The Bane of Russian Intellectuals. Part III

You couldn’t fail to notice the painting of a rally in 1905 by Ilya Repin on the previous page (the one with Sigourney Weaver at the bottom). Just as everyone else, Brodsky was caught up in the turbulence of what Russian historians call the first Revolution, and what independent observers in 1905 branded as a riot of drunk workers led astray by Jewish intellectuals and Russian unpatriotic liberals. Brodsky could easily be a model for at least two or three characters in that painting.

He was expelled from the Academy’s school for his activism in 1905. He then tried to re-apply to the school again and even passed all the entry exams, but was nonetheless rejected as a “politically unreliable element”.

It was Repin who saved the day and had Brodsky reinstated. The great artist pulled some thick ropes of his connections in the upper layers of the society’s puff pastry. He also personally vouched for the young Jew who promised to never again play the revolutionary. I guess Repin felt guilty for being a tacit advocate of the noble causes behind the revolutionary movement: Brodsky’s mistake was to add action on top of the intellectual call in Repin’s “Barge Haulers” (that’s when you need to step back to Part II if you missed it).

I do not have many works of Brodsky during his final years at the School. But what I have shows him to be an exceptional talent.

This may seem a pretty simple landscape (done in 1907):

сквозь ветви 1907

Indeed it uses a very limited range of colours, and a composition that can hardly be called complicated.

I took a picture of a similar landscape just a few days ago:


This photograph shows a beautiful chaos of nature. Brodsky’s painting is about music an artist can find in it. Think of a piece of music about the transformation of night into day. Darkness lingers until sun is not out. Some light sounds appear but they are subdued, almost quenched by deep and melancholic notes. Then more light filters in, and the melancholic notes become less dominant. We listen to a chaos of buoyant sounds mixed with sad chords. And then we get in the clearing of a cheerful tune, filled with the light of a rising sun.

Now, this is exactly what this landscape is doing, it is showing that the ideas of the Polish professor can be implemented in the colour conflicts of Lodyzhensky, Brodsky’s teacher from Odessa.

In three years (in 1908), Brodsky graduated with two paintings that won him a Gold Medal and an allowance to go to Europe for half a year.

One of his “graduation” painting instantly became the subject of conversations in bohemian “salons” of St.Petersburg. It was the portrait of Brodsky’s young wife.

Isaac Brodsky. Portrait of Lubov Brodskaya, 1908

It is time to recall the peasant girl from Kostandi’s painting. The same air of expectation can be seen in this portrait, but the expectation is of a different kind. The girl is looking out towards the village at the other side of the river. The lion and the bench signal she is a resident of a house that belongs to the other, rich side, of society. Colours used for the “rich” part and the village (which is of the natural colours, being “one with nature”) create a conflict between the high society lifestyle (rather emphasised by the lifelike but “dead” lion looking in the same direction as the girl) and the log-housed Russia. The girl expects something, but she doesn’t know what to expect. There is no obvious light shining in her face to symbolise “great expectations” for the future, but there’s some light of rather unknown origin. The girl is shown in a very decadent fashion through the conflict of her dark attire and the deathly pale lion.

This portrait was a very good representation of intellectuals in between the two Russian Revolutions (those of 1905 and 1917). They felt the old order of life was dying out; the new order was unknown and scary; the future was seen as something deadly bleak, often without any trace of hope.

What is there in the painting that shows this is a portrait of a woman who is adored?

Her feet are not touching the ground. For the artist, she is an angel in the flesh.

Soon after the portrait was exhibited, Brodsky left Russia for a tour of Europe.

European experiences change Russians. Not completely, certainly, but many of them stop pushing grandiose ideas to others 24/7 and learn to enjoy life.

The gallery below is built around Brodsky’s European and Post-European works. Note the change in colours; the conflict of ideas is replaced by conflicts of shapes, lines, forms, etc. – it is a kind of art that is easy to understand and appreciate, it is a celebration of life in colour.

Brodsky fused together symbolism, art nouveau, and the lessons of most of his tutors in a very decorative style. I’ve written some comments to each of the paintings, but decided against going full-throttle in their analysis.

Brodsky loved to be liked. He was merging everything popular at the time in a unique style that would captivate the general public, intellectuals, artists, and the nobility. People, exhausted by wars, real and ideological, wanted something pretty. Brodsky could give it to them, adding just that bit of psychological depth (and it was Repin who nourished this skill in him) which was making his paintings not simply decorative pieces, but good art.

Sometimes, though, Brodsky’s desire to be instantly appreciated backfired.  He was working on a portrait of Repin in 1912. He wanted to create an image of Repin that the most important painter in Russia would love. This earning for love took Brodsky so far away from the truth, that Repin got furious and almost fell out with his former student. Repin insisted that the portrait be washed off with turpentine, and reworked.

And then came the revolution of 1917.

Click on Page 4 to see Brodsky after the revolution.


  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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