19th century paintings rarely make headline news but last week a work by celebrated Russian painter Ilya Repin was severely damaged when the work came under physical attack by a visitor to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The painting in question is Repin’s 1885 portrayal of a highly contested historical scene where Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich allegedly got into a fight with his son. As the tale goes, the Tsar’s son died during the course of the alleged confrontation.
Many have questioned the historical veracity of this tale and even one of Repin’s biggest supporters, Tsar Alexander III loathed the painting because of its apparent vulgar distortion of Russian history. Last week, a homeless man called Igor Podporin visited the Tretyakov Gallery where the painting is displayed. According to an interview he gave to police, he looked at the painting before going to the gallery’s canteen where he then drank copious amounts of alcohol before returning to the painting and striking it. The attack has caused severe damage to the painting and its frame.
This was not the first time the work was vandalised. In 1913, a gallery visitor slashed the painting with a knife while shouting “no more blood”. The incident led to the gallery’s’ curator committing suicide while the still living Repin was asked to help restore his work.
Because of the controversial subject matter of the painting, the only safe and practical thing to do is to remove what remains of the painting from public view. Even after the restoration that the gallery claims it shall attempt, the work should not ever again be hung alongside non-controversial works.
The painting has a clear history of causing provocations and because of this, the best place for the painting is in an unmarked room where certain visitors can make individual arrangements to view the work in private.
Artistically, the painting’s merit is beyond question just as is the case with Repin’s other masterworks of 19th century realism. But the particularly controversial qualities of this painting which depicts an alleged historic episode that even the Russian President cast doubt upon, should not be housed in an otherwise peaceful art gallery.
Placing the painting away from the general public is not censorship but merely a simple remedy to a long standing problem. So long as those whose curiosity in the work is of an academic rather than provocative nature, there is no reason why private arrangements cannot be made for those who wish to view the work behind closed doors.
With Russian history being insultingly distorted by racist regimes and bigoted media outlets throughout the world, the least a Russian gallery could do is not add fuel to this racially insensitive fire.