by Roderick Conway Morris

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Faces from Imperial Russia

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 27 September 1991
National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen
Tsar Ivan the Terrible by an unknown artist, mid 16th century



The story of Russia is one of such extremes that even the wimps and weaklings are interesting. Take Fedor Ivannovich, son of the paranoid, sadistic mass-murderer Ivan the Terrible. Eccentric, mild and kindly, Fedor, though not averse to a spot of bear hunting, much preferred listening dreamily to bells and church services - to the despair of his dreadful father, who was probably right when he said the boy was more cut out to be a bellringer in a convent than a tsar.

The owlish, rather startled-looking Fedor is one of a fascinating gathering of tsars, tsarinas, princes, princesses, nobles, priests, merchants and peasants - in Faces of Imperial Russia: Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas I, at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice till 6 January - whose mute testimony tells us as much about Russian history as it does about the development of Russian art.

The showing after over 70 years of these nearly 90 portraits, along with costumes, jewels, personal possessions and gold and silverware from Moscow's State (formerly Imperial) Historical Museum, is a major event. Russia's communist despots, while seeking to abolish the country's past, remained in perpetual fear of it; so, though they were keen to display, and lend, tsarist and aristocratic collections of Old Masters, impressionists and other western art, personal images of tsarist Russia, of which the Moscow museum has the richest collection, have been kept assiduously locked away, in preventive detention, as it were, ever since the Revolution.

Russia's history has been characterized by swings to and from the West, the enthusiastic embracing of occidental values and the precipitous rejection of them - something we might do well to remember after the euphoria of the last weeks.

Ivan the Terrible, who ruled for half a century until 1584, was the first of the Grand Dukes of Moscow to style himself 'tsar' (the Russian form of Caesar). Entitlement to so majestic a title rested on his claim to be the leading, independent Orthodox sovereign following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The elevation of Ivan to these dizzy heights was masterminded by the Church, and having rendered unto Caesar, the Church expected substantial pay-offs in return. Permission to burn some heretics was an appetizer, but the main reward was the augmentation of the Church's position and wealth - well illustrated in the exhibition by the lavish gold and silver gifts, studded with precious stones and pearls, presented by the tsars to churches and monasteries.

The religious authorities also wielded considerable power in artistic matters, opposing the painting of anyone other than Christ, his family, prophets and saints. Ivan and his sons were the first Russian dynasts to break the ban, but even then, these icon-portraits were posthumous. And the Church continued to fight a rearguard action against the sinful practice of secular portraiture well into the 18th century.

Ivan was prepared to open his country to the West for purely pragmatic reasons - he wanted modern artillery and gunpowder - but he meanwhile established the notion that for Russians to travel abroad was a treasonable activity. He got his cannons and military advisers from England, despite King Sigismund of Poland's appeal to Queen Elizabeth I not to supply weapons of mass destruction to the Russians, 'those traditional enemies of the human race'.

The political and cultural turning point seemed to come after the accession of Peter I in 1682. He cut off the boyars' beards, forced them to wear European clothes, and bodily moved them westwards by creating his new capital of St Petersburg. Western-style portraiture also gained acceptance, though popular native artists remained more at home with the old iconographic conventions, one of them, for example, folksily depicting Peter as St George slaying the Dragon, to celebrate his victory over the Swedes. But, while the aristocracy was slowly won over to the new ways, they proved too much for many of Peter's subjects: his new state schools had practically to press-gang pupils to attend, their mothers weeping for them 'as though they were dead'. They need not have worried: hardly any of the students ever completed their courses.

After Peter's death his nephew, Peter II, lost no time in putting the state into full reverse and moved the court back to Moscow. But when Peter's daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1741, there was another grinding of gears, the reversal was reversed, the University of Moscow and St Petersburg Fine Academy founded, and Peter's Academy of Sciences revived.

So the Russian juggernaut trundled on, advancing, shuddering to a halt, lumbering backwards - sometimes all within the lifetime of a single monarch. Catherine the Great (1762-1796) began her career as an enthusiast of the Enlightenment, and ended it a dyed-in-the-wool autocrat, hounding the progressives. Alexander I (1801-1825), too, started off a liberal, but by 1820 was sacking the most able university professors and banning textbooks that did not conform with the Bible. The co-existence of modern and archaic stylistic elements in some of the portraits uncannily mirrors these schizophrenic tendencies.

On coming face to face with the good, the bad, and the mad of Russia's past one cannot help reflecting that orthodox Marxist wisdom on historical determinism and the primacy of blind forces have been especially irrelevant to the unfolding of Russian history. Ironically, it is usually in democracies that the individual counts for less, and, if only in retrospect, seems to exert least political influence. In an autocracy, like Russia's, the visions, ambitions, whims, prejudices and lunacies of a single individual, the ruler, were often everything. And, in this respect, Stalin was the most total autocrat of all.

The exhibition ends in the mid-19th century - the Soviet authorities thinking it safer, perhaps, not to release from the vaults the last of the Romanovs, whose portraits have been making regular appearances at street demonstrations for some time. One can only hope that the curators of the State Historical Museum, who have so carefully preserved Russia's tsarist past, are out there now rescuing from the flames images of the communist dynasts to keep the museum's admirable and instructive collection up to date.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024