Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Peredvizhniki

I have been in Stockholm for a business trip the last couple of days (hence no blogging). This afternoon I visited the Swedish National Museum which is having an exhibition on the Peredvizhniki - a society of Russian painters which formed in reaction to the conservative tastes of the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Art in the late nineteenth century. The academy's announcement in 1863 that the annual gold medal contest would have the subject "The Banquet of the Gods in Valhalla" provoked a rebellion: the artists wanted to paint real scenes of life from Russia, not Viking mythology.

This led to several decades of movement that was devoted to trying to paint the realities of Tsarist Russia. The exhibition here I found deeply moving - these are big heroic-scale paintings - often six or ten feet tall - but focussed on the lives of very poor peasants. Apparently the paintings are not well known in the west (but deserve to be!).  Clearly the artists were leading the way here - as they so often do.  Fifty years later, the society had reached the point where the Tsars were overthrown in a bloody revolution but I imagine young artists starting to tell the truth about the old order was one of the first bricks pulled out of the wall.

I took photos of a couple of paintings that relate in some way to the themes of this blog. Both are poor substitutes for the grand scale of the originals. Above is "Barge-Haulers on the Volga" by Ilya Repin from 1870-1873. It's hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the benefits of modern energy sources: this is what it takes to move even a fairly modest-sized boat without them (Repin visited the Volga region to study the haulers before painting the work so presumably it's fairly true to life).  To me, this painting is suffused with political consciousness: the artist does not think that human beings should live this way and intends to express it passionately and directly to the viewer.  It's the first painting when you enter the exhibition, it's really big and really well done, and I was completely blown away by it.

Next is one for my romantic agrarian friends (I'm looking at you Sharon Astyk :-)  This is a nineteenth century Russian farming village:

This is Pyotr Sukhodolsky - Midday in the Countryside:
Sukhodolsky's fascinating work is typical of the growing sense of realism in the 1860s - an authentic view of a scruffy Russian village with its dilapidated buildings and dirt tracks.  The foreground, where academic tradition lead the eye to something worthy of contemplation, focuses on a rusting harrow and a sleeping sow having fleas pecked from its hide by a magpie.
Local food taken to its logical conclusion!  Admittedly, Russia was the poorest of the pre-industrial European societies.  At an earlier time when England and the Netherlands could support 20-30% of the population in cities, Russia had only 5% - indicating that it's agriculture generated very little surplus beyond the bare minimum required to support the peasants - and not in style, as the painting documents.

I realize few of my readers are in a position to visit the paintings in Stockholm, and probably even fewer after they return to their homes in Russia - but if you can, it's well worth it.


petemason said...

Thanks for this post

Gerald said...

Very interesting Stuart. We are talking about real things here - how things were and the web of energy that lifted them and holds them up.

Stuki said...

I think you're a bit harsh on the local food enthusiasts. Some/much of the knowledge and technology that allows for such high yields in large scale, industrial agriculture, are applicable on a smaller scale as well.

As well, property rights in Tsarist Russia likely weren't on the side of the peasants, at least not from what I have heard. If some local bigwig will rob you of all surplus anyway, why bother producing any?

At any given level of technology, the tradeoff between industrial scale agriculture (any production, really) and local scale one, is in many ways one of efficiency vs. resiliency. And at current levels of technology, and US population densities, it is not a given that sacrificing a bit of the former for some gain in the latter, is such a bad tradeoff. Even with agriculture operating at less than optimum efficiency, it's not like people would fall over starved to death.

Since you are in Scandinavia, perhaps you'll get a chance to look at some of their schemes for using industrial waste heat to heat residences. It's highly efficient, as it's heat that would otherwise just go to waste; but most customers still have a wood stove for backup( low efficiency, highly resilient in forested areas), should things fail at the plant or the distribution network.

Peter Vesborg said...

How long are they on display?

Adam Schuetzler said...

Russia is indeed an extreme example - in the second picture, not all the houses even have thatch. But the house in front is probably one of the poorest in the village - it's down on the water, while most are elevated (I bet it gets flooded often). The vegetable garden is pretty impressive, though... Also, at this time in Europe, urban poverty was often worse than rural poverty.

That said, it's a number of very big steps between these scenes and our wasteful society. We could take it down many notches and still maintain a very good life. I read "No Impact Man" and that book points to some of the really important things - washing machines (that was one that was surprisingly important), safe places to cook, running water, refridgeration are all things he mentions as very important. He DID give up plastic, paper products (including toilet paper), electric light, A/C, and of course TV and such. He lived in a city so the car issue didn't really come up, though he started biking instead of using public transit.

It's cliche to say we NEED tons of energy. We do need some - to move barges and such - but lots of energy is wasted, partly by design as we've created a world that requires lots of energy to work, but also trivially, as can be seen by looking at images of the earth from space at night with everything lit up like a circus. Do we really, really need that much light?

I think we could have very nice lives at 1/5 or less the energy use. On the other hand, most of us could have very bad lives at 1/2 the energy use as well - it depends on how we use it and what we use it for.

Glenn said...

Nice paintings. I'd like to see more.

Stuart Staniford said...

Peter: looks like till Jan 22nd:

Anonymous said...

We have some paintings of the village my wife spent time in during summer vacations wtih her grandparents, not quite so primitive in 1970s-1980s as in those picutres but she was hauling water and there was little to no electric, boat transport to next village over lake, repairng fishing nets by hand, etc. at any rate still low tech by western standards but 19th century Russia is really a shock!

Galen? said...

I live in Sweden about an hour's train ride from Stockholm. I follow your blog almost daily. Hope you have a good stay in Stockholm. Below is a link that might be interesting.


Mike said...

Love the paintings, and the blog. But, possessive its is its, it's not it's. :-)

HalFiore said...

I'm waiting for you to tell us how to pronounce "Peredvizhniki" so I can work it into a conversation.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mike: I always do that in first draft but most of the time catch it in editing. But not this time...

Stuart Staniford said...


Apparently it's "Pear-rad-veezh-niki" if you're trying to impress artsy women :-)!!ARV6FUJ2JP&tid=Definition

Fixed Carbon said...

Stuart: Hugely interesting post that I will use in a couple of weeks with my intro biology students. You have given me a tremendous idea for a title: "The Energy Cycle of History: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow…. Something along the lines.. Human sources of energy are described by a cycle from pre-modern, to modern, and onward to the post-modern future. From ancient through Renaissance times, the great civilizations built their empires and cities with contemporary carbon, with the photosynthetic energy of the day and just-yesterday: grasses for their food stock, grains for their horses, and wood that had accumulated the sun’s energy from the past few decades to centuries.

...Much from "Energy and the English Industrial Revolution." The Post-Modern part is most fun. Onward toward the future. Warm Regards, Don

Seth said...

"Pear-rad-veezh-niki" is a little misleading, says this former Russian language student. Any native speakers are invited to trump me ;)

"Peer-ih-dveezh'-niki" would come closer. The root is from "dveezhenya" (meaning motion) followed by 'nik' (person doing said motion) and 'i' for pluralization (both 'i's are long e sounds). Then 'pere' is a prepositional prefix which adds the sense of going 'around' or 'wandering' to the motion. Like 'perimeter' and quite possibly linguistically related to that Greek 'peri'. But the vowels are closer to long e, short i than to long a, short a. And with a rough/almost rolled 'r' between them.

Nothing in there sounds like 'pear' or 'rad' to my ear.

Thanks for the post btw -- I've seen that Ilya Repin painting in an art book somewhere, but these "wanderers" aren't otherwise familiar to me.

K.M. said...

Thanks for this. I love art and also am fascinated with these prior ways of life as represented by artists. The one you've featured by Pyotr Sukhodolsky is awesome!

kay @ big picture agriculture