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Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk

Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930). The Tretyakov Museum. Moscow. 1880-1883.

Ilya Yefimovich Repin was born in 1844 near Kharkov in a region of Imperial Russia that is now in the Ukraine. His father was a Russian military, but Ilya was destined to become a painter. His father recognised his talent and sent him to a local painter from whom the boy learned to paint early on. In 1866 Ilya Repin travelled to Saint Petersburg. He was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. He won a first prize at the Academy with a religious painting. He learned the style elements of the art of painting in the best Classicist ways from the professors at the Academy.

In the period of from 1873 to 1876, Repin visited Paris and Rome on an allowance granted by the Academy. At his return in 1876 he lived for several years in Moscow and he met the artists that had gathered at Abramtsevo in the houses of the Russian maecenas Savva Mamontov. This buoyant group of artists discussed about art and the meaning of art. Innovation and evolution in the arts bursted out of Abramtsevo. In 1878 Repin joined a group of artists who wanted to reform Russian painting and who strove to change the archaic views of the Saint Petersburg Academy. This ‘Association of Peredvizhniki Artists’ pursued a more realistic and indigenous style. The group also aimed to address wider layers of Russian society than the Saint Petersburg establishment and its Academy, which had been instituted to provide works of art for the Petersburg nobility mainly. Repin painted many portraits of Russian notables however. The movement he adhered to, the ‘Wanderers’ or ‘Itinerants’ was not so much considered as a political and socialist contestant group that had to be suppressed. It was justly regarded as a group that merely wanted to innovate art, but not necessarily society, and that was thus relatively innocent. Repin in the end even became a professor at the same Academy he had wanted to reform. From 1892 on he was a professor at the Academy. From 1882 he thus lived in Saint Petersburg. He nevertheless made paintings that were socialist in inspiration, pictures of the people living in the countryside of the Ukraine and of Russia.

Ilya Repin made his painting of the ‘Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk’ over a number of years, from 1880 to 1883. The painting dates from the time when Repin was still relatively young but already at the height of his art. Repin had many friends in the world of the Russian arts and sciences. Among these were Leon Tolstoy, Dimitri Mendeleev and the composer Modest Mussorgsky. He was well accepted by the whole of Russian society, also by the nobility and the wealthy industrialists and rich merchants. Despite his socialist inclinations he was commissioned to paint a large canvas of a session of the State Council of the Russian Government. Repin had seen the Impressionist style of painting in France, during his stay in Paris. Though he would later give due attention to the play of light in his paintings, and although he always used a very bright palette, he remained a realist in his depiction of Russian life. He painted portraits and scenes of historical themes, many of which were also socialist inspired. His paintings show profound sympathy with the life of the poorer people outside the large cities such as Saint Petersburg. His work must have contributed to draw the wider attention in Saint Petersburg on the masses of the Russian poor.

Ilya Repin continued to travel to Western Europe until he met in 1900 Natalia Nordman. He went to live with her on a domain she possessed on the Gulf of Finland, not so far from Saint Petersburg, called Penaty, at Kuokkala. These lands passed to Finland after the October Revolution of 1917 but Repin refused to return to Russia. He did not like the Bolsheviks too much. He only set foot again on Russian territory in 1926. He died in 1930 at Kuokkala of Finland. The house called Penaty still exists; is a museum today, dedicated to Repin’s works. Repin is considered one of Russia’s main artists of the nineteenth century.

The painting we use as an example of a painting on the theme of the religious procession is named ‘Krestny Khod in Kursk Gubernia’. ‘Gubernia’ means province and ‘Krestny Khod’ of course religious procession. Repin stayed in the country for a long time to sketch scenes, before he started on his painting. So, what he painted existed really. He had seen such processions and he must have been deeply impressed with this typical expression of Russian devotion of the masses. With his ‘Procession’ he showed what the different classes of the Russian society of the countryside were composed of. Repin did not have much sympathy with the clergy or with the underlying control of that society by the Tsarist regime. He did not openly contest the Tsarist government, but it is obvious that the thought that reforms were necessary, reforms that had to come from within the circles of the elite to which he in fact entirely belonged to.

The Kursk region is in Russia, near the Ukraine. It lies to the south-west of Moscow and the territory is rather hilly, as is shown in the painting. There are many streams and rivers in this land, but the rivers can hardly be used as waterways, so that the territory remained agricultural mainly in Repin’s times. Kursk province is a region of large villages and small towns, of which Kursk was the main city. It is ancient land. Kursk existed in the eleventh century. The city was destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth and possessed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century a strong citadel so that it was a centre of resistance to anything that was not Russian. The Kursk region was the heart of Russia. One of the greatest tank battles of World War II took place between the German and Russian armies in 1943 in this region.

With a procession, a community pledges its allegiance to religion. The relics of saints, usually of the saints of the churches of the villages, the saints that are supposed to protect the community, are brought solemnly through the main streets of the villages and through the fields. The saints bless the countryside and this blessing had to guarantee fine crops, good weather to support the growth of the cereals and health to the livestock. The relics were carried through the fields to show that the saints knew the country. Their omni-presence was thereby consolidated in the land. The priests preceded the procession to inspire belief in the people. The processions were an expression of the public worship for God and the saints. They proved that the lands belonged to Christendom, to Jesus Christ. This belief held the community together. And this belief therefore had to be confirmed and supported by the local notables since it also consolidated order and traditional rule.

We should imagine – and can do so from Repin’s work – a large crowd of people advancing slowly through the Russian countryside, through the small villages and the low, dusty hills. This crowd was the whole village and people might have come from several other villages too. The people advanced on earth roads, accompanied by hymns and the incantations of the priests. Incense burners would perfume the procession and all the associations would proudly carry banners to honour the saints. Christian processions continued of course ancient traditions of pagan processions, many of which were directed to the protectors of crops, be it the brute forces of nature or old, pagan gods of growth and harvest. There was always a strong element of ceremony in processions, so that processions were not only led by priests but also accompanied by the local notables. Representatives of the richer layers of society were still integrated part of the larger society, so they had their place in the processions. Such is also the case for the Russian procession in the province of Kursk, as painted by Ilya Repin.

The priests, all dressed in dirty, long, black robes, wear the relics of the saints. The relics are inside tower-like structures in wood, decorated by the zealots with flowers and ribbons. On each side of the reliquaries are placed white, wooden triangles, in which one found the eye of God that saw everything that happened in the world and that pierced the souls. The elder priests walk first. They have long, black beards. They wear poor sandals and their feet and legs are bound with white or grey cloth. Their beard and hair are unkempt. They are poor. The younger priests hold the bier poles, behind. One such youth, dressed in a shorter and brown cloak instead of a black one, probably still a novice, looks with awe at the flowered reliquary with its golden cupola. Behind him, two women bear other relics, pieces of bones of a saint in a smaller box. Further on, other priests swing incense burners and the perfumes envelop the procession. More icons are shown, hilly images of the saints and the Holy Family. In the distance we see the banners of the church associations and more relics are worn. The procession is large. It is an important procession, which takes place at Easter and thus celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, the event of the founding of Christian faith. Many popes, Orthodox priests, walk among the crowd.

The procession is accompanied by the imperial police. The police officer rides on a horse on the left side of the painting and we see how also his men are all mounted, and ride in long rows to the left and right of the people. The men are attentive, haughty, and one of the policemen hacks in on a man with his long riding whip. Repin shows the agents that have to keep the order in the procession not just as help and protection, but as a menace. It is as if the authorities have forced the people to march in the procession and drive them forward. The police seem to be present as much to enforce that command than to keep the order. They ensure that all the people participate. They force the crowd to advance. Priests also seem to order the people to march on. To the left for instance, Repin shows a priest pushing on handicapped children. The children walk with sticks and they obviously do not advance quickly enough, so a priest urges them on. Here, Repin showed overt poverty and misery of the people. Yet, he remained rather discreet in his messages. He could have represented more horrible examples of poverty and oppression still; he refrained from doing that. He remained the refined Saint Petersburgian artist, the future professor of the Imperial Academy. He showed poverty in a discreet way in his painting. There are also rich children in the painting. These walk not aside the procession, but right after the relics. We see such well-clad children aside the women dressed in bright colours, the women that hold a box of relics. These women wear fine clothes and aprons, nice head shawls. Their children wear books. Only these children receive education. Repin showed the misery of poverty close to just a little wealth – for even the wealthy in the countryside were not that rich, and certainly not as rich as the inhabitants of the capital of Saint Petersburg. Repin depicted the oppression of the villagers by the military and the zeal of the local priests, which he represented as neglected old men. Ilya Repin thus proposed to the viewer a long, massive, dark band of people that advances slowly through the brightly lit dusty country. It is dry in these vast fields of central Russia, and the vastness of the crowd throws up dust that blurs the view in the rear. We see no end to the people.

Repin used the diagonals of the frame for his structure, but he lowered the lines of the diagonals so that he could present the scene as seen from a height, from above, from a hill. The line of the right diagonal, the line that goes from the lower right to the upper left, is the line of the people in the procession. Along this line, Repin placed the men and women and children, mostly clad in black, so that a wide, sombre ribbon is the crowd that flows forward in the painting. The other diagonal’s line starts on the left, but much higher than the lower left corner, yet it moves to the upper right corner. This is the top line of the crest of a hill, a hill of which the trees and bushes have been cut down so that no green colours would alter the two main hues of the scene; the black of the people and the yellow-ochre of the sun-bleached, dusty earth of the Russian plains. The line of the hill terminates at the gilded cupola of the reliquary, thus also emphasising its structure and symbol of the procession. Repin guides the view back to the reliquary.

Repin’s colours are the colours of Russia; ochre for the land, black of the people, but these colours for a harmony of contrast that must be admired in his art. There are yellow-golden robes on the priests, orange head-shawls, light-brown gowns, gold in the banners and on the reliquaries. The black colours also indicate the mood of the people. Nobody laughs and heads are bent to the ground. Black is also the colour of power, so we find those hues on the priests and on the military, and much also on the men’s clothes.

Ilya Repin accomplished a very fine work to present to the viewer a realistic impression of an old Russian procession in the Russian society with its various levels and beliefs. It must have been an enormous work of composition to draw so many figures, so many faces, poises and expressions, so as to represent the mood and differences of the figures. Repin must have made hundreds of sketches and studied as many persons in the country. He not only represented the concrete, physical aspect of the people, but also the tensions among the mass of people, from the naïve devotion of the priests and of some of the women to the subjugation of the crowd by the police forces. It is not for nothing that Repin painted the policemen on horseback, so that their black, vertical lines prominently rise out of the crowd’s horizontal, dark band. Repin used this style element of the vertical lines to indicate oppression, to stiffen the atmosphere and draw the attention of the police.

It is singularly striking how poverty-aware painters from diverse European countries, as Ilya Repin from Russia and Charles Degroux in Belgium to Gustave Courbet in France used religious processions to express issues in their society. See for instance also Charles Degroux’ painting of the ‘Pilgrimage at Anderlecht’ and Courbet’s ‘Burial at Ornans’. These pictures represent actual events, but by the choice of the subject and by subtle hints at the tensions these artists delivered clear messages to whom were receptive to them and wanted to read them. Their paintings were to large extent accusations, complaints of the poverty of the people, of exploitation and subjugation. We know what followed in Russia: communism came with the Bolsheviks. Ilya Repin seems not to have had much more sympathy for Lenin than he had for the clergy of former Russia. When Lenin asked him to return to Russia from Penaty in Finland, Repin refused. He must have believed that there were softer and more appropriate ways to alter Russian society that Lenin’s methods.

Paintings such as the ‘Procession in the Province of Kursk’ are masterpieces of Russian art and they must be cherished as images of Russia’s past that would never have existed without artists like Repin. Russia was much a closed country for art critics and for people that wrote on art during the periods of the Cold War after World War II. Russian paintings and also Polish, Czech, Hungarian and other art of Eastern-European countries were much ignored and of course very hard to access by the rest of the world. In most Western-European or North-American books on art, reproductions and discussion of these art forms lacked. It is only truly since the beginning of the twenty-first century that art writers could discover, absorb and then write on the works of these marvellous artists to full extent. Nevertheless, this art and these paintings are of the same quality as the art of their counter-parts of Western Europe and Northern America. The works of Repin and of many other Russian artists (and Hungarian, Czech, Polish and so on), are worthy of admiration as works of genius, and worthy and of publications to the same degree as western works.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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