Monday, May 05, 2008


One reason to take a second look at the great Russian illustrator Illya Repin is that art critic Clement Greenberg didn't think Repin was worth a second look.

Scene from the underwater adventures of the Russian hero Sadko

In his famous essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg sneered at Repin's art, explaining that an "ignorant peasant" prefers Repin while "cultivated" people prefer abstract artists such as Picasso:
[W]hen an ignorant Russian peasant... stands with hypothetical freedom of choice before two paintings, one by Picasso, the other by Repin....[i]n the first he sees, let us say, a play of lines, colors and spaces that represent a woman.... He turns next to Repin's picture and sees a battle scene.... Picasso [is] austere and barren in comparison. What is more, Repin heightens reality and makes it dramatic: sunset, exploding shells, running and falling men.... Repin is what the peasant wants, and nothing else but Repin. It is lucky, however, for Repin that the peasant is protected from the products of American capitalism, for he would not stand a chance next to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell....
I must be a peasant, for when I saw Repin's originals in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, I found them staggeringly beautiful.

The Volga boatmen

Cossacks writing a mocking letter to the Sultan of Turkey

Raising Jairus Daughter

Portrait of Tolstoy

Greenberg's essay has been described as "one of the important theoretical documents of 20th century culture." Greenberg proceeded (over the bodies of excellent painters such as Repin and Rockwell) to become the primary cheerleader and intellectual architect for abstract expressionism.

Me, I like both Picasso and Repin. I even like Clement Greenberg, who was a brilliant writer and theorist. There's just one little problem with Greenberg's argument...

As Svetlana Boym of Harvard notes,
Greenberg's example of kitsch is Ilia Repin's battle scenes which, he claims, merely imitate the effect of artistic battles.... however, the fact is that Repin never painted any battle scenes. Possibly Greenberg is confusing Repin with another painter or rehearsing someone else's cliches...
This is the kind of careful analysis which led to "20th century culture." Greenberg concludes his criticism of Repin this way:
Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art.
Apparently, the "difficult" part of art does not include bothering to look at the pictures you criticize.


Anonymous said...

Repin is a genius. I think the reason we don't hear more about him is basically this obstacle called... Soviet Russia.

I went to the Royal Acadamy's 'From Russia' exhibition specifically to see the Repin Portrait of Tolstoy and the 2 Levitan Landscapes they had on display. IMO it was a wasted opportunity not to show us more "unknown" Russian artists.

Anonymous said...

Great post as usual David.

I am, however, less inclined than you to feel generosity toward Mr. Greenberg and his self-assured ilk in the modernist preisthood. There were consequences to his words and judgments and the movements they supported. Not only did excellent artists lose their careers, but the world lost many a possible artist because of pseudo-sophisticated opinions like his that convinced several generations of possible Repins or Fechins or Rockwells or Sargents that greener, and less-gamed (or gamey) pastures lie elsewhere.

Greenberg has been praised enough. I think his discredit is long overdue.

And I am in full agreement that less text and more looking are warranted. Which is to say that when I look from the works of Repin to the words of Greenberg, I think, "What did Mr. Greenberg contribute again? I can't seem to find any of his paintings. Did he really make a living being against talented and productive people who brought joy and heart into the world?"

Can't be. But then I remember my Gramsci, Lukacs and Marcuse... And I bow my head and curse a lot.

Dogma always barks. It is when people listen to it that it bites.

Anonymous said...

Clement Greenberg, genius. What a joke.

Didja notice his nice slight of hand in those quotes, where he slanted the argument by using economic class as a proxy for taste? More money equals superior taste. Good marxist, gooood marxist! Everything is a class issue.

Unfortunately for the jaundiced Greenberg, Repin painted for the same class that Greenberg extols in his fatuous nonsense. You have to hand it to the three-card monty intellectuals--they really know how to pull off a 180 when it suits their self-centered agenda.

Repin was such a superior painter to Picasso that it's hard to even compare the two. And I'm not just talking technique. Repin had a great compassion for the russian people, whereas Picasso had no compassion for anybody, and it shows abundantly in his work.

Clement Greenberg, intellectual peasant and fatuous ass. Ilya Repin, russian master of painting, appealing to the higher tastes of the ordinary and extraordinary man alike.

Anonymous said...

Boy, it's nice to see a few people questioning Greenberg's hold on the art world. I just finished the last art history class I had to take for my MFA, and I never really felt much affinity with Greenberg or many of the artists he espoused. Realism in general seems to be an easy target for any critic and I think Greenberg was no exception (going on my crappy memory).
(ken meyer jr)

Anonymous said...

Some of the Repin is illustrative; the boatmen, the cossacks. Superb technique for sure. More and more as I paint, I respect the technique.

The portraits too are masterful, and inasmuch as I discount the others as 'illustration', I can see some of what the criticism might have been - that it makes the subject matter easy to digest.

But the Underwater image rises above storytelling -though it probably is an illustration all the same. Perhaps it's the imagination that brings it off, perhaps it's the fantasy element in it that speaks, or that I am not familiar with it's more mundane (?) inspirational source.

It's a terrible knife edge to walk on; accessible or difficult, maker of pictures or maker of paintings.

Anonymous said...

Whatever. Those pictures are masterful by any standard, especially the woman in the chair. And neither am I just talking about technique.

And do I lose art intelligence points for not being aware of the various critics and what they've said about art? I consider myself quite knowledgable about painting and drawing, both technique and history, in my own way as much as any critic. I at least know enough of old master methods and materials to execute a picture superficially similar to them. Could Mr. Greenberg say the same? Or am I still an unwashed commoner in comparison? :p

Not to mention David here from what I've read knows at least as much about art history (at least that of which he's interested in ) as any Charlie Rose guest expert, and at least has unique personal feelings to offer up.

Jesse said...

How serendipitous! Just earlier this afternoon I had applied a new wallpaper for my desktop PC. It was a scene filled to bursting with rough, fascinating, richly adorned characters all guffawing around a table and each decked out in their bloody Sunday best (what mischief had they been up to!). No clue of the painter or anything and then I read your post just now and there they are, Repin's lively Cossacks taking jabs at the Sultan! Thanks David for properly introducing me to a fantastic artist. (Great timing, too ;)

The higher resolution image of that painting can be found here:

Anonymous said...

I am in awe of Repin. I am also awed by Picasso. John Singer Sargent has made me openly weep in a sterile museum gallery - as has Franz Kline. When can we dispense with the catechism, the false duality - and get to the meat of the issue? There is no formula by which Art is arrived at, and there are no semantic shortcuts that ease our path to finding value in art - there is only the visceral reaction, the intellectual response --- and NO ONE can guide dog us there. It is only through our own probing and unfolding that we can be genuinely moved and altered by the artistic endeavors of our peers - Greenberg is no more, and no less, than a Martha Stewart of "Fine Art" criticism. We stand upon the shoulders of giants and dwarfs alike - and each grants us just that tiny pinch more insight into what art - and humanity - really is.

(I am so very sorry for my overwrought prose - whiskey and the absence of my beloved has rendered me oh so Rilke.)

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous (first), I agree that there are a number of great talents from Russia (and from other countries as well) that we don't see nearly enough of. The Repin images available on line don't begin to hint at the effect of his grand, glorious originals. Seeing them in person was a totally different experience. We need more exhibitions like "From Russia."

Kev, I understand your feelings about Greenberg; he was opinionated and frustrating, but he was also a seminal thinker and an eloquent advocate at a pivotal time in US culture. When you are as articulate as Greenberg, you have to be careful because you can find words to justify almost any position on art. In this case, he should have talked less and looked more.

Anonymous (second), you wrote, "Ilya Repin, russian master of painting, appealing to the higher tastes of the ordinary and extraordinary man alike." I agree 100%. He is really quite special, and I hope more people get a chance to see his work in person.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous (Ken), congratulations on your MFA! Regarding Greenberg, it helps to keep in mind that at one time, he was defending the unpopular outcasts of the art world with nothing but his words to persuade. To the extent he ended up a bloated dictator of what is good and bad in modern art, he got there solely on the strength of his intellect.

Doug, I agree with you that the underwater painting (which is an illustration from a traditional story of a young Russian hero) is the best of this particular bunch. But if you saw them in person, I think your estimation of the boatmen and the cossacks would increase.

Crisp, you are too kind.

David Apatoff said...

Monque, thanks for the higher resolution image. I'm glad we both thought about Repin at the same time. The original painting is huge, the size of a wall, with much subtlety that does not come through even in the higher resolution digital images.

Emp, I like the genuine way you respond to art... it sounds like you know what art is for. Here's hoping your beloved returns soon.

Titus Helmke said...

repins cassacks are amazing! bummer he is gone!


Diego Fernetti said...

Mr. Greenberg wrote:"Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art."
This is a mindset I often find, and an easy excuse for obscure, disgusting or simply meaningless "art". Mozart pieces are beautiful and pleasurable, yet they're very complex sometimes and the trained ear can appreciate these nuances as well. The cossacs painting (my favorite of this post, David) is rather straighforward, but once you see the general effect , thanks to a careful composition, and start studying the scorzi and the atmopheric effects, it shows a superb technical mastership.
Thanks for bringing up another fascinating subject.

zenya said...

Perhaps mr. Greenberg just wanted to add a conflict to his critics, so he pretented to be a referi at the imaginary sparring between Repin and Picasso. Both of them are great artists in my opinion, maybe both were means for the beauty to reveal, and they don't seem to be real antagonists.

Besides, your article made me want to go the Russian museum again, for I haven't been there for several months. Thank you, David!)

spacejack said...

Anonymous #2, your comment made my day.

Jeff Jackson said...

Gee-osh you're a snob! But-I agree with you wholeheartedly and am very glad I happened on your blog, David. I love illustration and the beauty that illustrators, or I should say art masters, have provided the world. I took the time to look through just about all of your posts (a slow day in the freelance world, but time well spent). I am so pleased that you have taken the time to post these wonderful scans as well as provide your commentary to advance the whole of illustration as well as animation as art forms.
I would love to hear your comments on artists whose work is closely associated with books for children; Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne as well as those contemporary artists doing work in the field, David Wiesner, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and others if you have any opinion at all. If you have already addressed this topic, I'm sorry for the redundancy.
Thank you again for creating this blog, I will definately be coming back if just to peruse the great images you post. So by all means, please continue with this snobbery.

David Apatoff said...

Titus and dfernettis, sounds like the cossacks have lots of fans out there... and with good reason. If you saw this huge painting in person, you would love it even more.

Zenya, you are fortunate to live in St. Petersburg; it has an astonishing cultural heritage. If you go to the Russian museum, say hello to the beautiful Korin painting for me. I've never seen it reproduced anywhere but to this day it glows in my mind.

David Apatoff said...

Jeff, I like quite a few of the illustrators of children's books. I have a nice Van Allsburg illustration which I will share in the near future (although I would like his work more if his ratio of inspiration to perspiration were inverted). I am awed by Sendak's meticulous draftmanship (have you ever seen his original pictures?)

As for being a "snob," you would probably get along well with my sweetheart who once helpfully suggested that I change my bio on this blog from "David Apatoff really loves great pictures" to "David Apatoff really hates bad pictures."

It may not seem like it, but I do try to keep an open mind about all kinds of art. I just draw the line at pretending there are no standards in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Perhaps certain artists should keep an open mind about pursuing alternative careers.

Unknown said...

I strongly dislike Greenberg myself. Mainly because of this essay which, ironically was full of his communist ideas. I think Kev put it best in his comment.

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I gave an artist friend of mine a book of high-quality reproductions of Repin, an artist I'd never heard of, for her birthday. I'd found the book while rummaging through a used book store, and was stunned by the paintings. The images in the book, pasted to the printed page, put the jpegs you find on the net to shame.

After she opened her present, she began looking through the book, and looking, and looking. Finally, she looked up and said, in a resigned wonderment, "Why do I even bother?"

Anonymous said...

Querido David acabo de ver los trabajos de Repin en un dvd de pintores rusos. Es un verdadero maestro y un pintor unico que ha sido muy desconocido en occidente, pero sobre todo Greenberg ha hecho un daño al arte sobre sus comentarios bajo la convicion que era el unico intelectual en capacidad de juzgar el arte, usando argumentos basados en clases economicas y de dinero. un desastre para los estudiantes de arte

David Apatoff said...

Claudia, Gracias por escritura. Estuve interesado para leer el trabajo de aquel Nuevo alfiler está en un dvd.

T. Nielsen Hayden said...

Thank you. I've always liked Repin and Rockwell and Picasso, and seen no reason why liking one should exclude another.

The unjustifiable but strong impression I get when I read Clement Greenberg's essay is that he knew he was on to something real, but the core or the heart of the thing he was reaching for wasn't quite within his grasp.

I don't say this to condemn him. Writing about a subject is a legitimate way to figure out what you know about it. The trouble is that you can also be misled by it, and especially by the essay form itself, which is a powerful engine for giving a loose collection of facts and impressions the appearance of coherent meaning.

I think Greenberg was reaching for some insight about the ways art gets used, commercially and politically, but he didn't know enough about how that actually worked. He ended up with a powerful but flawed essay that inappropriately assigns blame to the art itself, and the people who enjoy it, that properly belongs to the uses to which the art is put.

One of the things he definitely didn't understand was that those commercial and political processes will make use of good art just as readily as they'll make use of bad.


Saying that Repin and Rockwell shouldn't be dismissed as "kitsch" doesn't mean I have to stop using the word to describe Thomas Kinkade, does it?


Anonymous said...

picasso is a shit stain in comparison to Repin.

Historian said...

Repin was Ukrainian, not Russian. Just another example of how they profit through genocide and cultural theft of Eastern Europe's Indigenous peoples.