Russian Portraits @ NPG

I would imagine that most of the visitors to the National Portrait Gallery’s incumbent Russia and The Arts exhibition have not been to Russia, and if they have, even fewer would have seen the paintings in their natural habitat. Unlike many, I have personally been to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which makes my response to the display a little different to that of the majority.

The exhibition at NPG consists of portraits of some of the greatest figures in Russian cultural history. Across three galleries one can see the faces of Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Figures who contributed to the Russia’s cultural atmosphere between the years of 1867 and 1914 and who have a lasting cultural impact internationally.

Amongst the twenty-six portraits on display one can see beautiful paintings moving stylistically from realism to impressionism. The reds transform into blues and the viewer is truly transported to a historic Russia.

My favourite portraits on display were those of poet Anna Akhmatova and her husband Nikolay Gumilyov by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya. Akhmatova is depicted in profile and displayed alongside the portrait of her husband who does not look towards his wife but to the viewer. The images are lighter in colour than some of the more serious paintings at the beginning of the exhibition, but there is still a sense of uneasiness in the questionable interaction between the two portraits. I was not surprised to later find that the marriage resulted in divorce.

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and London’s National Portrait Gallery were both founded in 1856. While the London exhibition is fantastic, I must be honest and say that I was a little disappointed – not because I thought the display was lackluster but because the Tretyakov in Moscow captivated me last year and I only wish more of its wares were on display here in London.

I sincerely encourage anyone interested in Russian culture to visit this exhibition and for those who feel like an international adventure, to personally take a trip to Moscow to explore the Tretyakov Gallery in person.


Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky is on display at National Portrait Gallery until 26 June

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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