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User:Ghirlandajo/Barge Haulers on the Volga

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From Ilya Repin encyclopaediaEdit

The idea of Barge-Haulers came to Repin when he was working on Job and His Friends, an academic assignment

Repin originally wished to show the dirty burlaks side by side with a group of elegantly dressed dachniki (summer cottagers). It was during a 1870 trip up the Neva in the company of Konstantin Savitsky that Repin witnessed such contrasts. Deeply impressed, he went down the Volga in 1870 in order to portray burlaks. The idea of dramatic juxtaposition of the burlaki and dachniki was then discarded.

Repin underscores the individuality of each muzhik, contrasting their humours and characters. They are led by the troika of korenniki ("leaders"), with Kanin in the centre. His serene, wise face suggested an ancient philosopher to Repin. The man on the right is an "ape-man" symbolizing the primeval forces of Russian people. The man to the left of Kanin is Ilya, or Il'ka the Sailor; he fixes the viewer with an intense, embittered and hateful gaze. Kanin's somewhat sly squint marks his character as a sort of psychological middle ground between two extremes represented by "caveman" and "sailor".

Other figures include:

  • a tall phlegmatic old man stuffing his pipe,
  • young Larion (Lar'ka) is not accustomed to such toil and seems eager to get free;
  • the dark-haired "Greek" with a stern look; he looks back at the lonely comrade as if to cheer him up;
  • the latter is lagging behind as if about to fall to the ground.

They march from the depth of the canvas toward the viewer, yet no figures are screened from view, forming a frieze-like composition.

From Repin's memoirsEdit

Konstantin Savitsky. Repairing the Railway (1874)

Repin described his work on the painting in great detail in his book Remote in Time, Near in Memory.

Savitsky told Repin that the entire Upper Volga region and the Mariinsky Canal System were teeming with burlaki: "Every creature goes laughing, be it woman, man, or horse". Repin could not stop thinking about the contrast between the barge-haulers and the smart ladies, but his attention was consumed by the academic painting Job and His Friends. It was Fyodor Vasilyev who suggested Repin should go down the Volga in search of the real burlaki.

"I'm afraid this will be something tendentious... Something like a picnic, and the dirty ones attached to it by way of edification: look at us, what a miserable band of cripples, gorillas we are..." said Vasilyev. "You will lose yourself in this painting... it's going to be too cerebral... If I were you, I would sail down the Volga... It's there that the traditional, typical burlaki live... The simpler the painting, the higher its artistry".

Repin had no money to pay for the Volga cruise, but Ivan Kramskoi promised to lend him 200 roubles. In fact, it was the Academy who covered the expenses. Vasiliev, Repin and his brother Vasily spent the entire summer of 1870 in the Samara Bend, first in Stavropol (modern-day Tolyatti), then in the village of Shiryayevo about 15 versts from Samara. They lived in an izba of the Alexeyev family which was designated a Repin museum in 1990. It is the location of Russia's Barbizon festifal. It was in Shiryayevo that Repin met Kanin and other men shown on the painting.

Repin's Storm on the Volga (1870) Vasiliev's Volga Barges (1870) Vasiliev's Volga Lagoons (1870)

On his return to St. Petersburg the young painter was introduced to Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandorovich, Vice President of the Imperial Academy of Arts. (The President was his aunt, Maria Nikolayevna). He examined some of his Volga sketches and selected the one showing a burlak: "Waste no time in finishing this piece for me!" Repin blushed and told the Grand Duke that he was going to concentrate on The Storm on the Volga. "Very well", was his reply, "work on that one for me too".

Repin was struck by the fact that the Grand Duke preferred a small preliminary sketch for the Burlaki to the grand and quite finished canvas that was The Storm. The painting interested the liberal part of the society and was attacked by the conservatives. "You are a celebrity, we have heard about you so much, you have painted some fishermen. There was quite a buzz!" some Russians quipped when they met him in Paris.

From Galina Pribulskaya's Repin in PetersburgEdit

Christ and the Adulteress, a 1875 version

The first pencil drawing of the burlaki (18,3×32,7 sm) was produced in 1870; it is stored in the Tretyakov Gallery (item № 11488). A preliminary draft of the painting was shown at the Academy in March 1871 and won a prize. After completing the painting in 1873, Repin submitted it to the academic exhibition of paintings intended for the World's Fair in Vienna and went abroad with his wife and 7-month-old daughter, travelling through Austria and France.

"My painting is the raciest piece at the exhibition. Everyone congratulates me, the room is always crowded" (from Repin's letter to Pavel Tretyakov).

At the same time the Academy exhibited Christ and the Adulteress, a painting sent from Rome by Henryk Siemiradzki. It was the epitome of academic style, totally devoid of contemporary relevance.

The public and critics were split into two warring factions, some championing Siemiradzki and others Repin. Avseyenko found "something morbid" in Repin's work: "The artistic part of the exhibition ends here... Now you see various civic motives and sapless ideas borrowed from newspapers..."

The Birzhevye Vedomosti (a business daily) praised "the richness of strong characters" assembled by Repin on his canvas but its general effect was described as "the feeling of heavy sorrow". Fyodor Bruni, an academic painter, labelled it "the greatest profanation of art".

Stasov said that "Repin arrives with a painting which hardly anything in Russian art can equal. Repin is realistic like Gogol, and, like Gogol, he is deeply national".

For Vladimir Korolenko, the painting was imbued with a spirit of the Volga freedom which also produced such figures as Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev. He made a copy from an engraving and had it placed on the wall of his St. Petersburg apartment.

Alexander Benois, who came from an artistic family, first saw the painting at the age of 8 and was deeply impressed. "It was at that moment that I understood the power of painting to impress with something other than sweet faces, gorgeous dresses, attractive landscapes... You could enjoy the work as an organic unity, as something having an authentic inner life of its own".