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0096 Maria Chernysheva, "The Russian Gérôme"? Vereshchagin as a Painter of Turkestan

RIHA Journal 0096 | 18 September 2014

"The Russian Gérôme"? Vereshchagin as a Painter of Turkestan1

Maria Chernysheva

Peer review and editing managed by:

Armen Kazaryan, State Institute of Art Studies, Moscow

Reviewers:

Gleb Ershov, Tatiana Karpova

Abstract

"The Russian Gérôme" – thus was Vereshchagin dubbed by English critics in 1872 and the comparison was repeatedly to be made by contemporaries. This article looks at where the two artists really do reveal similarities and at the deep-rooted differences in their presentation of the Orient, with an emphasis on Vereshchagin's first large work, his Turkestan series. Although Vereshchagin also took up oriental subjects later in his career, in this author's opinion the Turkestan series represents the most fruitful attempt to master the French model of orientalising painting, above all that of Gérôme, not only in his own oeuvre but in Russian nineteenth-century art as a whole. As such, it provides us with ideal material to assess the individual and national features of Vereshchagin's orientalism.

Contents


Introduction

  1. In 1864 Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin (1842-1904) left the St Petersburg Academy of Arts and set off for Paris, where he entered the painting studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) at the École des Beaux-Arts. There he studied, on and off, for some three years. Vereshchagin was to maintain contact with Gérôme throughout his life. In the 1870s, when the Russian artist decided to settle in France and bought land at Maisons-Laffitte near Paris, Gérôme helped him build a large studio there, fitted out in accordance with the very latest standards.2 Vereshchagin was to describe the French artist as "one of the greatest of contemporary painters"3 and in the 1880s he continued to see himself as belonging to the school of Gérôme.4

  2. At the end of the 1890s when Gérôme was working on his bronze sculpture Tamerlane (1898; Private collection), he asked Vereshchagin to send him military accessories suitable to the historic period. Enclosed in a letter of 2 March 1897 Vereshchagin sent Gérôme photographs of a horse of the steppes. Six days later he confirmed that he had despatched costumes and weapons to Paris and asked that Gérôme return them when he had finished with them, suggesting that they were items he used in his own paintings. Vereshchagin explained the purpose of various accessories and shared his thoughts on what Tamerlane must have looked like.5

  3. This latter exchange brought the two artists together in the last years of their life, but it had its roots in an earlier period, when the Russian artist was just setting out as a painter of the Orient, strongly influenced by the work of his French teacher. It cannot be denied that Gérôme's interest in Tamerlane, a Central Asian ruler and military commander, owed something to the example of Vereshchagin, who dealt with the age of Tamerlane in a number of paintings in his Turkestan series, completed in 1874.6 The Turkestan series was Vereshchagin's first large project, including paintings, studies and drawings. Although Vereshchagin also turned to oriental subjects later, in this author's opinion the Turkestan series represents the most fruitful attempt to master the French model of orientalising painting, above all that of Gérôme, not only in his own oeuvre but in Russian nineteenth-century art as a whole.

  4. When three of Vereshchagin's paintings from the Turkestan series – then still in progress – were first exhibited abroad in 1872, at the Russian art section of the Second Annual International Exhibition in London, English critics declared him to be "the Russian Gérôme" because of the two artists' common interest in depicting the Orient, including the darker, bloodier side of life.7 Vereshchagin's contemporaries continued to make the link with Gérôme in later years.

  5. The Soviet literature on Vereshchagin mentions Gérôme merely in passing, as a skilled artist who "also" travelled in the East and painted orientalising pictures which include very precise ethnographical details.8 Moreover, in the eyes of Soviet writers, Vereshchagin and Gérôme belonged to two inimical camps, Realism and Academism. Despite the fact that Vereshchagin's work is of particular interest for its receptiveness to the latest tendencies of French academic painting, such writers were more prepared to ascribe Realist ideology to Gérôme than to admit that Vereshchagin's work had any element of academic painting. Clarifying and expanding on many aspects of Vereshchagin's life and work, Soviet art historians nonetheless remained largely faithful to the general interpretation laid out by Vladimir Vasilyevich Stasov,9 particularly that great ideologist of Realism's understanding of what attracted Vereshchagin to Gérôme's studio. Putting himself in Vereshchagin's place, Stasov found in Gérôme's paintings not merely a passion for the Orient but

"a total lack of 'idealisation' and 'academicism' […], a profound and indestructible realism in capturing and conveying life, a respect for the everyday in place of former bombast, an understanding of 'the little ending to life' [...], bitter accusation of the many terrible and cruel things that happen."10

  1. In essence, this is to judge Gérôme's work against the standard of Vereshchagin; thus in Stasov's reading it is not Vereshchagin who is the Russian Gérôme, but Gérôme who is the French Vereshchagin. Post-Soviet writings reveal a more complex understanding of the relationship between the art of the two men.11 Although parallels between the works of Vereshchagin and Gérôme are mentioned in the modern literature12, no separate study on this subject has been published.

  2. Some of Vereshchagin's paintings in the Turkestan series echo Gérôme's orientalising works not only in subject but in compositional structure, specific iconographical motifs and the overall striking effect. But this only serves to underline the differences between how the Orient is depicted in the work of the Russian and the French artists. These differences are determined by three key factors.

  3. Firstly, Vereshchagin and Gérôme showed different parts of the Orient and their experience of Eastern lands was gained under very different conditions. Gérôme travelled peacefully through the Mediterranean regions, above all northern Egypt and Asia Minor. By the middle of the nineteenth century this area had been considerably more affected by contact with Europe than had Turkestan,13 which Vereshchagin visited in 1867-1868 and 1869-1870, during the Russian campaigns to control the Central Asian khanates. The Russian took part in the bloody war there not simply as a painter but as a soldier. For as the son of a noble family, Vereshchagin had initially studied with the Naval Cadet Corps in St Petersburg at his parents' wish, graduating in 1860. He then rejected a military career in favour of painting, but returned to the army for his travels to Turkestan, serving as a warrant officer under the first Governor-General of Turkestan, Konstantin von Kaufman. Fighting on the front line, Vereshchagin was wounded and received the Cross of the Order of St George IV Class for his role in the defence of the Samarkand Fortress against the troops of the Emir of Bukhara in summer 1868.

  4. Secondly, Vereshchagin and Gérôme had been brought up in different lands, with different national perceptions of the Orient. From Russia, semi-Asiatic in both geography and culture, the view of the East was very different to the view from France.

  5. Thirdly, unlike Gérôme, an artist of the academic school, Vereshchagin was driven by Realist ideology. He was thus less bound by the existing artistic tradition, less bound by artistic rules, and sought for greater faithfulness to his own impressions of what he saw, whilst also paying considerable attention to social and political realities in the East. The result was that Vereshchagin's paintings of the Orient were less timeless, more relevant, than those of Gérôme.

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Women, boys and severed heads in the orientalist paintings of Vereshchagin and Gérôme

  1. In Gérôme's paintings oriental types and exotic props featured as themselves, as elements of everyday scenes, but they also exemplified three central and intersecting themes: luxury, calm and sensuality; devout religiosity; despotism and cruelty. The erotic subtext is quite pronounced, in keeping with the wider orientalist trend, with depictions of harems and bath-houses popular not only in painting but throughout nineteenth-century European orientalising literature.14

  2. In many ways, Vereshchagin's Turkestan series accords with the structure of Gérôme's orientalising works. Its component paintings can be divided into the everyday, those depicting despotism and cruelty, those showing Islamic religiosity and lastly those dealing with the oriental sensuality that was closed to Europeans. Nonetheless, the battle paintings which occupy such an important place in Vereshchagin's Turkestan series are not typical of Gérôme's work, although they frequently appear in French orientalist painting overall.

  3. Women feature only infrequently in Vereshchagin's paintings and are never shown naked. Uzbek Woman in Tashkent (Fig. 1), a study from the Turkestan series, shows a female figure fully covered in black robes, even her eyes hidden, the only hint that there is a living, breathing body behind all the cloth being the tiny bit of flesh accidentally revealed at the wrist. What a contrast with the lustrous skin of Gérôme's women!

1 Vasily Vereshchagin, Uzbek Woman in Tashkent, 1873, oil on canvas, 36 x 26 cm.State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (Reprod. from: AndreyK. Lebedev, VasilyVasilyevich Vereshchagin, Moscow 1972, 106)

  1. Vereshchagin's picture of the East in his Turkestan series shows it as a masculine world, in which the object of desire is the handsome boy or bacheh (batcha). Even in nineteenth-century French painting, otherwise so suffused with sensual libertinage, the subject of oriental homo-eroticism, with its shades of pedophilia, was a dangerous one. Yet more surprising was the appearance of this theme in the work of a Russian artist. It remained unique in Vereshchagin's own oeuvre, the extreme chastity of which set it far apart from that of Gérôme. Whilst not totally accepting Soviet art history's praise of Vereshchagin as a critical "activist", opposing the sexual objectivisation of the childish body, there is certainly an element of distance and a lack of sensual involvement on the part of the artist that sets him apart from his French counterparts.

  2. Vereshchagin made specific reference to the Asiatic bacheh in a long passage in his travel notes:

"[T]he extremely oppressed status of women is the main reason for the abnormal phenomenon found here, of the 'bacheh'. The literal translation of 'bacheh' is boy; but since these boys play a strange, or rather I would say not entirely normal role, the word 'bacheh' has another meaning that I would be uncomfortable explaining.

"It is usually pretty boys, starting from about eight years old, sometimes a little older, who become bacheh dancers. The child passes from the hands of parents indifferent to how they come by money into the hands or one, two, sometimes many admirers of beauty, who might perhaps be speculators, and they, with the aid of older boys whose career as dancers and singers are over, teach the art to their young charge, and when he is trained they cosset and dress him like a doll, pamper and care for him, and rent him out for money for the evening to all who wish and for public performances.

"I have seen such public performances, the tamasha, many times."15

  1. The restrained tone of description in Vereshchagin's text and his negative attitude – quite clearly expressed in his use of the phrase "abnormal phenomenon" – can be contrasted with Gustave Flaubert's impressions of dancing boys in Egypt a few years before. Flaubert, despite his claims not to be aroused by the spectacle, nonetheless demonstrates a kind of sensual reaction:

"We have not yet seen any dancing girls. They have all been exiled to upper Egypt […]. But we have seen dancing boys. Ah! Ah! Ah! [...] For the dancers, picture two scamps who are passably ugly but charming in the deliberate corruption and depravity of their feminine movements and gaze, being dressed as girls with antimony-painted eyes […]. When their hips move, the entire rest of their body remains motionless. When, in contrast, their chest moves, nothing else budges. They advance towards you, arms extended and playing copper rattles, while their faces, beneath all the sweat and make-up, remain as inexpressive as statues […]. The solemnity of the face in contrast to the lewd movements of the body creates quite an effect […]. It is too beautiful to be arousing, I doubt that the women are as good as the men."16

  1. In Batcha and his Worshippers (Fig. 2) Vereshchagin depicted what he had suggested in his notes was not a widely accessible part of the performance, the "treating" of the bacheh, to which the Russian artist had been invited as an honoured guest. Sitting proudly and importantly by the wall is the bacheh himself, dressed up "like a doll", surrounded by admirers of different ages and complexion who, "elbows resting on their knees, perhaps bent over, look ingratiatingly at the bacheh; they follow his every move, catch his eye, harken unto his every word."17

2 Vasily Vereshchagin, Batcha and his Worshippers, 1868 (Nineteenth-century photograph. The original painting was destroyed by the artist. Reprod. from: Lebedev, VasilyVasilyevich Vereshchagin, 71)