Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Crossed Destinies - Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan

When Yulia Sergeievna, the heroine of Anton Chekhov's 1895 story "Three Years", and her husband visited an art show in Easter week, making a tour of the rooms, she "stopped before a small landscape... In the foreground was a stream, over it a little wooden bridge; on the further side a path that disappeared in the dark grass; a copse on the right; near it a camp fire - no doubt of watchers by night; and in the distance there was a glow of the evening sunset. Yulia imagined walking herself along the little bridge, and then along the little path further and further, while all round was stillness, the drowsy landrails calling and the fire flickering in the distance. And for some reason she suddenly began to feel that she had seen those very clouds that stretched across the red part of the sky, and that copse, and that field before, many times before. She felt lonely, and longed to walk on and on along the path; and there, in the glow of sunset was the calm reflection of something unearthly, eternal."
The writer made his heroine stop in front of Isaac Levitan's landscape "Quiet Abode", and many elements of this episode reflect reality — every year the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture arranged exhibitions of the "Peredvizhniki" [the Wanderers] in Easter week. At the 19th such exhibition, in 1891, viewers saw a picture by an artist who was already well known — but that new work would bring him real fame. Chekhov wrote to his sister about "Quiet Abode": Levitan "celebrates his glorious muse's name day His painting has caused a furor... Levitan's success is extraordinary."1 Describing the landscape Chekhov did not communicate precise details of the image but captured with amazing accuracy the general atmosphere, the state of complete spiritual fusion of a human being and nature — the nature which he felt so close to and understood so well and which, due to the artist's craftsmanship, gifted to viewers the gratifying moments of "something unearthly and eternal." The writer's vision of the "soul" of Levitan's landscape stemmed from their common love for nature, and their mutual understanding of each others' personality and art.
In Russian literature and visual art, there are few writer-painter pairings that are so close in style and approach to artistic challenges as Chekhov and Levitan, and it is no coincidence that their names are often quoted side by side both in specialized literature and popular writings.
The writer and the painter became acquainted in 1879, the year in which the young Anton Chekhov moved to Moscow, where all of his family was already settled; one of his brothers, Nikolai, was friends with Levitan, a fellow student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. At first Levitan and Anton Chekhov met only fleetingly, in cheap rooming houses on Sretenka or Tverskaya streets where Nikolai lived, where the writer-to-be came to prepare for university examinations, and where a group of sometimes opinionated young art lovers often met. As Vladimir Gilyarovsky recollected, from the early 1880s to the end of his life "Levitan had always been near the Chekhov family"2. Both were poor and young — born in different months of the same year, 1860, they had only just turned the age of nineteen.
They started to develop a close relationship in 1885, when Levitan, as he had the previous summer, moved to Zvenigorod near the Savvinsky monastery to paint sketches, and nearby, at the Babkino estate owned by the Kiselev clan, lived the closely-knit Chekhov family. When the Chekhovs learned that Levitan was living in the same neighbourhood, just across the river, they immediately "relocated" him to their summer home, and he joined in with their frolicking and youthful merry-making. "What an assorted company it was in Babkino!" recollected Mikhail Chekhov3. Their Babkino landlord, Alexei Sergeievich Kiselev, a nephew of Count Pyotr Kiselev — an ambassador to France, and a sometime ruler of Moldavia — was married to Lydia Vladimirovna, a daughter of the director of the imperial theatres Vladimir Begichev.
Kiselev invited to his home actors, musicians, and men of letters from Moscow, and residents would subscribe to and read a whole variety of magazines, and vividly discussed literature and painting. At night they would play Beethoven, Liszt and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, "whose fame was yet in the making then" and who, according to Mikhail Chekhov, "constantly preoccupied the minds of the Babkinites"4. The hosts and their guests enjoyed reading poetry, and Levitan, who loved poetry and knew it well, would gladly join in. His poets of choice were Yevgeny Baratynsky, Fyodor Tyutchev, Ivan Nikitin, and Alexei Tolstoy. "Amazing" stories were traded, some of which "Antosha Chekhonte" would later use for his stories.
Babkino played a key role in the formation and development of the talents of both Chekhov and Levitan, and over the summers there Chekhov wrote dozens of stories, while Levitan made dozens of sketches from nature which he would later use in his finished landscape pieces. The young artist and the beginning writer went through a period of "creative flooding", maturing almost in parallel to each other: Chekhov's first publications came in 1880, while Levitan's first works appeared in the late 1870s. His painting "Autumn Day.
Sokolniki" (1879), acquired by Pavel Tretyakov in 1880, gained initial success and recognition for the young artist.
Chekhov's early short stories, with their close attention to the types, characters, and manners of people, had kinship with Levitan's early pieces; working on them, the artist studied nature just as avidly, watching it at a close range and exploring the subtlest interrelations of colour tones and the complex interactions of colour, lighting and air. He was keen on translating his distinctive lyricism into landscape imagery, and learning how to convey his impressions from nature in vibrant motions. Levitan in the early 1880s created many intimate, small landscapes that were "short" like Chekhov's stories, and many sketches enlivened by a heartfelt association with the secret life of nature: "Springtime in the Forest" (1882), "First Greenery. May" (1883), "Little Bridge. Savvinskaya Township" (1884), "The Istra River" (1885), "By a Church Wall" (1885) and, finally, "Birchwood", which was begun in Babkino in 1885 and finished later, in 1889, on the Volga.
Exactly as Chekhov carefully weighed words aiming for precision, pithiness and expressiveness, Levitan evaluated and "calibrated" his first impressions in sketches. This trait of the artist's creative personality explains the fact that he often re-used his favourite motifs, while turning out every new variation slightly differently. He produced another version of "First Greenery.
May", and created several images of the Istra with its calm stream and softly undulating banks near Moscow. Levitan presented the first version of the painting to Chekhov, who would always keep it by his side — today the piece hangs in the writer's study in his home in Yalta.
Chekhov's room in Babkino overlooked the Istra and its environs, and he described this view in a letter to his brother Mikhail: "It's six in the morning now.. The stillness is extraordinary ... Only birds squeak and something scratches under the wallpaper. I am writing this seated in front of a big square table in my room. Before my eyes spreads an incredibly warm, cuddly landscape: the little river, the forest in the distance, Safontievo, a part of the Kiselevs' house."5 In summer evenings the Babkino residents often played pranks and staged performances on a large meadow — the atmosphere was one full of joking and youthful energy.
When he fell ill and returned to Moscow, Levitan could not wait to "see again this poetic Babkino; this is all I can think about," as he wrote to Chekhov6. However, in Babkino as elsewhere Levitan suffered bouts of melancholy and severe depression which had plagued him since his early youth. Chekhov "aerated" the artist by taking him out for walks; his calm, congenial disposition exercised a wholesome influence over Levitan. At different periods of their lives Chekhov had to "rescue" Levitan "from his own self". When called by the artist or his friends, Chekhov would come to Levitan in the Vladimir or Tver provinces, and help him to regain peace of mind in the most difficult moments of his life. They would go hunting together, sometimes spending several days in a row in the forests. Nature, which both men loved and understood, assuaged Levitan's bouts of constricting anxiety and enabled him to experience complete togetherness with it.
Later this feeling translated into the artist's landscapes was conveyed in Chekhov's prose, for which Levitan had an expert appreciation. Levitan saw in Chekhov a master of verbal landscaping. "Dear Antosha! . I have carefully re-read your 'Motley Tales' and 'In the Twilight' and was impressed by your landscape craft. I am not even talking about the host of most interesting thoughts, but the landscapes in the stories are perfection itself, for instance, in the story 'Happiness' the images of the steppe, barrows, sheep are astonishing", he wrote to Chekhov in June 18917.
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