Standing in front of Ilya Repin’s painting, it was clear to me why people had fainted during its first unveiling. Seeing the smear of red paint was like I had never seen the color red before.
Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan is one of the most famous in the Tretyakov Gallery, and one I’d always dreamed of seeing in person. It shows the old tsar cradling his dying son in his arms just after attacking him in a fit of rage. I stood in front of it for about ten straight minutes, unable to look away. Then, months later, I got the news that it was attacked by a museum visitor and promptly removed from the gallery. There’s now a huge empty space where it used to be as the painting and its frame are repaired.
Late in May the painting was attacked with a metal security pole by a man allegedly “overcome by something” after drinking some vodka in a nearby buffet. Although at this point some articles are simply characterizing him as a drunken visitor who got out of hand, others are reporting that he vandalized the painting because he believed it was not an accurate portrayal of Ivan the Terrible. If the latter is true, it adds another chapter onto the debate regarding censorship of Repin’s famous painting.
Russian nationalists have demanded its removal in the past, and the painting was faced with censorship from the government when it was first released. The exact reason why wasn’t apparent to me until I was able to see it in person. Once I was standing in front of frail, old Ivan and his dead son, I began to better understand the impact that such pieces of art can have.
Take, for example, the full-length portrait of Ivan the Terrible in a neighboring gallery. Painted by Viktor Vasnetsov more than three hundred years after his death, this Ivan towers above the people in the gallery, almost reaching the ceiling. This Ivan shows signs of his age in a lined face and graying beard, but still wears the finery that marks him as the highest nobility. The size and positioning of the painting helps turn Vasnetsov’s Ivan into an imposing figure – his head was so far above mine in the gallery, I had look at it from across the room to get a good view. He’s looking down at everyone that passes by.
Repin’s Ivan is stripped of all nobility. He is hunched over his son’s body wearing simple black clothing, and his face looks sunken and old, eyes popping in panic or horror or fear – all emotions unfitting for a powerful leader. Between the looming, tall Ivan and the decrepit, broken one, it’s not hard to guess which one would be censored by Russian nationalists seeking to portray Ivan the Terrible as a formidable historical figure.
This isn’t even the first time Repin’s painting has been attacked – a similar event happened in 1913. Abram Balashov, an Old Believer who by some accounts was mentally ill, shouted “Enough blood! Down with blood!” as he stabbed at the painting with a knife. Balashov left three tears in the canvas directly over the faces of Ivan and his son. In 1913, fortunately, Ilya Repin was able to restore the painting himself.
Now, a hundred years later, the attack calls into question how modern Russia perceives the Ivan the Terrible. Some accounts acknowledge that Ivan was unpredictable and that his mental state deteriorated in his later years. Others interpret the “terrible” moniker a pejorative instead of the “great” or “awe-inspiring” sense of the word. Some are taking part in a movement to recast Ivan the Terrible as a sympathetic figure and an effective leader. In any case, there are limited accounts of what Ivan looked like, and only one known portrait of him created during his lifetime. Creating an image for him, and in turn adding to his reputation, is a task that falls to the artist.