Ilya Repin and Vera Repina (centre, front) with their neighbours at Repin’s 85th birthday celebrations in Kuokkala on 5 August 1929. Vasily Levi is third from left. Photographer unknown. Lauri Haataja Repin Collection. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery

The Artist, his Admirers, his Dealers and Inheritors – Ilya Repin and his Career in the Republic of Finland

Timo Huusko, Ph.Lic., Chief Curator, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum

This is a revised and extended version of Timo Huusko’s article ‘Ilya Repin’s early art exhibitions in Finland’, published in Anne-Maria Pennonen (ed.), Ilya Repin. Ateneum Publications Vol. 147. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2021, 103–27. Transl. Don McCracken

Ilya Repin was faced with a new, unexpected situation when the October Revolution of 1917 severed the close ties between St Petersburg and Kuokkala in Finland. He had become accustomed to many changes in the course of his long life, but up until then these had been mainly due to his own decisions, especially his bold departure from Chuguev to St Petersburg to study art in 1863, then moving on to Moscow in 1877 and exhibiting with the non-academic Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) group. Repin returned to St Petersburg in 1882, and in 1892 he became first a teacher at the Imperial Academy of Arts, and later its Director. He also acquired a place in the countryside near Vitebsk in Zdrawneva, Belarus, in 1892, and subsequently entered into a relationship with Natalia Nordmann, with whom he purchased a house in Kuokkala on the Karelian Isthmus in 1899. In 1903, he moved permanently to Kuokkala and two years later retired from the Academy. These decisions were all made as a result of more-or-less conscious judgments that influenced his quality of life and relationship networks.

Things changed in 1918, however, and Repin was no longer in control. Nordmann (1863–1914) had died of pneumonia in Switzerland four years earlier, and the border between Finland and Russia was closed in April 1918 in the wake of the October Revolution and the Finnish Civil War, leaving Repin a 73-year-old Russian emigré in the newly-independent Finland. His property in Russia was confiscated, and for nearly three years he was virtually ignorant of what was happening in Soviet Russia.[1] On top of all that, his right hand had become partially paralysed, preventing him from working properly after 1903. He lived in his studio house, Penates (Penaty) with two servants and his daughter Nadya (Nadezhda), who had learning disabilities. His son Yury lived nearby with his family and his eldest daughter Vera moved to Penates from the Soviet Union in 1922. His third daughter Tatyana lived in Zdrawneva until 1930.

By this point Repin had lost his former network of exhibitors and buyers, along with the Russian intelligentsia and circle of patrons that had given him job opportunities and also provided inspiring food for thought. In fact, Repin had cut himself off from the St Petersburg elite after moving to Kuokkala in 1903, although at that time a St Petersburg newspaper had reported he was still voted the fourth best-known Russian after Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky.[2] The way that he distanced himself can be seen, for example, in the fact that he became interested in the free co-operative movement and a self-sufficient economy in the spirit of Tolstoy, as well as in democratic, non-hierarchical structures and ideas about living in harmony with nature in general. Repin and Nordmann’s weekly receptions at Penates on Wednesdays offered only vegetarian food and self-service at the dining table, although that did not stop prominent Russian writers and artists visiting him until the outbreak of the First World War. While Repin opposed new art trends, such as the aestheticism of the Mir iskusstva (World of Art) group and especially the early avant-garde, nevertheless in the mid-1910s he became acquainted with, for example, Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Burliuk, whom he met at the villa of his neighbour, the author Korney Chukovsky.[3]

[1] Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier. Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, 186–87. According to Tito Colliander, Repin last visited Russia in November 1917. See Tito Colliander. Ilja Repin, ukrainalainen taiteilija. Helsinki: Tammi, 1944, 331.

[2] ‘Ett och annat’, Hufvudstadsbladet, 4 July 1903.

[3] Olli Valkonen. ‘Ilja Repin ja Suomi’, in Ilja Repin. Exhibition catalogue. Helsinki : Taidekeskus Retretti, 1995, 38–43. After the revolution, Chukovsky remained in Soviet Russia, where he became a major children’s writer. He was also a significant person in Repin’s life as editor of Repin’s memoirs, which the artist began to compile in Kuokkala. The memoirs were completed as early as 1916, but were not published in the Soviet Union until 1937.

Featured image: Ilya Repin and Vera Repina (centre, front) with their neighbours at Repin’s 85th birthday celebrations in Kuokkala on 5 August 1929. Vasily Levi is third from left. Photographer unknown. Lauri Haataja Repin Collection. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery

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