January 01, 1998

Out of Siberia

Russian-born director Andron Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is probably best known for his television adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, which won an Emmy this year. His brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, is also famous in the West – though he lives in Russia – for directing Burnt by the Sun, which received the 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But few know that these men are the great-great grandsons of Vasily Surikov, the famous Russian painter whose works grace the walls of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916) was born into a Cossack family in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk (literally, “red bank,” from the pinkish-red clay that is found in this part of the Yenisey river). One of the artist’s ancestors helped to found the town, and the family preserved its history with great care – so much so that the young artist sometimes had the impression that they were living in the past. Surikov would later recall that, in his parents’ home, “the very air seemed ancient,” and Cossack uniforms from the time of Catherine the Great were lovingly preserved in his grandfather’s trunks. (The young artist remembered their unusual color well, for by his time, the color of the uniforms’ cloth had changed from blue to green.)

His parents’ house had an enormous influence on his work, forming a unique foreshortening of Surikov’s perception of the world. As Surikov himself put it: “The rooms in our house were big and low. To me, as a youngster, the figures seemed huge. It’s probably for this reason that I always tried in my paintings to either set the horizon very low or to make the background smaller so that the figure would seem larger.” In this admission lies the key to understanding the composition of the most famous of his historical canvases. The well-known Russian artist Mikhail V. Nesterov wrote that in Surikov existed “a great prophet of the past, a man with the highest intellect side by side with a mischievous Cossack.”

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