Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Killing Irony with Ivan Grozny and an Orthodox Activist

00 Tsar Ivan Grozny Kills... All meme. 09.10.13


Ivan Grozny lived a long time ago and the passage of time does distort historical figures… sometimes, truth is hard to separate from fiction. Still, probably, it’s safe to say that Ivan Grozny wasn’t a fan of pluralism and open socio-political discourse. Keeping that in mind, it’s particularly interesting to observe the scandal around Ilya Repin’s iconic painting of the man, a work colloquially known as Ivan Grozny Killing His Son (the “official” name of the work is Ivan Grozny and His Son Ivan, 16 November 1581). The painting purports to show the immediate aftermath of Ivan Grozny’s fatal attack on his son following a heated argument. A bleeding Ivan Jr dies in his father’s arms with a look of acceptance on his face, whilst horror and grief overcomes the tsar himself. Indeed, the question of whether Ivan Grozny did kill his son was the subject of historical debate. Some experts say that it’s possible that Ivan Jr, the heir apparent, died of an illness and that someone invented the story of an accidental killing later.

Today, the debate surrounding the painting isn’t so much historical as it’s hysterical. A prominent Orthodox businessman, Vasili Boiko-Veliky, demanded that the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow remove the painting from its collection, calling it “unpatriotic” and “slanderous”. According to Boiko-Veliky, Ivan Grozny was an upstanding and just Russian ruler who couldn’t have killed his son. Boiko-Veliky told Gazeta Metro Rossiya (Газета Metro Россия), “People… especially, young men and women… come to the Tretyakov Gallery and on a subconscious level internalise this [image] of a cruel and barbaric Russia, the country where we live. This is slander… not just against Ivan Grozny, but against our country, against our people, against our statehood”.

Already, plenty of people have made fun of Boiko-Veliky’s position. A popular internet meme that existed before the latest scandal surrounding the painting (this isn’t the first time that someone attacked this particular work by Repin… someone slashed it with a knife in 1913) is once again making the rounds in response to the controversy. Titled Ivan Grozny Killing… All (Иван Грозный убивает… всех), the meme features Photoshopped images of the grief-stricken tsar embracing everyone from Kenny from South Park to the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream (formal title, The Scream of Nature). The head of Mitki, a renowned alternative painters’ collective in St Petersburg, sarcastically offered to paint a “bundled-up, rosy-cheeked” baby that could replace the Repin painting in the Tretyakov’s permanent collection. The Russian edition of GQ magazine also got in on the act, featuring a selection of other paintings that we should also ban, if we follow Boiko-Veliky’s logic. Amongst them is the Mona Lisa (because she doesn’t have eyebrows and could, therefore, warp young women’s views on personal grooming) and Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (because the man in the painting looks too much like Putin).

What’s fascinating to me here is the logic behind Boiko-Veliky’s insistence that we remove the Repin painting. Boiko-Veliky, a dairy magnate with considerable clout, could’ve easily sponsored, say, a book on why he thinks the Repin portrait isn’t historically accurate. He could’ve called a conference, created a seminar, or, hell, just paid a bunch of modern artists to paint different, more “patriotic” works on the life of Ivan Grozny. The great thing about money is that it can go a long way… particularly, where artists are concerned, as they’re usually broke. Alas, Boiko-Veliky isn’t interested in scholarly discussion or fostering an environment where different accounts of Ivan Grozny’s life can compete. Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that Ivan Grozny would’ve himself banned such a painting (and probably had Repin executed, had they been historical contemporaries), so, perhaps, Boiko-Veliky is more like the tsar than he realises. The ironic thing is that Repin’s painting did more than merely keep thousands of Russian schoolchildren marginally aware of Ivan Grozny’s historic persona. The immense power of the painting, the terrible, stricken look of nearly animalistic grief on Ivan’s face, did more to humanise the tsar than any other historic portrayal. In his patriotic desire to defend the tsar’s memory, Boiko-Veliky didn’t just overshoot the mark… he missed the point entirely.

8 October 2013

Natalia Antonova




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