Boris Kustodiev has a place of honour among those artists of the early twentieth century who worked to create a new socialist culture. A talented genre-painter, master of psychological portraiture, book illustrator and stage-set artist, Kustodiev produced masterpieces in almost all the imitative arts. But his talent is most apparent in his poetic paintings on themes from the life of the people, in which he conveyed the inexhaustible strength and beauty of the Russian soul. He wrote, ‘I do not know if I have been successful in expressing what I wanted to in my works: love of life, happiness and cheerfulness, love of things Russian—this was the only “subject” of my paintings . . .’
The artist’s life and work are inseparably linked with the Volga and the wide open countryside of the area, where Kustodiev spent his childhood and youth. His deep love for this area never left him all his life.
Boris Kustodiev was born in Astrakhan. His father, a schoolteacher, died young, and all financial and material burdens lay on his mother’s shoulders. The Kustodiev family rented a small wing in a rich merchant’s house. It was here that the boy’s first impressions were formed of the way of life of the provincial merchant class. The artist later wrote, ‘The whole tenor of the rich and plentiful merchant way of life was there right under my nose … It was like something out of an Ostrovsky play.’ The artist retained these childhood observations for years, recreating them later in oils and water-colours.
The boy’s interest in drawing manifested itself at an early age. An exhibition of peredvizhniki which he visited in 1887, and where he saw for the first time paintings by ‘real’ artists, made a tremendous impression on him, and he firmly resolved to become one himself. Despite financial difficulties his mother sent him to have lessons with a local artist and teacher A. Vlasov, of whom Kustodiev always retained warm memories. Graduating from a theological seminary in 1896, Kustodiev went to St. Petersburg and entered the Academy of Arts. He studied in Repin’s studio, where he did a lot of work from nature, trying to perfect his skill in conveying the colourful diversity of the world. ‘I pin great hopes on Kustodiev,’ wrote Repin. ‘He is a talented artist and a thoughtful and serious man with a deep love of art; he is making a careful study of nature . . .’
When Repin was commissioned to paint a large-scale canvas to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the State Council, he invited Kustodiev to be his assistant. The work was extremely complex and involved a great deal of hard work. Together with his teacher, the young artist made portrait studies for the painting, and then executed the right-hand side of the final work. At this time too, Kustodiev made a series of portraits of contemporaries whom he felt to be his spiritual comrades. These included the artist Bilibin (1901, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), Moldovtsev (1901, KrasnodarRegionalArt Museum) and the engraver Mate (1902, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). Working on these portraits considerably helped the artist, forcing him to make a close study of his model and to penetrate the complex world of the human soul.
In the summer of 1903 Kustodiev undertook a long trip down the Volga from Rybinsk to Astrakhan, in search of material for a programme painting set by the Academy. The colourful scenes at bazaars along the Volga, the quiet provincial side-streets and the noisy quays made a lasting impression on the artist, and he drew on these impressions for his diploma work, Village Bazaar (not preserved). Upon graduating, he obtained the right to travel abroad to further his education, and left in 1903 for France and Spain.
Kustodiev studied the treasures of Western European art with great enthusiasm and interest, visiting the museums of Paris and Madrid. During his trip he painted one of his most lyrical paintings, Morning (1904, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), which is suffused with light and air, and may be seen as a hymn to motherhood, to simple human joys. However, no matter where Kustodiev happened to be—in sunny Seville or in the park at Versailles—he felt the irresistible pull of his motherland. After five months he returned to Russia. Joyfully he wrote to his friend Mate that he was back once more ‘in our blessed Russian land’.
The revolutionary events of 1905, which shook the foundations of society, evoked a vivid response in the artist’s soul. He did work for the satirical journals Bugbear and Infernal Post, drawing vicious caricatures of prominent tsarist officials such as Ignatiev, Pobedonostsev and Dubasov. He also made drawings directly related to the revolutionary events (The Agitator and Meeting) which for the first time showed a revolutionary leader together with a mass of working people. In paintings such as Meeting at Putilovsky Factory, Strike, Demonstration and The May-Day Demonstration at Putilovsky Factory (1906, Museum of the Revolution, Moscow), he depicted workers risen in the struggle against autocracy.
Kustodiev was deeply distressed by the defeat of the revolution. His drawing Moscow. Entry (1905, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) is an allegory on the cruel suppression of the December uprising. Houses are being destroyed, people are dying. Soldiers fire on the demonstrators, and Death reigns over all. Scenes of bloody violence against demonstrating workers are also portrayed in the drawing February; After the Dispersal of a Demonstration (1906).
In 1905 Kustodiev first turned to book illustrating, a genre in which he worked throughout his entire life. He illustrated many works of classical Russian literature, including Gogol’s Dead Souls, The Carriage and The Overcoat, Lermontov’s The Lay of Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich, His Young Oprichnik and the Stouthearted Merchant Kalashnikov and Lev Tolstoy’s How the Devil Stole the Peasant’s Hunk of Bread and The Candle.
Kustodiev also continued to work in portraiture. His Portrait of a Priest and a Deacon (1907, GorkyArt Museum) and The Nun (1908, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) are complex and vivid in their characterisation. His sculptured portraits are also varied in form and characterisation. That of I. Yershov (1908, Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre) shows us the noble, imposing figure of the singer, while in the sculpture of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky we see the artist’s troubled, searching nature. It was at this time that the circle of images and themes formed which would serve as the basis of the bulk of Kustodiev’s work. He was very fond of folk art—painted toys from Vyatka and popular prints—and studied folk tales, legends and superstitions. He believed that in the minds of ordinary people art was always connected with celebration and rejoicing.
In 1906 he painted The Fair (TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), in which a colourful crowd is seen milling about outside the merchants’ stalls. Although the scene portrayed is commonplace and seemingly haphazard, much thought and care was put into the composition of the piece. The bold combinations of bright colours lend it a decorativeness not unlike that of popular prints of the time.
Kustodiev was also attracted by the theme of gay village festivals and merrymaking, with their brightness, spontaneity and coarse folk humour: cf. Village Festival (1907, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), Merrymaking on the Volga (1909, Kostroma Museum of Local History). These paintings were very popular at exhibitions both in Russia and abroad.
In 1909 Kustodiev was awarded the title of Academician of Art. He continued to work intensively, but a grave illness—tuberculosis of the spine—required urgent attention. On the advice of his doctors he went to Switzerland, where he spent a year undergoing treatment in a private clinic. He pined for his distant homeland, and Russian themes continued to provide the basic material for the works he painted during that year. In 1912 he painted Merchant Women (Kiev Museum of Russian Art), in which fact and fantasy, genuine beauty and imitation, are intermingled. Well-dressed, stately, healthy-looking merchant women are having an unhurried conversation in the market-place. Their silk dresses shimmer with all the colours of the rainbow, and their painted shawls are ablaze with rich colours. Roundabout, the brightly-coloured signs above the stalls seem to echo all this. In the distance a red church with golden cupolas and a snow-white bell-tower are clearly visible. The artist’s perception of the world is festive, cheerful and unclouded.
Although his illness became progressively worse, Kustodiev’s work remained radiant and optimistic.
… The Moscow cab drivers seated round their glasses of tea in the painting Moscow Inn (1916, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) are acting out the tea-drinking ritual with great solemnity and seriousness. A gramophone is straining, a cat is purring and a waiter is dozing in a chair. The picture is full of witty, pointed details.
The inhabitants and life of provincial towns were the main subjects of Kustodiev’s genre-painting at this time. His talent is especially apparent in three paintings in which he sought to create generalised, collective images of feminine beauty: The Merchant’s Wife (1915, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), Girl on the Volga (1915, Japan) and The Beauty (1915, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW).
In the Merchant’s Wife we have a captivating picture of a dignified Russian beauty, full-busted and glowing with health. The radiant yellows, pinks and blues of the background land scape set off the reddish-brown tone of her dress and her flowery shawl, and everything mingles together in her bright, colourful bouquet.
Another of Kustodiev’s characters, in The Beauty, cannot fail to attract the viewer. There is great charm and grace in the portrayal of the plump, fair-haired woman seated on a chest. Her funny, awkward position reflects her naivety and chaste purity, and her face is a picture of softness and kindness. Maxim Gorky was very fond of this painting, and the artist presented him with one of the variants he made of it.
The genre works which Kustodiev painted at this time describe the world of small provincial towns: cf. The Small Town (1915, private collection, Moscow) and Easter Congratulations (1916, KustodievArtGallery, Astrakhan). This series was completed by one of his finest paintings, Shrovetide (1916, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG), which continued the theme of popular festivals.
Despite his serious illness, Kustodiev continued to work. He underwent a complex operation, but to no avail. Now his legs were completely paralysed. He wrote, ‘Now my whole world is my room.’
Kustodiev was one of the first artists to welcome the Revolution. In his painting 27 February 1917 (1917, private collection, Leningrad) he depicted the view from his studio window on that portentous day when the fate of tsarism was decided.
In 1918 Kustodiev painted several large panels to decorate the squares of Petrograd during the celebrations for the first anniversary of the Revolution. His large-scale monumental work Stepan Razin (1918, RUSSIANMUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) was painted for this purpose. In the first years after the Revolution the artist worked with great inspiration in various fields. Contemporary themes became the basis for his work, being embodied in drawings for calendars and book covers, and in illustrations and sketches of street decorations. His covers for the journals The Red Cornfield and Red Panorama attracted attention because of their vividness and the sharpness of their subject-matter. Kustodiev also worked in lithography illustrating works by Nikolai Nekrasov. His illustrations for Leskov’s stories The Darner and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District were landmarks in the history of Russian book-designing, so well did they correspond to the literary images. Kustodiev worked on the illustrations for Lenin and Children, Lenin and Young Leninists and A Day With Lenin with a great sense of the responsibility and seriousness of the task. His drawings portray Lenin with great warmth and truthfulness.
The artist was also interested in designing stage scenery. He first started work in the theatre in 1911, when he designed the sets for Ostrovsky’s An Ardent Heart. Such was his success that further orders came pouring in; in 1913 he designed the sets and costumes for The Death of Pazukhin at the MoscowArtTheatre. His talent in this sphere was especially apparent in his work for Ostrovsky’s plays: It’s a Family Affair, A Stroke of Luck, Wolves and Sheep and The Storm. The milieu of Ostrovsky’s plays—provincial life and the world of the merchant class —was close to Kustodiev’s own genre paintings, and he worked easily and quickly on the stage sets.
In his post-Revolutionary works, Kustodiev sought to create generalised images which might convey the greatness and importance of the changes which had taken place in the country. He invented a new type of national hero. In The Bolshevik (1919-20, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) we see the giant figure of a Bolshevik bearing a red banner and striding through a town. The image is indomitable, energetic, full of strength and will. Despite its naivety and artificiality, the painting moves one by its bold style and composition, and by the sincerity of the artist’s response to the events of the time.
In 1920-21 Kustodiev was commissioned by the Petrograd Soviet to paint two large colourful canvases on the theme of national celebrations: Festivities on Uritsky Square in Honour of the Second Congress of the Comintern (RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) and Night-time Celebrations on the Neva (Museum of the Revolution, Moscow). Kustodiev worked enthusiastically on the image of the great leader of the Revolution: he painted several portraits of Lenin intended for mass reproduction.
Kustodiev’s sudden death on 26 May 1927 was a great loss to Soviet art, but his bright, optimistic works live on, a source of great pleasure for millions.