Mstislav Valerianovich Dobuzhinsky, August 14, 1875, Novgorod – November 20, 1957, New York City) was a Russian-Lithuanian artist.
The painting shows a man in glasses with a window to the back of him with a cityscape of the early twentieth century in Russia, either St Petersburg or Moscow – to my mind Moscow although many of Dobuzhinsky’s paintings predominately featured St Petersburg. Dobuzhinsky was a sharp minded artist who had a deep understanding of social issues and problems of psychological distress and was able to express and reveal in his paintings the existentialist concerns of his time.
The portrait shows the image of a typical member of the Russian intelligentsia, traditionally the most enlightened section of Russian society, fabled as the moral conscience of Russia, the bearers of culture and progressive ideas, forging the spiritual and metaphysical direction of the country. The bodily posture is anxious, his face featureless, the eyes are hidden behind misted spectacles, a mouth whose voice is muted and covered entirely by a thickening beard. The man in the portrait is almost a carbon copy of the photographs and images of Anton Chekhov, a typical representative of what we view as the Russian intelligentsia but decayed and alone.
Here we see a frozen emptied husk – barren and anonymous with his back turned against the world behind him, facing into a dim unknown and unseen interior of the room. The bleak almost sterile background, cold and and muted, stark and without warmth also gives off a barren energy. The urban city is featureless and faceless like the portrait and the figure seems to blend into the background – opaque and ill defined.
The books on the windowsill are echoed in the inanimate objects in the yard below. The market gardens in the middle ground are waiting to be swallowed up by the encroaching urban environment just as the intelligentsia were facing a crises waiting to be engulfed by forces and a destiny which they could no longer control and barely influence.
It has an echo of Munch’s The Scream but subdued unable to even raise the necessary fear and horror to respond emotionally – a defeated, fading lonely figure and in distinct contrast to the refined and concentrated realistic portrait of Chekhov by Osip Braz – clear sighted, despite any doubts, in the straight on gaze.