Day 10 – Barge Haulers on the Volga

Day 10 – Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-73, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

Originally posted on 28 March 2020

Russia had the most wonderful artists in the 19th Century, and it surprises me a little that, although we are so familiar with the name ‘Tolstoy’, most of us have never even heard of the likes of Shishkin, Kramskoy or Repin. It’s similar to the case in Finland, where we know Sibelius, but Gallen-Kallela is unfamiliar. In both cases the reasons are the same, I suspect: paper is easy to move, and words and dots easy to reproduce, so novels and symphonies can easily be exported across the world. Paintings can also move easily, I know (although, like us, they are stuck where they are for the time being), but in both cases, the Russians and Finns took care to hold onto what they knew was good.

I was reminded of today’s painting, ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’ by Ilya Repin, while I was writing yesterday, because the first time I saw it, in the company of the lovely Irina Polevaya, I realised it has some connection with Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’ (#POTD 9). It’s not just that both show ships being towed: both paintings also use this as a metaphor for progress. Admittedly Turner’s is about making progress, while Repin’s shows a society failing to move forward, even if it does show the human will triumphing against great odds. It is about the failure to progress, although, like the ‘Temeraire’, it is not without optimism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Repin entered the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1863 just as some of the students were finding the academic training restrictive, and the proscribed subject matters they were assigned irrelevant. They broke away to form their own Society, much as Gustav Klimt and his Viennese contemporaries would do some three decades later. From 1870 they started organising exhibitions that would take art to the people in the provinces, and for this reason, they became known as ‘Peredvizhniki’ – ‘The Wanderers’. As well as Ilya Repin, the group included two Ivans, Kramskoi and Shishkin. The second image I’m showing you is a detail of the former’s superb portrait of the latter, partly because it allows me to mention two for the price of one, and partly because, well: beards. The Wanderers painted the best beards, and of the best beards Kramskoi was king.

‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’ is often seen as the signature painting of The Wanderers. Aside from the great selection of beards, it deals with issues grounded in society, which affect the people themselves. In this sense it belongs to an artistic movement called Realism, effectively founded by the French artist Courbet in 1855. Although the painting is naturalistic in appearance, ‘naturalism’ is not what is meant by ‘Realism’. Courbet’s aim was, in his own words, ‘to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own estimation.’ So his subject matter was not drawn from Christianity, nor did it include ancient myths and legends, these last being irrelevant to most people. Instead, the subjects were important everyone in different ways. In Courbet’s case this included his monumental painting, ‘A Burial at Ornans’, where the interment of the artist’s own Uncle is used to provide an image of universal relevance.

Repin was inspired to paint the Barge Haulers following his experiences travelling the country, and all of the people depicted are based on characters he met and got to know. The man at the front, for example, who seems to lead the way, was based on a defrocked priest called Kanin, whose long-suffering dignity was a particular inspiration. Repin was surprised to learn that the burlaks, as the barge haulers were known, were drawn from across a wide range of society, and, although the groups would have been larger than the one depicted, he chose eleven men to represent a broad swathe of Russian society, a condemnation of the inhumane exploitation of labour. And even here not everyone is included – groups of burlaks could be made up entirely of women. This was a situation that continued into the 20th Century.

The men are bowed, but not quite broken, exhausted, but still – if only just – able to continue. The one exception comes exactly half way along the group – five men in front, and five men behind, a young, blonde man stands out, his lighter clothes and upturned face catching the sun, as does his hair, and the arm across his chest, the hand pressed to his heart showing determination, the look on his face defiant. He looks towards the left of the painting, and directs our attention toward a boat travelling full sail in the opposite direction, travelling down stream. These men are going against the flow and into the wind – everything seems to be against them, and yet, they continue. 

The men are tied together like a chain gang, and attached to the ship by a rope which leads our eye to the top of the mast. This is flying the Russian flag, easily recognisable by its bars of red, blue and white. And yet, if you know the Russian flag, you will know that white should be at the top – not the bottom. This flag is flying upside down, an internationally recognised symbol that the ship is in distress. But what we are witnessing was, for Russia at the time, day-to-day life. Has Repin ‘got it wrong’? Oh no. This is no normal barge, no normal ship: flying the Nation’s flag, it represents the ship of state, which is about to run aground. What is remarkable is that, from the completion of the painting when it was reworked in 1873, it would be another 44 years until the Russian Revolution. Had Repin seen it coming? Well, it was a long time coming, let’s face it, given that the Decembrist Revolt had taken place 48 years before, in 1825. And what is even more remarkable was that, not only was it highly praised from the start – even though it was the work of an unknown 26-year-old (Repin later considered it his first professional work) – but that it was bought not by a member of the art world cognoscenti, but by Grand Duke Vladimir, son of Tsar Alexander II, at the heart of the establishment. Admittedly Dad was trying to reform Russia, having emancipated the serfs, abolished the death penalty, reorganised the legal system and ended some of the privileges of the nobility. He might have gone even further were it not for the numerous assassination attempts, the seventh of which (at least) finally succeeding in 1881.

Repin also tells us that not only is the state doomed, but the exploitation of these men is, in any case, completely unnecessary. The downward diagonal of the far-right rigging leads our eye to a steamboat in the distance. Steam power could be doing the work of these men, and yet this system continued unabated for decades.

I don’t know that Repin ever travelled to England, but in 1873, the year the painting was definitely finished, he did visit France and Italy with his family. It was first exhibited in 1870, though. Why is this important? We know about his early travels, but that doesn’t include the UK – so he can’t have seen ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. However, he might have seen a print of it. But it’s more likely that the similarities are a coincidence. After all, ships with sails furled being towed, ships in full sail and steamboats could be seen on every river in the developed world by this stage, and for any talented artist the ironic contrast of towing and sailing, of old and new, sail and steam and the metaphor of going against the tide would be obvious choices. Admittedly, both artists use the towing of an obsolete vessel as their central theme, although the difference is that Turner’s is a worthy veteran of war, while Repin’s represents the corrupt ship of state doomed to run aground. 

The painting is well known in Russia, and is often parodied, being used for satirical cartoons. Who is pulling the ship of state today, and who would we put on board the barge, exploiting the barge haulers for an easy ride? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but I have a few thoughts. One of the many notable people who appreciated this painting was Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose initial fears about the painting, when he read about it in the press, were that it would be too obviously political, agitprop rather than art, and that Repin would be milking the pathos. His fears proved to be unfounded. ‘Not a single one of them shouts from the painting to the viewer, ‘Look how unfortunate I am and how indebted you are to the people!’ he said. And then went on to add that he saw, ‘barge haulers, real barge haulers, and nothing more… you can’t help but think you are indebted, truly indebted, to the people.’ Today we have health workers and carers pulling against the tide, walking into the wind. You can’t help but think you are indebted, truly indebted, to them.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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