June Painting of the Month: Pictures at an Exhibition.

Modest Mussorgsky was one of the leading lights of Russian art and culture as the nineteenth century closed. His collection of suites for the piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, introduces my theme for June. The companionship between music and the visual arts has become stronger and stronger over the centuries until the two media are virtually indistinguishable in this age of multi channel entertainment.

Victor Hartmann’s paintings and watercolours were the inspiration for Mussorgsky’s great composition of 1874. Hartmann (1834-1873) was also a key player in pre-revolutionary Russian Art. An architect and painter, he was part of the Abramsevo Colony, north of Moscow. This Bohemian group celebrated historic Russian culture and could be seen as a parallel to the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain.

Hartmann, died prematurely but a great friend and patron, Vladimir Stasov, arranged an exhibition of some 400 of his works at the Imperial Academy of Art, St Petersburg. Mussorgsky describes the experience of visiting his late friends exhibition in his suite of ten piano pieces, held together with a Promenade, as he passes from painting to painting.

never built)Victor Hartmann, design for the Bogatyr Gates in the City of Kiev, 1866

Victor Hartmann, Design for the Bogatyr Gates in the City of Kiev, 1866 (which were never built)

There are only seven of the ten paintings known to still exist. I have chosen The Gates of Kiev as my painting of the month, representing the last dynamic piece in the suite. The water colour describes Hartmann’s entry for Tsar Nicholas’s competition for the gate. The left side comprises the arch set on huge granite pillars with Russian decoration above including a carving of the State Eagle. To the right is a bell tower topped with cupola in form of Slavic helmet. The gate was never constructed.

Mussorgsky wrote the piece for piano but it has been arranged by many musicians since its publication. The most played is Ravel’s arrangement for a full orchestra in 1922. It is fifty years since Emerson Lake and Palmer  performed their iconic version in Newcastle City Hall. ELP’s 1971 version was only inspired by Mussorgsky, however. For a closer contemporary arrangement look for the German Heavy Metal outfit, Mekong Delta from 2006.

Victor Hartmann, The Hut on Fowls Legs, 1870, clock in Russian style.

Whereas the Gates of Kiev represents a forward looking architectural design I could have equally chosen The Hut on Fowls Legs, as a more retrospective image. The Hut on Fowls Legs is the traditionally ascribed residence of Baba Jaga, the ambiguous Slavic heroine. Baba Jaga appears in numerous guises down the centuries from midwife, grandma to various inanimate ideas. These take the form of both benevolent and malevolent entities. Baba Jaga has also recreated herself as, the Russian, Babashka, and appears in many comic book adventures, not to mention a couple of Scooby Doo adventures.

Ivan Bilibin, The heroine, Vasilisa, outside of the hut of Baba, illustration from Vassilisa the Beautiful, 1899.
Ivan Bilibin, The heroiVassilisa the Beautiful, 1899.

Ivan Bilibin, The heroine, Vasilisa, outside of the hut of Baba Jaga, illustration from Vassilisa the Beautiful, 1899.

Pictures at an Exhibition is a nineteenth century composition inspired by a trip to an art gallery. In the 1970s it became a platform for the crossover from classical to Rock, and an opportunity for paintings to promote the new music for the new post sixties youth. In this century its vitality is still being presented in Heavy Metal Rock and comic book heroes.

Next up is Two Tone music from the Herbert Gallery in Coventry.

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