terça-feira, 2 de janeiro de 2018

The "unknown woman" and the search for Russia´s national identity

(Painting "Portrait of an Unknown Woman", by Ivan Kramskoi. The painting is exposed at Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow.)

          A few weeks ago I´ve got very impressed when I saw the image in the painting reproduced above. It´s name is "Portrait of an Unknown Woman" by the Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi, 1883. When I opened the screen it seemed I was in front of a real woman. Her deep gaze blends arrogance with seduction, and it´s further pronunced by the contrast of the face with the dark dress and the snowy enviroment in the background. It seemed the woman would jump off the painting to talk with me or go beyond a mere conversation.

          Kramskoi was part of "The Itinerants" (Peredvyhznyky), group of Russian painters who sought to educate the people throught art, travelling and holding exhitions of their works in the Russia´s interior. According to Orlando Figes in the book Natasha´s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, in the early 1860´s these painters moved away from the Academy of Arts of Saint Petersburg (today Imperial Academy of Arts) and, rejecting the European classicism of this school, they began to work with what the author calls "Russian style", inspiring themselves in the people´s folkloric and religious traditions. The withdraw happened with the rebellion of fourteens students of the academy who was known as "Wanderers", led by Kramskoi, who demanded freedom of choice in the paintings content. Many artist of this trend worked at the Stroganov School of Arts (today Stroganov Moscow State University of Industry and Arts), which received people of vairous social classes and who, therefore, knew the diversity of Russian society. They were sponsored by the great merchants of emergent Moscow, among them Pavel Tretyakov, railroads magnate and Russian arts collector who names the gallery where Kramskoi´s painting stands. The Russian painter was one of those sponsored by Tretyakov and was an important portraitist of the time, having reproduced people of the cultural milleu such as the Russian writer Lev Tostoy and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. In Figes´ words, Kramskoi "painted against a simple background and concentrated on the face, attracting the spectators to the eyes and forcing them to penetrante in the inner world of the people whom they had treated as slaves until yesterday"* (Chatper 4, part 2). The author referes to the servitude regime which was in effect in Russia until it´s abolition by Tzar Alexander II in 1861. 

          In Kramskoi´s time all the Russian intelligentsia was obsessed in understanding the peasant, discovering their people´s identity and answering the question: "who are we?" The question crossed the whole 19th century and, despite the supression of the Soviet regime throughout the 20th century, the search for an answer continued with Slavophiles and Eurasianist and continuous to this day. This doubt came to light strenghtly with the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812, crushing the idea of an Europe as source of civilization, which led the first Russian artists and intellectuals to question the true identity of their people and the path that Russia should follow in the future. But the issue had already began to emerge a little earlier, around 1800, when it was flourishing a Russian "national" culture still dominated by an idealized image of Europe. In the view of the early artists, the imperial court and it´s Europenized city, Saint Petersburg, were artifical and strange to the Russian culture. Satires and plays sought to identify who was the "Russian" in contrast to the European inhabitant. In Orlando Figes´ words:

"Against the background of this domination by Europe, satires (...) began to define the Russian character in distintive terms other than Western values. These writers established the antithesis between the foreign artifice and the native truth, European reason and heart of the Russian soul which would be the basis of the national narrative of the 19th century. At the heart of this discourse was the ancient romantic ideal of the native soil - an 'organic'  and pure Russia, not corrupted by civilization. Saint Petersburg was just deceit and vanity, a narcissistic dandy watching all the time his reflection on the Neva River. The real Russia was in the provinces, a place without pretensions or foreign conventions where the simple 'Russian' virtues were preserved."* (Chapter 1, part 5)   

          The figure of the unknown woman wasn´t a peasant, not even a common "citizen" as we conceive in the modern society. Judging by the time and the bakcground of the picture, the woman resembles a noble or member of the emerging merchant class. But this is part of "real" Russia, to use a word that can define the ideal sought by the Russian artists of the 19th century. Despite not beeing a peasant, the unkonown woman composes part of the national synthesis dreamed by these artists and, more especifically, by movements like the populist and "native soil". The first appeared 1874 and worked with the peasants promoting education, arts and political activism of socialist profile and aimed to lead Russia to development combining the European way with the people´s traditions; the second, which emerged at the same time, was a cultural movement composed of writers which published texts that extolled national unity and appealed to the artists to portray the people´s life and bring them the Western culture. The populists and members of the "native soil" wanted to unite the different parts of society into a single nation, to realize the national synthesis between the noble and the peasant.

          The Kramkoi´s painting offers a plunge into the Russian soul through the beautiful and seductive look of the unknown woman, face which offers to us a facet of a multifaceted nation. It´s an attempt to translate what Kramskoi saw at the streets while probing the question "who are we?" Art has this strength, of seeing the reality of the other, of a distant people, as if we were there and we were part of their identity.

* Free translation of the author.
** Published in Portuguese on December, 24th 2017.

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