Iulia Evstafyevna, the artist Boris Kustodiev’s wife, sits in a hospital corridor. A professor comes out of the surgery room and says: “a spinal tumor is confirmed and to reach it we have to cut through the nerve endings. The patient is unconscious: you decide what to keep – hands or feet.” Iulia, who already had lost her younger son and was now losing her husband, her sweet, kind, friend and companion begs: “Hands, keep his hands! How can be an artist and without hands! He wouldn’t survive…”. The outstanding master Boris Kustodiev would spend the next eleven years of his life in a wheelchair, but it was also in this period of time that he would create his most vivid and mature works.
Everyone knows the names of outstanding artists, but what we do know about their beloveds? Who are these women, how did they inspire their men or remain indifferent, how did they build a career and become famous actresses, or dissolve into their spouses and sacrifice a lot for the sake of family happiness. So different, so unique – they have one thing in common – they are all wives.
From February 1st until May 15th. The Museum of Russian Impressionism presents “The Wives”, an exhibition, which includes more than 40 portraits of the greatest Russian artists’ ones and onlys. Amongst them are Ilya Repin, Mikhail Vrubel, Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, Boris Kustodiev, Igor Grabar, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Boris Grigoryev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Alexandr Deyneka, Robert Fahlk, Konstantin Youon, Sergei Sudeikin, Yury Pimenov, and many others.
This exhibition intends to show how Russian art in the period from the 19th to mid-20th century advanced through the lens of the great masters’ wives’ portraits. Artistic changes that the female portrait underwent at the turn of the century are to a large extent based on social and political convulsions of that challenging times. Diverging from the classical images of women that gravitated towards decoration and celebration of femininity comes the image of a new Soviet-Amazon woman. Socialite beauties in corsets, furs, and silks, moving and captivating in their simplicity, guardians of the hearth: this is how women were portrayed at the end of the 19th century. Pight revolutionaries - women with straight gazes and sharp shoulders - came to replace these images, and in turn build a new world as equals.
The viewer will meet many female characters, including a portrait of the faithful companion of Valentin Serov, Olga Trubnikova. She dedicated herself completely to her husband and had six children with him. Konstantin Korovin, best friend of the artist, admired her and gave her gifts of sapphires and pearls, all the while scolding Serov for not buying more presents for Olga Fedorovna. Also featured in this exhibit is Korovin’s own partner, Nadezhda Komarovskaya, an actress in the Petrograd Bolshoi Theater. It is interesting to note that his actual wife, Anna Fidler, was not painted by the artist. She was devoted to him and lived with him up to his death in emigration, but their marriage wasn’t happy. Korovin repeatedly blamed her on babbling and indifference to his creative work. Two years prior to his death he admitted: “She understands nothing! I am alone. You have to understand – I am alone!”
Nevertheless, for the majority of them, the wives were true muses. For example, a portrait of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s wife, which has travelled to the Museum from Tallinn, shows an image of the fragile beloved of the artist. Petrov-Vodkin met Maria-Josephina in the surroundings of Paris. The artist was so enchanted by the boarding house owner’s daughter, that he asked for permission to paint her portrait (the very same portrait which is represented at the exhibition), and after a while he asked her to marry her right there, while working. Mara would become a faithful companion for him, and after his death would publish the memoir “My Great Russian Husband.”
For another famous master, Mikhail Vrubel, his wife was a great source of inspiration. Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, an outstanding opera singer, appeared in his work numerous times. One such instance is in the painted pottery majolica piece entitled “Girl Wearing Wreath”, made at Abramtsevo.
Vera Sudeikina, the second wife of Sergei Sudeikin and a silent-film actress, even put together a list of “Artist’s wife duties,” where it literally says: “To be an embodiment of perfection, and therefore his eternal model.” One of the artist’s remarkable works is “My Life,” presented at this exhibition, in which he painted his two wifes, his lover, and possibly several of his first wife’s lovers. Some characters in the painting can be recognized in Anna Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero.”
An extravagant writer and women’s rights activist, Natalya Nordman-Severova, Ilya Repin’s wife, stands out of the harmonious row of sophisticated muses. Her portraits show a brave and eccentric spirit. The artist’s friends pointed out many times that Natalie had strange manners in their house at “Penates”: servants dined at the same table with the owner, it was accepted to serve oneself, and a guest’s attention was brought to special plates with the inscription “Servants are the disgrace of humanity.” Perhaps most striking of all: cutlets were made of hay and beefsteaks of cranberry. Nordman-Severova was a determined vegetarian and animal-rights advocate. Even in the winter, she chose not to wear a fur jacket, but instead, a thin coat with a hay lining. Korney Chukovskiy protected Natalya Borisovna from the quipster’s satire and said that at the heart of her “freakery” laid a sincere care for her husband.
Similar free thinkers were not such a rarity at that time. The end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries were marked by the advancing equal rights for men and women. The changing role of women was reflected in art too. A portrait of Ekaterina Samokhvalova-Ionina, wife of Nikolay Ionin (an apprentice to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin) “Woman in Red,” is a vivid example. Samokhvalova-Ionina was the sister of the famous Soviet artist Alexander Samokhvalov. Close communication with the master allowed Ionin to become one of the pioneers in the creation of the image of a Soviet woman. This new Soviet woman was a peculiar and authentic symbol of this epoch, and was later disseminated in the form of multiple “female workers” and “female sports players” on posters. As an ideal of the Socialist epoch, the very same “sportswoman” which orders “work, build and don’t be lazy!” Alexander Deyneka depicts his first wife. Strict and determined, she embodies the image of Soviet woman, able to build a new world on equal footing with men.
Finally, we present a sculptural portrait of Margarita Konyonkova, wife of Sergei Konyonkov. He was a Soviet sculptor and justly got the title of the “Russian Rodin”. The piece “Spring” shows this petite and sensual character. It is inspired by the story of this Soviet secret service woman. Before meeting the famous sculptor, Konyonkova was linked to Fyodor Shalyapin and Sergei Rachmaninov. Later, the couple moved to the US and lived there for twenty years. There, Konyonkova would become Einstein’s lover and through him would meet Oppenheimer and a circle of nuclear experts. There’s talk that due to her work, the Soviet government got valuable insights on the US nuclear bomb.
For the express purpose of the exhibition, the main collection of the Museum increased with Pavel (Paolo) Trubetskoy’s work “Mother and Child”, where his wife Elin Sundtromme is depicted.
A special catalogue will be published confined to the exhibition, which will unite several dozen portraits and private stories of Russian artists’ wives in one book.