Iulia Evstafyevna, artist Boris Kustodiev’s wife, sits in a hospital corridor. Professor comes out of the surgery room and says: spinal tumor is confirmed but to reach it we have to cut through the nerve endings. The patient is unconscious, you decide what to keep – hands or feet. She, who already had lost her younger son and now losing her husband, this sweet, kind friend and companion begs: “Hands, keep his hands! Artist – and without hands! He wouldn’t survive…”. The next 11 years of his live the outstanding master Boris Kustodiev will spend in a wheelchair, but exactly in that period of time he will create the most vivid and mature works.
Everyone knows the names of outstanding artists, but what we know about their beloved? Who are these women, how did they inspire their men or were they just indifferent, how did they build the career and become famous actresses or did they dissolve in 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.
Since February, 1st until May, 15th The Museum of Russian Impressionism presents “The Wives” exhibition, which includes more than 40 portraits of the greatest Russian artists’ one and onlies. 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 the Russian art in the period since the 19th until mid-20th century had advanced through the lens of the great masters’ wives’ portraits. Artistic changes that the female portrait underwent at the turn of the century to a large extent are based on social and political convulsions of that challenging times. From the classical images gravitated towards decoration and celebration of femininity through destruction of artistic basis the Russian art comes to an image of a new Amazon – soviet woman. Socialite beauties in corsets, furs and silks, moving and captivating in their simplicity guardians of the hearth appear on the portraits of the end of the XIX century. Pight revolutionaries come to replace them – women with straight gaze and sharp shoulder turn – they build a new world on an equal footing with men.
The visitors are about to meet a lot of female characters among which are - portrait of faithful companion of Valentin Serov – Olga Trubnikova who dedicated herself completely to her husband and gifted him with six children. Konstantin Korovin, best friend of the artist, was admiring this woman and, when possible, poured her with jewelry with sapphires and pearles, scolding Serov for not buying it for Olga Fedorovna. Also here is a portrait of a partner wife of Konstantin Korovin himself – Nadezhda Komarovskaya, Petrograd’s Bolshoi Theatre actress. It’s engaging that his lawfully wedded wife Anna Fidler wasn’t imprinted 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 babbitry and indifference to his creative work. In 2 years 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, portrait of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s wife, which had travelled to the Museum from Tallinn, reproduces an image of fragile beloved of the artist. They were bound by more than 30 years of moving relationship. Petrov-Vodkin met Maria-Josephina in the surroundings of Paris. The artist was so enchanted by the board-house owner daughter, that he asked for a permission to write her portrait (the very same portrait which is represented at the exhibition), and after a while he asked her to marry him right there, while working. Mara will become a faithful companion for him, and after his death will publish a memoir “My great russian husband”. For one more famous master Mikhail Vrubel his wife was a plentiful source of inspiration. Artistic images of outstanding opera singer, the darling of Savva Mamontov – Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel appeared in his works multiple times. One of this examples – a majolica “Girl wearing wreath” from Abramtsevo.
One more muse and silent-film actress Vera Sudeikina, the second wife of Sergei Sudeikin, even put together a list of “Artist’s wife duties”, where it’s literally said: “To be an embodiment of perfection, and therefore his eternal model”. A remarkable work of the artist – “My life”, where he painted two of his wives, his love-mate and possibly several lovers of his first wife is presented at the exhibition. Some personages of the painting are 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 at once give out a brave and eccentric spirit. The artist’s friends many times pointed out that Natalie started off strange manners in their house at “Penates”: servants dined at the same table with the house-owner, it was accepted to self-service, guest’s attention was brought to the special sign plates with an inscription “Servants are the disgrace of a humanity”, but the most important thing – cutlets were made of hey, beefsteaks – of cranberry. A determined vegetarian and animal’s advocate, Nordman-Severova even in winter wore not a fur jacket but a thin coat with the same hey lining underneath – for warmth. 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 freethought at that time was not a rare thing. End of 19th and start of 20th century were marked with the advance of the equal rights idea, after the revolution a woman will entirely stand in the same row with a man. Such a change in a role of a woman finds reflection in art too. Portrait of wife of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s apprentice Nikolay Ionin “Woman in red” is a vivid example. Ekaterina Samokhvalova-Ionina was a sister of a famous soviet artist Alexander Samokhvalov. Close communion with the master let Ionin become one of the pioneers in creation of a soviet woman image, peculiar and authentic symbol of the epoch, afterwards disseminated in the form of multiple “female workers” and “sportswomen” on posters. As an ideal of the socialism epoch, the very same “sportswoman” which orders “work, build and not to slob!” Alexander Deyneka depicts his first wife. Strict and determined, she embodies the image of soviet woman, able to build a new world on an equal footing with a man.
Here it stands to mention one more work – sculptural portrait of Margarita Konyonkova, wife of Sergei Konyonkov, soviet sculptor, justly got the title of the “russian Rodin”. Petite and sensual character under the name “Spring” his wife was posing for, is by no means not contingent on the story of soviet secret service woman. Before meeting the famous sculptor she was associated with affairs with Fyodor Shalyapin and Sergei Rakhmaninov, and already after the marriage and moving to the US, where the Konyonkov couple stayed for 20 more years, she will become Einstein’s love mate and through him will make acquaintance with Oppenheimer and the circle of nuclear experts. There’s a talk that mainly 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 tens of portraits and private stories of russian artists’ wives in one book.