Igor Grabar (March 13 (25), 1871, Budapest, Austria-Hungary - May 16, 1960, Moscow, the USSR) was a Russian post-impressionist painter, publisher, restorer and art historian. He achieved considerable success in several areas at once - museum, restoration, science, and painting, of course.
Features of Igor Grabar's art: a bright saturated color palette, enthusiasm for impressionism and divisionism, their individual interpretation. He primarily painted landscapes (the numerous depictions of hoarfrost and winter landscapes became his “thing”), portraits and still lives.
When Grabar changed his passport after graduating from a university, a quite drunk passport service assistant got confused in the data and made Petersburg his birthplace. The assistant absolutely refused to correct the error. Since then, Grabar appeared in documents as a native of St. Petersburg (and its variations, due to the fact that the city itself was called Petrograd and then became Leningrad, but there wasn’t time for it to be renamed back to Petersburg).
In all fairness, the future artist Igor Grabar was born in Budapest. He moved to Russia when he was only at the age of nine. However, he absorbed the Russian spirit early on. His maternal grandfather, Adolf Dobriansky, was an active participant in the Slavophilia movement and established Russian customs in his house. His father, a member of the Budapest parliament, being also an active fighter against the Magyarization of the Slavs, was forced to flee to Russia in 1876, where he registered under the conspiratorial name Khrabrov (subsequently, Igor signed his early works that way). The family arrived at father’s place in Yegoryevsk (Ryazan province) only in 1880, but they did not stay for a long time. Soon, the father should have gone to Izmail, and the boy continued his studies in Yegoryevsk. He began to draw in early childhood, “plaguing a chasm of paper.”
Touching the oil paints for the first time, inhaling their smell in the workshop of his painting teacher, Igor Grabar was fascinated forever: “I thought I could not resist the happiness that filled my chest, especially when I felt a sweet wonderful smell of fresh paint.”
In 1882, he entered the Imperial Lyceum of Tsarevich Nicholas in Moscow. Probably, the best thing in that part of Igor Grabar’s biography was that that period ended. Grabar stood out a lot among the rich boys surrounded him; he studied at the lyceum as a “scholarship holder”, and classmates did not miss the opportunity to go about his poverty. However, there was still a place for good impressions. In Moscow, at that time, the grandiose all-Russian art and industrial exhibition took place, and Grabar spent long hours in the art department, examining paintings by Repin, Kramskoy, Kuindzhi and Perov. Eager to get a better understanding of the world on the other side of the canvas, Grabar spent the whole weekend in the Tretyakov Gallery, striving to get acquainted with people in the field of art, and, afterwards, he began to attend drawing classes at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers. Igor graduated from the Lyceum with a gold medal and, after that, he entered the law faculty of St. Petersburg University in 1889, where his older brother Vladimir (who later became a brilliant lawyer), was already studying. Petersburg charmed him at first glance and remained the most beautiful city in Europe for the artist throughout his whole life.
“He has a finger in every pie” or Grabar’s education.
Since his very childhood, Igor Grabar used to depend only on himself, and that sort of habit served him well in St. Petersburg. He immersed himself into the lifestyle of the city right off the bat, and he also was active in several directions at once: scientific, literary, and artistic. He also received a historical and philological education, studied a lot, wrote critical reviews and reviews of exhibitions, compiled biographies of painters, and all of that was happening while he was studying law. He had the most joyful memories about the student time, as opposed to studying at the Lyceum. He got his first success at that time as well. The work “Roof under the Snow”, which was painted by him in 1889, was highly appreciated by his fellow artists, as well as by the students of the Academy of Arts. Speaking of the Academy, Igor Grabar had already been visiting the academic workshop of the famous teacher Pavel Chistyakov since 1892, who taught Repin, Serov and Vrubel. Naturally, after the university, Grabar’s path was determined. He should have entered the Academy of Arts, and both he and his comrades understood that choice. But having followed the advice of his friend, the artist Shcherbinsky, Grabar made a decision to wait a little bit with the application to the Academy, which was undergoing a process of serious reorganization, and, eventually, he entered only in 1894.
The very next year, his first European trip took place, which included Germany, Italy, and France. Italian culture made a huge impact on the artist. He was struck by Venetian painting, in particular. As for Paris, the capital of Impressionism, that city had power to enchant him once and for all. A visit to the Ambroise Vollard shop was one of the turning points. It turned out that van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne existed in the world! Upon his return, it was becoming more and more complicated for Grabar to convince himself of the need to carry on with his academic education - after he saw what was happening “on the front line”. He transferred to Repin’s workshop, which was very popular, but he did not last long there either. It seemed to him that studying at the Academy deprived him of a fresh look on things, and a brush of naturalness. Searching for other teachers, Grabar went to Europe again, that time to the Munich school of Anton Ažbe, which was very popular among Russian artists. Grabar found his place there, and the school principal, who appreciated his talent, even offered him to be the head of the group and conduct classes for beginners. Later, Igor Grabar headed one of the two departments of the school.
The chronological frameworks of the Munich period in the biography of the artist Grabar extended from 1896 to 1901. At that time, he not only painted and taught, but also studied the history of painting, sculpture and architecture. A year later, Grabar traveled to Paris once again, and that journey allowed him to create a “synthesis of Munich and Paris”, as well as to realize how close he was to the Impressionist style. And most importantly, having absorbed the new trends, he then could understand how to transform them into his own style of painting.
Grabar – painter and Grabar – art critic in pre-revolutionary Russia
The Exposition Universelle of 1900, better known in English as the 1900 Paris Exposition became for Igor Grabar, first of all, an aesthetic shock, and, most importantly, a clear indication that the artist should have been focused on depicting his own realities: “a great idea came to my mind because of this exhibition – the idea that the artist should sit at home and depict his own, close and dear life to him. Millet, Courbet and Manet painted what they saw around them, because they understood their own reality better than someone else’s, and because they loved it more than someone else’s.”
Having returned to Russia, Grabar joined the supporters of the “World of Art” movement. Actually, back in Munich, his collaboration with the magazine of the same name and Sergei Diaghilev had already begun. His reviews of exhibitions and critical notes were already very popular at that time, and the reviews given by him amazed people with their subtlety and accuracy. At the time of his return, he was known among the artists of the world as a critic and was worried if he would be accepted as an artist. His concerns and worries were in vain - in 1902, at the exhibition “World of Art”, Grabar exhibited ten paintings, and all of them were accepted favorably, an indicator of which was the first acquisition of the Tretyakov Gallery - the painting “Ray of the Sun” (1901).
The “World of Art” encouraged the participants of the Russian cultural process to explore their own roots. That was one of the incentives that prompted Grabar to go deep into the art history. His forerunner could be called Alexandre Benois. By the way, Grabar highly appreciated Benois. According to the artist’s recollections, he “immediately liked Benois more than he liked anyone else”, and Igor Grabar retained that impression for his whole life. Alexander Benois wrote “The History of Painting of the 19th Century”. Grabar, in his turn, had been working on the “History of Russian Art” (at first, for the publishing house of Joseph Knebel) since the beginning of the 1900s till the end of his life. His work on the “History” had become one of his main achievements by that time. During that period, Grabar became a major Russian art historian and an unsurpassed specialist in the field of attribution of Russian painting.
There were times when the artist felt that scientific work hindered the development of his painting skills. “I wish I could just throw off all the archives, stories, studies and the whole organizational thing, which got me caught up so deeply in all of that, and take it away from painting. But there’s only one thing possible: either art or the science of art,” Grabar admitted with sadness. However, he still had to learn to combine art and the science of it. In 1909, a large exposition of his paintings took place in the Union of Russian Artists, after which Grabar plunged into scientific and architectural activity and did not touch the brush for five years straight. At the request of the widow of the famous doctor, Grigory Zakharyin, Igor Grabar began to design the memorial hospital complex in honor of the dead son of the Zakharyins. The result clearly indicated the author’s great enthusiasm for the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. However, he had to put aside that passion in order to continue working on the “History of Russian Art”. The compensation of that was the section on Russian architecture of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries written by him that had been brought out. In 1914, five volumes of the “History of Russian Art” series were already published. Grabar also wrote a number of monographs about major Russian artists. In revolutionary times, the work on the publication ceased, but Grabar never forgot about it. Already in Soviet times, he was able to return to the topic: on his initiative, a multivolume edition of “History of Russian Art” had been published since 1954 till 1962.
In 1902, the Tretyakov Gallery acquired the first artwork by Grabar, and already in 1913, he became a trustee of the museum. In fact, that corresponded to the position of an executive director, which he retained until 1925.
It was Grabar who contributed to the global transformation of the Tretyakov Gallery from a private collection into a museum of public importance. Grabar came up with an idea and ultimately made it happen. He implemented the fundamental changes in the placement of paintings. An interesting detail: due to the rehang, Surikov’s painting “Boyarina Morozova” was for the first time located in such a way that it was visible from afar, through the enfilade of halls. That turned out to be such a successful decision that, they said, Surikov, entering the updated gallery, bowed to Grabar to the ground. In addition to enthusiasm and gratitude, he had to face a solid opposition. Opponents of innovation, led by the former trustee of the gallery, Ilya Ostroukhov, insisted on the need to maintain the orders that were there when Pavel Tretyakov was the director. Grabar won the argument, but it was not easy for him. Also, compiling a catalog and a complete inventory of the gallery was completely on his conscience (in a good sense). That lesson took a long time, but it was one of the main temptations that forced Grabar to take over the management of the gallery. “This is not a service, not a burden, not even work, but pleasure, sheer joy,” he said about the work on the attribution of paintings, which origin was in question for some time.
Igor Grabar – the singer of snow and hoarfrost
After the collapse of the “World of Art”, Grabar moved from St. Petersburg to the estate of Titovo, Tula province, which was owned by his aunt. It was there that he found a subject, which later became one of his symbols - hoarfrost. Grabar’s “diamond lace on the turquoise enamel of the sky” is well known to us from the numerous paintings “in hoarfrost” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
The acquaintance and friendship with the rich hospitable artist, Nikolaiy Mescherin, led to the fact that Igor Grabar spent (making visits) in his estate Dugino for more than twenty-five years. In Dugino, however, another iconic subject for his paintings was fully manifested - snow. The artist himself said that the most interesting landscape for him was winter (1, 2, 3). He found a wife there. Valentina Mescherina was the niece of Nikolay Mescherin. Grabar had two children - Olga and Mstislav.
Igor Grabar in post-revolutionary Russia and the USSR
After the October Revolution, Igor Grabar took on the invaluable work of preserving artworks. He unconditionally recognized the new government and immediately began to cooperate with it. He saw his purpose in the preservation and restoration of paintings. Grabar took an active part in the creation of the state museum fund, nationalization and further distribution of art collections (which in many cases simply meant saving those works from destruction). In addition, he worked at the Academy of the History of Material Culture, directed the art production of the Maly Theater and gave a unique course of lectures on scientific restoration at the University of Moscow at that time. Headed the Tretyakov Gallery, he also organized interesting exhibitions there. His highest professionalism was appreciated not only at home, but was also in great demand abroad. In the 20-30s Grabar traveled a lot around the world as a renowned art critic. In 1928, the title of “Honored Worker of Arts” was introduced in the USSR, and Igor Grabar became the first winner.
Having realized that he couldn’t devote himself to all the areas, he made a decision to focus on restoration work, which was the most interesting to him at that time. The position of an executive director at the Tretyakov Gallery and teaching at Moscow State University had to be sacrificed. And the notorious “I’ll retire and then...!” in the case of Igor Grabar meant a return to painting, which he did in 1930. After all, as he admitted with a sigh, “the artist is more sensitive and flexible than the art critic, his eyes are not so hopelessly covered with blinders and his brain is not so treacherously loaded with history, theory and all sorts of biases.” However, Grabar didn’t say goodbye to either art history or vigorous activity after receiving a personal pension, he simply allowed himself to paint more. The previous decade, he also did not forget about the brush, and in 1923, even visited America with a large exhibition, which included twenty of his paintings. There were some engagement paintings among the artist’s artworks though, which he subsequently happened to be blamed for. Grabar was also known for his portraits - that genre became the leading one in the 1920s and 1930s.
Grabar met World War II in evacuation in Georgia. And already in 1942, he had headed the Commission for the Preservation and Uncovering of Ancient Painting in Russia. In 1943, Igor Grabar turned 72 years old, but there wasn’t any place for speculation on him leading a quiet life. He headed the All-Russian Academy of Arts, as well as the Leningrad Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. A year later, he became the head of the Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR which was created on his own initiative. The following year, Grabar took over the leadership of the Central State Restoration Workshops. All those posts he retained until his death. The assessment of the artist’s life, perhaps, was best summed up by his own words: “... art, art and art. Since childhood and up to the present it is almost the only source of joy and grief, enthusiasm and suffering, admiration and indignation, the only true content of life.”