Masterpieces worth enjoying here and now

National Art Museum attracts visitors with its new exhibition showcasing most interesting works by globally known painter Ivan Shishkin

By Vasily Kharitonov

The museum has launched a major exhibition by the famous landscape artist, and is thought to boast the very best of his works: about forty pictorial and graphic paintings bought from private collectors in Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk over the past half century. Some have arrived as a result of an inter-museum exchange. The collection allows us to see his developmental stages and diversity of motifs and techniques.

Shishkin began his art education at Moscow’s School for Painting and Sculpture and, later, studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Those years were influenced by romanticism and, as one of the best students at the Academy of Arts, he won a higher golden medal in 1860, which enabled him to travel abroad. He visited Germany, Switzerland, France and elsewhere, showing much interest in the German landscape school. In his diary, Shishkin wrote: ‘The German landscape is unattractive and disgustingly empty’. After returning to Russia, the majestic landscapes of his native land became his true muse.

As an acknowledged master, Shishkin founded the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions, and took an active part. In the 1870s, his landscape philosophy was formed: seeking true beauty and poetry in simplicity. Wishing to be authentic, he concentrated on the smallest details while presenting a panoramic view exploring the most typical, significant and sublime features of each scene.

Shishkin’s landscapes tend to be illuminated by midday rays of sun, which allow him to show fully the diversity and detail of his surroundings. At other times, he used the more subtle light of other times of day. Studying natural diversity and always seeking new material, he travelled widely. In 1883, he visited Belarusian Polesie and, in 1892, came to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. During those trips, he sketched and painted large canvases, creating his Polesie in 1883 (some of which is on show today).

Until the end of his life, Shishkin remained faithful to his chosen path. His canvases still amaze us with their credibility and enjoy success among modern art lovers. His Swamp: Cranes (1890) and Old Dead-Fallen Wood: Forest Cemetery (1893) are particularly good examples.

Sketches hold a special place in his artistic legacy. His friends, known as ‘itinerant artists’, found them just as intriguing as his paintings. Ivan Kramskoy said: ‘Ivan Shishkin amazes us with his knowledge, drawing two or three sketches every day — each very complicated. When he’s in the countryside, it’s as if he is in his own environment. There, he knows everything: what, how and why’. Shishkin’s sketches demonstrate a unique gift for form, meticulous detail, graduated colour and flawless pattern. Even without his paintings, he would have earned a worthy place in Russian art history. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most interesting graphic painters of his age. Even in his student years, Shishkin’s masterful pen drawings attracted the attention of the general public and experts.

His sketches in graphite pencil are especially interesting at the present show: seven are on display, notable for their precise detail (Burdock, Windfall, Thistle). Thoroughly drawn and authentic, there is no trace of dryness or formality; each has its own charm. Shishkin saw their independent value and, in 1891, arranged an exhibition of his sketches and drawings.

His large scale Dry Tree-Stems and Trees show tenacity and a confident hand but, while being impressive, were never reproduced in completed paintings. Of course, we can only guess at which sketches were used to create particular pictures. As if contradicting academic artists, who mainly saw exoticism in southern landscapes, in Saklya in Crimea, Shishkin devoted equal attention to the sunshine upon a white wall and upon a little stone lying in the road and to a wayside leaf. He rarely used watercolours, drawing Forest in a limited tonal palette. However, it is so skillfully done, that we imagine colour.
Etchings take a significant place in Shishkin’s artistry. He was a truly unique figure, being the only late 19th century Russian engraver and landscape painter of such a high level — as confirmed by his legacy of works. Artists often turned to engraving to technically reproduce paintings, failing to perceive it as an independent art. Shishkin was no exception for some time, initially mastering etching for reproductive purposes. However, it later became an independent aspect of his artistry and he achieved great success in this field, releasing four albums of his own etchings. The last — 60 Etchings by Ivan Shishkin — was published in 1894, including Fir Trees in Shuvalovsky Park and Beehives.

He was also a master of lithography, creating At Noon, which was included in his Pen Sketches on Stone album. The artist boasted perfect skills in pen drawing, which perhaps led to his preference for pen lithography. His powerful poetry and deep understanding of the surrounding world was unparalleled in its fascinating simplicity — in his graphic and landscape paintings, and on his large canvases.

Wonderfully, the National Art Museum holds a magnificent collection. Few would deny that it is worthwhile setting aside some time to view it. Meetings with beauty always inspire us.

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