Mikhail Vrubel's exhibition in the New Tretyakov is undoubtedly the main art show of this winter in Moscow. Even the QR-codes did not prevent the tickets from being sold out every day. Three hundred paintings, drawings and ceramics gathered from different museums in one space display the magical world of this 1890-1900s painter. You might ask yourself "Do I know anything of this Mikhail Vrubel?" Yes, you do if you have ever looked closely at the Metropol Hotel - Vrubel's mosaics adorn its facade.
Vrubel's art is evocative and eye pleasing, but with some background knowledge you can enjoy the exhibition even more.
The exhibition in the New Tretyakov Gallery (Krymsky Val, 10) will run until March, the 8th. You might like to buy the tickets beforehand, 2-3 days in advance if you plan to go during the week, or more if you want to visit it on weekend.
The first painting you see right after entering is the Swan Tsarevna - a swan from a beloved Russian tale at the moment she magically turns into a princess (tsarevna). She is on the sea shore with the distant forest lit up red by a sunset. Vrubel's wife, one of the first sopranos of her time, posed for this picture while preparing for the role of the Swan Tsarevna.
Vrubel was constantly fascinated by metamorphoses: a swan turning into a girl, his wife turning into a fairy-tale character, a day turning into night - such changes always attracted him.
Later the artist designed a swan's costume for his wife and came to the theater hours before each performance to help her put this complex dress on.
The first hall of the exhibition is at the same time its highlight. It brings together three main works of Vrubel - three different images of the Demon - an enigmatic lonely spirit searching for harmony and truth. The obsession with Demon started for Vrubel while he was illustrating the poem of the great poet Lermontov under the same name "The Demon". The poem tells about Demon's love to a princess from the Caucasus mountains. Tragically his kiss makes her heart stop. Demon's hopes are dashed. He fell down from the sky and crushed. He has no place in this world.
"The Demon Seated" was the first painting of this series. Vrubel painted it in Moscow fresh from coming from Kiev. There he worked in the ancient church, painted angels the way as if they were made out of mosaic. The experience of seeing an image fractured to small elements (like mosaic pieces) inspired him to depict background rocks and flowers resembling some sorts of crystals, which makes this picture look even a bit cubist.
The mystery of the Demon kept him captivated all his life. Ten years later he painted "The Demon Flying" - an inhumanly elongated figure flying above the mountains.
And "The Demon Cast Down" became the work which, at the end, drove the artist into the depths of madness. Vrubel painted it in a small room with an electric lamp directed to the middle of the canvas. He experimented with metal oxides which gave the painting magical golden shimmer. When the picture was moved to the exhibition hall the changed light killed the effects and the artist could not recognize these faded colors. Vrubel began to repaint it right there, so the exhibition visitors could see the Demon's face changing its expression under the author's brush. As the light during the day was changing, all the colors of the picture were changing with it. It seemed to Vrubel that he had lost control over his own creation and that the Demon is mocking him. That along with the immense weariness made him losing his mind at the end.
An adjacent hall displays all the studies Vrubel did for his Demons as well as drawings for his in-church paintings in Kiev. After successful completion of restoration works in St Cyril's Church he was invited to paint Mother of God for the new Vladimir Cathedral in the same city. Everything was good about it except for the fact that... it explicitly portrayed his empolyer's wife Emilia with whom Vrubel fell in love (unrequited) and even asked her husband for her hand. Naturally, this put the end to his work in Kiev.
Another hall you can get to from the Demons display the Lilac Series. This purple palette helped Vrubel to find the colors for his Demons.
Originally it was going to be a portrait of Nadezhda Zabela, Vrubel's wife, with the background of gorgeous lilacs. But Vrubel got so captivated by painting these rich purple tones of the bush, that lost any interest towards the portrait itself and left it barely visible. However, if you are lucky you might make out a ghostly face above the bush.
In Moscow Vrubel was introduced to the millionaire Savva Mamontov who was also a great patron of the arts. He supported many talented artists by letting them stay in his estate near Moscow as long as they wanted turning it into a kind of an artists' colony. The residents did not have to worry about making a living and could concentrate solely on their creative work. Another Mamontov's passion was ceramic making, he had a small factory. Vrubel experimented there with baking ceramics in a box with metal powder. Here is the result - Russian tales characters of lustrous, glowing colors.
This marvelous ceramic faced fireplace was made for the Mamontov's Moscow house. They actually used it! Just imagine how beautiful it was with the flames dancing around in it!
Mamontov also opened the world of interior design to Vrubel. After seeing what he had designed for Mamontov, other tycoons formed a waiting list for his services. He made mosaics for the house which is known today as "Gorkiy's House", created a stained glass for another and painted a ceiling for the third (the last two are at the exhibition).
The stairs take us to the ground floor. Get ready. Something creepy this way comes.
In 1901 Vrubel got a son Savva, named after Mamontov. The child had the face of an angel, bottomless adult eyes, and - a cleft lip. Vrubel was crushed by his son's birth defect. At this moment he was working on his last Demon - "The Demon Cast Down", which as we remember put him on the verge of a mental breakdown. He came to thinking of his son's face defect as another trick Demon played upon him. In 1903 little Savva suddenly died. One of Vrubel's friends recalls, "He said, 'I have painted my son's portrait, but I hid it, I am not going to show it to anyone'. At this very moment the picture was standing openly at the wall, behind his back". It was painful for Vrubel's friends to see him losing his mind.
The ground floor shows drawings made in 1901-1910 - most of them were created in the walls of mental asylums. Sliding down into madness and realizing it, Vrubel tried to strengthen the thread connecting him to this world by putting it on paper. He depicts his bed again and again during the sleepless nights, draws the window view and the nurses' portraits. Once he got a beautiful mother-of-pearl shell to be used as an ashtray. The artist challenges himself in depicting its shimmering colors with only a pencil. This resulted in an amazing series of monochromatic drawings which evolved into a couple of colored ones.
The last painting of the exhibition is also the last oil painting by the artist - he painted it at the clinic, after six years of not touching oils, when he felt slightly better. "Six Winged Seraph" is like a sum total of all the artist's legacy - the Seraph has features of Nadezhda Zabela and the Demon, and the fractal nature of this picture is reminiscent of the first work of Vrubel's - "painted mosaics" in St Cyril Church.
New Tretyakov Gallery, entrance on the side of the park.
Until the 8th of March.