Art and Faith

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Pavel Korin. A Farewell to Rus. 1939

A Farewell to Rus (Pavel Korin, 1939)

I would like all of you to reflect upon the fact that the above work was intended only as a study, an exercise for a larger projected work that Korin intended to be the magnum opus of his artistic endeavour and vision. I shall quote the Wikipedia article on this work below. The piece was edited to remove Russian elements from the English.

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The biography of Korin shows an accomplished Soviet painter and a prominent art figure, but, the canvas he considered the epitome of his life’s work was left unfinished. During his student years, Korin was impressed by the life of Aleksandr Ivanov, who spent most of his adult life creating a single painting, The Appearance of Christ Before the People (1835-1857). He decided that he should follow Ivanov’s example and devote his whole life to a single large painting. He started with preparing a very accurate life size copy of Ivanov’s masterpiece (1920-1925), the initial name for this project was Bless the Lord, O My Soul (Благослови, душе моя, Господа) (literally, Bless, My Soul, O Lord).

In 1925, Korin witnessed the pannikhida (memorial prayer service) of Patriarch St Tikhon Bellavin of Moscow and all Russia in the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. All the most important people of the Russian Orthodox Church, usually suppressed by the Soviets, were present. After the event, he decided that his magnum opus would be named Requiem, or A Requiem for Russia, and would depict the pannikhida of Patriarch St Tikhon and exemplify the Russia that was lost after the October Revolution.

Korin feverishly painted the people present at the burial service of Patriarch St Tikhon, often the last survivors of families of Russian nobility, or dissident priests, soon to be lost in the Bolshevik repressions. Rumours about the dangerous painting soon became a matter of NKVD interest. In 1931, Maksim Gorky advised Korin that the name A Requiem for Russia was too strong to be accepted and recommended a change to Русь Уходящая, literally Rus That Is Going Away, but, usually translated as A Farewell to Rus. Gorky argued that a painting showing the last procession of the Orthodox Church, showing the tragedy and, at the same time, the sorrow of all these people who will soon disappear in the repressions would be acceptable, and even desirable, to the atheistic Soviet government. Korin agreed with the new name for the painting.

For forty years Korin worked on the painting. He produced dozens of large (more than the life-size) well-finished paintings that he preferred to name études for his A Farewell to Rus project, to prepare for its composition. He ordered a huge canvas, designed a special stretcher for it, and spent years coating the canvas with multiple layers of special underlays. Korin combined the ancient methods of iconography with the science of art restoration and claimed that a painting prepared by this method would survive hundreds, possibly even thousands, of years without the need for restoration.

He did not put a single brushstroke on the canvas, forty-two years of preparation for the work was not enough for Pavel Korin. It might be considered an extreme case of procrastination, but, the huge canvas became a popular art exhibit in the Korin Museum. Many consider it as an art masterpiece in its own right, similar to the Black Square of Kazimir Malevich.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavel_Korin (in English)

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Do note the dates that Korin was working on this project. He was painting this work at the height of the Stalinist purges. That is to say, he was running a considerable risk to his very life by even contemplating such a canvas. In short, this took GUTS and FORTITUDE to conceive and execute. Make no mistake of it, this is the most significant art work done in the Soviet period, bar none. It is the equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s writing and Shostakovich’s music in colour. Pavel Korin (1892-1967) stands tall in Russian history for having had the courage and grit to even project such a work. It is both a cry of anguish and a hope for resurrection. It portrays both Good Friday and Easter, if you but look at it enough.

It is an open rebuke to those who left the ROCOR because of the reconciliation with the MP. Pavel Korin was protected by many highly-placed people both in the Church and in the Party. Many of those who protected him are castigated as “Sergianists” by certain obscurantist factions, however, I would point up that protecting Korin was “dangerous” and exposed many to denunciation as “wreckers”. Indeed, no doubt, some did face the GULag, or even death, for sheltering him.

Why was Korin left untouched? It is a true mystery. Many who did far less, or even nothing at all, ended their lives on the Butovo Field. Obviously, Korin was no party stalwart, his oeuvre reveals that to all concerned. He lived and he left us this unfinished, yet, strangely compelling work. Reflect on the fact that one of those who protected him was the greatly-vilified Patriarch Sergei Stagorodsky. Do recall the old Russian folk tale about the onion. An old miserly woman, in exasperation, threw an onion at an importunate beggar. When she died, the devils were dragging her down to Hell. An angel appeared, holding an onion with a long tail. “Grasp this!” he said. No doubt, you grasp the moral as well.

This is a requiem for an era, its title of A Requiem for Russia is indeed accurate. This is the summation of an era. I bow before such greatness.

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