As they get seasoned with time, timeless nature of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s (1878-1939) art becomes even more prominent. In the 21st century, the most mysterious of all his paintings, “Bathing of a Red Horse” (1912) appears more than ever above and beyond of all historical contexts it has been linked to.
1912 was the year when Russia was suspended between Revolutions. On the cusp of global historical shifts, emerging Russian avant-garde artists manifested different modes of thinking in the face of challenges. Futurism looked into the future, dumping classical art as relics of the past. At the same time, major artists of the “World of Art” (Mir Iskusstva), Korovin, Benoit, Serov, Levitan, Vrubel, Grabar, Somov, Dobuzhinsky and other self-expressed by stylizing art of the previous decades. Rayonists (Luchists) were largely influenced by expressionists. Similar to Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter and other artists of the “Blue Rider” in Germany, Larionov and Goncharova turned their visions towards archaic patterns being very popular in neo-primitivism. Lubok (Russian popular print with folklore and religious motives) significantly affected their style. If in romanticism, reality was contested by the uncanny, in expressionism and rayonism, primitive offset an expanding chaos. In this regard, a highly monumental painting of Petrov-Vodkin "Bathing of a Red Horse" (1912) synthesized both outlooks.
It was exposed right at the entry of the Exhibition of “World of Art” in 1912 in Moscow and later in Saint Petersburg for its profoundly prophetic meaning, vibrant symbolism and revolutionary novelty of expression. In this piece, the artist overcame limitations of predominant aesthetics of that time. In his splendidly written non-fictional prose “Euclid’s Space”, he shows what open-mindedness and learning experience can do for expanding intellect and developing planetary vision.
In his art, all scattered beads of human knowledge were synchronized in spherical perspective. According to his philosophy, axis of any all vertical objects on the surface is inclined radially towards the center of the Earth due to gravity. By depicting the space from top and peripheral points, he allowed a viewer to discern a spherical shape of the globe. In the painting "Death of the Commissar "(1928), this technique was exploited with much more intensity and magnitude. Likewise, in “1918 in Petrograd (Madonna of Petrograd)”, motherhood is represented as the planet itself, holding history in her hands, like mother embraces her baby - eternity giving birth to time with cosmic love and acceptance. In Petrov-Vodkin's Universe, things and facts don't get excluded. Instead, they are depicted from perspective of a soaring angel.
1912 was also the year of nationwide restoration and cleaning of icons of various provinces of Russia. Their exposition to public had a tremendous impact on artistic circles. For the first time, icons were recognized not just as religious objects but as an art of unthinkable spiritual beauty. If Renaissance was inspired by the antique art of classic Greece and Rome, Russian avant-garde in many ways was enthused with poetics of Russian iconography.
That being said, it’s worth noting that critics tend to compare “Bathing of a Red Horse “with Russian icon of Saint George slaying the dragon. While it’s obvious that pictorially it was influenced by iconography which in many ways determined Petrov-Vodkin’s painterly style and choice of “holy trinity” of blues, reds and yellows; however, a dreamy rider has very little in common with a holy warrior St. George. The main figure in this oeuvre is a horse itself whereas the rider reminds a goofy and timid folk character Ivan Tsarevich in a popular fairy tale “Sivka-Burka”. A fiery and powerful stallion transforms him into an agile prince who wins an incredibly challenging contest and marries a beautiful princess.
In this oeuvre, Petrov-Vodkin expressed conceptually his aesthetics of painterly values. He strongly disapproved broken and dirty colors of impressionists which he compared to melody, interrupted by staccato (Euclid’s Space). “Bathing of a Red Horse” contains autonomous colors. Their values and hues don’t merge and or intermingle. Harmony is achieved by composition itself without interrupting integrity of its palette. Its cosmic melody continues beyond the frame in unbroken wholeness of performance.
"Bathing of a Red Horse" became a topic of heated argument. Realists found its style and choice of colors provocative and insulting. Petrov-Vodkin was subjected to scathing criticism by Ilia Repin – a noted painter of realistic trend while it was defended by Alexander Benoit, Makovsky and others. As he wrote to his mother, “At the Exhibition, they either vehemently attack me or it goes all the way around. In any case, it’s success. Recently I received a poem by a poet from Moscow. I've been deeply moved. Here it is.
A bllood-red horse
Rushing to the waves
With a dreamy youngster on its curved back.
Like silent fire with swirling rings of smoke
You whisper things you know so well.
My pupils widen. I stand amazed.
And hear whiffs of waves
Chanting songs of Spring,
And I hear a voice of tormented souls -
Souls being set ablaze,
And, youngster, also your weeping.
And there are the fog and steppes
Of deep bright-green waters
Where songs of tomorrow are refrained
To hopes we surrender –
To prayers no one will dare to erase.
That’s where we shall live and where we shall dwell,
But here we exist as if only dreaming” (translated by Maya Ellenson).
It was written by an imagist poet Riurik Ivnev, who captured the meaning of the painting much deeper than any art critic of that time. In 1919, its echo will reverberate in Sergey Esenin’s Pantocrator.
The image of the red horse confronts tropes of symbolism and everything that looked pale, passive and incomplete. Petrov-Vodkin makes sarcastic remarks in regards to one line poem by Valery Bryusov “Oh, cover your pale legs”. His irony does not spare to Andrey Bely’s symphonies of half-way glances and curtailed senses either (Euclid’s Space).
With his bloody red horse, Petrov-Vodkin drew a distinction with a popular image of a pale horse of Apocalypse. End of time imagery at the turn of the 20th became almost as trite and corny as it appears now. Besides, Bryusov’s poem, The Pale Horse (1912) or Boris Savinkov’s novel of the same name viewed revolution in terms of devastation while the red horse personified visionary stance and intense creative energy.
Redness as a major structural component of “Bathing of a Red Horse” can also be interpreted as response to Kandinsky’s art philosophy. In 1911, Petrov-Vodkin attended a congress of Russian painters in Saint Petersburg where he became familiar with Kandinsky’s essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, presented by Kulbin. In this manifesto, Kandinsky develops the concept of the new art, referring to such unusual subject matter as the red horse. As he pointed out, “Finally, the red horse provides a further variation. The very words put us in another atmosphere. The impossibility of a red horse demands an unreal world. It is possible that this combination of color and form will appeal as a freak--a purely superficial and non-artistic appeal--or as a hint of a fairy story . To set this red horse in a careful naturalistic landscape would create such a discord as to produce no appeal and no coherence. The need for coherence is the essential of harmony--whether founded on conventional discord or concord. The new harmony demands that the inner value of a picture should remain unified whatever the variations or contrasts of outward form or color. The elements of the new art are to be found, therefore, in the inner and not the outer qualities of nature".
However, Petrov-Vodkin managed to unify both inner and outer qualities of nature in his unmatched continuum of form and content, time and space. ‘Bathing of a Red Horse” has a sequel – “Fantasy” (1924). In this painting, the element of air replaced by water. The red horse is soaring high above the Earth carrying on its back much more confident rider. The inner and outer elements – water and air- are unified in integral style with prevailing reds, which enhances its conceptual message. Red in Russian language also stands for beauty and beautiful, which, according to Dostoesvky, will save the world. For Petrov-Vodkin, red color represents transforming power of art, represented in "Bathing of a Red Horse" as monumental and uninterrupted discourse.
In 1919 he illustrated an almanac “Scythians”. One the authors, Ivanov-Razumnik wrote, "A battle of winged and wingless is a world history, history of mankind, history or revolution. This fight has divided us clashingly. Two stances, two covenants, two truths, two Russias”. In Petrov-Vodkin’s world, winged and wingless morph into what he called a planetary vision. As his great contemporary Pavel Filonov, Petrov-Vodkin defied all dichotomies and dualism that existed in art and philosophy for centuries. For him, art was a means for penetrating into mysteries of the Universe not by opposing the material to the spiritual, but by expanding creative intellect for comprehending planetary goals (Science of seeing, 1919).