The Manege Central Exhibition Hall (St Petersburg) in partnership with the Uglich State Historical, Architectural and Art Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and the Rybinsk State Historical, Architectural and Art Reserve presented an exhibition dedicated to the history of the Russian provincial portrait of the XVIII-XIX centuries.
On top of diving into exploration of this striking phenomenon of Russian fine art, the exhibition offered an enlivening look at the customs and traditions that had developed in provincial state culture. The Russian equivalent of the exhibition's title was taken from the old Slavic word for mirror. Also, not coincidentally, the viewer was surrounded by mirrors and their own reflections first thing after entering the exhibition space. The reflective entrance area was set as an encouragement to look at oneself without conventions, setting the more accepting direction for further perception and inquiry.
“The origins of the provincial portrait date back to the middle XVII century. The time when the strict canons of easel icon painting of the Orthodox Church began to give way to the emerging secular art. In visual representation, a new form of imagery for depicting a person appears – "parsuna" (from the word “person”), marking the transition from canonical iconographic images to the portrayal of a person “from life” (from nature), the first attempts to convey likeness and character.”
Svetlana Zenina, curator
After prevailing for a short period of time, parsuna loses its leading role in Russian commonwealth culture. The diplomatic mission of Peter I to the European countries and the major reforms in Russia that followed them will result in the formation of new artistic values in the national fine arts. Although the leading role was given to “big genres” like the allegories or city panoramas, this time in the history of Russian art is remembered as the golden age of portrait.
"The scenography and dramaturgy of the project prepare the viewer for the history immersion. The elements of the past become the material for creating a new one.
The first floor exposition introduces us to the life of merchants. Structural elements recall the pre-Petrine architectural tradition, their conventional life and handicraft. Following the route, the viewer comes into an enclosed space associated with a living room, after that moving into an open octagon (conveying an allusion to visiting a more formal function, a public space). The second floor displays life of the upper class – nobles and priests. From the manor portrait gallery analogue hall, we take a turn to a hypothetical European-style “Belvedere”.
The value of each provincial secular portrait individually is incomparable to the value of the whole artistic phenomenon as a reliable evidence of historical truth. The playfulness and directness of the presented portraits tells about the part of the life of Russian society that most often remains in the background.”
Anna Ilyina, architect
At the beginning of the XIX century almost every city had a resident artist and a prevalent part of wealthy households was acquiring chronicles of family portraits. Merchants, lower income nobles, even the clergy turn to a local portrait painter – a kind of craftsman who diligently embodies their perceptions of themselves.
“There were officials, military, provincial clergy, merchants with letters and merchant wives in shawls, provincial noblewomen in caps, children and venerable old men catching the opportunity to see themselves in the tempting mirror of painting. Their “reflections” multiplied and remained in homes as well as were present in the lives of new generations. Time separates and gathers them again – in the walls of museums or at exhibitions. As they are stepping into new realities and other contexts, they still attract the eye to themselves to remain in memory for a long time.”
Svetlana Zenina, curator
The Manege exhibition opened an opportunity for viewers to get acquainted not only with the stylistic features of early provincial portraits, but also with the “faces” of the era – direct images of clergy, merchants, children, and family portraits.
Concept — Pavel Prigara
Curator — Svetlana Zenina
Research consultant — Grigoriy Goldovskiy
Architecture and scenography — Anna Ilyina
Graphic design — Katya Zubkova