Sunday, July 14, 2013

Arrest of a Propagandist

The preliminary studies that led up to Ilya Repin's dramatic painting "Arrest of a Propagandist" show how changes in design can alter the staging and psychology of the story.

This charcoal study shows a young Russian dissident captured by the police. His hands are tied behind his back as the authorities search the house for illegal literature. One suitcase of such contraband lies open, with stuff scattered at his feet. A man at left with a lowered head seems to face him with hard questions. Members of his family or his village stream down the stairs at right. A baby plays at his feet.


This small painted version develops that idea further. He takes away the bearded man's cane and makes him light against the dark background. A little girl clings to her mother's dress near the man. The light shapes and the bright red shirt attract attention to the right places. The composition seems like a "go," in fact Russia used this version as a stamp design.

But like a stage director, Repin keeps trying more variations. In this study, his head turns to stage right to face an official, who sits with his legs crossed in a chair and reads aloud some of the forbidden writing. This is much more dramatic and powerful psychologically. A few sympathetic figures stand at stage left, but we can't really see their emotions, and they become overly important to the picture.

In the final state of the painting, Repin raises the stakes even higher. He removes all the sympathetic figures from the main room and crowds them in the back hallway at right. This deletion makes the accused man seem more isolated, more Christ-like, and his fate seems more dire. The men at the window look conspiratorial and guarded, while a menacing figure, like Judas, sits alone at the rear. One of these men must have been the informer, and the accused seems to be shooting a look their way.

Two men, including a uniformed guard with a weapon, work together to restrain him. The suitcase appears in the immediate foreground, packed with material, with scraps of something torn up on the floor at left. The seated official is an older man with glasses.

Next to him is a young official, perhaps a lawyer, his fingers delicately balanced on the chair back. Above him is an upraised hand with another bundle of captured papers.

In a storytelling picture like this, the designer is a dramatist on a par with a film director. Compositional choices should be driven by mood and meaning, not just as an exercise in abstract shapes or formal niceties.

5 comments:

Jonathan said...

Repin has always been one of my favorites.

Terry said...

Fascinating sequence! As I looked at each one more closely, I noticed that the unidentifiable bundle perched on the ceiling beam above the accused's head is present in every rendition. I wonder if it's important. In the final version, the uniformed officer holding the accused seems to be looking up at it. More contraband, perhaps? Maybe the biggest secret of all? That it's in every version, even the sketchiest, suggests to me that it was important.

Love to see these process sequences! Thanks!

GinaAgrav said...

Interesting to see an evolution of an idea. Now, I wonder if the final painting had been done by Rockwell, would it have been considered an illustration? Why would this last version, especially in light of the details you give, not be considered an illustration? I ask only because I don't really understand why people say illustrators are not fine artists.. and here's a fine artist essentially illustrating. Or am I all wet? In any case, still fascinating.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

I love these storytelling paintings, because there is so much to find if you are looking for it. Thanks for this Repin example.

lynnwood hage said...

I don't think there is any real difference between the "fine" artist and "illustrator".The quality can be there or not, either way.The teacher Kimon Nicolaides has sane and practical things to say about this.
"Subject matter is not as important as you think.The subject is only a means of exchange....Time and circumstances affect it as they do all other things.It must not matter to the artist what subject matter temporarily proves convenient.The subject which is proper for you is that which gives you sufficient impulse to go on to a real creative effort."
When Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel he was doing an illustration job for a very rich, demanding client but was no less inspired.
Also from Nicolaides,"The bad feature of commercializing your ATTITUDE to your work is that your end becomes a picture rather than an experience.It is equally bad ,however ,to become a conscious amateur,a dilettante.The serious student [r.e. artist]is one who wants to go ahead for the simple reason that he [she.] feels a pride in growth.".I think all our good "artists" and "illustrators have this attitude weather they're doing it for magazines or an uptown gallery or a Renaissance pope,or just for themselves.Artists deserve the chance to eat and have families Price tags are as unstable as subject matter and on that level [not intrinsic value] your work is worth what you can get for it.
Mozart wrote practically nothing that wasn't for money [he really needed it] and I don't think anybody would call him a hack.
Art has a wonderfully subversive quality of letting you say something for yourself even if its sort of for somebody else.
Sorry I was so long.