Sunday, May 26, 2024

Rage & Remorse: Explaining Human Psychology through Art

Written by Avani Dhawankar (Grade 12)

“The Earth without art is just eh”. As funny as it sounds, it’s true. Art is beauty, and beauty is art. And that makes us, with the vast multitude of things which find their existence on this bountiful planet that Earth is, beautiful. Oh by the way, I read this quote in the brochure for this competition that my lovely English teacher had sent to me. It was not my first time reading the quote, but this certainly was the time when I acted on it instead of just smiling and agreeing. I see why she recommended this competition to me. She did it because I had researched ekphrastic poetry for my English Research project. I am extremely glad and grateful for having given this opportunity. Moreover, I felt kind of special because she remembered me and my project to recommend this competition to me. In this write up, I will be exploring two related topics. The first one being a discussion on the painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin, and the second one being how metal music affects
the human mind. Trust me, I’ll draw the connection.

In my opinion, painting, music, photography, literature, nature, the wistful reflection of nightlife on a busy street damp after a shower along with the petrichor, that crochet sweater your grandmother knitted for you, the joy in your voice when you’re happy, when you smile in the mirror knowing that you’ll be okay one day if not today – everything is art. Art engulfs everything beautiful, and everything apparently morbid. You might call me a sadist, but don’t you think too, that pain and suffering has inspired more art than happiness and other positive emotions ever have. Think of love, it’s all subjective isn’t it? “Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling so it goes, some things are meant to be; Take my hand, take my whole life too, for I can’t help falling in love with you.” Didn’t we all feel it when Elvis Presley poured his heart out? But we cannot deny how hard we cried remembering that one person we loved too much when John Mayer sang, “So I’ll check the weather wherever you are ‘cause I wanna know if you can see the stars tonight; It might be my only right” in Split Screen Sadness. Undoubtedly and sometimes inevitably, love transcends into a dear melancholy, and into fuming rage, unknowingly. I wish I was blessed with the gift of nonchalance, you know. Because then, I wouldn’t be able to exhume emotions like these out of works of art. The painting I’m analyzing is called Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan (oil on canvas). This haunting painting was painted between 1883 and 1885 by Russian realist artist Ilya Repin whose paintings emphasize on social and political ideas which resonated with the public. This painting currently adorns the walls of Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Set in the 16th century, it depicts Ivan the Terrible accidentally murdering his son Ivan Ivanovich in a fit of rage, as a result of his uncontrollable wrath as his name suggests. The aftermath of this incident is shown in the painting as beautifully as Repin could, from the very use of the colors illustrating melancholy, shock, remorse and guilt on Ivan’s side, to the petrified
expression on his face as contrasted to his son’s defunct expression on the acceptance of death.

Socio-Historical Context of the Painting:
How did Ivan the Terrible come to be called this way? Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, or ‘Ivan Gronzy’ (translated as ‘fearsome’) was the first Russian monarch to be crowned as Tsar of Moscow from 1547 to 1584. He was known for his short temper and wrathful demeanor. However, opposed to the modern connotation of the term ‘terrible’, in the Tsar’s times, it was not really intended to instill fear in the hearts of his subjects. In fact, the term ‘gronzy’ was meant to be used as something along the lines of ‘great’, ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘incredible’. While the Tsar was the subject of various paintings as a result of peoples’ admiration for him, some scholars suggest that he suffered from bipolar or similar disorders. Of course, impulsively killing one’s child certainly does not occur to seemingly normal people!
The tragic killing of Ivan Ivanovich took place in November 1581, but it was painted by Ilya Repin in 1880. Repin was greatly disturbed by violence and gore, and decided to depict it so realistically in his paintings as to disgust the public of it as well. In the 1880s, Russia faced multiple hostilities from Europe, and hence Repin was reminded of this incident that took place in his country three centuries ago.

Story of the Painting:
The story of this painting is engulfed in controversy. There are several theories regarding the same. One theory puts it pretty plainly, suggesting that Ivan Ivanovich was murdered by his father due to political conflicts. Another more famous theory evinces that Ivan the Terrible was accused by his son of harassing his pregnant wife after pointing out her clothing, which led to her miscarrying her child. It is believed that during this fiery argument, Ivan the Terrible struck his scepter at his son, killing him with a single blow on his head. “May I be damned! May I be damned, I killed him! I killed my son!” writes a source, attempting to put Ivan the Terrible’s emotions into words.

Subject Matter and Analysis of the Painting:
Ivan has committed a terrible mistake. Those hauntingly beautiful bloodshot, grim eyes of the father who’s realizing that his son is dead and never to come back again, and basking in the guilt, remorse and shame of being the very reason he’s gone. On his shuddering chest, he clutches the head of his dear child who is bleeding profusely from his head as a result of the blow on his head. Ivan covers his mouth with his child’s head, as if kissing him one last time, as his hand tries to stop the blood gushing from it, indicating his irreversible action. What intrigues me the most is that the terror does not abandon Ivan the Terrible’s grief-stricken pair of eyes which lifelessly stare into nothingness at the regret of the mistake he’s made. The contrasting expressions of the eyes of the father and the son are an indicator of Repin brilliance as an artist. In the same painting, Repin manages to display a rollercoaster of emotions in the father’s eyes, contrasting with utter lifelessness in his son’s. Moreover, Ivan Ivanovich’s hand on his father’s arm is a subtle indicator of Christlike forgiveness in his last moments. It is impossible not to notice the difference between the colors used in the upper half and the lower half of the painting. While the upper half of the painting depicts dullness, stillness and a stupor characterized by disbelief and agony, the lower half symbolizes movement (see carpet and the son’s struggling hand). Perfectly balancing dark and light shades in the upper and lower halves of the painting respectively, Repin elusively marks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Personal Note:
This melancholic painting, like many others, is sure to leave an impression in your mind. The expression in the eyes of the father who killed his son will haunt you and you know it. You will remember it, just like I did, whenever you hear of crime or accidents. Such
is the sinister magic of poignant art. You are immediately and perpetually drawn to its mystery, its tragedy! Now we come to music. Music is food for the soul, it soothes the mind and heart. However, we all have that one song or that one band we cannot enjoy anymore, because our mind relates it with a traumatic incident that occurred in our life. Metal music. I’m sure, if I introduce it to a peaceful mind, they will consider it to be a
cacophony of swearing and screaming. But if I introduced it to Ivan the Terrible, he would relate to it. It would numb the noise that was in his head. Modern studies suggest that listening to this genre can help lessen negative emotions and can help in reducing cortisol and thereby eliminating stress. Even though there exist myths about metal music, such as, ‘Metal music is violent and angry’, ‘It harms your brain’ and ‘It is associated with evil’, firstly there is no evidence to prove that metal music harms our brain. In fact, research indicates that enjoyers of this genre have greater abilities of logical thinking and problem solving than the others. What is interesting is that even though metal music is said to be ‘angry’ as proven by its lyrics and background music, it can help sensitise people to violence. For example, I suffer from anger issues, and I listen to my favourite metal playlists and bands to process my anger in a healthier way rather than resorting to self-harm or hurting others. Last but not the least, metal music is not for everyone, and especially not for the ones with a weak heart. How you interpret it totally depends on how comfortable you are with exploring topics like death, grief and pain. Another noteworthy point was that of the mental health of Ivan the Terrible. Maybe it was the bipolar disorder that was terrible, and not Ivan.

Recent Developments:
It is noteworthy that this painting has been vandalized twice. Once in 1913 when famous painter Abraham Bashalov ruthlessly made three large slashes in the most important portion of the painting – the faces. Repin was somehow able to restore this. Again, in 2018, just 5 minutes before the exhibition would close, an unidentified man barged into the Tretyakov Gallery and struck the painting with a metal pole, damaging its frame and the
glass it was covered with. What’s interesting is that this painting had been heavily referenced and reminisced during the war between Russia and Ukraine that took place recently. This was done in opposition to the violence and gore in the countries. Activists were quick to point out how they have come full circle and how history repeats itself.

Featured Image Courtesy – Wikipedia


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