Tolstoy, again and again

I AM being followed by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, barefoot. I thought I had left him, as you see him in the adjoining column, on the wall of the State Russian Museum in Leningrad last year. But this year his portrait visited our town of Cambridge, Mass., and I can only suppose we'll catch up with each other again soon. For I have once more run into what might be called the first law of cultural dynamics. It says that as soon as you see something for the first time - a new word, an artist's name, a place on the map - you will suddenly see it everywhere. For example, I had never heard of radiccio until last year, and now ....

Yes, I had heard of Tolstoy. If it wasn't at my mother's knee it was probably at the first time that anyone ever mentioned a Russian writer to me. I know I read his ``War and Peace'' between hours of Marine Corps duty chipping paint from the decks of a United States troop ship crossing the Pacific during World War II.

Somehow, when I looked up from his novel's vast Napoleonic panorama, I never pictured the great author as a barefoot peasant. But later I heard of his almost religious efforts to seek simplicity, to identify himself with the soil and its tillers.

So a portrait of Tolstoy in peasant dress with a Bible in his pocket was not so surprising. What was surprising - and a mark of my ignorance - was that this was a famous portrait by a famous artist, I.E. Repin, whose work I came alive to in Siberia only last year.

Ilya Efimovich Repin was hardly even a name to me until our tour group on the Trans-Siberian Railway stopped over in Irkutsk. There in the Regional Irkutsk Art Museum, which a few of us were checking out between officially planned events, was a haunting painting of a young woman in tattered clothing by I.E. Repin. Having seen this, by the first law of cultural dynamics I would begin seeing Repin everywhere - and I did. A fact not so striking in his homeland, perhaps, but at least a little unusual when I was able to hear all about him at a symposium a mile or so from my own home.

The painting in Irkutsk is called ``Beggar Woman,'' and the downcast eyes in the lovely face seem to convey a gentle diffidence rather than despair over a humiliating lot. The artist's evident respect for his humble subject - he was himself the son of a peasant - is in keeping with his responsiveness to his old friend Tolstoy's regard for the downtrodden.

The 1901 portrait of Tolstoy on the facing page is said to have been painted from a sketch the artist made a decade earlier during visits to the author's Yasnaya Polyana estate. Barefoot, the great man was still the great man. Repin wrote to his daughter: ``No matter the self-abasements of this giant, or his choice of perishable rags to cover his mighty body, Zeus always shows in him, and all of Olympus trembles from the play of his eyebrows.''

I picked this line up from a talk by one of the art scholars, Soviet and Western, brought together to discuss the traveling exhibition in which Repin's Tolstoy appeared along with other works by him and a number of other Russian artists. Entitled ``Russia: The Land, The People. Russian Painting 1850-1910,'' it was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service of Washington, D.C., with the State Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow and the State Russian Museum of Leningrad. The exhibition was visiting Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge on the way to its final showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

WHEN our Soviet tour reached Leningrad we found a whole room of Repin portraits in the State Russian Museum. There was also his uproarious ``Zaporozhye Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan,'' represented by a preliminary oil sketch in the show touring the United States.

``How do we know they're Russian?'' asked one of the scholars in the Cambridge symposium, talking about Repin's Cossacks and other examples of the 19th-century Russian realism of which he was the most prominent exponent. Because, the scholar answered himself, the West has gotten a sense of Russia through the work of these very artists, through the way they experienced the fact of being Russian. They defined their identity through the peasantry, for example, and through landscapes quieter than the dramatic scenes of the Hudson River School of 19th-century American landscape painters. Now Westerners look at works like those that they have already been conditioned by in the past, and they say, ``That's Russian.''

Certainly Repin's Tolstoy looks Russian to me. But so does the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde art that the official guides ignored and that we had to try so much harder to find in the Soviet Union than the solidly realistic Repins.

Yet Repin, an avid photographer, was not bound to a slavish realism in painting. He seemed to agree with the line one of the scholars quoted from his countryman Dostoyevsky: ``Realism that ends with the tip of one's nose is worse than the wildest fantasy.'' When Manet came along in France, freshening realism with what came to be called Impressionism, Repin commented that ``a new language is always important in art.''

It was good to hear one of the visitors to Cambridge assuring the audience that a future traveling exhibition from the Soviet Union would indeed offer examples of the avant-garde, presumably including such post-Repin art languages as abstraction and constructivism. I hope so, even though I feel I haven't seen the last of the barefoot Tolstoy who has been following me, and he might prefer to leave the complexities of the avant-garde in the Soviet attic. Just about the time that Repin was painting his portrait, Tolstoy was writing:

``The artist of the future will understand that to compose a fairy tale, a little song which will touch, a lullaby or riddle which will entertain, a jest which will amuse, or to draw a sketch which will delight dozens of generations or millions of children and adults, is incomparably more important and more fruitful than to compose a novel or a symphony or paint a picture which will divert some members of the wealthy classes for a short time and then be forever forgotten. The region of this art of the simple feelings accessible to all is enormous, and it is as yet almost untouched.''

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