In 1879 Arkhip Kuindzhi exhibited a painting called A Birch Grove. It depicts a wide slice of brilliantly illuminated sky, trees, water and grass. There is no human presence in the scene and the sun itself, the main player, is offstage but tangible in the contrasts between the deep shadows and vivid, sherbet illumination of the forest edge. Shortly after the picture was unveiled in St Petersburg, a satirical magazine, Strekoza (soon to publish Anton Chekhov’s early short stories), printed a caricature of the artist. It showed him holding a light bulb instead of a palette as the sun grinds his pigments and the moon lays out his paints.
What the cartoon acknowledged was Kuindzhi’s pre-eminence as a painter of light effects that verged on the supernatural. His reputation was confirmed a year later when he staged an exhibition of a single painting (the first time such an innovation had been seen in Russia). Moonlit Night on the Dnieper is a picture of blackness, broken only by the moon appearing from between the clouds and bathing the river in a fluorescent green light. Even before the painting was completed word got out that something extraordinary was in the offing. Kuindzhi obligingly opened his studio on Sundays to visitors – one of whom was Ivan Turgenev – and the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich bought the picture for a hefty 5,000 roubles while it was still on the easel.
Kuindzhi (circa 1841-1910) exhibited the painting in a blacked-out room with a single electric light shining on the canvas to increase the drama. The public queued in a line said to be a kilometre long and some were so befuddled by the picture’s effect that they looked round the back of the canvas to see if a light was hidden there to illuminate it from behind. The artist Ilya Repin, another Ukrainian painter, reported that visitors stood in front of the picture “in prayerful silence” and often left the room in tears.
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Where Kuindzhi found his birch grove is unknown but the Dnieper, at its widest and most stately, is the river of his homeland, Ukraine. The painter was born in Mariupol, probably in 1841 (although three passports exist, each giving a different year of birth – 1841, 1842 and 1843) into a poor Greek-Tartar family of shoemakers. Kuindzhi’s parents died when he was six and he received barely two years of the most rudimentary education before undertaking a series of subsistence jobs – herding geese and shepherding, working on a church construction site and as a domestic servant.
In 1855, in an attempt to become an artist, he walked 500 kilometres to try to join the studio of the seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky in Feodosia in Crimea. Aivazovsky had little time for the boy, however, and the closest Kuindzhi came to being an assistant was when he was instructed to paint his master’s fence. On his return to Mariupol he began work as a technician in a photography studio, retouching images. His interest in the malleability of light and in chemical processes dates from this time.
Around 1865, Kuindzhi left for St Petersburg with the aim of enrolling in the Imperial Academy of Arts. Eventually, after three failed attempts, he was finally allowed to attend classes, although he never matriculated. However, he did fall in with a group of radical artists, the Peredvizhniki – the Wanderers – who took exception to the classicism taught by the academy and dedicated themselves to a form of Russian realism with social narratives at its heart. They showed their new style in a series of travelling exhibitions and although Kuindzhi’s cosmic landscapes did not fit comfortably with their aims he nevertheless exhibited with them for several years.
He also visited Paris in 1875 and familiarised himself with the work of the impressionists. The art critic Alexandre Benois referred to Kuindzhi as “the Russian Monet” but in reality the two painters had little in common other than taking nature as their subject. Unlike his Parisian contemporaries, Kuindzhi was not interested in the fleeting effects of light nor in painting en plein air. His painting was born from a personal philosophy that blended a series of complementary influences, from cosmism – a melding of natural science, ethics and religion – and pantheism to poetry and mysticism. He felt, he said, “that the primordial energy fills the world throughout” and believed in the unity of man and in his duty to help wherever he could.
In 1882, after a one-man exhibition that cemented his public success, Kuindzhi retired from exhibiting for 20 years. No reason was given and both admirers and enemies were left to speculate (the latter even suggesting that he had run out of paintings because as a shepherd in his youth he had murdered an artist, stolen all his pictures and had been exhibiting them as his own). In fact he carried on painting, tending birds (one of his students reported that “People kept bringing him doves and sparrows wounded from a slingshot or simply sick; he and his wife would bandage and heal them”) and managing a property empire that included a near-2,500km2 chunk of Crimea, where he had a home and spent much time. Although he was a prodigious donor to impoverished painters, art education and charitable causes, he and his wife lived modestly, kept no servants and ate sparingly.
Despite no longer exhibiting, Kuindzhi returned to the academy as a teacher, only to be dismissed in 1897 for supporting student protests there. Meanwhile he also spent his time refining his ideas on how best to use complementary colours to intensify his paintings and investigated new paint technologies. Not all of these were efficacious: as a result of his experimentation, some of his pigments have faded. This late painting, however, Red Sunset on the Dnieper (1905), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows him not simply undiminished but at his most luminous.
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It is a picture not just about the vast landscape but about the power of colour to evoke the numinous. Today, of course, such a scene, with a Ukrainian village illuminated – aflame almost – has inescapably dark connotations, but the image is perhaps more ecstatic than apocalyptic – redolent of yearning or consummation.
In the first biographical study of the painter, published three years after his death, the authors, M Nevedomsky and Ilya Repin, described this great throb of red and orange as a painting that presents “a certain new sensation, it has given us something important… This painting does not gladden the eye, in my opinion, it is not at all ‘pretty’… But a kind of vastness, an elementalness dispersing into infinity, can be felt from the straight, parallel lines of the horizon, the banks of the river, the lower edge of the cloud.” It is as if the human figures (Kuindzhi’s lack of training meant he was never happy painting people) and restraint have been removed from a Caspar David Friedrich painting before turning the chromatic scale up to the point that the picture approaches abstraction.
Towards the end of his life, Kuindzhi appeared to lose some of his faith in the moral progress of humanity. It now seems like prescience: whatever form of transcendence he aspired to in this and other paintings, reality has had other ideas. In March, during the invasion of Ukraine, the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was destroyed by a Russian bomb.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder