Bathing of the Red Horse by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin

“I had three versions. In the process of working I set out more and more demands from the purely painterly side which would even out the form and content, the things which would give the painting social importance.” – Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin

At the time when the Russian Empire was suspended between two revolutions and was undergoing a radical social and political changes, emerging avant-garde artists were working on 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. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin  synthesized both approaches when he painted Bathing of the Red Horse in 1912.

There are at least three obvious historical influences that Petrov-Vodkin could draw upon when painting Bathing of the Red Horse: Russian icons, Byzantine frescoes that inspired the Russian classical iconography, and Neoclassicist art. The boy’s peaceful and humble face instantly reminds us of the detached, yet compassionate expression of saints. Christian religious references are also seen in the triptych-like elements within the panting: three horses and three boys and the dominant red/blue palette traditionally used by European painters to identify Christ and the Virgin Mary. The spherical directionality in the painting could have been derived from the frescoes on curved surfaces of the domed spaces in Byzantine churches. And, finally, nudity was most probably inspired by the Neoclassical tradition, in its turn based upon cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome.

That being said, it should be noted that the powerful blood-red stallion was a product of the artist’s own world. Or could it have been the world of his student? It is believed that Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by a sketch “Red Horses” by his pupil, 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 Frantisek Kupka’s L’Eau.

A simple plot, rounded lines, dominating intense red and clear bright colors in the background, and finally not quite mythological but rather a symbolic horse – made this work an icon of the Russian avant-garde. Consequently, this image would become not simply iconic but even prophetic after the Bolsheviks took over the Imperial government and transformed the Russian Empire into the USSR. The red flag would serve as a symbol of the new country for the following seventy years. Petrov-Vodkin returned to the subject once again in 1925 with a painting titled Fantasia, (featured in this article) where the boy on horseback is now flying over the mountains.

Bathing of the Red Horse is in the permanent collection of the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow.

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