Magazine article Russian Life

Out of Siberia

Magazine article Russian Life

Out of Siberia

Article excerpt

Russian-born director Andron Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is probably best known for his television adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, which won an Emmy this year. His brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, is also famous in the West - though he lives in Russia - for directing Burnt by the Sun, which received the 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But few know that these men are the great-great grandsons of Vasily Surikov, the famous Russian painter whose works grace the walls of Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (18481916) was born into a Cossack family in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk (literally, "red bank," from the pinkish-red clay that is found in this part of the Yenisey river). One of the artist's ancestors helped to found the town, and the family preserved its history with great care - so much so that the young artist sometimes had the impression that they were living in the past. Surikov would later recall that, in his parents' home, "the very air seemed ancient," and Cossack uniforms from the time of Catherine the Great were lovingly preserved in his grandfather's trunks. (The young artist remembered their unusual color well, for by his time, the color of the uniforms' cloth had changed from blue to green.)

His parents' house had an enormous influence on his work, forming a unique foreshortening of Surikov's perception of the world. As Surikov himself put it: "The rooms in our house were big and low. To me, as a youngster, the figures seemed huge. It's probably for this reason that I always tried in my paintings to either set the horizon very low or to make the background smaller so that the figure would seem larger." In this admission lies the key to understanding the composition of the most famous of his historical canvases. The well-known Russian artist Mikhail V. Nesterov wrote that in Surikov existed "a great prophet of the past, a man with the highest intellect side by side with a mischievous Cossack."

Poet and artist Maximilian Voloshin accurately observed that Surikov, "born in the 19th century, turned out to be a true modernist and a witness of those events that he tried to embody in his work." One of his ancestors, the esaul (Cossack captain) Surikov, together with the legendary Yermak (a 16th-century Cossack outlaw and explorer), conquered Siberia and passed on an indestructible love of freedom to future generations. The Surikov name is constantly encountered among the instigators of a whole range of mutinies and rebellions, including one that occurred in Krasnoyarsk.

As Voloshin wrote: "Over the course of three centuries, the Surikovs participated in the campaigns, exploits and mutinies of the Don and Siberian Cossacks, fermenting and boiling and defending in silence the historical experience that only at the end of the 19th century would come to light in Russian art in a range of works that are the only psychological document of the creative centrifugal force of Russian history." Up until 1825, the Surikovs remained simple Cossacks, and only after that year did they rise to officer rank, though they never lost their ties with ordinary Cossacks.

The artist's father was a sotnik (Cossack equivalent of a lieutenant) and died young of lung disease. In Vasily Surikov's best paintings, you can sense a genuine "cult of ancestors" and a deep spiritual relationship with the past. Surikov came face to face with tragedy early in life. In childhood, he twice witnessed executions, which at that time were carried out in public, and expressed this experience in one of his most famous paintings Morning of the Streltsy Execution.

He began painting young and worked hard. "I remember how I painted and nothing worked," the artist recalled. "I began to cry and my sister Katya consoled me: 'don't worry, it will turn out okay!' I began again and, sure enough, it did."

But Surikov would soon have more important things to worry about. After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty, and Vasily had to work constantly to earn money on the side. …

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