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Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) was the mainstay of Russian nineteenth century landscape painting, giving form and vision to his native land during a crucial period when intellectual endeavour focused on the search for a national identity. He trained at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture and later the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, and travelled throughout Germany and Switzerland to observe the great traditions of European landscape painting. It was Russia however, and chiefly her native forests, that became the enduring focus of his long, successful and prodigious career.
This work, acquired by Norman Hall Hansen in Copenhagen circa 1920, and which has remained in the family ever since, is a later and slightly reduced version of Shishkin's famous Mast Pine Forest in Viatka Province (fig. 1, 1872, State Tretyakov Gallery, 117 x 165 cm). With the original Shishkin made his debut at the first exhibition of the secessionist realist society, the Peredvizhniki, with whom he subsequently exhibited for the rest of his life. He became a pivotal member of the progressive, contemporary and national imagery propounded by the Peredvizhniki, at odds with the artificiality and moribund nature of academic art. Within the society's output Shishkin's works were greeted as defining images of Russia, which promoted a new pride in the indigenous landscape.
Mast Pine Forest in Viatka Province additionally received First Prize in a competition organised by the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, and was therefore doubtless a motif that was close to the artist in terms of his personal development and critical success, and may therefore account for this later variant. The original was painted under the influence of the countryside surrounding Shishkin's birthplace, Yelabuga in Viatka province, a region rich in tradition, folk legends and peasant crafts (also the home of the artist Viktor Vasnetsov). It is, therefore an image not merely of the Russian countryside, but of a place precious to the artist.
The hallmarks of Shishkin's landscapes are admirably illustrated in the offered work: a realistic, uncontrived and purely native landscape. The severity of his superlative high-definition finish, which represents the apogee of realist landscape, is nevertheless mitigated by a tendency towards unconventional compositions that make use of asymmetrical arrangements or curious viewpoints. Shishkin studied the natural sciences seriously (his father was an amateur archaeologist and folklorist) and in his painstaking attention to light, tone and detail, seems as if he attempts to reconstruct Russian nature piecemeal. The concrete pre-Raphaelite attention to detail and the carefully composed nature of the clearing that gives us a convenient viewpoint is, however, tempered by the natural inclusion of more random elements of dead, fallen or slanting trees, of gnarled stumps and patches of weeds. As with many of Shishkin's works the overall harmony and beauty of the finished piece, which makes capital of evocative contrasts of light, is founded on the aesthetic deployment of modest, mundane and unassuming elements.
Despite their large scale nature it is perhaps the multiplicity of possibilities offered by Shishkin's works which are their enduring appeal. On one level this canvas clearly speaks of the might and fecundity of the Russian forest, whilst the allusion to 'mast' trees, i.e. those tall and straight enough for this use, promotes martial, maritime and patriotic associations. Yet within this imposing scene, composed also of the quotidian aspects mentioned above, are further allusions to simpler concerns. The focus of the work is on two bears that look up at a hive of wild bees placed purposely high out of their reach, as if contemplating its inaccessibility, or optimistic of a stratagem that will bring secure its contents. Since apiary of this humble, cottage industry nature, was endemic to Russian folk culture - a means of supplementing one's diet or income - this small but clearly important component of the painting is symbolic also of the longevity and fundamentality of human husbandry; the interdependency of man and nature. The bears, whilst being charming components of a low-key narrative, are also emblematic, clearly, of Russia itself, being synonymous with the nation. But in turn they are a prosaic reminder of the wildlife which has roamed these woods longer than man, and which in turn is overshadowed by the presence of the forest itself, which predates sentient life. In macrocosm the forest stands for the eternal aspect of Nature, and the symbols of man of transience. The mast-trees allude to nationalism and political strength, achieved without recourse to bombastically grandiose nationalistic rhetoric, but merely insinuated, whereas the microcosm of the folk elements celebrate the simple loves of the ordinary Russian people. Both allude in different ways to a landscape worked and to some degree fashioned by human endeavour, but which nevertheless remains subordinate to Nature.
The whole is a magnificent showcase of Shishkin's immense artistic talents, his inventiveness of display and his profound comprehension of the Russian land; a breathtaking but sophisticated fusion of art and reality. It is a work celebratory of man and Nature, of the nation and its ordinary people, of the past, present and even of eternity, but principally of Russia. As such it is a prime example of Shishkin's exceptional talent, which the artist Ivan Kramskoy, the Wanderers' ideological mentor, noted was of such magnitude that it constituted an art historical phenomenon: "He is by himself a school...a milestone in the evolution of the Russian landscape." [Quoted in David Jackson, The Wanderers and critical realism in 19th century Russian painting, Manchester University Press, 2006, p. 125.]
We are grateful to David Jackson, Professor of Russian and Scandanavian Art Histories at Leeds University for preparing this note.