Russia and the Arts at the NPG 

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts about Delacroix in the light of the amazing show at the National Gallery but there’s too much to say about him and I need to let it digest. Everyone should see this show before it closes in a month or so’s time – if you have to choose between Delacroix at the NG and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (i.e. The gardening exhibition) at the RA it’s a no brainier. Delacroix wins with a smackdown.

In the meantime I can also heartily recommend (with one reservation, which I’ll come to anon) the Russia and the Arts exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.


Well, for a start you’re unlikely to see any of these paintings again unless you brave a trip to Putinland, and you’re certainly not going to see them all together like this. They’re from a collection drawn up over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by an art lover who wanted to develop a gallery of portraits of contemporary Great Russians.

So we have a kaleidoscope of  writers, artists, muses, actors, composers and impresarios, all interesting both biographically and artistically. The crowds formed around the globally famous big beasts, especially Tchaikovsky, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. But my attention was drawn by two less well known figures.

The first was a portrait of a man who is described in my notebook as ‘Marmontov (opera guy)’. A work by Vrobel, of whom I’d never heard before, apparently both sitter and artist were tricky characters. Marmontov was a pretty demanding boss and Vrobel had a messy personal life. The alchemy of them working together produced something special. Vrobel is definitely not a portraitist of the cap-doffing variety. He’s produced a bonk-eyed proto-Cubist masterpiece of anti-lickspittlery that portrays his patron as a midget tyrant with a paradoxically fugitive aspect. It’s compelling.


As is Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky. Now Mussorgsky is someone I had heard of – Pictures is rarely off my playlist, especially the version by Leif Øve Andsnes. The portrait though is compelling for a different reason to that of Marmontov. Repin half-painted it while Mussorgsky was on his deathbed, having consumed booze on a Herculean (even by Russian standards) scale. The reason he wasn’t able to finish it was that when he went back the next day his subject had died.

But I think that makes it all the more interesting as a portrait. We get the raw initial reaction of Repin rather than a considered, finished piece of work. Frankly, Mussorgsky looks fucked. His stature is of Orson Wellesian proportions, wild haired but not wild eyed. Rather he stares with a watery blankness that still hints at the utterly raw genius of his music. And underscores the tragedy of the fact that he died too young at just 42 years of age.

On a personal note it struck brief disquiet in my heart to consider that I’m 42 myself, although (fingers crossed) in considerably better shape. But the disquiet comes from knowing that I am highly unlikely to produce one thing that has a smidgeon of the genius of Pictures. Yet, even if I can’t produce great art I can at least recognise it and take pleasure in it in those snatches of time between the too tedious mundanity of much of life.

I exited the gallery and raised a slightly guilty glass to Modest, I’m sure he would have approved.*

* One thing I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have approved of was his music being piped through speakers into the rooms of the exhibition, reducing his works to badly amped Muzak for the English middle classes. What creative genius at the NPG thought this would be a Good Thing I have no idea but I would strongly urge them not to do it again.

Art Exhibitions London Music

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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