Stories used to be passed down orally, sometimes documented in word, shifting shape as they passed from one imagination to another. This process is how folklore evolves, turning a man into a giant, his dagger into a claymore. Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov specialised in the mythological, telling his country’s stories in a visually enduring manner.
Sometimes the myths become real. They’re believed so widely, so active in the imaginations of a group of people, that their actions begin to reflect these stories. Just as the influence of Christ is present in all Christians, the national myths we tell ourselves become manifest the longer we tell them for.
One way to develop myths into something more concrete is to capture them in art, so they now have a form, beyond words assuming an image. Making the invisible visible is a powerful thing, especially when there are stories to tell. For Vasnetsov, his story was a romanticised notion of the nation, a rosy-eyed homage to Russia’s vast and varied past.
His nationalistic paintings, evocative of a rural and intellectual Russia, were both embraced by Russians and the Russian state, who appreciated his aesthetic so much that he helped design remarkable architectural works for them, most impressively the facade of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, reflecting many of the emblematic features of Russian architectural design.
Born to a priest, the power of narrative stuck with him. In the 1880s, he began to heavily emphasize folk poetry, depicting legends and lore in rousing and atmospheric landscapes. The melodrama had a biblical quality to it and his artworks were often similar in nature to the iconography of the Orthodox Church, although he was never exclusively working with depictions of faith.
Although his paintings were based on history, almost telling an alternative story, battles that could have happened, but didn’t, they only became history years after his death in 1926 as the artist’s works were appropriated for propaganda images of the Russian state and as advertising icons for consumer goods, propagating a version of the past where heroism, valour and brotherhood reigned.
In his want to envision a certain past, he became a sort of pioneer of future visions, creating a heritage for Russia that was honoured through his costumes for operas and embraced by the military - for which he designed an iconic hat worn by elite soldiers. Vasnetsov’s life works show the power of remembering the past not for how it was, but how it could have been. In doing so, he sought to shape the future to reflect this constructed past.
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