Description of the artwork «Sleep»
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Dream raised a wave of desperate disputes in St. Petersburg that did not subside for several years. Ilya Repin was so much insulted by the picture that he wrote a letter to the editorial office of the Birzhevye Vedomosti newspaper, placed the young upstart in a shameful company with Gauguin and Matisse, and accused him of slavish imitation of Western influences. Pseudonyms, anonymous authors, mockers published lots of articles with witticisms: “...a brick boy is sleeping, and in front of him are two women, one purple, the other is also brick one. Poor will he be, when he wakes up!” Alexandre Benois did not consider the painting the best, but he appreciated the colour accord in it. The controversy gradually shifted from the young artist and his scandalous painting to the talks about art in general and about art in Russia. And Petrov-Vodkin understood that each new work, which he’d now dare to present to the public, would be closely watched by both warring camps. There is no doubt that the sentinels do not take their eyes off and will notify about any sign of artistic uneasiness.
Each author who wrote about the Dream surely tried to interpret it in a symbolic way. A lifeless, devastated landscape with an ominous volcano, the figure of a young man sleeping in a terribly uncomfortable position right on bare stones, two naked female figures, obviously differing in facial expressions, poses, and skin colour. The origins of the composition were found in Raphael’s Vision of a Knight — and this is not an accidental direction of the search. Petrov-Vodkin saw much of the Italian Renaissance painting, lived in Paris, listened to the “tired, well-begun songs of Gauguin and Cézanne”, managed to study in Munich with Kandinsky, finally got angry with all the Palaces of Arts, which pulled him away from land so deftly and carried away in speculative searches. He prayed in the African night desert that the universe take him back, open his eyes and heart to its secrets.
Back from his artistic and mystical pilgrimages, Petrov-Vodkin painted the Dream almost immediately. And from his words, most likely, Alexander Benois would explain the meaning of the subject as follows: “On the renewed earth, a human genius, a poetic consciousness sleeps. His awakening is guarded by two goddesses who are always accompanying creativity. Pink, young, timid, sickly Beauty and strong, dark, healthy Ugliness. In their arms, in their communication, the genius would find the full understanding of life, the meaning of things.” This interpretation became canonical to such an extent that the critics consider the explanation by the artist himself fiction and a later hoax. They say that Petrov-Vodkin, a talented painter, came up with a prophetic meaning in hindsight. It is not surprising that after the shocks of the war and revolution, the artist seemed to have a completely different meaning of the picture: he already saw a moral and political suspended animation in his own youthful work, a paralysis of the society after 1905, a state of expectation, stagnation, numbness.
A symbolic and philosophical picture that is not associated with the names of the subjects should not be interpreted unambiguously. In it, all the meanings that the critic and the viewer would find are possible — the work is alive, it changes and responds to the emotions and experiences of new people who have lived up to prophetic changes. Any pre-dawn state, any strong oblivion, inaction on the eve of awakening and finding the truth, the fullness of the world, inevitably difficult choice — everything will do.
Author: Anna Sidelnikova