Nordgaard on Gregory, 'Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan'

Author: 
Serge Gregory
Reviewer: 
Ingrid Nordgaard

Serge Gregory. Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2015. 264 pp. $39.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87580-731-7.

Reviewed by Ingrid Nordgaard (Graduate student, Yale University) Published on H-Russia (May, 2017) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha

In Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan, Serge Gregory shares a fascinating account of the relationship between two of the most influential Russian artists of the late nineteenth century. Consulting an extensive and diverse array of primary sources such as letters and memoirs, Gregory follows the artists’ friendship from its beginning in the 1880s until Levitan’s death in 1900. Antosha and Levitasha focuses on the biographies of Chekhov and Levitan, while also placing the two artists within a larger network of Russian cultural producers of the time. Ultimately, Gregory sees Chekhov and Levitan as artists whose aesthetic sensibilities have much in common, although manifested in different media.

Gregory articulates his study’s scholarly contribution in two ways: first, as a more detailed account of the biographical connections between Chekhov and Levitan than has previously been offered by both Russian and Western scholarship; and second, as the first biography of Levitan available in English. Gregory points out that an imbalance exists within the scholarship on the Chekhov-Levitan relationship, as existing accounts have primarily centered on Chekhov. Antosha and Levitasha aims to redeem this discrepancy by paying more attention to Levitan, thus only touching on Chekhov’s biography “to the extent necessary to elucidate his friendship with Levitan” (p. 5). Nevertheless, Gregory duly notes that Levitan had a much greater influence on Chekhov’s artistry than the other way around. Not only did Levitan inspire Chekhov to use landscape depictions as metaphors for the inner lives of his characters, but Levitan’s personal life also functioned as a model on which he based several of his stories.

In addition to an introduction and a brief epilogue, Antosha and Levitasha is structured by thirteen chapters which chronologically cover the period 1860-1900, especially emphasizing the fifteen years prior to Levitan’s death. Each chapter considers a specific time frame and comments on the communications and interactions between Levitan and Chekhov. The book also contains twenty illustrations, out of which fifteen are black-and-white reproductions of Levitan’s paintings. While the book’s chronological structure makes it easy to trace the personal developments of both Chekhov and Levitan, it nevertheless makes some of the chapters seem unfocused and too consumed by biographical details. The result is that these chapters do not appear to form a unified whole beyond their temporal framework. This, in part, might have to do with Gregory’s ambitious goal of writing Levitan’s biography while simultaneously showing the reader how Chekhov’s work was influenced by Levitan’s life and art. Unfortunately, not all chapters manage to strike a comfortable balance between the two approaches. Since the biographical connections Gregory points out are so provocative, and the artistic juxtapositions so appealing, one wishes that some of the chapters would have adopted a more flexible structure, thus leaving even more room to indulge in formal and aesthetic comparisons.  

From the very beginning, Gregory convincingly contextualizes Levitan’s life and work within the larger cultural institutions and artistic movements of late imperial Russia. Chapter 1 covers Levitan’s formative years at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (Moskovskoe uchilishhe zhivopisi, vaianiia i zodchestva), and gives a brief introduction to the artistic debates that took place among Russian artists and critics in the 1870s. These debates concerned, among other questions, how art ought to be practiced and taught. In addition to commenting on Levitan’s relationship to his teachers, Alexei Savrasov and Vasily Polenov, both landscape painters in their own right and members of the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), the chapter reveals intriguing details about Levitan’s early aesthetic views and his friendships with fellow students, among them Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Nesterov, and Nikolai Chekhov, the older brother of Anton Chekhov. Chapters 9 and 10, likewise, touch on Levitan’s encounter with the famous cultural entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev. Gregory’s research emphasizes the professional and creative difficulty for artists such as Levitan, torn artistically between the Wanderers and the new World of Art movement, led by Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois. Chapter 11 presents wonderful insights into Levitan’s role as a teacher at the School of Painting and highlights his pedagogical perspectives on art. These chapters also show the changing attitude toward landscape painting as a genre, and reflect the general artistic environment and development of which Levitan was a part.

Another strength of Gregory’s discussion of Levitan is how it continuously foregrounds Levitan’s experience of being Jewish, a fact that had both personal and professional consequences for the artist. Even after his death, critics discussed whether Levitan could be considered a truly Russian painter. Interestingly, Gregory also pays attention to Chekhov’s story “The Mire” ( “Tina,” 1886), which might have been inspired by his own personal life, especially by his short engagement to the Jewish woman Dunia Efros. Gregory claims that the story’s female protagonist is depicted as “a wily, unscrupulous, and sexually predatory Jew who ensnares Russian men unable to resist her charms” (p. 45). Suggesting that the story represents “a kind of revenge” against Efros, Gregory discusses Chekhov’s literary depiction of Jews and, by extension, his approach to Levitan’s Jewish identity. According to Gregory, although Chekhov considered Levitan the foremost landscape painter in Russia, he still referred to Levitan as a zhid, "usually with a comic intent, with all the stereotypical faults of his Semitic tribe” (p. 48). Gregory’s description of this aspect of the Chekhov-Levitan relationship could potentially engage a productive discussion about the overt or latent anti-Semitism that, on occasion, appears in many literary classics of the European canon from the nineteenth century.

Throughout Antosha and Levitasha, Gregory goes to great lengths to show how several of Chekhov’s stories might have been inspired by Levitan and his personal life. An entire chapter is dedicated to the scandal caused by Chekhov’s story “The Grasshopper” (“Poprygun'ia,” 1892), which paints a fictional--albeit highly recognizable--picture of the relationship between Levitan and his mistress, Sophia Kuvshinnikova, who was already married when their relationship began. However, Gregory also includes passages in which he focuses on the art of Chekhov and Levitan without connecting it explicitly to their personal lives. A wonderful example of Gregory taking his subject matter beyond the biographical can be found in chapter 4, in which Gregory writes about Levitan’s travels on the Volga and Chekhov’s journey along the steppe. For readers who are hoping to learn more about how these trips might have creatively inspired the two artists, this chapter will be of special interest. Gregory states, for instance, that Chekhov’s novella The Steppe (Step', 1888) is the author’s most “Levitan-like” story, as Chekhov here “found a way to use his imagination and precise observation to make the natural world reflect human feelings” (p. 51). Regarding Levitan’s experiences at the Volga, Gregory notes that it “enticed him and challenged him to understand the significance of its scale and incorporate it into the way he painted” (p. 53). In commenting on The Steppe and Levitan’s painting Evening on the Volga (Vecher na Volge, 1887–88), Gregory presents the book’s most convincing comparison between the two artists’ shared artistic sensibilities. In another strong passage on the artistic commonalities between Chekhov and Levitan, Gregory argues that Chekhov’s story “Happiness” (“Schast'e,” 1887) reveals “the common aesthetic impulse shared by Chekhov and Levitan--that a landscape precisely observed and contemplated, filtered through words and images, can generate a work of art inseparably containing both beauty and sadness” (p. 80). Observations such as these enrich the book by placing the two artists’ lives and artistic production in explicit dialogue with each other, and disclose the great scholarly potential of studying the Chekhov-Levitan relationship in detail.

Due to the book’s overarching biographical focus, it is perhaps no surprise that Gregory’s readings of literary works by Chekhov and others are set on showing the similarities between fictional characters and their presumed real-life models. While these readings are valuable for scholars interested in the biographies of Chekhov and Levitan, they often leave the literariness of these works unexplored. The book offers very few in-depth visual and literary analyses, instead commenting on general similarities between artistic works, or centering on anecdotes that might relate to their making. While one should not fault Gregory for not having written an art-historical account of Levitan’s work since this is not his goal, the book’s claim that Chekhov and Levitan had a similar approach to depicting landscape would have been more convincing if there were further discussion of the aesthetic and formal characteristics of Levitan’s paintings. It is also unfortunate that the fifteen reproductions of Levitan’s paintings are not presented in color, as this would have added to the reader’s understanding of his artistic sensibilities and unique visual representations of Russian landscapes.

Antosha and Levitasha is an ambitious and captivating book that fulfills its promise of presenting a thorough biographical account of the relationship between Chekhov and Levitan. Gregory’s extensive use of primary sources helps paint a vivid picture of the two artists and their social circles. While sometimes veering into conjecture, Gregory’s book will nevertheless engage readers who are interested in knowing more about the personal relationship between Chekhov and Levitan. The breadth of Antosha and Levitasha is astonishing, and the biographical details brought to light by Gregory’s meticulous research will prove invaluable for scholars of both Levitan and Chekhov, and their respective artistic productions. As a whole, Serge Gregory’s Antosha and Levitasha stands as a rich testimony of their relationship and late nineteenth-century Russia.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48743

Citation: Ingrid Nordgaard. Review of Gregory, Serge, Antosha and Levitasha: The Shared Lives and Art of Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48743

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