Tolstoi and Peasant Learning in the Era of the Great Reforms
Suspend for a moment the facility of historical recognition you bring to Repin’s Room beneath the Vaults — the later Tolstoi, his religion and aesthetics, Iasnaya Poliana, Repin’s Tolstoi Plowing, Tolstoi Mowing the Peredvizhniki, their aesthetics, their politics, whatever. The painting, thus shorn of its historical markers, is a curiously successful, harmonious integration of the pre-modern and the modern. The vault provides the structural unity of the painting, not on the vertical plane but on the horizontal: the eye sweeps along a horizontal parabola through the text of the painting, from the implement of sowing foreground right through the peasant writing to the implements of harvest in the background (axe on the floor left, saw and scythe on the wall right), to be met by a reciprocal bath of light, altogether comprising what I think of as the ‘contra-vault’ of the composition. Nothing seems out of place in this room that integrates the instruments of pre-modern peasant agriculture with the modern writing instrument; the peasant writing sits comfortably at the apex of the agri- and human cultural ‘vault’ of the work, a structure of strength, durability and utility the equal of its vertical architectural counterparts.
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