Ilya Repin: Repurposing & Recontextualizing Culture and History

An Understanding of Ilya Repin’s art piece Ivan the Terrible

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant — “ this line from the poet Emily Dickinson describes briefly the approach used in the works of the Russian-Ukrainian painter Ilya Efimovitch Repin.

Born during Tsar Nicholas I’s autocracy, Repin has possessed both the patriotic and revolutionist ideals while refrained from communism. Along with his comrades and other Russian artists, they have adapted the new avenue for the collective understanding — realism. Realism rose in mid-nineteenth century as a response to the more self-centered and hallucinatory approach of the romantics to life. For them, life should be told in its most honest and purest form. This movement aims to present life truthfully or the truth in living. Though committed on portraying less of the excess and unnecessary, it is not the intention of the realists to serve the truth explicitly, as any art refrain from doing so. The realists believe that the truth resides behind and beyond the capitalist system. Mindful of its capability, the realists express their aggression towards the system through art and literature. This was how realists like Repin decided to tell the truth — by highlighting the often overlooked or disregarded. By stripping off the glamour, all that is left is the truth which is often overlooked.

This is the anomalous and often regarded by the Russians as disturbing painting of Ivan the Terrible and the Tsarevich, his son, Ivan Ivanovich. The painting depicts an old legend that the ruler once had an argument with his son about his wife whom the Tsar rebuked for dressing improperly causing the lady to have a miscarriage which led to the incident of him giving a fatal blow to the Tsarevich. This is how Repin introduce a truth. A truth from a family stripped off of glamour is somehow disturbing. Wealth and power in this image vanishes. This is the ruling family in, hypothetically, rock bottom: a sudden death; the loss of the only heir — a descendant, in the verge of a national disturbance.

Early critics were quick to point out that the painting is excessive, referring to the approach of the portrayal of this event deeming it as inappropriately representing the Russian history. Many Russian nationalists has been calling it out for misrepresentation and inaccuracy led to a boycott of the panting to most Russian exhibitions and the 1913 incident of a deranged painter slashing it with a knife causing an expensive repair for the damage on the painting which is the peak of its controversy. The negativity that surrounds the painting has a deep connection with the subtle denial of the nationalists of the brutal history of the first Tsar. He is known for his cruelty which led to the mass murder of the citizen of Novgorod:

“As witnesses testify, Tsar Ivan gave the oprichniki written orders to massacre those who had fallen into disgrace, including the method of execution to be used and so forth. In turn, the oprichniki prepared reports to the tsar indicating that they had carried out his orders and the circumstances and place of an execution.” (R. G. Skrynnikov, 1985)

Accounts of children tied to their mother and left to drown when thrown at the river because of a rumor of uprising against him were also contributed to the image of the Tsar in the Russian history.

With all these in mind, a spectator fully informed with the knowledge of the subject will immediately develop an upset feeling towards the painting upon seeing the gruesomeness of the blood that the Tsaverich had shed. What misleads the viewer is its failure to search for the real focal point of the painting: the teardrop shed by the Tsaverich.

An interpretation of Pierre Baudry made this assertion that there is no violence depicted in the painting. Repin has opted to presenting the aftermath instead of the act of violence during the incident. By doing so, what is left is a pure sublime moment. The Tsar is unable to absorb the incident while questioning the reality of the event and his act which can be experience through the wide and blank stare on the abyss, consequently the constraining of the pupil of his eyes gives us the feeling of regret. While the son, though shares the same blank stare, gives a sense of security and certainty despite of his injury. Ivan Kramskoy, a Russian painter and art critic who is also a friend and a teacher of Repin perfectly describes this moment in his own words:

“And the son cannot any longer control the pupil of his eye; he breathes heavily, feeling the grief of his father, his horror, his shriek, and he, like a baby, wishes to smile at him as if to say: ‘It’s nothing, father, do not be afraid…” (Kramskoy, as cited in Baudry, 2009)

Baudry believes that the painting portrays the irony of love. To him, the teardrop was not summoned as an act centered to oneself but rather towards someone else. The teardrop is an act of forgiveness. This is what the Russian nationalist fails to discover: that the painting is not simply a memoriam of a controversial historical event that is made to hurt a reputation. It is but a tool to reach and be able to tap a consciousness, which they forbade to discern. By re-contextualizing a part of history and/or culture Repin gives the subject a distinct purpose far from the domain of superficiality that is juxtaposed to a seemingly innocent image. This process forces to generate a different meaning to the subject and upon figuring this out, an unsuspecting audience is now arrested to be sown with a consciousness. A consciousness that appeals true to him but never fully realized until a certain moment wherein he is taunted by own thought which questions his values. This is how Repin’s irony works. In the most subtle way, through this process, Repin has reached and awakened a collective thought while subsequently injecting his ideals of patriotism. For him, one could not offer himself to the country less of its culture and history. In a letter, Repin addressed his spite of Leo Tolstoy’s negation of culture and offers an insight of its value on how a society functions and will further maneuver towards change:

“Culture is the foundation, the basis of good, and without it humanity would become contemptible and powerless, materially and morally” (Repin letter to V.G. Cherkov August 29, 1887, as cited in Baudry 2009)

In the painting Ivan the Terrible, the change resides upon forgiveness. For Repin, to be able for the Russians to truly progress as a nation, it is necessary to take accountability by embracing the history and leaving none of it behind. The painting, completed on 1885, was inspired by the assassination of Tsar Alexander the II on 1881 plotted by the far left group People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya) whom used peasants to spark terrorism guised as revolution. The prominent activities this group has done and its inflicted terror on civilians could have also forced Repin to weaponize it against their extremist advocacy. It is true that Russia’s historical tragedy is displeasing to commemorate. But by recognizing the events that took place, one can take a foot forward towards a more civilized and progressive culture. Repin believes that by forgiving the fatherland (not to be misunderstood as forgiving the perpetrator of the murders), Russia will find itself in a better place, without all the insecurities from its past that lurks and lingers behind its shoulder waiting to consume and devour.

For the past few weeks, a trend of old-as-time issues like racism, police brutality and rape culture resurfaced on the internet. The events that took place awakened the need for an end on these injustices and immoralities. Bear in mind that these has been addressed many times already. The common denominator points to its systemic structure. Yet, the issues die out then and then. This clearly proves the point of Repin on cultural and historical accountability. The search for the solution to these problems has always been a juvenile approach which led to victim-blaming and veered away from the reality of it. The conversation is still going as of the writing of this text. But one needs to realize that the mere conversation will not cease the problem to exist. Repin has put it briefly:

“To descend to this darkness for a minute and say, I am with them — is hypocrisy. To submerge with them forever — is a senseless sacrifice. To raise them, to raise them to one’s own level, to give life — this is a heroic deed!” (Repin letter to V.G. Cherkov August 29, 1887, as cited in Baudry 2009)

When the idea of empowerment in giving way for abolishment of inequality fears people, that mere response is enough to justify the call for injustice. As how Repin put it, it is not enough to sympathize with someone’s struggle. Likely, it is impossible for someone to sympathize with someone’s struggle when you are a part of the system which inflicts the struggle to them. De oppresso liber is not the same as abolishing oppression. One has to recognize the system that caters injustices and inequalities. Change will be radical only to people who refuse to accept the idea of dismantling a system they benefit off of. Repin understands this kind of refusal. Perhaps, this is the reason why he chose the approach he used in his artworks. That to be able to present truth effectively, one must present it slant.

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(2009) Ilya Repin and The Ironic Range of The Noosphere by Pierre Baudry

(1985) The Synodicon of Those Who Fell into Disgrace under Tsar Ivan the Terrible, Soviet Studies in History, 24:1–2, 45–61, DOI: 10.2753/RSH1061–198324010245

Art, culture, and literature.

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