Art is always a bit of a mind game between the spectator and the artist where context is key. I want to tell you about 5 iconic yet confusing paintings from the Tretyakov Gallery. This painting is called Bathing of a Red Horse. By Russian artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. The artist’s original idea for a genre art painting outgrew itself, but he only realized it after having learnt that the Russian Empire entered World War I some two years after the painting had been finished. “So that’s why I painted Bathing of a Red Horse!” – Petrov-Vodkin said upon hearing the grim news. It was a premonition about an upcoming social catastrophe. Petrov-Vodkin was inspired by the Novgorod School of Icon painting famous for this bold color-code. Traditional in Icon painting, Saints on red horses symbolise an eternal battle against evil. Having seen tremendous success, the painting found itself somewhat stuck in Europe during World War I. And the Tretyakov Gallery only obtained it years later, in 1961. Another confusing work of art is the Demon Downcast. The artist, Mikhail Vrubel, first turned to the subject in 1891, when he was asked to illustrate Mikhail Lermontov’s poem – the Demon. Since then, he would return to it again and again. Vrubel’s mental health suffered a blow when his son Savva was born with a cleft lip… Apparently he somehow linked that with his Demon. Three years after that, in 1902, he painted The Demon Downcast. Even after the painting was presented to the public, he continued working on it, adding more and more details. The Demon wouldn’t let go. Soon his mental health deteriorated so significantly he was admitted into an asylum. After lengthy therapy Vrubel mostly painted from life. Unfortunately his hallucinations came back… but without the demon. His last work was an almost icon-like image – The Vision of the Prophet Eh-ZEE-kiel. In 1908 the Tretyakov Gallery bought The Demon Downcast for its permanent exhibition. Mark Chagall’s painting Over the Town is a testiment to one of the happiest moment’s in his life. A son of an unskilled worker, he was no match for a wealthy jeweller’s daughter. But Chagall went to Paris to make a name for himself and when he returned in 1915… he married his beloved Bella. This feeling of infinite happiness – to be reunited with one’s greatest love… is what Mark Chagall tried to depict by painting himself and his wife Bella flying over a town. If you look closer, yo can notice two peculiar details. Look at the green goat. It’s Chagall’s way of saying that all is a bit surreal and thus – full of joy. Green is the colour of youth and happiness for the artist. He would sometimes depict himself using green too. Now spot the shameless guy with his pants down crouching by the fence. A gentle reminder that regardless of how happy a couple may be on cloud nine, life still takes its course. Despite the fact that Vassiliy Vereshagin painted The Apotheosis of War way back in 1871, this work looks painfully modern. After graduating from The Sea Cadet Corps, Vereshagin left the army and entered the Academy of Arts. Having studied in St Petersburg and Paris, he accepted General Kaufman’s invitation to become his military artist. Kaufman made a name for himself during the Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia. Effectively Vereshagin was a war correspondent of his time… He spent decades with the military travelling to hot spots and depicting war atrocities in his paintings. The Apotheosis of War is perhaps his most memorable piece. A pile of skulls with sword marks, vultures hovering above – this timeless scene shows how merciless any war conflict is. Vereshyagin avoided giving out any details on the place, date and reason for the conflict on purpose. Potentially set anywhere… it could have happened 500 years ago… or be a premontiton of what is yet to come. Philipp Malyavin’s Whirlwind is so large and bright that you won’t miss it in the Tretyakov Gallery. Because of its size, the painting is percieved as an abstract. But focus on the top half and you will see faces of women… while everything else is a bright and chaotic whirlwind of traditional Russian dresses. The artist experimented with composition and his goal was to lure away the spectators’ eyes from the faces, turning the dresses into the main attraction of the painting Malyavin decided to work with pure pigments to create very bright colours: the formula suggested careful use of thinner. He ignored the formula and used his ingredients in abundance… which led to his oils taking ages to dry and in unexpected leakage. It all worked to his advantage in the end resulting in a spectacular illusion of motion.