Friday, February 12, 2016

Konstantin Makovsky: Digging in the Corners of His Portfolio

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”

Fame can be a hindrance, especially among the gifted. Such was the case with one of Russia’s foremost artists of the late 1800s, Konstantin Makovsky. Born to a music composer mother and artistic father, Konstantin would become the most famous among two brothers and a sister – all prominent artists in their turn. A product of the Moscow School of Painting and later the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Makovsky accumulated awards at every turn. There was no stopping the painter. He became the darling of those seeking portraits, including royalty. Then he joined a group of disgruntled artists known as the “Wanderers.”

The group – known as “Peredvizhniki” in Russia – reacted against the pervading academic ideals and focused on a more honest, folksy vision of Russia. Ethnic Russian themes became popular with the group, as well as the simple life. And still Makovsky remained popular.
“Head of a Man”

The artist’s popularity drove him to churn out paintings of rustic beauties by the buckets-full. Soon, however, his beauties began to look shallow. It appeared as if the Gibson Girl germ had crossed continents and infected his portraiture. Even portraits of those close to him, including “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,” bore symptoms of the droopy-eyed damsels with rosy cheeks. Maybe it was the Russian winter. That same shallowness spilled over into his romantic paintings of classical mythology, looking as though they were destined for cheesy postcards instead of salon walls. And still he was popular.

But for all his sliding into mediocrity, there remained a massive amount of power behind Makovsky. The caliber of this master is evident in a few paintings that managed to avoid over-sentimentality, but one must trudge through scads of gals sporting the distinctive Russian headdresses of antiquity and dig into the corners of his portfolio.
“Portrait of a Gypsy Girl”

Some of Makovsky’s best work was done when the artist was forced to forget the Russian ideal and instead focus on being an artist. His trip to Northern Africa produced some stunning portraits that display deft brush-handling and keen observation. They are fresh, and completely out of the mold.

His “Head of a Man,” is a wonderful  example of what the artist was capable. Without being able to resort to anything familiar, the artist painted what he observed. Wild hair, tinged with blue, surround a face full of character and individuality. There is no wistful, idealized gaze. In its place is a visage of one regarding Makovsky – and the viewer – with intelligent curiosity. The artist captures this without overworking the canvas, and allowing raw brush strokes to give life to the composition.
"Portrait of a Boyarina"

Makovsky’s “Portrait of a Gypsy Girl” was done with the same fresh eye. Both portraits seem to have been painted with live models, and without being worked after the sitting. The girl’s tousled hair, the jarring colors of her costume, and her natural pose make for a more natural portrait. Even the detail of her parted mouth cause the viewer to wonder who, or what, diverted the sitter’s attention for a fleeting moment.

“Portrait of a Boyarina” straddles the line of idealized beauty and unsentimental portraiture. It is certainly the best of similar works. There is less of a romanticized gaze in this particular piece than is obvious in many of Makovsky’s similar paintings. He employed a live model adorned with the same opulent headdress, jeweled finery and rosy cheeks, but delicate nuances in her pose display a sort of discomfort lacking in his other cookie cutter women. Whether the sitter was shy or embarrassed or unsure of herself, we don’t know, but it the pose genuine and charming.
"Portrait of a Girl"

Makovsky’s “Portrait of a Girl” nearly dives headlong into the rosy cheeks/ruby lips trap of sentimentality. The artist, however, again captures this girl in a shy or unsure pose, and her weighty tresses, which are decades ahead of the period’s style, catch us off guard.

Another surprising piece is his “Genre Scene,” painted during a trip to Egypt. It might be true that Makovsky managed to express the vision of the Wanderers in this painting, but that vision is dangling by a thread. It is more likely that the seed of Russian Impressionism has been planted. The artist has captured the feel of a moment and its light, and has been forced to ignore any thought of the motherland.

Warm darks flood the composition – interrupted by the contrast of a doorway, a window above, and a random piece of red cloth. The figures are almost an afterthought, but add a feeling of unfamiliar culture and place.
"Genre Scene"

It is a gift of creative-types in general and of artists in particular that we are able, when given the chance, to transport the viewer; the reader; the listener to a different place in time. Perhaps that is what drew me into Makovsky’s work. He gently takes our imaginations by the hand, past his own popularity, to see a different kind of beauty.

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