Teaching Ilya Repin

I have used Ilya Repin’s 1883 Procession of the Cross in the Kursk District in class many times over the years, especially as a part of teaching aspects of social activism in the art of nineteenth-century Russia. The painting’s contrast of abject poverty among the people to the lavish richness of the Church is easy for students to see, and closer scrutiny quickly enables them to decipher the complicity and cruelty of the military apparatus that appears to be keeping the people in line.

Jane Costlow’s excellent reading of the painting in her 2013 Heart-Pine Russia has opened up an entirely new dimension for me, which I’m looking forward to sharing with students the next time I teach it. Basically, she adds to the social commentary of the painting by paying special attention to landscape. My students and I have of course noticed many times that the landscape of the painting is dry and dusty, which lends a starkness to the scene and makes the social commentary harsher and rather unforgiving. But that was usually as far as we would take this line of thought.

We were missing something that, once pointed out, becomes as clear as the other aspects of the painting. Beyond the implied cruelty of people in positions of power toward other people, which one can see if one looks carefully, there is the implied rapaciousness of people toward nature in the background, which one can see if one looks still more carefully.

The great diversity of Repin’s rendering of the earthbound crowd draws the viewer’s eye, but so do the figures who stand out above them. Rising above the crowd are eight or so figures on horseback, and if our gaze moves beyond them into the background, we are confronted with a bare and dusty hillside with stumps of recently cut timber and brush, a hillside where a forest used to be.

(Costlow 2013: 96)

The surprising thing is that I never noticed the stumps that are now so conspicuous to me. Of course it would be different if they were walking through a forest! Repin in fact has other paintings of processions, some of which were sketches in preparation for this larger work, where the people make their way through wooded areas, rendering the depictions lush and even bucolic in tone. The absence of forest here and the conspicuous markers that there used to be forest here are central to the expression and social commentary of the painting, which Costlow’s research on “the forest question” makes exceptionally clear.

Definitely one of my favorite parts of this fine book.

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