Russian Venus (1926): A Painting for The People

An image of earthly beauty and joy, Russian Venus (Русская Венера) by Boris Kustodiev is my new favourite painting.  Here’s a first batch of observations and notes.

Russian Venus (1926) #saunatarian kustodiev

Notes:

  • The date is 1925/26 – only two years before Kustodiev died (at age 49).  It appears to be the last major painting he finished.
  • Fascinatingly, Kustodiev became paraplegic in 1916 but continued to paint joyful and masterful works until his death.
  • The painting currently hangs in the Nizhny Novgorod Museum of Art (just outside Moscow).  Because it’s more than 80 years old, it’s in the public domain.  A file is on Wikimedia Commons.
  • Look carefully – you can see the title of the painting (Русская Венера) on a slip of paper at the bottom.
  • The block of soap is also nice.
  • The bundle of leaves she’s holding is called (in Russian) banny venik (in Finnish, vihta).  Typically made of birch, you use it to whack yourself and clean yourself.  It’s delightful – and it really opens up your pores.  It’s even nicer when someone else gives you a good whack with the leaves!  Here’s a guide about how to make them.

What I Like About This Painting

To sum up my response: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, for all its mastery, is an image of woman as desired by men – ethereal, “pure”, subordinate – whose value derives from being passive and aesthetically pleasing.  Russian Venus is a woman simply enjoying herself.  Botticelli’s painting depicts a Platonic fantasy, the idealized “high culture” of a patriarchal society.  Kustodiev depicts a scene of real earthly joy.

* * * * * * * * *

If you’ve ever had a good sauna, you know why Russian Venus is smiling.  She feels happy, she’s comfortable in her body.  This is how all of us look when taking a sauna!

You’ll never see a woman standing in a clam ringed by angles, but many women have looked like Russian Venus throughout history.  Why celebrate beauty with fiction when we can capture it more realistically?

The question is anachronistic of course (Birth of Venus is over 500 years old), but the point remains – what image do you want today’s young women to admire?  The aloof Renaissance maiden, or the confident, happy woman in the sauna?  You don’t have to disparage the cultural importance Birth of Venus to say that Russian Venus is an altogether more valuable image in that sense.  Botticelli’s Venus has a vacant expression like a stunned fish – Russian Venus is smiling straight at the viewer.  This lady knows how to take care of herself.  And she’s having a great time doing it.  We need more role models like this.

That’s why my alternative title is “Venus Takes a Sauna after Getting out of the Clam” – because that’s the story I see.  Forget the famous portrait job (which has been air-brushed to high heaven) – this is what Venus looks like.  This is what she did after posing for Botticelli.

#postworksauna
#saunamakespeoplehappy

Russian Venus #saunatarian

Kustodiev, Venus, and The People

Kustodiev’s painting is in every way a reference to the original – from the name, to the hair, to the posture.  What did he want to say?  Why paint this?  After preliminary investigations, the main answer (perhaps somewhat obvious) is that he wanted to celebrate his beloved homeland – but it’s also consistent with earlier images of non-classical female beauty that he painted.  In that sense, it is pleasantly subversive.

Here’s some details which support that interpretation (distilled from this interesting biography).

Kustodiev was deeply patriotic.  After graduating from art academy in 1903, he travelled in Spain and France for several years to learn from the treasures of the Western European galleries.  Yet he always felt the pull of Russia, and was soon glad to be back “in our blessed Russian land”, as he wrote to a friend.  The revolution of 1905 (despite its quick collapse) galvanized his patriotism, and evoked in him feelings of solidarity that shaped the rest of his artistic career.

Already interested in psychological complexity, his work increasingly focused on the Russian people.  In the words of the above-linked biography:

He was very fond of folk art—painted toys from Vyatka and popular prints—and studied folk tales, legends and superstitions. He believed that in the minds of ordinary people art was always connected with celebration and rejoicing … Kustodiev was also attracted by the theme of village festivals and merrymaking, with their brightness, spontaneity and coarse folk humour: cf. *Village Festival* (1907), *Merrymaking on the Volga* (1909). These paintings were very popular at exhibitions both in Russia and abroad.

Indeed, Kustodiev once wrote that:

I do not know if I have been successful in expressing what I wanted to in my works: love of life, happiness and cheerfulness, love of things Russian—this was the only ‘subject’ of my paintings …

By 1909 he was suffering a severe illness that would soon cripple him.  Yet he continued to paint high-spirited works, including three attempts at “generalized, collective images of feminine beauty”: The Merchant’s Wife, Girl on the Volga and The Beauty. All three set a precedent for Venus – especially The Beauty.

 

the-girl-on-the-volga #saunatarian

Girl on the Volga (1919).  Kustodiev grew up by the Volga and cherished it deeply.

The Merchant's Wife (Kustodiev) #saunatarian

The Merchant’s Wife (1918).  Kustodiev lived with a family of merchants when he was young and observed their bourgeoisie proclivities.

 

The Beauty (1915). Foreshadowing Venus.

The Beauty (1915).  Foreshadowing Venus.

 

By 1916 Kustodiev’s health was in crisis, and a complex operation failed to work – leaving him completely paralyzed from the waist down.  Continuing his stoicism, he described the new situation: ‘Now my whole world is my room.’

It is remarkable that he stayed so productive after this – apparently he painted scenes from his memory.

Which brings us back to Russian Venus – completed one year before his death in 1927.

Why paint her then?  He’d already tested the idea in 1921 (it has a more cartoonish quality), but returned to create the true masterpiece several years later.

Did he know he was about to die?  The biography describes his death as “sudden”, but someone that ill may have felt it coming.  Did he finish Venus as a final tribute to his beloved Russian culture?  Was it a conscious final work?

If so, it’s hard to think of a more wonderful image – the folk tradition of the banya fused with one of the most famous pieces of Western art.  By co-opting Venus, Kustodiev is able to cast the humble glory of sweat bathing in a divine and regal light.

Which is appropriate, because we all feel like royalty after a good shvitz.

Thank you, Boris.  This is a painting for the people.

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