Tolstoy and Repin, the mystery of a presence

I spent three years of my life with Leo Tolstoy. I was then writing the spiritual biography of this giant of Russian letters, “The most human of all men” according to André Suarès, “The only man, where almost everyone can recognize something of himself, and the only one who has something for everyone”. I have followed him throughout his novels, step after page of his diary, and in that diary word after word of his secret diaries. Besides my admiration for the writer, I loved him for the reasons Suarès praised – that he went so far, the furthest – in knowing others without ever despairing of humanity. I liked about him that he worked so that, in his novels as in his days, the ideal and the life penetrate each other continuously, and that he engaged in a titanic fight against himself for himself. forget, in order to embrace God.

→ CHRONICLE. “Master and servant”, teaching in the heart of the storm

How, then, would I have missed the exhibition devoted to Ilya Répine, at the Petit Palais? This Russian painter is the author of truly moving portraits of his contemporaries, whether Modest Mussorgsky or the anonymous boatmen of the Volga, hauling the boats carrying wheat like animals so that they go up the course of the river. It is also that of the most famous portraits of Leo Tolstoy, then in full glory.

Tolstoy by Repin

All the pictures that Repin painted of him – more than twenty portraits, sketches and sketches – were not there, but the most famous, yes, gathered in the same room. We meet Tolstoy reading, lying in the dead leaves, leaning against his favorite tree, in Yasnaya Polyana, his property where the ghost of his childhood has never ceased to float for him. There is also Tolstoy standing, barefoot, in a peasant jacket, both hands slipped through his belt. Tolstoy guiding the plow like one of his serfs in the furrows of a black earth – and he had plowed in this way for six hours, as witnessed by Repin who came to bite his alter ego in literature, himself possessing until the spell. the art of fixing the human soul. There is still Tolstoy in black, seated in a black armchair, his gaze distant. He is fifty-nine years old and we immediately capture the worried conscience, devoured by the expectation of God, which is now his. “He sought God, not for himself, but for men, so that God could leave him” Gorky estimated. And then I discovered the last picture, painted a few months before the writer’s flight to Astopovo, and his death – Tolstoy in a pink armchair.

→ EXHIBITION. Repine, great artificer and fine portrait painter

I did not know this portrait. He crushed my heart. It was as if I was there, next to Tolstoy, as if I heard the hiss of his breathing. Everything is perceptible in his state of mind at the time, caught up in the abandonment of this great body against the back of the armchair which swallows it, in the escape of his gaze, in this air of frightened fatigue, as if he had finally capitulated, as if he had finally understood that death would be ineluctable and that the devouring quest that had marked his entire existence, to the extremes – from the exalted senses and intoxicated with life, to the hasty flight towards the hermitages – all this quest had come nowhere, and could do nothing about it.

Stephan Zweig criticized Tolstoy for being afraid of death. I believe that Tolstoy’s fear was rather due to the fact that he had not been able to find what meaning she could take, despite all his efforts to find one for her, despite his calls to God which he expected Him to speak to him. . And this haggard disarray is reflected so strongly in this portrait that it reaches us and upsets us in turn. Ilya Repin inoculates him and makes us hear him with all the compassion one should have for the Russian writer, because God, or nature, had endowed him with the most tragic of gifts – carrying humanity within him. and its contradictions.

And this again, Repine understood it, and felt: “My God, what an omnipresent soul has this Tolstoy! he wrote to his friend Vladimir Stassov. Everything that is just born lives, breathes, and all of nature – all of this is truly reflected in him, without the slightest lie and, read once, remains in front of the eyes for life. “

The art of presence

The two artists had established a relationship of friendship – of admiration too, especially of the younger brother for his elder brother – Tolstoy is sixteen years older than Repin. They recognized each other. Both possessed the same genius of being able to grasp the essence of a being and its unbreakable loneliness – its very soul – and to make it tangible, one by its pen, the other by its brush. No doubt she is there, in this art of presence provoked where the painter excels, in the future encounters that this presence engenders beyond time, the response that Tolstoy has tracked down, on the very meaning of life, and perhaps on that of death.


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