What should you wear outside in Moscow in winter? One of those niggling questions you might be asking yourself if you are planning to visit Russia in the months of December through February.
Surprisingly, the answer is usually less than you expect.
Mama’s approach to cold in the UK is to layer up.
But Russians by and large do not layer up.
This is because inside is always very (very very very) warm, and so you would be continually putting on and taking off all of these extra jumpers and vests and the second pairs of tights.
What you actually need here is a large, thick overcoat, a hat, some gloves, a scarf and one fairly sturdy pair of boots with as non slip soles as you can find. That’s it. And then you are generally good, as long as you are wearing a little bit less than you would indoors in the winter in the UK underneath. Mama’s cardigan collection is sorely underused in Moscow. I am not joking about how hot it is inside.
Generally, that is, as long as mostly what you are doing is trotting briskly from your preferred mode of transport to the safety of an overheated building.
Every now and again, however, you might find yourself standing statically in a queue for an art exhibition for which you failed to buy tickets online before they sold out. At this point you will realise that this approach to dressing up is inadequate for forty five minutes in minus 10.
Or rather, you might not, but Mama did when she went to the Arkhip Kuindzhi exhibition at the Old Tretyakov Gallery recently. And forty five minutes was the absolute minimum wait, she calculates, as she got there 30 minutes before opening, and was one of the last people through the door for the first batch, after they had let in all the ticketed people who got their act together earlier than Mama.
So, who is Arkhip Kuindzhi, you may be wondering, and is he worth all of this fuss?
Kuidzhi was born in was then called Mariupol in Ukraine in 1840. Or possibly 1842. Or 1841. Or even 1843. Nobody, including Arkhip, seems quite sure. There was a very large community of people with a Greek heritage in Mariupol, and Kuindzhi was not exception, although the name ‘Kuindzhi’ is nothing to do with this. It’s the equivalent to ignoring the fact that someone Welsh is called ‘Jones’ and using ‘thePost’ as an actual surname. It means ‘goldsmith’, which was the profession of his grandfather, but is from the Tartar language – also a big influence on the cultural make up of the area. Interestingly, Arkhip’s brother was also called ‘goldsmith’ but in a different language – Russian.
Multiculturalism is not a new invention. Mama says, pointedly. And neither is rocking it.
Arkhip Kuindzhi’s father was a not-at-all-well-off cobbler, and in any case died when Arkhip was very young. Which meant that Kuindzhi’s formal schooling was pretty minimal, and he did all sorts of jobs like animal herder, construction worker, domestic servant, artist’s paint mixer and photograph retoucher, before finally being accepted into a painting academy in Saint Petersburg in 1868.
He’s associated with the Wandering Artists, which also included friends he had met while studying and boarding in cheap lodgings like (the very fabulous) Ilya Repin. The Wanderers used their art to make biting social commentary and bring about social change through the medium of travelling round the country showing people paintings.
But Kuindzhi didn’t really do people, favouring landscapes instead. And he wasn’t a realist.
No, Kuindzhi’s style is best summed up by a comment from another great contemporary, the portraitist Ivan Kramskoi. Who is a bit of a fan boy or at least features prominently on the audio guide for the exhibition. This quote goes ‘I could spend hours boggling at the way the quality of light is absolutely perfect in this picture, my god, the light the light. But what the fuck is with the flat houses/ trees/ cows?’
And also, it turns out, lacks the photography skills to really do this crucial aspect of Kuindzhi’s genius justice. Use your imagination a bit here, eh?
Anyway. Remember this is before the height of Art Nouveau, well before the Constructivists, and although he travelled in Europe and would have come across the Impressionists, Kuindzhi clearly had his own take on how to go about it. Came as a hell of a shock to his audience, it seems.
Kuindzhi himself doesn’t have much to say about what he was up to, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that because he didn’t spend much time writing letters or diaries, it’s hard for current researchers to be sure. But he seems to have considered himself to be capturing the transcendental nature of existence.
Which explains why he wasn’t particularly interested in painting from life, but did pay a lot of attention to depicting the giant echoing horizons which contribute to the deep Slavic soul (sort of thing).
You may also have noticed Mama’s Chekov’s gun comment about his involvement in photography. Now Mama may be reaching a bit here (you may have noticed that Mama doesn’t actually know about art), but she does wonder how much all of that had to do with some of the effects he was going for.
She was struck by this sketch in particular, in which you may or may not be able to see that the foreground is very sharply painted and the background is completely defocused.
Kuindzhi, Mama thinks, would have liked Instagram and is a frustrated non owner of a DLSR and a whole bunch of lenses large and small. And what he could have done with filters and photoshop is probably the subject of some really colourful dreams.
And, yes, definitely, he was all about the light. This is absolutely one of Mama’s favourite paintings. Look at what he has done with the colours and guess what it’s called.
After the Rain. And! It’s even better than this in real life! Isn’t that just perfect?
Which is more or less what everyone else thought at the time.
It is a source of great satisfaction to Mama that Arkhip Kuindzhi did not die poor. In fact, Arkhip Kuindzhi, in defiance of the usual starving artist too good for this world to pay attention to mundane things such as proper marketing, not doing drugs, or remembering that the bills need paying trope, died extremely rich. He made a fortune, in fact, not just from selling his extremely popular landscapes at very high prices, but also doing some adroit property speculation. Although it turns out that this may have been somewhat accidental. Initially.
His exhibitions were among the best attended ever (hahahahaha, say Mama’s cold feet. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha). People spent hours in front of his distillations of summer alone.
Which is not to say that he also went around having his bathroom taps coated in gold paint or whatever it is that people do when they end up a millionaire after humble beginnings. No, he mostly lived very modestly, and even after having reached the height of his fame, took a job as a painting teacher, at which he was very good, or at least well liked.
Until he got sacked for taking part in a student’s strike, just to remind everyone of the incipient revolutionary rumblings of the time.
He also left most of his money to a charity set up before his death devoted to helping struggling artists.
Of course, he had a wife at this point. Mama wonders what she thought about being disinherited, but since she had gone along with this sort of behaviour for many years previously, Mama is going with ‘as eccentric on this issue as he was’, because Mama, as you can probably tell, rather likes Kuindzhi, and is definitely resisting the idea that he wasn’t as cool in his treatment of his wife is he was in other respects.
Vera Kuindzhi, just to give her more background than an appendage, translated a few of the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s works into French. And Mama likes to think that this may also be significant because some of what helped Arkhip achieve his striking lighting effects was being experimental with paint, not just the application of it, but its chemical composition.
The most famous example of this is the Moon over the Dnipper River. And variations on this theme, which the Kuindzhi exhibition has a reasonably large number of.
Luminous paint, anyone?
More epic queues resulted and it was sold for 5,000 roubles, which was a phenomenal amount of money for a painting at the time.
And yet what we are seeing is a poor version of what it originally looked like. The chemical composition of the paint did not hold – apparently the whole canvas glowed and was a lot lot brighter.
At this point Arkhip Kuindzhi exited the artistic stage for thirty years, for reasons no-one seems definitively sure about.
What he seems to have decided is that he could absolutely not top nailing the very essence of a shimmering moonlit night in paint, so he wouldn’t even try.
He still worked on his art quite a lot though. The theme of this era, apart from ‘pastel’, is looking down from above. Arkhip Kuindzhi was obsessed by flying. He was famous trying to get up high – he got into the property owning business because he wanted a particular studio on top of a building in Saint Petersburg, but the only way to get it was to buy the two buildings next door as well – and spent a lot of time perched in trees on his estate in the Crimea. Or swimming out to a rock and observing the natural world from there.
Thus you have paintings like Fog on the Sea.
Although Mama’s favourite in this style is the one with the thistles.
All in all, if you are in Moscow before mid-February, Mama highly recommends taking part in the historical recreation of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s successful career and getting in the queue to see this very comprehensive showing of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s works.
If you cannot, luckily you can find the best known paintings hanging in the permanent collections in either the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, or the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, so you’ll mostly only (only!) be missing out on seeing all the sketches, the different variations of the paintings all together, and the opportunity to stand in a room surrounded by glorious sunsets.
If all else fails, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum in the USA and see the one (1) painting of Kuindzhi’s there, the Red Sunset on the Dneiper.
And you should, you really should, do some (or all) of these things, because photos on the Internet really do not do justice to how very radiant the landscapes are.
Arkhip Kuindzhi, ladies and gentlemen. Marvellous hair. Excellent beard. Wonderful paintings.
And just to prove just how great he is, here is a video of someone stealing one of the paintings from this very exhibition, a mere week after Mama visited.
They’ve got it back now, but the painting is not going on display in this exhibition again, so here it is. Mama is pleased it has returned – it’s a good one. You can catch it at its home in the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Address: Engineering Building (just to the left of the main building),
Lavrushinsky Lane 12, Moscow 119017
Opening: 10am to 9pm, closed Mondays, and the exhibition closes on February 17th. After that, the paintings go back to the Tretyakov Gallery Moscow and the Russian Museum St Petersburg.
Admission: 500 roubles for adults, and 250 roubles for kids and concessions, free for the under 7s, assuming you want to encourage your kids and elderly relatives to stand in the freezing cold for hours. That said, Mama notices that the Tretyakov seems to have released some more online tickets since she went, so you might be lucky.
It’s an extra 350 roubles for the audio guide. Get the audio guide. Queuing for that long? You deserve it. But you’ll have to leave a 2000 rouble deposit or your ID.
By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.
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