Sunday, 15 May 2016

'Russia and the Arts' at the National Portrait Gallery

There's a lovely little exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment called 'Russia and the Arts; The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky'. By 'little' I mean two rooms and maybe a couple of dozen paintings but it's worth seeing. It's based on the portraits collected (and sometimes commissioned0 by Pavel Tretyakov who donated his personal collection to the city of Moscow in 1892 as the start of the national collection.

As you'd expect from the title, it's a collection of portraits of artists, musicians, poets, composers, and critics from the mid-1800s to early 1900s. There are a lot of beards on display, so much so that some paintings seemed to more about the hair on the head and chin rather than the man underneath. And yes, the portraits are mainly of men although a notable exception is the portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition.

There are portraits of the greats you'd expect to see including three portraits hung together of a rather ill-looking Dostoyevsky, a very hairy and puritanical Tolstoy and a disdainful Turgenev. All could've done with a comb and a pair of scissors. There's a rather unhappy looking Tchaikovsky which was a bit sad. There is also a nice portrait of Anton Chekhov dressed in a smart suit and sitting comfortably in a green velvet chair.

The poster girl for the exhibition is Baroness Varvara Ikskul Von Hildenbandt, a socialite and hostess for the arts in her bright red jacket and veiled hat. After a life of privilege and the wife of an ambassador she settled in Paris after the revolution. It's strange to read the short potted histories of the subjects of the portraits and wonder how they survived the hardships they sometimes went through, and that's part of the joy of a portraits exhibition - these people were real. The Baroness fled during the revolution but Anna Akhmatova stayed in Russia and lived through the dangers of the Stalin years. I need to know more about her but I'll leave the Baroness to live on through this portrait.

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