Thursday, May 06, 2021

Ilya Repin (exhibition at Ateneum)

Ilya Repin (1844–1930) : What Freedom! / «Какой простор!». 1903. Oil on canvas. 179 cm x 284.5 cm. Collection: Russian Museum. Ж-2774. Please do click on the image to enlarge it.

Repin. Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, 27 April – 29 Aug 2021. Produced by the Ateneum Art Museum and the Petit Palais (Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris / Paris Musées), in collaboration with the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum. The curator of the exhibition at the Ateneum is the chief curator Timo Huusko. After Ateneum, the exhibition will be on display at the Petit Palais in Paris.
    The original opening of 9 March 2021 was postponed due to the corona emergency.
    Corona security: pre-booking, limited capacity, staggered entry, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed 6 May 2021.

Ilya Repin. Editor: Anne-Maria Pennonen. Photo editor: Lene Wahlsten. With contributions by Marja Sakari, Tatjana Yudenkova, David Jackson, Timo Huusko and Satu Itkonen.
    Graphic design: Minna Luoma.
    Ateneum Publications Vol. 145.
    Three editions: Finnish, Swedish and English.
    207 pages : richly illustrated : 28 cm.
    ISBN 978-952-737125-1 hardbound.
    Printing: Livonia Print © 2021.
    Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2021.

Ilya Repin: Ilja Repin: Mennyt aika läheinen (Far and Near / Далёкое близкое, 1937). Finnish translation: Mirja Rutanen. Porvoo – Helsinki – Juva: WSOY, 1970. – A wonderful book of memoirs.

Tito Colliander: Ilja Repin, ukrainalainen taiteilija. Translation from the Swedish original: Lauri Kemiläinen. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Tammi, 1944. – Largely based on the same notes of Repin's from which the painter's memoirs were posthumously edited.

From the official introduction: " A master of psychological portrayals and depictions of Russian folklife

Ilya Repin (1844–1930) is above all known as a master of psychological portrayals of people and depictions of Russian folklife. The Ateneum is able to display Repin’s best-known paintings with masterful details, including Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–1873) and Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan (1880–1891), both from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition’s many portraits feature members of the artist’s family, as well as cultural influencers of the time, such as the composer Modest Mussorgsky and the author Leo Tolstoy. In all, Repin painted more than 300 portraits, including portrayals of many influential women in culture.

Ilya Repin, the most significant Russian artist of his time, depicted the Russian people, who had been freed from serfdom in the 1860s, as well as the intelligentsia of the era, and the relationship between the people and their rulers. His work has also strongly influenced the Finnish people’s current perception of the essence of Russianness.

The exhibition is the first review of Repin’s entire career in Finland in the 21st century. The exhibition features more than 140 paintings and paper-based works spanning a period of more than sixty years. Many of the works are shown in Helsinki for the first time. The Ateneum collection also includes a great number of Repin’s works."
(From the official introduction)

AA: My first visit to a large art exhibition in half a year is to Ateneum's grand retrospective of Ilya Repin, the Ukraine-born master of Russian realism.

As a contributor to a volume of essays on Leo Tolstoy that was published in January 2021, I have been absorbed in Russian society, history and realism for a couple of years. I confronted Ilya Repin also during my Tolstoy quest. Repin and Tolstoy were long-term friends, and Repin's Tolstoy chapter in his memoirs contains some of the most engrossing pages about the author.

They were opponents in many ways, particularly regarding Tolstoy's infamous, polemical What Is Art? treatise in which Tolstoy denied the worth of almost the whole legacy of world art. Disregarding that, Repin and Tolstoy connected in profound spiritual levels.

The last pages of Repin's Tolstoy memoirs are devoted to their long riding tour in 1909, when Tolstoy was 81 years old, one year before his death. Repin admires Tolstoy's tact, skill and bravado with his beloved horse Délire. And Leo's patience: when he has tried to lead the horse through the wrong forest thicket path Leo finally understands to give up and let the horse find the right path.

Having read those genial memoirs, it is startling to discover the last Tolstoy portrait painted by Repin while the author was alive, made during the year of the last ride. (Based on his sketches, Repin painted some more portraits after Tolstoy's death). Repin created 12 portraits of Tolstoy, several of which are on display at Ateneum. In addition, he made 25 drawings. There are also eight sketches of Tolstoy's family members, 17 book illustrations and three plaster busts.

That 1909 Tolstoy portrait was for me the biggest revelation and the most startling experience in the Ateneum exhibition. All other Repin's Tolstoy portraits are full of vigour, and there is a powerful spiritual radiation, although Tolstoy is usually in humble and ordinary clothes. There is a sense of passion and perseverance. They evoke a prophet, a seer, an apostle, a shaman.

But in this portrait in the pink chair from the year 1909 the keynote is agony. Tolstoy was disturbed about the recent developments in Russia. "Stolypin's necktie" had been used mercilessly to crush opposition. On "Bloody Sunday", the Czar's Imperial Guard massacred peaceful, unarmed demonstrators led by Father Gapon who wanted to deliver a petition to the Czar. Such events were a blow to Tolstoy's faith in non-violent resistance. The conflicts and contradictions were turning unbearable to the ageing and ailing author who in the next year tried to retire from the world.

All this can be felt in the last portrait.

Ilya Repin belongs to the greatest masters of portrait painting. The Tolstoy cycle is only an example. In all portraits we have a feeling of being in the presence of a real, vivid and impressive human being. Repin created a portrait gallery of the Great Men and Women of Russia. When we contemplate Repin's Alexander III, Nikolai II and Kerenski we get an inside track into history. Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna, Varvara Uexküll von Gyldenbrandt, Elizaveta Zvantseva and Eleonora Duse (a frequent visitor to Russia) are remarkable presences. His own family Repin painted with warm affection and a sense of humour.

John Berger's "male gaze" discourse has been recently revived for the Me Too age. Repin survives such a critical examination. His female portraits are proud, independent and intelligent. They are not passive objects of the male gaze. Instead, Repin's women gaze at us with their heads held up high.

This is my first Ilya Repin solo exhibition, but many of his paintings I have seen at the Russian Museum. During the corona emergency I have had time to read and study comfortably three Ilya Repin books, including the exhibition catalogue, so I was pretty well prepared when my turn came to visit the museum. In our age of record visitor figures to museums, we have already been used to queues in Le Louvre and the Hermitage. Now the pandemic adds a new twist to the Golden Age of Museums.

It adds to the reverence of art to have to stand in line to review it. But yet again, people wander in the exhibition photographing paintings with their mobile phones, instead of viewing them, although superior images exist online of almost all. (But of the Tolstoy in 1909 painting I only discovered an inferior photo on the web.)

Most paintings are familiar, but intriguing rarities are dispersed among them, many of them from Finnish collections. The last 12 years of his life Repin lived in Finland with a Nansen passport. Repin did not emigrate, but since December 1917, Repin's villa Penates in Eastern Karelia happened to remain on the West side of the border, in the newly independent Republic of Finland.

There is a grand and engrossing vision on display at the exhibition. It is an epic survey of the history of Russia and Ukraine. The painting of Ivan the Terrible after the murder of his son in 1581 was withdrawn from the exhibition due to vandalism. But we have history paintings from the Zaporozhian Cossacks laughing at the Ottoman Sultan in 1676 and Tsarevna Sophia Alekseevna in her imprisonment in the Novodevichy Convent in 1698 till the Russian Revolutions in 1905 and 1917. Repin's painting on the Demonstration on October 17, 1905 is one of his most joyful, and his view of the Memorial at the Wall of the Communards at Père Lachaise (1883) has a special feeling of hopeful anticipation. But Repin condemned the bloodshed of Russia's Civil War, and his desolate Golgotha (1922) may be seen as a vision of the tragedy.

Even in Finland Repin's chain of great paintings on Russian history continued. In his partially sketchy Great Men of Finland (1927) he places in the middle the Finnish painter Axel Gallen-Kallela lighting his pipe, and himself standing next to him, with his back towards us, addressing General Mannerheim, the White General of Finland who in 1918 wanted to join the Russian Civil War to conquer Saint Petersburg. Mannerheim would have won the war, and that's why he got no backing, because the victory would have meant that Finland would have lost her independence.

A major current in the exhibition is rebellion, from post-Dekabrists to Oktyabrists. Before the Confession, two versions of the Unexpected Return (female and male), Meeting, and Arrest of a Propagandist are complex, disturbing, dynamic scenes. In his emblematic What Freedom! we can sense Repin's high hopes for the future of his country.

Almost all Repin's paintings can be examined at home in official high resolution digital transfers. Because of the epic quality of many it pays to study them on the biggest possible screen. But seen "live" it becomes possible to experience their three-dimensional brushstrokes. At close range the paintings are far from photorealistic. First they turn expressionistic, then abstract. It's worth the effort to "track forward and track back" to keep gaining new insights into these masterworks.

Finally, there is the aura of the unique artwork. Viewing the original portrait we are at two degrees of separation from Tolstoy.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021


Francis Lee: Ammonite (GB 2020) with Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison.

Ammonite / Ammonite.
    GB/AU © 2020 The British Film Institute / British Broadcasting Corporation / Fossil Films Limited. PC: See-Saw Films. P: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly.
    D+SC: Francis Lee. DP: Stéphane Fontaine – colour – 1,85:1 – source format: Redcode RAW 6K, 7K, 8K – master format: 2K – release: D-Cinema. PD: Sarah Finlay. Cost: Michael O'Connor. Hair and makeup: Ivana Primorac. VFX: One Of Us. VFX: Dupe VFX. M: composers: Dustin O'Halloran, Volker Bertelmann. M supervisor: John Boughtwood. S: Wave Studios. ED: Chris Wyatt. Casting: Fiona Weir. Calligraphy: Deborah Hammond.
    Soundtrack selections:
– Johann Strauss (Vater) : Gesellschaftwalzer Op. 5 (1827)
– Clara Schumann : Romanze a-Moll für Klavier (1853), perf. Saoirse Ronan at the clavichord [tbc].
– Peter Gregson : Aria for solo cello in D Minor.
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning
Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison
Fiona Shaw as Elizabeth Philpot
Gemma Jones as Molly Anning
James McArdle as Roderick Murchison
Alec Secăreanu as Dr. Lieberson
Claire Rushbrook as Eleanor Butters
    Loc: Lyme Regis, Dorset. – Kent, Surrey, London.
    120 min
    Festival premiere: 11 Sep 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
    US premiere: 13 Nov 2020.
    British online premiere: 26 March 2021.
    Finnish festival premiere: 7 May 2021 Season Film Festival (Riemukupla).
    Distributed in Finland by Cinema Mondo with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Anna Hiltunen / Joanna Erkkilä.
    Corona security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at a press screening at Kino Engel 1, Helsinki, 4 May 2021.

Ammonites (ammonoids) are a group of extinct marine mollusc animals. They are excellent index fossils to link rock layers to specific geologic time periods. Their fossil shells usually take the form of planispirals, although there are some helically spiraled and nonspiraled forms. (Data edited from the Ammonoidea article in Wikipedia).

Mary Anning (1799–1847) "was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Anning's findings contributed to changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth". "Anning searched for fossils in the area's Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. Her discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton; the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces, and she also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods." "It has been claimed that Anning's story was the inspiration for the tongue-twister 'She sells seashells by the seashore,' but there is no evidence for this. " (From the Mary Anning article in Wikipedia).

Synopsis from the press notes: " In the 1840s, acclaimed self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. The days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists to support herself and her ailing widowed mother. When one such tourist, Roderick Murchison, arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European tour, he entrusts Mary with the care of his young wife Charlotte, who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. Mary, whose life is a daily struggle on the poverty line, cannot afford to turn him down but, proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, she clashes with her unwanted guest. They are two women from utterly different worlds. Yet despite the chasm between their social spheres and personalities, Mary and Charlotte discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for: the realization that they are not alone. It is the beginning of a passionate and all-consuming love affair that will defy all social bounds and alter the course of both lives irrevocably. " (Synopsis from the press notes).

AA: In the beginning of Francis Lee's Ammonite, I thought for a fleeting while about Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady in Fire, shot on the other side of La Manche / the English Channel. The films do share certain elements: desolation and solitude in the formidable presence of the Atlantic Ocean, and a forbidden love story between two women, but there the affinities end, although even here we meet a young woman unenthusiastic about marriage and a portrait secretly created about that woman by another woman who falls in love with her.

Mary Anning, however, is not a painter, but a hard-working fossilist, trained since childhood by her father to observe tides and storms that reveal Jurassic discoveries from the marine beds in the cliffs at Lyme Regis. Already in childhood Anning has learned to record her findings via drawings and written notes. The drawings are so accomplished that they are admired in leading scientific circles, as are of course the fossils themselves. Anning belongs to the generations whose discoveries start to undermine received notions of Creation before Darwin. Anning becomes a revered name among specialists, and her fossils are on display at the British Museum and other leading institutions, but no public credit is given. Instead names of the gentleman buyers are credited.

We witness an age of multiple discrimination. Mary Anning is a woman, and women started to get entrance into scientific societies only in the 20th century. She is not a member of the ruling elite, but a small enterpreneur living in circumstances comparable with a poor farmer or the working class. She is devoutly religious, but also a Congregationalist, a Dissenter, emphasizing the importance of education for the poor. She has learned to read and write at a Congregationalist Sunday school. Only members of the Church of England are accepted in official England.

Although Anning is a leading pioneer in the field of natural sciences, she lives a marginal life in hardship and poverty, and when she visits the British Museum, she is not welcomed as a hero and a special guest of honour but just a regular member of the crowd. In Ammonite, there is a strong current of anger based on this situation of injustice and exploitation. Kate Winslet channels this powerfully in her performance. She is very convincingly physical in her role of the pathbreaking explorer constantly battling the elements.

Mary lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) who runs their curiosity shop. Molly is the mother of ten children, only two of whom have survived. Eight special figurines she washes, polishes and nurtures every night. Gradually we realize that they represent her eight deceased children. It is perhaps not surprising that Mary, having witnessed that and having displayed scientific talent since the age of 10, has not been interested in marriage.

That interest cannot possibly be stirred by visitors such as the geologist Roderick and his wife Charlotte Murchison (James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan), an upper-class couple where the woman has no independent position. Charlotte suffers from postnatal depression made particularly severe because her baby was stillborn. When Charlotte approaches Roderick for tenderness and sex, he turns her down because it's too soon to try to have another baby.

Roderick admires Mary and asks her to be a companion for Charlotte while he continues his geological tour. A mutual antipathy between the women gradually turns to disinterest, but when Charlotte, ordered to swim in the freezing ocean, catches pneumonia, Mary heals her tenderly with Philpot's Salve from a knowledgeable neighbour, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw). The tender care leads to growing affection, and the women fall in love.

The account of intimacy, looks, smiles, touching, and sex, is tender and affectionate, painted in warm and vibrant colours. In a world hostile to women, Mary and Charlotte find each other despite being from extremely different circumstances, and are no longer alone in the world. They are able to unlock in each other a hidden potential of passion. Although the characters of the film are based on reality, the account of their private lives and affairs is fictional.

Affectionate details include Mary offering Charlotte fish pie (what we in Finland call kalakukko), Mary drawing Charlotte's portrait, and Charlotte playing Clara Schumann on the clavichord. From her loving look to another woman's baby we realize her need to become a mother herself one day.

Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography is eloquent in the rough and the smooth. This is a film of powerful contrasts, such as the freezing seafront weather vs. the warm tenderness of the human skin. The colour palette is vibrant and evocative. The digital cinematography in very high definition achieves a strong sense of the tangible and the physical.

P.S. In January 2022 news reached the press about the most complete fossil ever found in the UK of the "sea dragon" ichtyosaur. Mary Anning was credited as the first finder of the creature.

P.S. Gemma Conroy (The New York Times, 1 Nov 2022): the first complete ichtyosaur fossil, most likely discovered by Mary Anning, was destroyed in a Nazi air raid in May 1941. Now three copies have been found in the world's museums.

Txllxt TxllxT : "London – Cromwell Road – Natural History Museum 1881 by Alfred Waterhouse – Mary Anning, the Fossil Woman". 11 Sep 2010. From: Wikipedia.

Henry de la Beche (1796–1855) : Duria Antiquior. Famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning. 1830. Collection: National Museum Cardiff. Source: . Public domain. From: Wikipedia. Please do click on the image to enlarge it.

Deux / Two of Us

Filippo Meneghetti: Deux / Two of Us (2019) with Martine Chevallier (Madeleine) and Barbara Sukowa (Nina).

Yhdessä / Vi två.
    FR/LU/BE © 2019 Paprika Films / Tarantula / Artémis Productions. P: Pierre-Emmanuel Fleurantin & Laurent Baujard.
    D: Filippo Meneghetti. SC: Filippo Meneghetti & Malysone Bovorasmy – with additional writing by Florence Vignon. DP: Aurélien Marra – colour – 2.39:1 – release: 2K DCP. PD: Laurie Colson. Cost: Magdalena Labuz. M: original score: Michele Menini. S: Céline Bodson – 5.1. ED: Ronan Tronchot.
    Production manager: Vincent Canart. 1st assistant director: Brice Morin. Casting: Brigitte Moidon, Valérie Pangrazzi.
    Theme song: "Chariot (Sul mio carro)" (1963), originally French, called "Chariot" (1961, J. W. Stole = Franck Pourcel & Del Roma = Paul Mauriat) sung in Italian (with lyrics by Gaspare Gabriele Abbate & Bruno Pallesi) by Betty Curtis. (Globally well known is the American version "I Will Follow Him", adapted by Arthur Altman with new lyrics by Norman Gimbel, first recorded by Little Peggy March on her single "I Will Follow Him" / "Wind Up Doll" in 1963.)
    C: Barbara Sukowa (Nina), Martine Chevallier de la Comédie-Française (Madeleine), Léa Drucker (Anne), Muriel Benazeraf (Muriel), Jérôme Varanfrain (Frédéric).
    Loc: 28 Avenue Bouisson Bertrand, Montpellier (Madeleine and Nina's apartments). – Sommières, Gard (riverside scenes). – Thionville, Moselle (resting home).
    95 min
    Festival premiere: 7 Sep 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
    French premiere: 12 Feb 2020.
    Finnish festival premiere: 8 May 2021 Season Film Festival.
    Distributed in Finland by Cinema Mondo with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Outi Kainulainen / Joanna Erkkilä.
    Corona security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at a press screening at Kino Engel 2, Helsinki, 4 May 2021.

Synopsis from the press kit: "Two retired women, Nina and Madeleine, have been secretly in love for decades. Everybody, including Madeleine’s family, thinks they are simply neighbors, sharing the top floor of their building. They come and go between their two apartments, enjoying the affection and pleasures of daily life together, until an unforeseen event turns their relationship upside down and leads Madeleine’s daughter to gradually unravel the truth about them."

AA: The story of a secret love comes as a shock to a family. A son and a daughter must face the realization that they have known nothing about their mother.

It starts in terms of a discreet arrangement. Madeleine has never revealed her new love to her children, although she has kept promising Nina to do so. The tension becomes so unbearable that she suffers a stroke, becomes paralyzed and loses her faculty to speak.

When Nina keeps trying to contact and communicate with Madeleine, her children Anne and Frédéric and her nurse Muriel mistake her for a stalker. They change the locks to her apartment and prevent Nina from meeting her at a resting home.

The behaviour of the children and Muriel is understandable from their viewpoint because the misunderstood Nina goes berserk and turns violent.

However, the children realize that the resting home is not a good idea, and the daughter Anne has a change of heart.

A basic theme is what Henrik Ibsen called livsløgn in The Wild Duck: a fundamental self-deception, an illusion, a life lie. It can be for an invidual what a foundation myth is for a nation if that myth is based on an illusion.

The children have known that their mother Madeleine has been unhappy but they have believed that their father was nevertheless the great love of her life. Breaking their illusion has become overwhelming for Madeleine.

When Madeleine loses her power of communication, only the look and the touch of Nina can start to revive her. We have read and heard about the healing power of music, and in this movie it is the couple's theme song, "Chariot (Sul mio carro)" sung by Betty Curtis, that helps Madeleine regain the power of her look.

Among other things, Deux offers a warning about medicalization. Strong drugs in the resting home certainly help the staff by reducing patients to zombies, easily manipulated, but for the patients and those dear to them they mean clear and present danger.

Subtly directed by Filippo Meneghetti in his debut feature film, the character-driven Deux boasts sophisticated performances by Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as the lovers, and Léa Drucker and Jérôme Varanfrain as Madeleine's children.

Among the films themes is also class and ethnical discrimination in the rude treatment of Muriel the Mahgreb nurse, interpreted by Muriel Benazeraf. The violent Nina becomes herself a victim of violence as a consequence of a chain of misunderstandings, all due to the livsløgn from which all have suffered.