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The apotheosis of war: how battle painting became anti-militaristic

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Today, tragedy seems to be the only possible intonation of battle painting, and the pacifist message of Vasily Vereshchagin’s paintings (1842–1904) is a commonplace. But for the XIX century it was a curiosity, and Vereshchagin was considered an innovator among contemporaries. The battle genre in Russia has long remained an academic phenomenon, the luminary of such painting was, for example, Professor Bogdan Villevalde (1818-1903). He painted large-scale paintings based on the Napoleonic Wars, illustrated the suppression of the Polish uprising by Russian troops. Nicholas I personally gave him advice on the appearance of the military and the location of troops in the paintings.

Bogdan Villevalde’s “Cavalry Attack on Bashkadiklar on November 10, 1853” (1855). Source

Official battle was closely connected with the historical genre. In the 19th century, artists illustrated current military conflicts and constantly worked on the theme of the Patriotic War of 1812, painted paintings on the exploits of individual regiments on the battlefield and the entry of the Russian army in Paris. To the modern viewer, this painting seems too conditional, it does not contain the documentary reality that we find in the works of the same Vereshchagin or in the reports of military photojournalists. This does not mean that academic battlers were bad artists – they simply had other tasks. Not the fixation of the realities of war, much less the master’s self-expression.

Showing the battle, Willewalde, like his fellow academics, gave a panorama showing the terrain, there are several plans and dozens of people, and everything happens at once: someone attacks, raising his hand with a saber, someone flees. . The artist painted the officers of the Russian army young, brave, on stately horses, in a clean and tidy form. Meticulousness in detail is combined with a general romanticization – you get pictures of how beautiful and elegant people fought for the king and the fatherland (and triumphantly won).

Vladimir Moshkov “Battle of Leipzig October 6, 1813” (1815). Source

Consider the work of the famous battler of the first half of the XIX century Vladimir Moshkov (1792-1839). This is an illustration of the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813. Many people, horses, banners – without a serious historical background, it is unclear what is happening in the picture. In this sense, Lermontov’s line “Mixed into a bunch of horses, people” could serve as a brief definition of battle painting. In addition to the Patriotic War, the victories of the Russian army over the Swedes in the 18th century were a popular theme (for example, works by Alexander Kotsebu (1815–1889) were also dedicated to it, also commissioned by Nicholas I, who liked the master’s paintings). The battle genre reflected the point of view of the authorities on historical events, and the artists in the process of creating the work were largely guided by the taste of the emperor.

And looking at the academic battle painting today, you are surprised, firstly, by its quantity, and secondly, by its irrelevance. It does not contain what we expect from the visual series on this topic: everyday details, ordinary heroes and their dramas (for example, as in Vereshchagin’s painting “Deadly Wounded” (1873)). Traditional battlers of the XIX century portrayed participants in the Battle of the Nations, the Battle of Borodino or Poltava, but did not require empathy from the viewer, empathy for specific heroes.

Vasily Vereshchagin “Deadly Wounded” (1873)

The media of the XX-XXI centuries have accustomed us to the literalness of telecasts, which gain ratings due to shocking footage. We see people’s faces, we learn their stories, and, most importantly, they do not look invulnerable triumphants. Today, anyone with a smartphone in a hotspot can broadcast and even edit reality. Vasily Vereshchagin’s painting preceded this approach in many ways. He showed the heroes in close-up and in a naturalistic way, in his paintings not brave military, but human remains (“The Apotheosis of War” (1871), “The Fallen Soldier” (1869), “Representing Trophies” (1872)). Vereshchagin’s work evokes horror and sorrow – feelings that seem obvious today about the war. He himself, going to Turkestan, expected to see something different. Vereshchagin wrote:

“I imagined that the war was a kind of parade, with music and waving sultans. With banners and the roar of guns, with galloping horses, with great splendor and insignificant danger: for the situation, of course, a few dying.

It looks like a description of the academic picture in which the Russian army triumphantly enters Paris, but the reality turned out to be different – and since then Vereshchagin has been regularly “in the fields.”

Vasily Vereshchagin “The Apotheosis of War” (1871)

He worked in the format of series – for example, in the famous Turkestan series dozens of paintings, more than a hundred drawings. This form is close to modern video summaries or series. Art critic Dmitry Sarabyanov noted that inside the large Vereshchagin series were small:

“A story about the clash of Russian soldiers and Turkestan troops, consisting of a dozen canvases, or” triptych “” Everything is calm on Shipka “from a series of works on the Russo-Turkish war. The small series were a kind of “stories with a sequel.” None of the nomads used this technique. Vereshchagin seemed to be missing one painting. He could not fit into one picture a long and complex story about a military event. By expanding the time frame, this technique freed Vereshchagin from the need to concentrate in one situation both the action and the psychological state of the characters. “

In several works, Vasily Vasilyevich told a story, often tragic, such as the death of Russian soldiers at the hands of Bukhara. The pictures are like film footage: the viewer first sees the soldiers trapped, then – trying to get out of the trap, and in the finale the Emir of Bukhara brings trophies – the severed heads of these soldiers. The effect is perhaps even stronger than in the movies, if you see the pictures at the same time, because the soldiers, who do not yet know that they will die, find themselves next to their own remains. A terrible spectacle. In cinema, however, we see events sequentially, not simultaneously.

The artist understood the power of this format, and when the series was successfully demonstrated in 1873-1874 in London, St. Petersburg and Moscow, he indicated in the catalogs that the paintings were not for sale. He wanted the series to always be shown in its entirety and in Russia (as a result, Pavel Tretyakov bought it). It is worth noting that if the academic masters received a state order, Vereshchagin was from a wealthy noble family and did not depend on the academic boarding school. He did not finish his studies at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, leaving first for the Caucasus and then for Paris. Vereshchagin worked where he wanted, traveled a lot – he has, in addition to battles, many ethnographic works, but that’s another story.

In addition, Vereshchagin was a good manager: he effectively designed his exhibitions, thought through the details. His paintings had unique frames, and he also exhibited household items and costumes from the regions in which he worked, dimmed the lighting in the exhibition halls. The result was an ethnographic and educational project with elements of Orientalism. Crowds of people even gathered in the United States at Vereshchagin’s exhibitions – an unprecedented success for the Russian master.

Of course, the representatives of the official-academic tradition did not part with the battle theme either: Vereshchagin’s contemporary was Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky (1838–1898), who painted about the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. You may have seen a portrait of General Skobelev on his brush. Skobelev in the best traditions of the genre is shown in the heat of attack, raising his hand with a saber.

Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburg “General MD Skobelev on horseback in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877/78” (1883). Source

In Vereshchagin’s painting “Shipka-Sheynovo (Skobelev near Shipka)” the figure of the general, on the contrary, is located in the background, the main place here is occupied by the bodies of fallen soldiers.

Vasily Vereshchagin “Shipka-Sheynovo (Skobelev near Shipka)”, author’s repetition (until 1890). Source

Nikolai Karazin (1842–1909), who met Vereshchagin in Turkestan, also studied at the Academy of Arts for some time. The artists were similar in some ways: Karazin also left St. Petersburg without finishing his studies at the Academy, he had the same interest in “nature” as Vereshchagin, he was interested in the life of a soldier.

Nikolai Karazin “Battle of the Zerabulak Heights” (1868). Source

During the Russo-Turkish War, Karazin was an illustrator correspondent, and it was he who eventually became famous for his sketches and watercolors. His major paintings are quite different – they show that he studied with Professor Villewalde.

Yuri Pimenov “Invalids of War” (1926)

Vasily Vereshchagin died while going to the Russo-Japanese War: the battleship Petropavlovsk exploded on a mine in the spring of 1904. And after the First World War, many artists portrayed the war as a tragedy and horror. Yuri Pimenov (1903-1977) in 1926 wrote “Invalids of War” – a terrible expressionist thing, so unlike his later optimistic works. Two mutilated veterans, one blindly looking at the viewer and as if he wants to touch you – such otherworldly images, as if from a nightmare, Vereshchagin did not have. One of the strongest anti-war paintings – “Guernica” (1937) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1937) – is dedicated to the German bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. This work was commissioned by the Government of the Spanish Republic for the country’s pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris. There was a rethinking of the military theme in Soviet academic workshops.

Evsey Moiseenko “Victory” (1972)

Professor of the Academy Evsey Moiseenko (1916–1988), who volunteered for the People’s Militia in 1941, was taken prisoner and survived a concentration camp, and wrote poignant works on the war. His painting “Victory” (1972) depicts the capture of the Reichstag – seemingly the place of heroism, but Moiseenko in the foreground – a dying soldier, his falling body supported by a comrade. Sorrow and knowledge of the texture make Moiseenko’s painting far from official. Strong images were created by the master of “harsh style” Helium Korzhev (1925-2012) in the series “Scorched by War”. Strictly speaking, he did not write the battle itself, but as if to catch the heroes “before” or “after”. “Wires”: a soldier hugs a girl before leaving for the front. In the picture “Old Wounds” a gray-haired veteran with a weathered face is napping. Perhaps this change in rhetoric in painting is due to the fact that in the twentieth century the number of functions performed by it decreased: to visualize the war there is a movie and television.

Helium Korzhev “Farewell” (1967). Source

However, “parades with music” are found in official painting in our time. For example, in the works of the Studio of Military Artists named after MB Grekov – the organization of the Ministry of Defense of Russia.

Today, the Studio employs thirty-two artists and sculptors, including panoramas that inherit 19th-century traditions. Here you can remember the famous panorama “Defense of Sevastopol 1854-1855“, Which was created in the early twentieth century and restored after World War II – is an island of” retroversion “of the battle genre. In addition, the artists of the Studio write paintings on a military theme, referring to various subjects – from medieval to the operations of modern special forces; sometimes repeat in paintings the famous pictures of military correspondents.

But modern “parades” do not have such public resonance and recognition as Vereshchagin’s works, whose exhibitions in Russia are still queuing (and reproductions of “The Apotheosis of War” are used in anti-war actions), or Moiseenko, who twice represented the USSR at the Venice Biennale. .

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