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Landscape as Political and Cultural Forecast

Isaak Levitan, Quiet Haven, 1890 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
I learned about a new exhibit at the National Gallery in London from this now archived article (Une peinture littéraire, August 6) by Armelle Héliot for Le Figaro. Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy was created in cooperation with the Groninger Museum (take a virtual tour), in the Netherlands, and it deals with a crucial period in Russian history:
The painters whom the National Gallery in London reunites in this exhibit—superb in approach, modest in dimensions, remarkable in conception—makes one think immediately of the writers who are so close to us. If the exhibit's title deliberately refers to one great author, one also sees rise up the benevolent phantoms of novelists, poets, and dramatists. [...] What will lead Russia to the Revolution is here. Kernels, like tender shoots in the fields under the sun. Painters often see farther than politicians or philosophers, [and one gets the sense that] through rather different styles of painting and diverse understandings of the world, there is a single intuition of the future. Something, seized from the fullness of splendid nature, is going to disappear. You hear the silent groaning of profound changes that are going to affect old, holy Russia, already in the grip of other ideals. It's quite stunning.
Intrigued? What struck the reviewer is not the importance of the paintings—names like Isaak Levitan, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Mikhail Nesterov, Grigori Soroka, Mikhail Klodt, Vasili Polonov, and Aleksei Venetsianov do not have blockbuster appeal—but the work of the curators to bring together a selection of paintings that says something important about its time and to write an excellent catalogue. (The museum's Web site has a slideshow of seven excellent paintings, but that's really not enough.) Perhaps this is evidence of my musicological bias, but when I look at these pictures, I see the wild Russian countryside evoked so memorably by Igor Stravinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913. If the exhibit also inspires viewers, as the reviewer suggests, "to reread Tolstoy, Chekov, Turgenev, Gorky, and the others," so much the better.

Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy will be at the National Gallery in London until September 12.

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