Monday, 5 May 2008

REPIN

One reason to take a second look at the great Russian illustrator Illya Repin is that art critic Clement Greenberg didn't think Repin was worth a second look.




Scene from the underwater adventures of the Russian hero Sadko

In his famous essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg sneered at Repin's art, explaining that an "ignorant peasant" prefers Repin while "cultivated" people prefer abstract artists such as Picasso:
[W]hen an ignorant Russian peasant... stands with hypothetical freedom of choice before two paintings, one by Picasso, the other by Repin....[i]n the first he sees, let us say, a play of lines, colors and spaces that represent a woman.... He turns next to Repin's picture and sees a battle scene.... Picasso [is] austere and barren in comparison. What is more, Repin heightens reality and makes it dramatic: sunset, exploding shells, running and falling men.... Repin is what the peasant wants, and nothing else but Repin. It is lucky, however, for Repin that the peasant is protected from the products of American capitalism, for he would not stand a chance next to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell....
I must be a peasant, for when I saw Repin's originals in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, I found them staggeringly beautiful.


The Volga boatmen


Cossacks writing a mocking letter to the Sultan of Turkey


Raising Jairus Daughter


Portrait of Tolstoy

Greenberg's essay has been described as "one of the important theoretical documents of 20th century culture." Greenberg proceeded (over the bodies of excellent painters such as Repin and Rockwell) to become the primary cheerleader and intellectual architect for abstract expressionism.



Me, I like both Picasso and Repin. I even like Clement Greenberg, who was a brilliant writer and theorist. There's just one little problem with Greenberg's argument...



As Svetlana Boym of Harvard notes,
Greenberg's example of kitsch is Ilia Repin's battle scenes which, he claims, merely imitate the effect of artistic battles.... however, the fact is that Repin never painted any battle scenes. Possibly Greenberg is confusing Repin with another painter or rehearsing someone else's cliches...
This is the kind of careful analysis which led to "20th century culture." Greenberg concludes his criticism of Repin this way:
Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art.
Apparently, the "difficult" part of art does not include bothering to look at the pictures you criticize.