Boris Kustodiev's legacy is directly tied to the Russian themes he interlaced in his compositions. Indeed the majority of his best-known works depict Russian villages with people in traditional costume, and perhaps no other artist so dutifully worked to portray the motherland, pouring himself into a study of traditional arts and crafts in order to understand the nation and its culture more completely. He explained, "I do not know whether or not I have succeeded to do and express in my works that which I wished—love of life, joy, and vitality, devotion to all that Russia means to us—these have always been the sole subjects of my pictures" (M. Etkind, Boris Kustodiev, New York, 1983, p. 7). Isaac Brodsky once remarked, "Kustodiev was the only truly national painter. I do not know of any other painter who had a similar deep and penetrating understanding of Russia" (Ibid., p. 34).
Fittingly, Kustodiev was approached by the Central Bureau to prepare decorative designs for the first anniversary celebration of the October Revolution in 1918. The result was a series of large-scale panels that decorated Ruzheinaya Square in what was then Petrograd, with each composition dedicated to a specific aspect of the the city and its hardworking citizens (figs 4, 5 and 6). It is all but certain that Fireworks. Bronze Horseman was executed as part of this remarkable cycle.
National holidays and festivals were among the artist's favorite subjects, yet the present lot serves as a clear departure from his busy village scenes. Extraordinary for both its monumentality and simplicity, the composition centers on one imposing figure–the Bronze Horseman, the equestrian statue featuring Tsar Peter I, St. Petersburg's founder. A memorial established by Catherine II in 1782, the Bronze Horseman played a central role in Alexander Pushkin's eponymous poem of 1833, and it was thanks to the success of this poem that the statue took on its current name and iconic status as a symbol of the nation's capital.
Fundamental to the emotional potency of this composition is its particular significance to the artist, who had just experienced the throes of the 1917 Revolution firsthand. He wrote to his friend, actor Vasili Luzhsky, "It's been scary and joyful all these days. I was an eyewitness...but it took longer to understand it all. It was more like a dream, and just as in a dream or, better, in an old-time fairy-tale play; all that belonged to yesterday, that we were afraid to look at, crashed out of sight" (Ibid., p. 262). Thus the fantastical elements of the panel reflect Kustodiev's own sincere exhilaration, as well as his faith in the country's future under new leadership. The anniversary's celebratory mood is almost tangible in his brushstrokes.
The bold palette and exuberant technique showcased in the present lot were not altogether uncommon in Kustodiev's oeuvre at the time. Works such as Horses in a Thunderstorm (fig 1) and Stepan Razin (fig 3), both from 1918, exhibit a similarly dynamic effect. Furthermore Fireworks. Bronze Horseman is executed on panel, a medium Kustodiev frequently utilized during this period, especially for his theater designs in the 1920s. He also represented Peter I in multiple compositions, for example his masterpiece Peter I, Seated of 1911, which hangs in the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (fig 2), but the present lot is uniquely activated and flamboyant. Thus palpably evoking his own nationalism, Kustodiev depicts Peter I on horseback as a central, all-reigning figure; as if straight from Pushkin's poem, he comes to life against a kaleidoscopic sky of diagonal spotlights and bursting fireworks.
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