July 12, 2024

Russia and the Arts at the Portrait Gallery: put a face to famous Russian names

Nineteenth century Russian fine arts have not found their way into Western consciousness in the same way that Russian literature and music from the same period have managed. Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky are famous, Repin and Serov are not. This compact exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery may change that a little, bringing Russian portraits to London as part of a cultural exchange that sees a selection of portraits of famous Britons simultaneously displayed in Moscow.


Collected and commissioned by the textile industrialist Pavel Tretyakov these images celebrate prominent figures from the late 19th century and early 20th century. The gallery advert may show a woman, but the images are mostly codgers and there’s no attempt to record any but the big hitters of Russian culture – which does allow us to put faces to familiar names amongst art critics, writers, composers and patrons.

Russian writers may have wanted to develop their own country’s traditions rather than copy those Western Europe, but its painters here appear Euro-generic, influenced by the developments of the arts in France. Russian society had long absorbed French influences and here a Matisse painting is inserted in the background of the portrait of collector Ivan Morozov to show the French = sophisticated relationship that Russians believed existed.

The show demonstrates the change from Realism to Impressionism, and introduces artists such as Ilia Repin, Iosif Braz and some angular impressions from Mikhail Vrubel. The pictures are from a golden age of Russian portraiture that lasted until WW1. They show great facility and though you are not going to rush out onto Charing Cross Road urging tourists to go in, the exhibition lets you glimpse the wild facial hair and stiff-necked fashions of late 19th century Russia.


That sir, is quite a collar

Star of the show: a whimsically-brushed 1909 portrait of  symbolist poet and dandy Nikolai Gumilev in a orchard of muted grasses by Olga Della Vos Kardovskaia.


Until 26th June


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