stuffing. Get the feel of it, in this gallery, and spot the stairs that Sergey Eisenstein made globally famous in his Battleship Potemkin movie.
Brodsky was a sponge kind of student; he absorbed a lot from his teachers. The Gallery below shows works of his tutors in Odessa, Kostandi and Lodyzhensky, two very different painters who had a strong influence on Brodsky’s early concept of beauty, choice of colours, and composition. These artists were even faster to adapt modern European painting trends into their art than the academically suppressed painters of St.Petersburg. First, they were geographically closer to major European art centres, and second, they were Ukrainian artists, who had always wanted to look more European than the average Russian.
Gravitating to Europe or not, Odessa Art School was an academic institution. It meant students had to copy old masters a lot. When it was founded (about 40 years before Brodsky joined it), the board invited an Italian artist to help define teaching practices. The guy’s name was Luigi Iorini. He used to ask his students to copy the outline of a chicken egg. If there was a micro-error, he’d tear up the imperfect drawing and ask the student to do it again. Erasers were not allowed. Some students would spend up to a month perfecting their “egg copy”. This lesson was meant to show students the difficulty and importance of copying masters of the past. Iorini was still teaching at the time of Brodsky’s studies there.
Lodyzhensky was a king of watercolorists, who favoured pure colours in striking combinations, and Kostandi was fond of mixing colours and contrasting them in softer ways, via the interplay of light and shadow, in a manner that could be defined as soft impressionism (softness is, by the way, the main difference between the Russian and Ukrainian languages: the latter goes much softer on consonants and much more melodious on vowels). Impressionists would save effort on painting each and every detail, and aim at the creation of emotions in viewers through a conflict of colours. If the main conflict was between the blue sky, a white dress, a green parasol, and torrid grass, individual details like a flower that stands out, or uniquely different shapes of clouds were not important to Monet (guess which painting I had in mind). Kostandi would never sacrifice detail to make his colour conflicts more pronounced. His photographic attention to detail we will soon see in Brodsky’s work. Kostandi also loved painting common people, their lives, pains, and joys, something he knew well enough to add a certain psychological depth on top of documentary accuracy.
Kostandi’s most famous painting titled, “Out and towards becoming someone”, was painted in 1885, when Brodsky was a one-year-old. We will see its influence in Brodsky’s first major portrait painted in 1908.
It is a simple, but powerful tale of a girl taking the train to a large city in the hope to secure a future different to what a common peasant girl could expect. She is sad to leave her previous life, severing ties with her relatives for years or even decades. Her right hand stretches out to her past, her face is turned towards the places she’s leaving, but the train takes her body away, towards a slim possibility of becoming someone other than a peasant girl.
After graduation from Odessa Art School in 1902, Brodsky was immediately accepted to the Fine Arts Academy in St.Petersburg, which dropped entry exams for the young talent. He was a Jew, and it was difficult for Jews at the time to move across Russia. They had to live in specially designated areas, and there were hurdles for them to enter universities. So, it was not a small achievement. Everyone could see the 18-year old man had a rare gift.
Click on Page 2 at the bottom to travel further!
Fascinating! I am familiar with several of the paintings shown in this blog which makes putting the pieces together all the more interesting. “Lenin in his office” could be seen in hundreds, if not thousands of public offices and spaces in Bulgaria too … You are doing a grand service to Russian art. I hope fellow Russians appreciate it. Needless to say, revealing the history of Russian art is all absolutely fascinating for all other readers. You should publish a book and have a TV show, I am serious.
Thank you ) I have a few friends, fellow Russians, who love art and appreciate things I do here. But the mass demand is not there to support a book or TV show. Some of my work is related to television. There are people among my friends who would love to make an art show. The problem is that no one will be watching it. Russia is not the UK. Top blogs in Russia are about politics, fitness and weight management, and one of the most popular is run by a prostuitute who tells the world of her clients, her thoughts about men, women, and family issues. Art, as a theme, just doesn’t fit in, at least not right now )
I am very grateful for your comment. I still believe there’s a chance all this will be of interest to my fellow Russians one day.
You are probably right. The devaluation of tastes is a global phenomenon, but Russia is 1) a huge country; 2) one where culture has managed to thrive and survive under all sorts of conditions.3) where most illogical things just happen against all odds. So there is good chance. Maybe you can find someone who needs to buy himself some respect – and finance a money losing niche cultural show?
I have a good collection of art documentaries and when I think about it, they are almost exclusively UK productions. Your post on Brodsky reminded me of one about a museum in Kalpakstan, a province of Kazakhstan which has this superb collection of Russian modern art that was put together by an enthusiast who dedicated his life to it. I am sure you know what I am talking about. There were examples of post revolution artists which did propaganda work for a living and real work in their free time, secretly. It blew my mind away!
Yes, I know this gallery because it has a large collection of Alexander Volkov. I happen to own two watercolours of his grandson )