Modern Artist of Russia's Revolution and Staunch 'Servant' of the Tsar (Paul Ryzhenko)

Paintings that tell the dramatic story of the Revolution, a tale of destruction and redemption

Originally appeared at: RUSSIAN ART FOR THE SEEKING SOUL

Countries in the wake of disaster, natural or manmade, must grapple with endless questions about memory. What colors and forms does one use to paint the trauma of a nation? Does one endeavor to remember or forget the history which stubbornly seeps onto the canvas of modernity? 

В Москве скончался заслуженный художник РФ Павел Рыженко

Pavel Ryzhenko (1970-2014), a contemporary artist of vibrant, sprawling pictures of battlefields, monks and miracles, passionately believed that the way to redemption lays in "activating" a people's historical memory. 

So how do we, today, make “sapiens,” munching sunflower seeds and already taking drugs, into knights? It is very simple: enable genetic memory. How do we do this? Tell the truth about what happened, and say: “That’s it, not a step further. Not a step back! We are recovering.”1

To that end, he struggled to articulate the most difficult narrative for himself, the story that continues to haunt Russia: the story of the Revolution.

It was a subject that he couldn't seem to exhaust. Aside from his independent paintings dedicated to the Revolution, he also created several series of paintings about it towards the end of his short life.

In them, Ryzhenko shines the flashlight on the black tragedy of very different narratives: those of the victims, the perpetrators, those who died and those who survived, those who immigrated and those who remained in Russia.

In Ryzhenko's rendering, the Revolution tears into the fabric of the nation at the level of the individual; each person it touches experiences unique, excruciating pain..And each one is granted glints of a deeply personal path towards redemption.

The Golgotha of the Tsar: The Revolution through the eyes of a Monarch

The fate and personality of the last tsar, Nicholas II, especially haunted Ryzhenko. The artist responded viscerally to what he believed to be the universal betrayal of the Tsar. He was known to say:

I not only manifest an exclusively monarchical worldview, I serve only the Sovereign. How can it be otherwise? I live, never betraying the oath of loyalty to the Emperor Nikolai Alexandrovich 2

In 2004, the artist traveled to Ekaterinburg to the grave of the Romanov family and decided to create a set of paintings dedicated to the theme. 

Thus was the "Tsar's Golgotha" series born, comprised of three paintings. "Farewell to the Guard" "The Alexander Palace. Imprisonment." "The House of Ipatyev. The Execution."

"Farewell to the Guard"

On March 8, 1917, the tsar, who has just abdicated, came to bid his soldiers--whom he particularly loved and trusted--farewell. In the painting, they are all already wearing red ribbons to show their allegiance to a new government. No one meets his eyes. 

Historian Robert Massie describes this scene thus in Nicholas and Alexandra:

"Nicholas, appearing at the front of the crowded room, quietly thanked the officers for their loyalty, begged them to forget all feuds, and lead the army and Russia to victory. His modesty made a vivid impression; when he finished, the room burst into loud cheers and most of those present wept openly. But none spoke up to urge him to change his mind, and Nicholas quietly bowed and left..." 3

A few nights before, he had written in his journal "all around me I see treason, cowardice and deceit." 4

"The Alexander Palace. Imprisonment."  2004

The second painting reveals the tsar in an intimate, starkly human, setting. A king, abandoned and betrayed by his nation, now stands in sorrow and isolation next to his wife at the bedside of their ill son.

"The House of Ipatyev. The Execution." 2004

Ironically, Ryzhenko decided not to portray the dramatic climax of the Romanov family in his signature style. Neither blood nor death appear in the scene; only items laying in chaotic disarray hint at the moment's unspeakable brutality. 

Repentance:  Revolution of a heart 

The series entitled Repentance tells the story of revolution through a different lens: that of a person who joined, willingly or unwillingly, the current of destruction. 

1. "The Peal of the Bell"

In the midst of destroying a church or using the bell tower to fight with his own countrymen, a soldier of the Red Army freezes with a stricken look. Perhaps he has accidentally pulled the string, and the bell rang, reminding him of the quietness of church and of childhood. 

The Wreath  (Series: Repentance, #2)

The second installment obviously takes place a few years later. The hero, now grey and adorned with metals, has been fighting  the bloody Civil War against his own brethren. It represents his second moment of reckoning: he stands at the grave of either mother or wife.

3. "The Anthill" 

The last stage of Ryzhenko's Repentance narrative presents the hero is an old monk, in complete isolation but at peace. Where exactly he is, no one knows, but that also doesn't seem to matter. He is beyond time; he has become "enamored of vertical motion." 5

The Heir. Could it have been different? 

This series, entitled "the Heir" is dedicated to Nicholas II's only son, Alexis. In it, the narrative logic maintained by the other series breaks down; instead, we are presented with seemingly disconnected snapshots.

"The Heir"

This set of three paintings is called "The Heir." The focal point beyond the fence is an image of a bright, young lad in a beautiful field. The fence, however, dotted with obscene inscriptions, seems to close off that possibility in favor of a different, closer reality.

On the left, a Russian soldier, impoverished in a foreign country, attempts to pander off his prestigious Russian award, St. George's Cross. On the right, a priest faces a portrait, bayonets are already aimed at him, waiting either for his choice. 

Requiem: Postcard from those who stayed

Requiem 1. 

1891. A servant wheels his mistress through her estate, reading her a letter. 

"Requiem 2"

The same noblewoman in the wheelchair sits on her porch, her two sons back from the front, standing nearby. One of them is wearing the red bow of the Red Army, the other wears the uniform of a "White" officer; they do not look at each other. Their mother, too, does not turn towards either of them; she does not turn to bless either one of them with the icon in her hands. 

"Requiem 3. "

One of the sons--it is no longer possible to recognize which side he belongs to, or perhaps he now longer wishes to belong to either--returns to the empty and decimated estate. 

The Russian Century: A Nation in Exile

This series follows the trajectory of an officer of the White Army who, like many of the survivors, emigrated to Europe.

1. "Farewell to Tsarist Epaulets", 2007

A "white" officer carefully folds up his epaulets, the last symbol of the Tsar's forces, into a handkerchief with the Empress Alexandra's monogram. The army has already suffered defeat and its members are leaving the country, most of them forever.

2. "A Photograph For Memory"

The symbolic photograph of a nation that so swiftly and unexplainably disappeared into history. (See the photo in a larger size)

"Pascha in Paris" 2007 (Series: Russian Century)

Paris, one of the centers of Russian emigres. The officers of the White Army, now workers in the Renault factory, have invited a priest for their humble Paschal (Easter) celebration. The tiny room is full of remnants of the past, which contrast starkly with the paraphernalia of the factory. Nostalgia and contrition--emotions that dominate so many memoirs from the time--are palpable in the room.

As for all the other narratives, these people celebrating Easter in a foreign country made choices--whether wrong or right--and participated in the Fall of an Empire. And yet, like all of them, in spite of chaos and mistakes, they retain the greatest gift granted to humanity: the power to repent. According to the artist himself: 

In order to answer the question “how do we go on?”, I offer examples from history. This movement is not forward or backward, but towards the soul, towards one’s history.6

For more fascinating stories of Russian art, visit the author's blog.

3 Massie, Robert. Nicholas and Alexandra (1967). pg 422-423

4 Massie, Robert. Nicholas and Alexandra (1967). pg 416

Vodolazkin, Eugene. Laurus (2015). pg 498

More Paintings of the Revolution

"Renunciation" (2013)

"The Conqueror" (2013)


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