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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Magnus Enckell, Awakening Faun, 1914, oil on canvas, 65.5cm x 81cm Hoving Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Magnus Enckell – Decoding an Enigma

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Following a major exhibition of the Finnish painter Magnus Enckell (1870–1925) at the Ateneum Art Museum, Gill Crabbe asks art historian and author, Dr Harri Kalha about how the artist’s work has been received over the years, and what issues have surrounded Enckell’s placement in the canon of Finnish art

Gill Crabbe: The Ateneum exhibition is the first full-scale survey of Magnus Enckell’s output, covering a wide range of his production, from intimate portraits to landscapes, from monumental public commissions for churches, to explorations of archetypal themes, such as Fantasy and Melancholy. Harri, you have contributed two essays in the accompanying catalogue. Can you say a little about your background and how you came to be interested in Enckell’s art?

Harri Kalha: I began my scholarly career in the 1990s, deconstructing the idea of ‘Finnishness’ in and around the post-war Golden Age of Finnish Design and Crafts, and gained a PhD in 1997. So questions of reception, textual analysis and discourse were already second nature to me when I wrote my first study on Enckell in 1999. I have since worked on several ‘problematic’ cases relating particularly to scandals concerning (in)decency, such as the public debate around Ville Vallgren’s Havis Amanda, a fountain and a statue in Helsinki, on which I published a book in 2008.

As for Enckell, what initially inspired me – and baffled me – had to do with a sense of frustration, going all the way back to my first years as an art history student. At that time Enckell was certainly presented as part of the canon, but with qualifications. What is worse, Enckell the person, as well as any concrete meanings that might have been attributed to his art, eluded me. Even the lecturers seemed ill at ease, awkwardly regurgitating acquired terms and attitudes. There was much use of sanahelinä, as we say in Finnish – lofty words with little substance. Sexuality was of course not even an issue, God forbid.

GC: Looking at the role played by art historians in evolving the canon of art, on what basis has Enckell been placed in the canon of Finnish art and what place does he occupy internationally?

HK: Enckell’s canonic status derives mainly from his role as a turn-of the-century Symbolist and the ‘modernist’ starkness of his early works, which have for long held a central place at the Ateneum Art Museum, for example. On the other hand, art history recognises his later role as a spokesman for Post-Impressionist ideals. Internationally Enckell is little known, and quite understandably so. His oeuvre is not vast, particularly when it comes to the Symbolist period. It lacks the nationalist subtext that has traditionally intrigued foreign critics and curators – Post-Impressionist painting has not been considered as sexy for foreign audiences as National Romanticism has. However, Enckell does enjoy a certain ‘underground’ status deriving from a tradition of gay sensibility; that is to say that certain works have always resonated with queer viewers. More recently, international gay histories and encyclopedias have included Enckell in the global catalogue of ‘gay art’, although truth be told, we know precious little about his sexuality.

GC: If art-historical research involves a process of revealing the factors influencing the construction of the art-historical canon, what methods have you used in evolving this process in relation to understanding Enckell’s art?

HK: In my book Tapaus Magnus Enckell (2005) and a group of related articles, I analysed both the contemporary reception of the artist’s work and later art-historical accounts, in order to deconstruct ‘Enckelliana’ as a textual corpus. Unlike traditional studies of how various artists have been received, my take was informed by post-structuralist conceptualisations of discourse (Foucault) and mythology (Barthes). Whereas a text itself is, as it were, innocent, discourse is what we arrive at through close-reading: this can be rife with chauvinistic attitudes, ideological presences or mythologising narratives – various ‘regimes of truth’ that art history thrives on. There are often hidden agendas, if you like, since the meanings are not necessarily explicit, but lurking between the lines or embedded deep within metaphorical language. So it is really an exercise in reading, and in subtle contextualising.

On the other hand, back then I was in the process of discovering myself as writer, so I wanted to give my pen some leeway as well, not least in order to modify the sense of scholarly scrutiny, of ruthless dissection of the work done by my peers and predecessors. So I devoted a couple of chapters in Tapaus Magnus Enckell to reading, not just texts, but chosen artworks, thus positioning my writing as an object of scrutiny for contemporaries and future scholars. I named these chapters lukuhäiriöitä (‘reading disturbances’; unfortunately the pun doesn’t translate) and they are a tad more essayistic than the rest of the book. Come to think of it, my work from that period thrives on puns and palimpsest, reflecting my natural investment in writing, and particularly in metaphoric language, which is a declining art in academia today.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Awakening Faun, 1914, oil on canvas, 65.5cm x 81cm
Hoving Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen
Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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