Constantin Korovin (age 56 in 1917)
If art was an Olympic sport, he would be a national hero, the Michael Phelps of arts. At the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, he was awarded two gold and seven silver medals for an impressionistic painting of two Spanish women, thirty-one large-scale landscape panels, and pavilion design, with the Order of the Legion of Honour from the French government on top of it all.
The Art Nouveau panels, siding the interior walls of Russia’s Pavilion, submerged visitors into the chill and isolation of the Russian North. From the contemporary marketing point of view, it was an exemplary strategy of building the brand of the Russian North as a place of origin. Having been acquainted with Korovin’s North, who wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for Russian fish or fur, what with all of it coming from such a pristine place populated by decent, hard-working, courageous men?
Before the Parisian triumph, most critics and many fellow artists had never thought highly of Korovin’s attempts at impressionism, describing his works as sloppy, lazy, and in one instance as “a jab of the French disease” to the Russian culture. Back from Paris, he instantly became one of the most sought-after artists. By 1917, he had become wealthy and recognised, working from his spacious flat and studio in Moscow, but spending most of the year at his country estate or a Crimean villa he designed himself.
In the 1910s, his art was overflowing with sun, flowers, and the joy of life.
The 1917 revolution put an end to all of this. Half of his Moscow flat was requisitioned, his country estate and the villa were also taken by the state. One of his former pupils tried to arrange a purchase of Korovin’s paintings by the State Tretyakov Gallery, but the purchase commission headed by Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin rejected the offer in a rude letter claiming that the Gallery did not intend to stock useless and talentless bourgeois art of the past.
The Culture Minister of Soviet Russia, a long-time admirer of Korovin, wanted to celebrate his artistic career by a retrospective exhibition in Moscow in 1921, but it was poorly received both by the public and critics. Korovin disliked the exhibition himself, believing the curator made an ill-intentioned selection of paintings. Korovin felt the show was constructed to present the case of a weary and exhausted artist.
Next year, he left Russia, officially to get medical care for his son, never to return.
Korovin was popular in Paris and lived in comfort, but his art was getting shallower with each passing year. His night-time views of Paris, a favourite theme among peddlers of paintings for tourists, were seen as outdated already during his lifetime.
Often, to cater to the tastes of Russian emigrants, he would slide down even lower, to the abject kitsch in his “nostalgic” paintings.
He died in Paris a few days after WWII broke out.
Philipp Malyavin (48 in 1917)
A bare-foot peasant boy, driving his whole village mad with his graffiti in black coal and paint on any available surface from the tender age of 4, is taken by a visiting monk to a far-away Greek monastery to be an apprentice for their icon painters, where his talent is spotted by a sculptor from St.Petersburg who takes him back to the capital of Russia, gives him a room in his own flat and enrols him into the Imperial Arts Academy. There, bohemian students sneer at his monastic clothes and the habit of crossing both himself and the white sheet of paper before he starts drawing. Quiet and withdrawn, having completed two years of courses in a few months, he is on a fast-track to graduation, leaving behind his sniggering classmates. This plot could become a Dickensian novel, were it not a true story of Philipp Malyavin.
His graduation piece, titled “The Work”, polarised the opinions of his teachers and peers, and was rejected. Malyavin received the rank of a certified artist for another portrait. Two years later, the rejected painting won him a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the same fair that made Constantin Korovin a star.
Today, renamed into “The Laughter”, it can be seen at the Ca’Pesaro in Venice.
Critics were blown away by the energy in this painting. The freedom and energy of the artist, felt in the brushstrokes varying in length from one to three feet, transform into the energy of the women that bursts off the canvas, showering the viewer with the confetti of festive sparkles.
In 1906, he exhibits The Whirlwind. If The Laughter was an energy grenade, this was a nuke forty years before the nuke was invented.
The significance of this work goes beyond its energy impact of swirling complimentary colours. It is a shrewd observation of the enigmatic Russian Soul. Russians are often seen as gloomy and brooding people whose cheerfulness dissipates into the harsh conditions of living in their country even before they utter their welcoming birth-cry to the world. However non-smiling, Russians know how to unwind, to which many bear witness and Robbie Williams can attest too. Russians party to exhaustion, but not because they weren’t told unravelling should not be the inevitable purpose of loosening up. Russians give it all because their fatalistic mind tells them that after the current white stripe of life, a black one would follow. So they hasten to enjoy life while they can, with their energy – 90 per cent of the time positive – spilling out to the outside world.
The viewer of The Whirlwind is not a witness but a participant, even if an unwilling one. The trick is simple. The artist’s point of view is low. It makes the figures monumental and raises the horizon line. But Malyavin lifts the horizon even higher than his point of view justifies, removing the sky and tilting the picture space towards the viewer. The cyclonic ladies tumble out of the painting onto the viewer, as if the field behind them were rising up and giving them a push.
The Whirlwind made Malyavin a full member of the Imperial Arts Academy.
By 1917, he was working and spending most of his time with his family at a small estate he bought 200 miles away from Moscow. The Revolution was not cruel to him but not kind too. The estate was confiscated, but he was allowed to take out his paintings and then he got a teaching job at a neighbouring city. He was respected so much the city organised a personal exhibition of his paintings in 1919, following which the regional education authority chose him to be their delegate artist to draw live leaders of the revolution in Moscow.
Famous for his speed in portraiture since his student years, in just a few days he made a series of sketches of a dozen of the most prominent Bolsheviks, although his Lenin would probably get him killed in 1937, if not earlier.This cunning misfit is a far cry from the Great Leader of the Revolution as presented in the officially loved work by Alexander Gerasimov, a talented student of Constantin Korovin:
In 1922, Philipp Malyavin was permitted to leave Russia to organise a series of pop-up exhibitions of his paintings. With no intention of coming back, he and his family first settled down in Paris, and after ten years there, moved down South to Nice. Malyavin’s commercial success and recognition were going hand in hand. With Exhibitions in six European countries and lucrative orders for portraits, his life in the 1930s was packed with work and travel. WWII caught up with him in Brussels in 1940. He was arrested as a Russian spy, but his Gestapo officer turned out to be a cultural person. Malyavin was freed soon after his arrest but had to walk all the way back to Nice. Once he’d got there, in a state of severe exhaustion, he was put in a clinic and died a few days later.
In the next chapter, I would cover artists that stayed in Russia, survived the purges but had to adapt – in one way or the other – to the realities of the Soviet life and demands of the state. Stay tuned!