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What pictures of Russian classics were forbidden to be shown, and for what reason did they fall out of favor with the censors

We are accustomed to associate censorship bans with forbidden books or films. But even in such a seemingly harmless genre of art as painting, artists could go against the ideological attitudes of power, because of which certain paintings were not accepted for display at public exhibitions. Several such stories happened in the Russian Empire, and they are connected not with some little-known artists, but with generally recognized masters of the brush.

One of the most famous Wanderers, Ilya Repin, by the 1880s, was an artist with great experience. Pavel Tretyakov bought his paintings, cultural figures posed for him – such as the writer Turgenev and the composer Musorgsky. In addition to portraits and a social theme (for example, “Barge Haulers on the Volga”), Repin was always interested in historical subjects. The legend that Tsar Ivan the Terrible, in a fit of anger, dealt a death blow with his staff to his son Ivan, was known for his historical work, although it is difficult to judge how true it is to the truth.

There was another interesting source of inspiration for the artist. Repin recalled that the thought of the picture appeared after the murder of Alexander II on March 1, 1881. During a trip to Europe, he noted that “bloody pictures” are quite popular at Western exhibitions. “And I, having become infected probably with this bloodiness, upon my arrival home, immediately set about the bloody scene“ Ivan the Terrible with his son, ”wrote Repin.
The first viewers of the painting were Repin’s comrades in the art workshop, he showed them the finished canvas in his workshop. The guests were stunned by the result and were silent for a long time. Nevertheless, the risky work became part of the 13th exhibition of the Association of Wanderers, which opened in 1885 in St. Petersburg. The Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, called the picture “fantastic” in a negative sense and “simply disgusting”. And Emperor Alexander III who saw her said that it should not be shown in the provinces.

Nevertheless, the picture was taken to Moscow and included in the local exhibition … until the reaction of official censorship followed. Ivan the Terrible was demanded to be removed and not shown to the public in the future. The ban did not last long – from April to July 1885. Artist Alexei Bogolyubov, who had connections with the court, stood up for the disgraced picture and achieved the lifting of the ban. However, the history of scandals around the picture did not end: in 1913 and 2018, it was attacked by vandals.

The canvases of the artist Nikolai Ge, like Repin, were frequent visitors to the exhibitions of the Wanderers. One of the key themes for Ge is a religious, Christian theme. For three decades, the artist on the biblical scenes were painted paintings “Christ in the wasteland”, “The Last Supper”, “Golgotha”, “In the Garden of Gethsemane” and others. But only one picture, “What is truth?”, Caused an ambiguous reaction right up to the ban.

The picture shows an episode of the dialogue between the procurator of Judea Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. It rather accurately conveys a fragment from the New Testament, where Pilate throws the phrase: “What is truth?”, And, not waiting for the answer of Christ, goes to the exit. At the same time, the very atmosphere of the painting by Ge was not at all like the traditional perception of this plot by his contemporaries. Jesus Christ is depicted as an exhausted and depressed man, he is hidden in the shadow, while Pilate rises above him and is illuminated by the sun.

In this, of course, there was no insult to the feelings of believers. On the contrary, the picture conveyed much better the tragedy of the situation, when Pilate, triumphant in his conviction, like many contemporaries of Christ, was not at all aware of what the truth is in this situation. He simply could not see in the darkened figure of the man of the true God.

The picture was shown in 1890 at the exhibition of the Wanderers, and the Holy Synod decided to remove it from the exhibition. The collector Tretyakov also did not appreciate the work and did not want to buy it. His opinion was influenced by the letter of Leo Tolstoy, in which he reproached the collector’s short-sightedness: “You have collected a bunch of manure in order not to miss the pearl. And when an obvious pearl lies right among the dung, you take everything, but not hers. ” Tretyakov changed his mind and bought a picture. More than a century has passed, and now it is obvious that this is yet another pearl of Russian painting.

Vereshchagin was not a Wanderer, although he was also interested in current social and historical subjects. In the 1880s, he wrote The Trilogy of Executions – three paintings, combined with the theme of the death penalty. Together with the paintings “Crucifixion by the Romans” and “Suppression of the Indian uprising by the British” Vereshchagin turned to the Russian story – the execution of five revolutionaries of the People, who killed Alexander II.

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