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The black sea

Painting, 1881, 149×208 cm

Description of the artwork «The black sea»

Ivan Aivazovsky painted the Black Sea all his life. His marinas are amazing examples of the romantic direction of Russian art. In almost all marine paintings people are just a way to emphasize the power of the elements. This makes Aivazovsky similar to Turner, whose main characters were the sea, the sky and the elements. Until the end of his life – and Aivazovsky lived a long one, 82 years – the artist did not let the brush out of his hands, vividly responded to everything happening with the fleet, painted thousands of views of the sea and managed to remain relevant, each time surprising critics, writing another article on the topic "Aivazovsky is outdated". And there were a lot of such articles... At the end of the century, the realistic direction in painting came into the picture. He was accused of excessive theatricality and the romantic anguish of his artworks. He didn't counter those allegations by answering speeches though. He responded with his art, which made his prosecutors throw up their hands and admit that they would never be able to dismiss Aivazovsky.

They wanted some realism, didn't they? Aivazovsky's rave of colour was replaced by pretty much monochrome. But the spontaneity and the abyss of feelings, hidden behind that realism, remained the same. Ivan Kramskoy, the chary of praise ideologists of the Company of Itinerant Art Exhibitions (or "Peredvizhniki"), finally found his tongue when looking at this painting and uttered: "The Spirit of God, floating above the abyss." Kramskoy was so amazed by The Black Sea that he depicted it in his painting Desolate Grief.

"There is nothing in it except the sky and water, but water is an ocean which is boundless, not a stormy one, but waving, stern and endless, while the sky, if it's possible, is even more endless. It's one of the greatest paintings I've ever seen," said Kramskoy in admiration. Actually, in such a way the plot of the painting can be described. In this case, even the most malevolent critics couldn't reproach Aivazovsky for his enthusiasm for the effects and excessive demonization of the elements. The artist, who used to skilfully flood the heavenly surface with sunlight and lovingly depict the multi-coloured waters, now presented almost 50 shades of grey, and there was so much that was hidden in them! If you take a hard look at these shades, the richness of the palette seems amazing: there are different tones of emerald, silvery, transparent grey, green, and blue, resembling black. There's a dark, gloomy sky and heavy clouds, foreshadowing an imminent storm. A sunbeam, peeking through the clouds, is reflected on the water. In fact, it's one of the features of his marine painting – in any storm, no matter what the weather, there's always a snatch of sunshine. Except for the paintings depicting night and most likely containing a moonbeam.

In the foreground there is the so-called "Aivazovsky's wave". That’s how the artist's contemporaries called the waves with scallops of foam in his paintings, depicted so virtuously that, having looked at them, one can feel a salty taste on their lips. It's just the beginning of storm which hasn't blown up yet, and the choppy water warns of its approaching.

The skyline divides the two elements and simultaneously combines the image into a single whole. The only sign of the human presence in this picture is a sailboat showing up on the sea-line. One can interpret it as the author showing "the superiority of the elements over man". Although it's a matter of argument – not in terms of the author depicting the opposite though. It is much more likely that he didn't raise such a question at all. Why not? It's enough to look at this lost boat to understand why. For Aivazovsky, the man and the elements are incommensurable in the first place. This approach makes him similar to the great British marine painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. But Turner still demonstrates this confrontation. Who wins? It's worth looking at Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps to get an answer. There, in the distance, one can see the trunk of an elephant with the greatest commander sitting on it...

The continuation of the picture The Black Sea (not a diptych, though, but a separate work) can be considered a huge canvas Among the Waves, created in a similar style in 1898. Looking at these two pictures, it is easy to imagine that "among the waves" there broke out a storm, predicted by the Black Sea.

In 2015, the modern artist Anish Kapoor visited the Tretyakov Gallery. The director of the gallery Zelfira Tregulova, who walked him through the gallery, told of the artist's impression of The Black Sea: "On his way to the iconography hall – he wanted to see the icons – Kapoor stopped near Aivazovsky's Black Sea (which is almost an abstract painting, by the way). And on the way back he just stopped short, although he was already late for his own opening in the Jewish Museum. And when I asked him: "Do you really like Aivazovsky?", he replied: "Of course! This is absolute metaphysics! This is what I'm doing today."

And the next day Kapoor came to the Tretyakov Gallery again – this time to have a look at Black Square. It seems that he was sure that these two paintings – by Aivazovsky and Malevich – were “blood-related”.

Author: Alena Esaulova
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Marina

Style of art: Romanticism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1881

Size: 149×208 cm

Artwork in selections: 66 selections

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