Ilya Repin

Over at Book Drum I’m busy working on my entry to the second annual Book Drum Tournament, compiling a profile of War and Peace. I’ve found I’ve been using a lot of paintings by Ilya Yefimovich Repin to illustrate things. He was painting after the time W&P is set, but not long after it was written, so I think I can be forgiven for this.

The more I look at his work, the less I can understand why he is not far better known in the West. He was lauded by the Soviets so by the rules of ‘my enemy’s friend is my enemy’ the West would be inclined to ignore him, but I think that’s a terrible shame.

The Barge Haulers; click to enlarge

His most famous work, arguably, is The Barge Haulers, a painting that had a tremendous impact when it was first shown in Russia. It shows the inhuman conditions in which Volga barge haulers worked, heaving great heavy-loaded barges, treated as nothing more than pack animals. But Repin’s work offers more than just the documentation of social inequalities. His subjects are never just ‘types’, to be pitied or despised according to their role in life. They all come over as real people, with thought and character. In The Barge Haulers attention is often drawn to the young man in red who is struggling against his straps, but I like looking at the man to his left, who is staring out of the painting at the viewer. His look is challenging, but not aggressively so: he seems to be watching with almost anthropological, detached interest, quietly awaiting our reactions.

His paintings of Russia’s writers and composers are all extremely arresting: Tolstoy in all his freshly-laundered, carefully-managed peasant simplicity; ruddy, rumpled Mussorgsky; an intense but comfy-looking Glinka composing Ruslan and Ludmilla. His paintings illustrating the fatal duel from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin are also among my favourites. I remember at least one Repin, a Tolstoy portrait, at the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago, but it would be brilliant to have a whole exhibition of his stuff over here.

Tolstoy ploughing
The Duel
The death of Lensky

I’ll stop myself there before I add another half-a-dozen pictures and make this page impossibly slow to load. The Ilya Repin site I have linked to above, and indeed do so again here, purports to have his complete works, but doesn’t. It’s still a good site though.

On Beauty, and On Impostors

As I mentioned in my last post, I read On Beauty, edited by Umberto Eco, a while ago. It’s a heavily illustrated, glossy, ordinary-sized book that wants to be a coffee-table-sized one; a brief history of the concept of beauty in Western civilisation, accompanied by well chosen pictures and sections of quotes by various thinkers. Although it is a very interesting and beautiful book to have, it’s on the slight side. It gallops through the history of this idea at such a clip it sometimes makes it difficult to stitch the ideas together, a problem not helped by the bitty format – a quote here, a paragraph there, the whole so fragmentary it is difficult to concentrate properly whilst reading it. I would have enjoyed more cross-referencing between different concepts of beauty, and a deeper insight into these concepts themselves. It seems weird to be accusing Eco of a lack of depth, but there you go. It’s still a brilliant introduction to the changing nature of this idea.

In his section on the sublime, Eco starts with Longinus, who wrote On the Sublime. Well,that is to say, he might have done, except he probably didn’t. I’d vaguely heard the name Longinus before somewhere and got all excited because Eco refers to him as Pseudo-Longinus, and I thought that meant there were two of them: Longinus and Pseudo-Longinus, an imitator. It turns out that it’s one person who is sometimes called Pseudo-Longinus and at other times simply Longinus, both referring to the author of On the Sublime. The author’s actual identity is unknown. A medieval copyist attributed On the Sublime to “Dionysius or Longinus” and since then people have been trying to work out quite what, if anything, he meant by that; basically, nobody knows.

This disappointed me, because I like the idea of impostors and imitators and such. I like the story of Thomas Chatterton, and of the two Sonny Boy Williamsons. After Sonny Boy Williamson rose to fame as a blues harpist, Aleck “Rice” Miller began to use the same name. The first Sonny Boy objected to this, quite understandably, but Sonny Boy Williamson II (as he is now best known) never made any money during Sonny Boy Williamson I’s career, so the damage caused by this impersonation was limited. The funny thing about it is that SBW II’s music is just as good as SBW I’s. He didn’t need the leg-up provided by the Sonny Boy brand name.

(The above is the first one, and

this is the impostor.)

I’m not sure how I ended up talking about blues harpists when I started out trying to review On Beauty but that’s the nature of my brain, I’m afraid. To return to the point: it’s a good book, and although it could have been a better one, it’s still very much worth a look.

Mouthing the Words

The other day – by which I mean last December – I was on the tube, sitting opposite a woman of about twenty or so. My strongest memory of her is of an overriding sense of marshmallow pinkishness. Everything she was wearing seems, at the distance of a couple of months, to have been this colour. She got on the tube a few stops after me and settled down opposite with a book. I didn’t see the title, but the girl was completely absorbed. She put on an impressively square pair of glasses and mouthed the words to herself as she read.

At first I was entirely scornful of this apparent lack of reading prowess, but as I watched, I changed my mind. She was obviously taken up with the story, and the mouthing somehow seemed to absorb her all the more fully into it. Reading took a physical hold over her. The only other time I have seen this happen is when a youngish actor on the tube was going over a script, rather ostentatiously, and began to slip in the odd gesture as he read, but his actions were crying out to be sternly ignored. The marshmallow girl had no conception of an audience: she was, for all intents and purposes, alone with the book. The story was wrung out of the pages through her silent words, moving right through her. I tried it myself when I got home, but I was reading On Beauty by Umberto Eco at the time and it didn’t really work. I think a lot of readers have lost the thrill of the actual act of reading, either aloud, or whilst mouthing the words to yourself. It’s a shame, really.