Russian artist Konstantin Somov

Konstantin Somov. Self-portrait. 1898. Watercolor, lead pencil, and pastel heightened with white on paper mounted on cardboard. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Konstantin Somov. Self-portrait. 1898. Watercolor, lead pencil, and pastel heightened with white on paper mounted on cardboard. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Russian artist Konstantin Somov (November 30, 1869 – May 6, 1939) may be regarded as one of the founders of World of Art (Mir iskusstva) portraiture. The leading authority and innovator at the initial stage of the movement, still closely adheared to the creative concepts of the realistic art of the second half of the nineteenth century. Konstantin Somov’s salient feature was his precocity. He produced his finest works while still a young man, attaining full maturity when Benois and Bakst, who were of the same age, were only starting to grope for their own way in art. In his very first pieces, The Letter (1896) and In Confidence (1897), Somov attempted to poeticize historical images, thus initiating and founding what we have termed “retrospectivism”. He achieved the peak of his creative powers between the 1890s and 1900s.

Among Somov’s best works from this period is Evening (1900-02), in which his lyricism, characteristic understanding of historical subject matter, and pictorial techniques are most fully manifest. In this painting Somov has depicted a nook in the park o a French palace that is sandwiched between columns of ornamentally pruned trees entwined in vines.

Above, festoons of leaves and clusters of grapes resemble a raised drop curtain. In the background, clumps of pruned trees recede into the distance. Amidst this plethora of decorative ornamentation there step out, almost as if diffused, “shades of the past”, in the person of a youth and two maidens garbed in sumptuous eighteenth-century costumes. The picture neither tells a story nor presents any dramatic action. The characters of this theatricalized scene are no more significance in the artist’s view than their accessories and surroundings. People and things are equally of interest, solely as means of conveying the spirit of a bygone age, its vanished beauties, its inner harmony and lyrical integrity, in short, everything so futilely sought in surrounding reality. In Somov’s opinion, modernity is ugly, unaesthetic; only the past is beautiful.

Konstantin Somov. L’Echo du temps passé. 1903. Watercolor, gouache, and lead pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Konstantin Somov. L’Echo du temps passé. 1903. Watercolor, gouache, and lead pencil on paper mounted on cardboard. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Yet, despite his love for the old times, Somov was by no means a naïve idealizer of the past. While admiring the aesthetic forms of eighteenth-century life, and reproducing this life in the forcefully authentic manner of an eyewitness and a highly intuitive erudite, he was ever critical of the irretrievable past. His admiration of it combined with an acrid irony and skepticism. A most apposite case in question is his L’Echo du temps passé (1903). Again there is no story, as in Evening and most of Konstantin Somov ’s other retrospective pieces. It portrays a girl in a white frock, seated in an armchair within a suite of rooms in an old country mansion.

However, unlike the personage in Evening, she is no fleshless “shade of the past”. She is a melancholic contemporary, a fin-de-siecle person with amorbid mentality, who like the artist himself heeds in profound torment “the echo of the bygone dreamy nostalgia; the contrast between the stylized furnishings and the old-fashioned garments, on the one hand, and the girl’s emphatically modern, “decadent” appearance, on the other, borders on the grotesque.

Despite his ability to fully and subtly sense the decorative harmony of color, Somov, essentially, was an artist of surface, not of volume and space. All his works rest on a strict and accurate line drawing, boldly reducing the object to a common denominator and sometimes transforming the visible form into an almost non-objective ornamental arabesque. Having defined the silhouette and inner shapes, the artist meticulously modeled the volumes, after which he colored the drawing, adding pools of color, sometimes localized, but more often than not integrated by one common tonality. His painting technique, with its small dabs forming an enamel-like surface, harks back to be eighteen-century traditions in conformity with which the artist stylized his work.

As will have been gathered, Somov influenced not only history painting, but also all other fields practiced by World of Art artists. In fact, all the artists developed and reinterpreted, in one way or another, the system Somov evolved.

One should regard Somov as the father of the new landscape concept; in the 1890s he painted a number of pictures far removed from the lyrical landscape, with a mood which Levitan adored, and which was further developed by his many followers. The subject matter of Konstantin Somov ’s Twilight in an Old Park (1897) and An Overgrown Pond (1899) is, in effect, analogous with Levitan’s, yet, though these pictures radiate a similar lyrical intimacy, they are theatricalized, as it were, with the actually observed scenery transmuted into a refined, well-harmonized decoration. However, there is something overly rationalized in the artist’s keen perception, for despite the poetry, his landscapes not infrequently lack the living spontaneity of feeling.

The first milestone along the new road was one of the Konstantin Somov ’s finest efforts, his portrait of the artist Elizaveta Martynova, better known as Lady in Blue (1897-1900). One must note at no time before had the artist attained such consummate mastery, so penetrating a characterization, so powerful a lyrical revelation. The expressiveness of this ,asterpiece derives from the new approach, with the portrayal of a contemporary made retrospectivist. To poeticize the sitter, Somov extracted her from the real-life environment and transported her into an imaginary world conjured up by dreams of the past.

The sitter is grabbed in old-time dress, and portrayed against a stylized, decorative park. Martynova’s pose, especially the position of her hands, is theatrically impressive; she seems to be posing for the viewer, who, nonetheless, will never mistake her for an eighteen-century lady. Konstantin Somov has invested the image with his own emotions and sensations, with his own dissatisfaction with life, with his own dreaminess, sadness, and tormenting dichotomy of consciousness that was so characteristic of the aesthetic intellectual elite at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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