His contemporaries called him the “forest tzar”, “old pine tree”, “lonely oak” and “singer of Russian woods”. His love for the forests of his homeland combined with genius technique and composition makes these woods smell, creak, sway, whistle, and grow right before your eyes, all in two-dimensions. Although he painted a relatively narrow range of landscape subjects, Shishkin has maintained his reputation as one of the greatest Russian landscape painters of the 19th century. Unconcerned with narrative, romanticism or interpretation, Shishkin set out simply to reproduce the beauty of nature.
He was part of the Peredvizhniki bunch, the Russian counterparts of realist artists like Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet. There were undertones of revolution, amongst the Predvizniki, a break from tradition, a change in the subject, composition and techniques of painting. Art movements to follow the realist took increasingly greater liberty of what paintings should be about. Historically, paintings were the only means of reproducing and preserving a visual image for posterity. That didn’t stop artists from all era to be less than truthful – performing a little bit of cosmetic surgery in portraits, granting divine consent to monarchs in action, introducing coy or tongue-in-cheek symbolisms. Yet paintings still remained true to the subjects they depicted. But by the first half of the nineteenth century, developments in the field of photography meant that artist lost their relevance as “transcribers of light to paint”. This gave the artists freedom to reinterpret their role and so came the impressionists, the abstract artists, the cubists, the surrealists.
But what Ivan Shishkin created in his unique style of realist paintings, will even today give several 10 Megapixel digital cameras a run for their money. The secret lies in his composition technique rather than his skill in brushwork. His paintings have a unique use of chiaroscuro, the art of contrasting light and dark. Though the art of chiaroscuro was a highlight of the Baroque movement that dealt with strong emotion, and dramatic lighting – indoors – a century before his time, he introduced a special plein air twist to this technique. He took it outdoors and made the sun his chiaroscuro partner. Several of his compositions use this interplay between the delicate sunlight of the dawn or dusk kissing the upper reaches of the trees and casting dark shadows on the trunks below, this game of hide-and-seek being played out in the woods, by the woods gives the paintings a sense of fleeting image, a sense of temporal motion in a still life.
Shishkin also used occasionally, an element of water, a placid stream or a puddle of water left behind by yesterdays rain, and used the reflection off the tranquil waters to suggest the quivering pleasure of life, not breaking thus the impression of the rest, present in a nature. You can almost hear the birds tweeting.
Almost always he also cuts off the top of the trees, thus strengthened the impression of greatness of the trees, as if the canvas, large as it was, still couldn’t contain the mighty oaks.
His narrow but deep love for the forests is expressed in many shades, in sunshine, and snow, among the company of men and animals. He led a troubled life, married twice, and bore the loss of spouse twice, his children died before him and he died a lonely man. But so true was his love of the trees that there isn’t a trace of sadness in any of his compositions.
There is no place for tears in these woods. Sunshine and butterflies dance among his woods.