Interview with Rosalind P. Blakesley, winner of the 2017 Pushkin House Book Prize for 'The Russian Canvas'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

Why did you become interested in Russian art?

I started learning Russian in my teens. We had a teacher previously at GCHQ who taught a tiny group of us at a boarding school which was reasonably old fashioned. Then Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s, and Britain went Russia mad. Our teacher packed us into his Morris Traveller and drove us all over the country to the multitude of Russian exhibitions and events that followed. I’m hugely in his debt. At Cambridge, I started studying Russian and Italian, but I was passionate about the history of art, and changed to study it in my second year. In my last summer undergraduate holiday, I went  to live in Voronezh for two months and wrote my final year dissertation on a local Russian artist, which happily set the course for my future career.

Why not focus on twentieth-century art?

It was always clear to me that I didn’t want to work on the avant garde. It was exciting and vibrant, but I was most concerned about the neglect of what came before. If I say I’m a Russian art historian, people think I must work on icons or Kandinsky. If you put the two side by side, it’s patently obvious that a lot happened in between. It seemed to me interesting to move further back in time.

Why did you decide to write 'The Russian Canvas'?

Russia enjoyed a remarkably accelerated artistic growth from the mid-eighteenth to the late-nineteenth century, with artists developing from underrated craftsmen to proud professionals holding their own on the international stage. Those artists were both uniquely Russian, and in close and often competitive dialogue with European developments, but that story has never been told. So I decided to write 'The Russian Canvas' to track the rise of professional artists in Russia from the mid-eighteenth century, and to consider them in a pan-European framework. It helped that telling the story meant spending time with spectacular works of art that have not had anything like the critical acclaim they deserve, from the work of Ivan Vishniakov, whose breath-taking portraits are up there with the best of child portraiture, to the landscapes of Arkhip Kuindzhi as my period drew to a close.

Why is the period neglected?

It’s largely a western neglect which stems in part from a huge nationalist drive in culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Stasov, who is in some respects is my nemesis, fervently promoted the Russian school of painting as something distinct from anything happening abroad. This unrelenting focus on the national character of painting can alienate those unfamiliar with the context in which it was made. I believe the painting of this period is uniquely Russian, but I don't believe that you have to be Russian to appreciate it. Stasov set up a certain barrier, which was extended in the Soviet period, when a strong lineage was drawn from the realists to socialist realists, which again limited appreciation of the richness and diversity of Russian art. There is also the problem that the vast majority of great Russian paintings are concentrated in Russian museums, rather than featuring in museums and galleries in many different countries, as is the case with other national schools of painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is a great shame, as a more dispersed corpus of work would alert public opinion to the excitement of Russian painting, and generate more cultural tourism to Russia.

Whose works would you highlight?

The artists from Venetsianov's school. They tend not to be prolific, because they were of poor birth, like Grigory Soroka, a serf landscape painter whose works are absolutely fabulous. Later in the century, Repin is rightly celebrated but he can mask other artists like Kramskoi, whose work is much more patchy but who nonetheless produced some gems which are not as widely written about.

Did you track down all the works you wanted to find?

Some evaded me. There was a handful about which I had read descriptions in artists' diaries and letters but the trail eventually went dead, at times in an auction sale. Conversely, there were the joys of finding paintings which illustrated bizarre practices. In 1838, for example, the Chernetsov brothers were commissioned to travel down the Volga and paint both banks of the river in panoramic form. They duly set sail in a strange boat of their own design which had a studio on board, and eventually produced a vast unwinding canvas some 600-metres long. In the State Russian museum, I found a painting of the boat, and another of the studio inside. Unfortunately the Chernetsovs' canvas itself was rolled and unrolled to show people so often that it eventually cracked and was ruined.

Are many paintings abroad being repatriated?

Yes. The cellist Mstislav Rostrovpovich’s collection, one of the richest private collections of imperial Russian art, was put up for sale in London in 2007.Many dealers flew in to attend the viewings for the sale. But then Alisher Usmanov stepped in, bought the entire collection and gave it back to Russia, leaving many frustrated dealers in his wake. There’s a particularly keen market in some artists seen to have specific ethnic and cultural resonance, like Ivan Aivazovsky, arguably the most widely-travelled Russian artist of his generation.

What surprised you during your research?

Russia’s contribution to art was remarkable and recognised in many European centres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: it was often only later that this was overlooked. The Russian Academy of Fine Arts, for example, was not seen as being on the periphery, but was appreciated by its sister institutions abroad. Similarly artists travelled abroad and were part of a cosmopolitan,  international milieu. It was only later that the dialogue became subdued. I loved discovering new dialogues and relationships between Russian artists and their counterparts, as when top members of the Royal Academy in London were intrigued by the Imperial Academy in Petersburg in the early nineteenth century. They were particularly impressed by imperial patronage and generosity. For instance, the Russian academy recruited students at 8 or 9 years old, when they was a risk they would not turn out to be as talented as thought. So it made provision for those who wouldn't necessarily succeed as painters or sculptors to train for other professions, such as clock and cabinet making. 

Who do you think were the most impressive painters of the period?

Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky on his deathbed is one of the greatest portraits ever painted. I would also make a strong case for Mikhail Vrubel, who in the 1890s was working in a proto-Cubist way, anticipating what Picasso and Braque would do 20 years later. That counters the frequent narrative that Russia was forever playing catch up.

What are your next projects?

I have a couple of ideas for shows. My exhibition of Russian portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016, and the recent exhibition of Russian art at the Royal Academy, both massively beat the target visitor numbers that had been set, demonstrating the wide critical and popular interest in Russian art. The success of these shows will hopefully provide a really solid foundation for more exciting Russian projects in the future. In the meantime, I'm happily working on a remarkable woman artist, Emily Shanks, a British artist who was born and lived in Moscow until the outbreak of the first world war. She was the first woman to be elected to the Peredvizhniki, a very exclusive group, giving us yet another fascinating thread to follow in the rich tapestry of Russian art.