For some, he was the chronicler of the wars that Russia fought against the Tsars in the mid-nineteenth century, for others, a pioneer who extended the borders of realism, but all agree that Vasili Vereschaguin portrayed, as nobody in his time, the horror and death on the battlefield.
The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, one of the most important Russian art galleries in the country, has collected 180 paintings and 120 drawings by the painter in the largest exhibition of his work in almost 130 years, inaugurated this week.
“Vereschaguin shouts through his work that war is evil, transmits as nobody else this message in” The apotheosis of war “, his most famous painting, anyone who only sees that canvas once or its reproduction, cannot forget it never, “said Zelfira Tregúlova, director of the Muscovite museum, to Efe.
The pyramid of skulls overflown by crows, the arid Asian steppe, and the trees destroyed by the fire, and in the background, a destroyed city: despite its harshness, is for many the greatest pacifist manifesto in the history of universal painting.
“Dedicated to all the great conquerors: past, present, and future,” wrote Vereschaguin in the framework of “The Apotheosis”, a basic piece in the cycle he painted after spending two years in the Russian Turkestan, in full conquest of the Muslim kingdoms that extended over current Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Although he was trained from a very young age as an officer of the Navy and served a few years in the imperial army, it was in the brutal campaign of Turkestan that he saw with his own eyes death, victory and defeat in its tragic dimension.
Since then he was always pushed to return to war to express his nonsense, reaching the peak of his talent by portraying the bloody conflict that faced the Russian and Ottoman empires in the Balkans between 1877 and 1878.
He painted his other masterpiece, “Los Vencidos, Requiem”, after witnessing hundreds of bodies of Russian soldiers scattered in the field, naked and disfigured by the victors.
As he said later, he chose to use “much softer tones” than he remembered seeing, but despite everything, he was always the object of harsh criticism by his contemporaries, who accused him of a sincerity that many saw as obscene.
“Despite his strong personality, he was also, like many geniuses, very vulnerable.When the Turkestan cycle canvases were thrashed by critics after his first exhibition in Russia, in 1874, he destroyed much of that exhibition in one night” said Tregoulova.
Before Vereschaguin, the war in Russian painting was always the expression of victory, the faces of heroes, the epic of battles, but from his work, which breaks with established and goes far beyond realism, it shows it as desolation, destruction, and tears.
“His work is unlike any other painter of his time because he was very different from them all, he had the classic qualities of a romantic, but his independence, his willpower and his desire to do only what he wanted they made him an advance, “explains the director of the Tretyakov.
Generally, it is framed within realism, but over the years its style changes evolve into the saga of the creator and adopt symbolist, even post-impressionist traits.
“Actually, it is all this at the same time, sometimes it is carried away by the beauty of what it sees before and transmits it as it sees it, and at other times it rises to the philosophical level, as in the ‘Apotheosis of war’ or in ‘Requiem’ “, says Tregúlova.
Often criticized by the imperial government of the tsars, he had as much success in life as so few of his colleagues.
No less than 200,000 people visited one of their exhibitions in St. Petersburg in 1880, an extraordinary figure for the time.
Chronicler of battles, literary and historian, traveler and ethnographer, “like no other Russian painter, Vereschaguin saw himself entitled to portray war and peace in the countries in which he spent most of his life”, concludes Svetlana Kapírina, responsible of the exhibition.