Kusma Petrov-Vodkin

Kusma Petrov-Vodkin, “Bathing of the Red Horse”, 1912, Oil on Canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

When the Russian Empire was between two revolutions and  undergoing radical social and political changes, emerging avant-garde artists were manifesting new modes of artistic expression. They either rejected classical art altogether in favor of completely innovative approach, or stylized art of different epochs and cultures endowing it with new meanings. Kusma Petrov-Vodkin melded both approaches with his painting “Bathing of the Red Horse” in 1912.

There were at least three historical influences that Petrov-Vodkin could draw upon when painting “Bathing of the Red Horse”. They are Russian icons, Byzantine frescoes that inspired the Russian classical iconography, and Neoclassicist art. The boy’s peaceful face reminds us of the detached, yet compassionate expression of saints. Christian religious references are also seen in the painting’s triptych-like elements, the three horses and three boys, and in Petrov-Vodkin’s dominant red and blue palette traditionally used by European painters to identify Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The spherical sweep in the painting’s composition could have been derived from the frescoes on curved surfaces of the domed spaces in Byzantine churches. And, thirdly, nudity was most probably inspired by the Neoclassical tradition which was based upon cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome.

It is believed Petro-Vodkin’s inspiration for the blood-red horse was inspired by “Red Horses” sketched by his pupil and painter Sergey Kalmykov, who would become a model for the boy. The choice of the setting, circular composition and symbolism pervading the work also brings to mind “L’Eau” by Frantisek Kupka.

The simple plot, rounded lines, intense red and clear bright colors in the background, and symbolic horse made this work an icon of the Russian avant-garde. Kusma Petrov-Vodkin once again returned to the subject in 1925 with a painting titled “Fantasia”, which featured a boy on horseback flying over the mountains.

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