I have no memory of when or where I first encountered Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, but I feel as if it has haunted me my entire life. This is one of those works of art that reminds me that no matter how much work I create, how much time I spend honing my skill sets, no matter how far I push myself, there will always be this painting. A painting that feels lightyears out of my reach. This is not a bad thing, okay, maybe at an earlier time in my life, but now, it offers strange security. No matter how content I may feel, I can push further, I can do better, and it is entirely possible to reach a higher goal with my work.
Why this particular painting? If simply looking at it does not answer your question, then focus on the unique and glorious personalities that each individual has. I can stare at these men for hours and continue to see something new. In this frozen moment, I feel as if I can know everything there is to know about each man. To me, that is the hand of a powerful storyteller and artist. The scene is beautifully composed with figures overlapping, bunching, looking into and out of the frame. I LOVE the foremost man reclining on the barrel looking into the frame with you. He looks on with you. He is your companion in viewing this scene. If you know my work, you know that I like detail, accessories, and stuff. I love STUFF in my work, and with Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, each man has his gear, his weapons, his personal belongings, and the painting is full of them. Even with all of the stuff, and figures, and background, and tents, and smoke, and everything (I feel at least) you can still flow through the image, seeing the faces, and finally focus on the scribe writing the letter.
I will be honest; I did not know the story behind this painting for a very long time. That said, I don't feel that I was missing much. There is so much storytelling happening within this painting that the historical context can be an afterthought. When I look at these battle-hardened warriors, they are crafting a letter with great delight that will undoubtedly be received by the recipient, and this recipient will be none too happy about it. You are welcome to read more about this painting and where its place in history. It is indeed an eye-opener and shows how well Repin visually conveyed the narrative.
Until I was doing some research in preparation for writing this post, I was utterly oblivious that Repin began a second, more historically accurate, version of this painting while working on the original. It remains unfinished, but it shines a light on his process and what these men possibly actually looked like. That said, the original remains the only version to me. There are some improvements with the expressions of some of the figures, but I feel that many of the stars of the original have been lost. For me, most notably, the reclining man on the barrel in the foreground. The composition is a bit stronger in the second version, and the scribe definitely is more of a focal point. While unfinished, it is not fair to compare the two. If anything, they can be seen as two different photographs taken of the same event.
I want to touch again on the faces of the men. For me, they will always be the stars of this painting. They are expressive, they are exaggerated, they are monstrous, and I love them. We are, and likely will always be, small pack primates that focus on faces and hands. That is in our DNA and in our chemical soup in our brains. So we naturally look to faces to communicate, and the faces that Repin painted in this one each speak volumes. I hope that each monster I create can have a tenth of the character and personality that these men exude. That is the challenge of working with nonhumans, but that is the path I chose. It takes nothing away from my enjoyment of looking at this painting and creating a backstory for each man. Maybe that is why this piece is so compelling to me, what it holds my attention after all these years, it leaves me wanting more. I want to know these men, to read of their adventures, to learn if they fall in battle or win the day. An image that leaves you wanting more (in the right way) is something I have strived for throughout my career, and it likely originates with the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.
While discussing Repin, I would be remiss in not also mentioning Religious Procession in Kursk Province. It is another sprawling painting with so many figures, personalities, and storytelling. I came to know this one much later that Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, but it is a powerful image.
That's all for another exciting week on the blog. See you back here on Monday! Until then...
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