Sunday 13 Jul 2014
Wednesday 9 December on BBC FOUR
In a new series coming to BBC Four on Wednesday 9 December, Andrew Graham-Dixon takes viewers on a grand tour of Russian art. Programme Information caught up with him to hear what some of the most memorable moments were in the journey that is Art Of Russia.
"In my journey through the history of Russian art, I encountered many wonders – the baroque palaces of St Petersburg, the abstract beauty of Kandinsky, the shimmering, brittle beauty of the Faberge Eggs, the sacred splendour of icons...
"But my greatest treasure is a picture without any glamour, and not a trace of religiosity. It's a 19th-century painting of 11 peasants, dragging a barge to shore. It's the creation of a great artist who deserves to be better known throughout the world. His name is Ilya Repin.
"To Russians, Repin is considered a giant, every bit as famous as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. And that's because he used painting to address the great issues of the day. During the course of his long career, there was hardly an aspect of Russian life he didn't touch on. He painted religious processions, political dissidents, great intellectuals like Maxim Gorky, even the Russian royal family.
"But Barge Haulers on the Volga is his undoubted masterpiece. Painted in the 1870s, it was to shock the nation with its unflinching depiction of peasant life, a great work of social protest.
"Repin declared that he wasn't interested in painting light and colour. He wanted to paint content. And the content of Barge Haulers on the Volga is unadulterated human misery.
"You see 11 men hauling, with their own force, a great barge to the shore of the Volga River. They are human beings who have been reduced to the level of beasts. Repin drew these portraits from real life, and the level of detail and individuality in the faces and clothes is astounding.
"But while these straining figures draw the eye, it's quite easy to miss an important detail – the image of a tugboat on the right of the frame.
"It tells the viewer that Russia has steam power – the work of the barge haulers should be redundant. And yet the 11 figures struggle on with their grim task.
"One of the most interesting things about this picture is that it was hugely popular from the moment it was displayed – and its popularity within Russia has never diminished.
"It was, for example, one of Stalin's favourite paintings. This was the picture that he held up to the artists of Communist Russia as a model on which they should base their own work, the prototype for 'socialist realism'.
"And to a Communist, the painting would've looked like an image of the energies and the will that would lead to revolution.
"The key figure is a young boy in the centre of the picture. He is picked out by the light, and he's the only figure looking up, looking out as if to a better life, as if to a more optimistic future.
"And he even looks as if he's about to take off the shackles of slave labour.
"To Russians, Barge Haulers on the Volga is more than just a painting. It's an incendiary work of art, a manifesto for political change that looked forward to the revolution of 1917."