Saturday 20 January 2018

What lies beneath: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov by Osip Braz, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery Moscow

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov by Osip Braz.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov by Osip Braz.

Niall MacMonagle

According to the Old Style calendar, Anton Chekhov, short story writer and playwright, was born on this day in 1860, the feast of St Anthony the Great.

Born in Taganrog on the Black Sea, Chekhov, whose grandfather was a serf and father a shopkeeper, trained as a doctor at Moscow University but apart from a year of intensive work during a cholera epidemic, when he was 32, he was always more writer than doctor claiming that "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.

"When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other."

In 1890 he spent three months on Sakhalin, a remote island and penal colony, observing the lives of prisoners and workers, and his writing captures the disappointed, lonely, boring lives of the Russian middle classes without even being dull or monotonous.

He said that in his work all he wanted to say was: "Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are! The important thing is that people should realise that, for when they do, they will certainly create another and better life for themselves."

This portrait by Osip Braz is dated 1898.

Braz was 25, his sitter 38 and Chevhov was to die six years later from tuberculosis, having moved to the Crimea and then in 1900 to Yalta, marrying the actor Olga Knipper in 1901. Braz lived another 38 years but having been arrested for espionage and buying paintings for export he spent three years in a prison camp.

Released in 1926, he lived the rest of his life in Germany and France.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, with pince-nez, smig, that fine chestnut-coloured thick head of hair, wearing a well-cut three-piece charcoal suit containing beautiful dark greens and purples, looks at the viewer with a steady confident intent gaze.

The pose - legs crossed, right hand closed, left hand adding a reflective touch - gives us a relaxed but alert Chekhov.

That same man said: "If there's a gun onstage in Act I it must go off in a later Act or it has no business being there."

And go off it did.

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