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Worthy of Aivazovsky’s Brush

In his renowned 1897 play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov coined the phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” – which, according to Wikipedia, then soon became a popular Russian expression for something “ineffably lovely.” A while ago, when I was first reading Uncle Vanya, this phrase stuck out to me. I had never heard of this “Aivazovsky”; the reference seemed quite out of place in the text. So naturally, as we do in the 21st century, I googled it:

Examining his paintings, it became clear; he’s a romantic. Seeing as one of the main currents that runs through Uncle Vanya is a deep, unfettered admiration for Nature, it made sense that Chekhov would name-drop Aivazovsky. Even a layperson like myself can sense in his paintings the deep fascination with Nature that so defines Romanticism. Not to mention, here and there, they also exhibit flashes of realism: a definite philosophical focus in Uncle Vanya.

But there were a slew of Russian Romantic painters for Chekhov to choose from. Why Aivazovsky? Why was Chekhov so enamored with this artist, then relatively unknown? Why did he choose to include that phrase – “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” those four words that propelled the painter into greatness – of all possible phrases? Returning to the trusty Google, I came across these words, spoken by none other than Anton Chekhov himself.

“Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and an bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He’s not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” (Wikipedia)

From this quote, it became clear. Chekhov paints a complex, but honest picture of Aivazovsky. There’s a quiet admiration in his words, no doubt. No matter that he wasn’t bright. It was his personality, so nuanced, so inherently Russian – full of both aristocracy and peasantry, brilliance and patriotism – that made him stand out. Perhaps the most important idea to note from all of this, however, is just how existential Aivazovsky seems. After all, the “complex personality” seems to fit a total of 5 roles, and by Chekhov’s own admission: “a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” Now, maybe Aivazovsky is just Chekhov’s ultimate Renaissance man. But there’s an uncertainty to how Chekhov describes him, a wariness in his words, a hesitation in his praise, that further pushes me toward the existentialist theory.

Chekhov, too, was an existentialist, and an outspoken one at that. This side of him comes across clearly in Uncle Vanya through the character of Voinitsky (who is, in fact, Uncle Vanya!). Voinitsky is at odds with life, at his core, and most definitely an uninspired soul. He considers all fine days “fine days to hang oneself,” and finds life in excessive drink (“Because it is like living. Somehow—like living.”) While “nature will be fresh and breathing,” Voinitsky says, he will be dying; this is the bane of his existence. There are striking similarities between Voinitsky and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Voinitsky – every iteration of the three reads the same under the existentialist lens. You could consider Aivazovsky a hidden character, of sorts. It’s fascinating how Chekhov manages to weave him in.

Most of the time, artists carve their names in history through one thing: their work. It’s what they are remembered for. It’s a reflection of who they are, their influences; oftentimes, the artist’s work serves as the best description of the artist themself. Aivazovsky is no exception in this regard. Our trusty Google and Wikipedia may be able to provide the background information, places of study, awards won – but to truly understand who this marine artist was at his core, past the résumé – I refer you to his work, to his paintings. Pretty much ever since I read Uncle Vanya and first researched Aivazovsky, his favorite paintings have served as my desktop backgrounds. I leave you with my selection. Enjoy getting to know the naturalist, the complex, charismatic figure behind brush strokes. The painter who charmed Chekhov and thousands of Russians after him, who brought the genre of marine landscape to his country, who could paint brilliant seascapes and translucent waves by memory. Enjoy the work itself, too. Simply put, it’s stunning. I don’t have a trained eye for artwork, but personally? These paintings take me places. I hope they do the same for you.

The Ninth Wave Painting by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky
The Ninth Wave (1850)
Storm on the Black Sea (1899)
Wave (1889)
Storm at Sea (1850)
The Black Sea (1881) by Ivan Aivazovsky: Analysis & Overview
The Black Sea (1881)
Ships in a Storm (1860)
Moscow in the Winter from the Sparrow Hills (1872)
Winter Scene in Little Russia (1868)

Credit: All digitized painting snapshots are from Google Images.


Chekhov: The Realist Starring in Uncle Vanya

Happy holidays, all! This is a selection of quotes from Uncle Vanya, a famous play by the great Anton Chekhov, that stand out to me. I find these to be especially revealing of Chekhov’s view on life, death, aging, and the human condition. At his core, Chekhov was an existentialist, and the ultimate realist. Maxim Gorky recognized this too, writing to Chekhov in 1900:

“Do you know what you are doing? You are killing realism. You will soon have killed it off completely, and it will stay that way for some time to come. This form has outlived its time, and that’s a fact! No one can go further along this path than you have done, no one can write as simply about such simple things as you can…”

Here, ironically, being branded as “killing realism” is perhaps the greatest compliment! See this paper for the quote’s source and for more on this idea. This realism is crystal clear in Chekhov’s writing, and so are his existentialist tendencies and his admiration for Nature. Chekhov was also a Naturalist—he believed that Nature always rules supreme over all aspects of society and civilization, and that life, aging, and death are just effects of its influence. Perhaps that is even what formed the basis for his greater, realist views. So, make what you will of that! Oh, and a last note: be on the lookout for Chekhov’s ~interesting~ views on alcohol and the drink (throughout Uncle Vanya, and also in some of the quotes).

I’ve purposefully presented these as just plain quotes here, but I’m currently working on a YouTube video in which I hope to explore these aforementioned ideas (and more!) in greater depth and offer more of my own thoughts and analysis. In the video, I’ll also touch on both the film Vanya on 42nd Street and differences in interpretation of Sonia’s last monologue, both in performances and in literary criticism. 

I’ll link the YouTube video here soon—enjoy this teaser in the meantime! And again, happy holidays! 

Тranslation: Act. 1, Chekhov, Uncle Vanya. Elena Andreevna (to Astroff). You are still a young man, you look… well thirty-six or -seven years old… and it must not be quite so interesting as you say, with always the trees and the trees and the trees. I think it’s monotonous.

Please note that all quotes are of Stark Young’s translation of Uncle Vanya, which appears in my edition of Chekhov’s collection of plays: Chekhov, Anton. Plays. Translated by Stark Young, New Dehli, Rupa Publications, 1999.

. . .

“And life itself is boring, stupid, dirty… it strangles you, this life.” (74)

“… a man for exactly twenty-five years reads and writes about art, and understands exactly nothing about art… twenty-five years reads and writes about what intelligent people already know and stupid people are not interested in…” (78)

ELENA: And fine weather today… Not hot… (A pause.)

VOINITSKY (Uncle Vanya): It’s fine weather to hang yourself… (82)

“He says that forests adorn the earth, that they teach a man to understand the beautiful and inspire him to lofty moods.” (83)

“The whole thing very likely is only foolishness after all.” (85)

“This damned, disgusting old age, the devil take it!” (88)

VOINITSKY: A storm is gathering outside. (Lightning) (90)

“Old ones like young ones want somebody to feel sorry for them, but nobody feels sorry for the old.” (91)

VOINITSKY: The rain will be over now and everything in nature will be fresh and breathing. Only I will not be refreshed by the storm. Day and night like a fiend at my throat is the thought that my life is hopelessly lost. No past, it was stupidly spend on trifles, and the present with all its absurdity is frightful. Here they are: my life and my love: where shall I put them, what shall I do with them? This feeling of mine is dying in vain, like a ray of sunlight that has strayed into a pit, and I myself am dying. (92)

ELENA: And today you were drinking? Why is that?

VOINITSKY: Because it is like living. Somehowlike living.  (93)

“Now we both would have been awakened by the storm; she would have been frightened by the thunder and I would have held her in my arms and whispered: “Don’t be afraid, I am here.” Oh, beautiful thoughts, how wonderful, I am even smiling…” (93)

“When one has no real life, one lives in illusions. After all, that’s better than nothing.” (96)

“An idle life can’t be right.” (98)

“One must have faith in everybody, otherwise life is impossible.” (102)

“And do you know what genius means? Bravery, a free mind, a broad sweep.” (103)

VOINITSKY: As a token of peace and harmony, I’ll bring a bouquet of roses, now; I made it for you this morning… Autumn roses—charming, sad roses… 

(Goes out.)

SONIA: Autumn roses—charming, sad roses.

(Both of them look out of the window.)

ELENA: And September is already with us. How will we live through the winter here… (106)

“It seems to me the truth, whatever it is, is not so frightful as uncertainty after all.” (108)

“We have here a case of degeneration that results from a struggle that’s beyond men’s strength for existence; degeneration caused by sloth, by ignorance, by the complete absence of any conscience… Nearly everything is already destroyed and in its place there is nothing created.” (110-111)

ASTROFF (With false nonchalance): Today, much esteemed Ivan Petrovich, the weather is not bad. In the morning it was cloudy, as if it would rain, and now the sun’s shining. Honestly speaking, autumn turned out beautiful… And the winter crop not bad. (Folds the chart into a cylinder.) Except for one thing: the days are getting short… (Goes out.) (114)

“The fact is manet omnes una nox, that is: we are all mortal…” (116)

VOINITSKY: Why not—I am insane, irresponsible, I have the right to say silly things.

ASTROFF: That’s an old story. You are not insane, you are simply odd. A little clown. There was a time when I too regarded every person who was odd as sick, abnormal, and now I am of the opinion that the normal state of man is to be odd. You are entirely normal. (125-126)

VOINITSKY: Give me something! Oh, my God… I am forty-seven years old; if—suppose I’ll live till sixty—if so I still have thirteen years left. That long! How shall I live through these thirteen years? What will I do, what will I fill them with? Oh, do you understand… (Convulsively pressing ASTROFF’s hand) Do you understand, if I could only live through what is left of life somehow differently. To wake up on a clear, quiet morning and to feel that you have begun to live anew, that all the past is forgotten, faded away, like smoke. (Crying) To begin a new life… teach me how to begin… from what to begin… 

ASTROFF (Annoyed, sharply): Eh, you! What new life is there? Our situation, yours and mine, is hopeless. (126)

SONIA: What can we do, we must live! (A pause) We shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll live through a long, long line of days, endless evenings; we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly and there beside the coffin we’ll say that we suffered, that we cried, that we felt bitter, and God will take pity on us, and you and I, Uncle, darling Uncle, shall see life bright, beautiful, fine, we shall be happy and will look back tenderly with a smile on these misfortunes we have now—and we shall rest. I have faith. I believe warmly, passionately… (Kneeling before him and putting her head on his hands; in a tired voice) We shall rest!

(TELEGIN plays the guitar quietly.)

SONIA: We shall rest! We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. I believe, I do believe… (Wipes away his tears with a handkerchief) Poor, dear Uncle Vanya, you are crying… (Through her tears) In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait… We shall rest… (Embraces him) We shall rest! (The night watchman taps. TELEGIN is strumming quietly; MARIA VASILIEVNA is writing on the margins of a pamphlet; MARINA is knitting on a stocking.)

SONIA: We shall rest!

The curtain falls slowly. (134-135)

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