It is no accident that Arkhip Kuinji is sometimes known as the bard of the Ukrainian night. And although he also painted the severe scenery of the island of Valaam, Ukrainian highways awash with rain, and the flowering steppe, it is for his inimitable evocations of the beauty and mysterious charm of Ukrainian moonlit nights that he will always be remembered.
The son of a poor cobbler of Greek descent, Kuinji was born on the outskirts of Mariupole (now Zhdanov). His surname came from his grandfather’s nickname and means ‘goldsmith’ in Tatar. Orphaned at an early age, the boy lived with relatives and took on various jobs—with a corn-merchant, a contractor, and as a retoucher with a photographer.
Kuinji received the rudiments of education from a Greek friend of the family who was a teacher, and then went to the local school. In his childhood he used to draw whenever there was an opportunity—on fences, walls and scraps of paper. His passion for drawing drew him to Feodosia, to see Ivan Aivazovsky. After spending several months with the famous artist he went to St. Petersburg with the dream of entering the Academy of Arts. But he did not succeed in this at once: he was, as yet, poorly trained. Twice he took examinations, both times without success, but this did not deter the persistent young man. In 1868 he had a picture—Tatar House—exhibited at the Academy, and later that year he was accepted as an external student. Kuinji immersed himself in the artistic atmosphere. He made friends with Ilya Repin and Viktor Vasnetsov, and was an acquaintance of Ivan Kramskoi, the ideologist of the progressive Russian artists. Now the young painter’s eyes were opened up to the lyrical landscapes of Savrasov, to the poetic perception of nature in Vasiliev’s pictures and to Shishkin’s epic canvases.
Kuinji set about defining his own style in art. In its realism, his painting Bad Roads in Autumn (1872, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) was akin to the works of the peredvizhniki Artists. He did not merely paint a cold autumn day and a slushy road with murky puddies: into this landscape he introduced the lonely figures of a woman and child, picking their way through the mud. The autumn landscape, with its dampness and gloom, became the sad story of the Russian common people and their weary, joyless lives.
The summer of 1872 was spent on the island of Valaam in Lake Ladoga, and as a result Kuin- ji painted the pictures Lake Ladoga (1872, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) and On the Island of Valaam (1873, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). The latter is a calm, unhurried narrative about the scenery of the island, with its granite banks and its dark, dense woods and fallen trees. It is like a folk epic, descriptive legend of the mighty North. The painting’s silvery-bluish tone lends it great emotionality. After the exhibition in 1873 at which the painting was put on display, Kuinji’s great talent and originality began to be discussed in the press.
In 1874 Kuinji painted A Forgotten Village (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) which, with the sharp social message in its strikingly truthful depiction of Russian village life, echoed the pictures of the Travelling Artists. The following year he exhibited three more paintings: Highway at Mariupole (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), The Steppe in Blossom and The Steppe in the Evening (whereabouts unknown). In the first of these three works, the artist depicted an unending stream of carts slowly moving across the steppe on an overcast autumn day. The sense of coldness and dampness is heightened by the aptly chosen range of colours.
In the other two—The Steppe in Blossom and The Steppe in the Evening—the artist affirmed the beauty of nature, rejoicing in the life-giving power of the warmth of the sun. In essence, these works marked the beginning of a new stage in the work of a mature artist. Hoping to broaden his knowledge Kuinji undertook a journey abroad. His stays in Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, and his acquaintance with the art of these countries, invigorated him with new impressions and also bolstered his confidence in his own strengths and in the rightness of his chosen path. In 1876 Kuinji put the painting Ukrainian Night (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) on display at the Fifth Peredvizhniki Exhibition.
With tremendous poetic power the painting reveals the remarkable beauty of a Ukrainian night. . . Typical Ukrainian cottages, clear in the moonlight, stand along the bank of a small river; poplars stretch upwards; nature is bathed in silence and calm; stars blink in the deep-blue, velvety sky. In order to convey the moonlight and the twinkling of the stars so naturally and expressively, the artist was required to solve extremely complex artistic problems. Everything in the picture is built on his masterly treatment of tonal relationships, on the accentuated generalisation of forms and on the intensity and precision of the colour combinations. The originality of Kuinji’s manner of painting attracted the attention of both Russian and foreign critics. In 1878 Ukrainian Night was shown at a World Exhibition in Paris. ‘Kuinji,’ wrote a French critic, ‘is indubitably the most interesting of the young Russian painters. His nationality shows through even more strongly than with the others.’
In 1879 Kuinji painted three landscapes: The North, After a Thunderstorm, and Birch Grove (all in TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). Though their motifs are different, they are united by their poetry. The North continued the series of northern landscapes started with LakeLadoga. This time Kuinji did not depict any particular spot: it is a generalised poetic representation of the North, the result of the artist’s recollections and imagination. The painting completed the trilogy conceived back in 1872. After this Kuinji devoted many years to extolling the scenery of southern and central Russia. After a Thunderstorm is full of life, movement and a sense of the freshness of nature after a downpour. But the painting which enjoyed most success when these three were exhibited was Birch Grove. Crowds of people stood for hours in front of it; it was as though the sun itself had burst into the exhibition hall, illuminating the grassy glade and playing on the white bark and green leaves of the birches. During his work on the picture, Kuinji’s chief concern was to find the most expressive composition. From sketch to sketch he gradually arrived at the perfect positioning of the trees and dimensions of the glade; in the final version there is nothing fortuitous, nothing merely ‘copied’ from nature. The foreground is in shadow, and this accentuates the richness and brilliance of the green glade. Avoiding theatrical effects, the artist succeeded in creating a decorative picture in the best sense of the word. It is an inspired glorification of the beauty and poetry of nature, of the blinding power of sunshine.
In 1880 an unusual exhibition was mounted on Bolshaya Morskaya (now Herzen) Street in St. Petersburg: one painting was on display—Kuinji’s Moonlit Night on the Dnieper (RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG).
It caused a storm of approval: a long queue formed at the entrance to the exhibition.
Kuinji became the talk of the town, his name was on everybody’s lips. The poet Yakov Polonsky wrote: ‘I positively cannot think of any other painting in front of which people stood for so long, and from which, having gazed and gazed, they took away with them such an extraordinary impression. ’The picture shackled the onlookers’ attention. Illuminated from both sides by special lamps, it seemed like a window opening onto a bewitching Ukrainian night.
…The Dnieper is calm, unruffled, in the pale moonlight. A little Ukrainian village lies asleep on the bank, only a few white-walled cottages gleam in the darkness . .. The moonlight is magnificent—strong in the centre, comprising all shades of green, it gradually fades towards the sides of the painting, merging into the blackness of the water and clouds. Many people could not believe that the artist had painted all this by normal artistic methods.
Kuinji’s brilliant technique of reproducing moonlight was the result of long arduous searching. His studio was a research laboratory, where he experimented and studied the laws of colours, searching for the correct shade, checking it against the colour relations in nature itself. It was only by such persistence that Kuinji achieved the skill in manipulating colour and the compositional simplicity which mark his best works.
In 1881 Kuinji painted the picture The Dnieper in the Morning (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). This time there was no play of light or vivid decorativeness; the painting expressed the tranquil grandeur and inner might of nature. The delightful sight of early morning over the steppe, with blooming herbs and a boundless panorama, is put across in a delicate fabric of pure golden-pink, lilac, silvery and greenish-grey shades.
The exhibition in 1882 was Kuinji’s last. It was followed by many years of silence, which even the artist’s friends could not understand. Kuinji himself explained it thus: ‘An artist should display his works at exhibitions for as long—like a singer—as he has a voice. But as soon as his voice begins to falter he should retire, and not show himself, to avoid derision. I made a name for myself, everybody had heard of me, and all was well; but then I saw that I could not keep it up, that my voice, as it were, was beginning to falter. And people would say: there used to be an artist called Kuinji. But I would rather remain Kuinji for ever.’
In his last thirty years he produced relatively little, compared to the decade when he took an active part in exhibitions. According to the reminiscences of his friends, Kuinji invited them to his studio at the beginning of this century and showed them the paintings Evening in the Ukraine, Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane,
The Dnieper and Birch Grove, by which they were enraptured. But Kuinji was dissatisfied with them and would not exhibit them publicly.
Horses Grazing at Night, one of Kuinji’s last works, reminds one of the artist in his prime. Here, too, one feels his poetic attitude to nature, his attempt to extol its stately beauty.
Several other pictures, interesting in intention and new in content, remained unfinished. In A Cloud, Crimea and Fog on the Sea (1900-05, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), for example, the artist was seeking a more philosophical, more profound treatment of nature.
In his later years Kuinji travelled widely. He was attracted to the Crimean and Caucasian mountains, snow-capped and lit up by the sun or moon (cf. the etudes Elbrus, Moonlit Night, Kazbek in the Evening, Patches of Moonlight, etc.).
Kuinji’s artistic method involved a great deal of preparatory painted etudes and studies. In his studies he sought compositional expressiveness and harmonious colouring for the future painting. His etudes, on the other hand, which were painted both from nature and from impressions, were for him only one of the stages in the work, preliminary paintings which could later be reworked in the final process of creating a picture.
Kuinji passed on much of his skill and experience to his pupils. In 1894 he was offered a post at the Academy as professor of landscape- painting. He gave long consideration to his teaching methods, wishing to instill in his pupils not only professional skills but also an active attitude towards creation. In his pupils’ etudes he wished to see the result of a close study of nature, and in their paintings—freedom in using the material of the etudes and in generalising their observations. Among those who benefited by his methods were such talented artists as A. A. Rylov, N. K. Roerich, K. F. Bogayevsky, A. A. Borisov, V.G. Purvit and others.
In 1897 Kuinji was put under house arrest for two days and stripped of his professorship for taking part in a student strike. But he continued to give private lessons and helped students prepare works for competitions. In 1898, at his own expense, he organised a trip abroad for young artists and made a donation of 100,000 roubles to the Academy for this purpose. When his pupils decided to set up a Kuinji Society, the artist presented it with all the paintings and money in his possession, plus the land he owned in the Crimea.
On 11 July 1910, Arkhip Kuinji died. With his sincere and inspired art he had brought glory to Russian art and made an invaluable contribution to its treasure-store.