I don’t usually write about art; I don’t consider myself qualified, to be honest. Lacking any great practical ability myself, or any serious technical background, the most I can manage is to suggest, is to point and say ‘look at that, isn’t it amazing?’ Recently, however, I have been thinking a lot about a specific painting, one that is well known, but isn’t especially famous [if that makes sense – my friend, who takes an interest in art wasn’t aware of it], which is Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan by Ilya Repin. The painting itself is below.
What it depicts is the aftermath of the murder of the younger Ivan by his father. I’m no expert on Russian history, but apparently Ivan Vasilevich [Ivan the Terrible] was a complex figure. He was responsible for overseeing the conquest of numerous countries and creating a kind of multi-ethnic Russian superpower; he was, it is said, a devout man, yet also prone to violent outbursts of temper. One such outburst led to him beating his pregnant daughter-in-law, causing her to lose the child. His son confronted his father, and in another outburst was struck and killed.
Obviously, you can make your own minds up about Repin’s work. It may touch you, or it may not, of course. Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to force people to feel certain things. For me, however, it is the most extraordinary painting. What strikes me most of all, and I’m sure I am not alone in this, is Ivan Vasilevich’s eyes. I have never seen – in art or in real life – a more powerful representation of terror and grief.
If one came to the painting without knowing what inspired it one would perhaps immediately think that the Tsar had found his son in this state, but closer inspection tells a different story, because there is guilt in that expression too. In The Idiot Dostoevsky wrote a passage about capital punishment, and the horror experienced by those who know their final moment is upon them; he meant specifically the moment when death is not days away but is about to happen, is unavoidable. It is, he said, the worst kind of psychic pain, and I agree with him. To have been responsible for the loss of a loved one is, I would say, second only, in intensity of feeling, to that experience. Unlike that experience, however, one must live with the pain. How do you do that? It is incomprehensible.
What have I done! We have all said that to ourselves, we have all felt the panic of having done something that can then not be undone or changed, which cannot cease to be. The anguish of actuality, or of a new reality. I have felt that many, many times. I remember some years ago cheating on a girlfriend, one whom I wasn’t even particularly serious about, and when I woke up in the morning I experienced a suffocating sensation of newness, of life now being stained in such a way so as I could not rub it out. It’s not the same thing, of course, it’s not as brutal, as paralysing as what Ivan is feeling in the painting, but it gives me some idea of what is going on in his mind.
The other notable thing about the painting is the expression of the son. He, although the wronged party, is calm, he is away, has been released. It is the guilty one who must live and pay. Looking at Ivan the Terrible and His Son is, for me, a kind of existential confrontation; one is forced to confront human weakness, in so many of its forms.