Growing up, the National Portrait Gallery was my favourite place to visit in London, in fact I visited so many times I can list who’s portrayed in some of the galleries (definitely normal behaviour)!. The gallery is a literal walk through British history from Medieval monarchs to modern rock-stars and in my view encapsulates the people and often characters that make history so interesting.
Despite the gallery being so well known, the concept of a portrait gallery itself is relatively unusual. The portraits from “Russia and the Arts” are loaned from Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, founded based on the collections of 19th century merchant Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect portraits of contemporary bigwigs; Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky – they’re all here. This exhibition provides a glimpse of what the 19th century gallery of a non-existant Russian National Portrait Gallery would be like.
The majority of the (often luxuriously bearded) portraits are realist masterpieces by Ilya Repin, including one of the composer Mussorgsky, here painted warts (or in his case red nose) and all, whilst hospitalised unfortunately effects of alcoholism. Bedraggled and in a dressing-gown yet whilst these details are undoubtedly realist, the focus and clarity, as with all of Repin’s paintings, is on the face and expression of one of the many Russians in this exhibition who all to often are only known as names over here. Mussorgsky would die only a few days after the portrait was begun and like so many of those shown led thoroughly tragic lives.
Art collector Ivan Morozov is proudly painted with a Matisse, his face still realist but his clothes beginning to mirror the simple lines of the art behind him. By the end of this modest-sized exhibition we’ve moved from stereotypical “Victorian” clarity in portraits to more abstract images such as this portrait of the poet Gumilev (see below) with its Rousseauesque background.
Some of the portraits honestly have to be seen in the exhibition to be believed, such as the painter Mikhail Vrubel’s rendition of his opera singer wife, looking like Little Bo Peep on steroids complete with silver gilt and furry fabric frame! Overall the exhibition is definitely worth a visit unless you’re maybe planning on going to Russia in the near future.
And I leave you with my favourite of the lot…