12 APRIL 1873, Page 10


ARUSSIAN artist, Basil Wereschagin by name, who accom- panied the Russian expedition to Khiva in 1868 as a volun- teer, has lent a number of paintings and sketches to the Crystal Palace Company. He was an eye witness of the actions and events which he sketched, and his pictures were painted en plein They are placed in the Private Saloon of the Picture Gallery, and the first sensation they communicate to the visitor is that of being in an absolutely new world. They are not like anything that has ever before been seen in England ; they stand alone in their beauty and their barbarism. The colour of them, the cruelty of them! The country is gloriously, gorgeously beautiful, with its cloudless deep blue sky above, its red mountains, with their outer rim of snow-clad heights ; its yellow, flower-decked plains, its swift streams, their banks strewn with many-coloured pebbles, burning and glittering under the sun ; its scarce trees, dark green and stunted ; its ancient ruins, with their still adhering patches of deep indestructible blue and scarlet and gold, blended in such harmony of tint as the art of the West has never equalled and hallowed by immemorial tradition. The men are fierce, terrible, unspeakably barbarous ; in-their strife and in their leisure ; in the thirst for blood, and the lazy heed- lessness when it has been shed ; in the stolid, indifference that underlies their fiercest fanaticism, in the grim absence of all tenderness which makes their life as incongruous to our fancy as their many-coloured garments. The horsemen who come dashing through the mountain pass with fluttering pennons and horsetails flying in the wind, into that terrible rat-trap of a valley with snow and ice-topped barriers, where they surprise and slay the Russian infantry, lie i' the sun' and bask as though they had as many centuries to do it in as that ruined relic of the might of the dragon-standard that looks out, in a shattered attitude of ramp- ing, with all the angles of the breakage rounded off by time, over the spreading yellow plains, on which human skulls lie scattered like thistledown tufts in an English meadow. This beauty and this barbarism, this absolute, unredeemed ferocity, beside which the drilled demeanour of the Russian infantry, in long boots, red trowsers, and white blouses, with kepi and pugharee, looks like high civilisation, are the first distinct impressions that these strange pictures convey. They are confirmed and deepened as one passes from scene to scene of the drama which is still being played in Central Asia,—played among those awful expanses of glaring light, in the sweltering heat, where the shadows fall with such sharp and deep distinct- ness, that where there is not yellow glare there is blackness ; and the shade of the pillars of the palaces falling upon the hot whiteness of the marble pavements, cuts it like roadways made over stone through snow ; where the daintiest flowers carpet the earth, and every jutting rock has its blood-smear ; where the stunted trees are laden with the nests of the crows who devour the unhonoured dead, and are routed by the eagles who swoop from their eyries among the terrific precipices upon such ignoble prey, when live lambs and deer are hard to come by. A great plain in a valley surrounded by mountains, is the scene of two of the principal paintings. The Russian tents are pitched, and the Kirghiz horsemen have surprised the foe ; the group in the foreground is very fine, very ghastly,—a cluster of brave, helpless soldiers, torn with shot, and one figure with a jagged hole in the head, just fallen, with the smashed proneness of Marshal Ney in Gerome's picture. The pitiless smile of the sky, the pitiless girdle of the mountains, are made to tell powerfully in this picture and its pendant, in which a mangled group of men are striving to rally, and a riderless horse is galloping furiously away from the guns into the misty distance, half-heat, half-smoke. In another picture, called, " Hush ! let them come in !" the Russians are advancing to a. fortified town, a figure in turban and burnous is guiding them,--the huge, castellated walls rise 1 sheer above them. In the fourth, they are " Within." Rnaeian sentries man the walls, the Russian colours float above the gray and yellow rocks; a long file of Russian dead lie decently composed, under the huge abutment, their comrades sit smoking and swinging their legs idly over the edge of the escarped rock, which is broadly smeared with blood. Headlong, huddled, in the foreground, lie the Kirghiz killed, a mass of rich colour, a tangle of attitudes, a heap of various material, rich turban-cloths, furred caftan's, girdles rich with the subdued, geometrical accuracy of Persian designs, with strange arms—the long guns have gaudy- coloured stocks, like children's toys—but all dead. The proud, still faces are peaceful for the most part ; one man lies on his back, with the right arm flung aloft, in the attitude of command in which he has been shot ; and the Russian soldiery above the dead on the incline take no more heed of them than of the thin, sparse grass through which their blood trickles slowly, no more heed than their own people will take when they shall have been stripped and left to the swift-coming crows. " Forgotten on the Field " is full of another kind of horror, for who can say whether the stalwart young Russian who lies on the yellow award, hard by the green, sedgy bank of that fair winding stream, which borders the red range, and reflects the blue sky, fell dead when he dropped out of the march of the column fast receding into the sunlit distance, and the foul birds gathered to their feast. They are about him in a horrid, cawing conclave ; they have torn the flesh from his head and face, and with their cruel dripping beaks struck long crimson gashes in his extended arms, and now their triumph is in its turn at an end, for two royal eagles come with rushing wings into the midst of them, and their talons will be in the man's breast in another moment, even while his comrades are yet in sight.

There is a momentary relief ; we are at the gates of the palace of a Central-Asian potentate. The effect of depth, the attitudes of the guards, remind one of Wiertz's management of doorways and balconies and attitudes. Nothing could be more nobly, exquisitely beautiful than the gates of richly carved wood, so jealously close, so defiantly massive, with their polished gleaming marble setting, which cuts the deep blue line of the sky. But the guards ! What ex- traordinary barbarism there is in their faces, the sullen watchfulness of their attitudes, the magnificent colouring and amplitude of their garments, the rich embroidery of the close green turbans, with the hanging flaps of fine chain mail on either side of their faces, and their absurd bows and arrows and copper shields studded with silver bosses. We are inside the Palace at Samarkand, in a magni- ficent corridor which bounds one side of a vast open-roofed court. It is marble-floored, and supported by pillars of exquisite grace and richness of decoration. The unequalled Persian colour- ing is everywhere on the walls, the pillars, the ornaments on the rich, grave garments of the group of dignitaries who attend upon the Emir, in the discharge of a great function, invariable after a victory. They are noble-looking men (owing probably to their robes and turbans), and they are calm, impassive, and motionless, with two exceptions. One is the Emir, who turns over with his foot, with as little reverence as one might show to a turnip in a field, a human head—one of a great heap, flung down before him on the edge of the marble pavement—it has rolled away from its fellows as they were tumbled out of the mouth of a sack, having been hacked from the shoulders of killed Russians. The Emir stands with dignified ease ; he wears a blue caftan, fastened at the breast with a charming knot of crimson raw silk, and the graceful folds fall over his arms, crossed easily behind his back. He will award the head-money presently. The other movement is made by a gentleman of his Highness's suite, who, not being of the opinion of Catherine de Medici, dislikes the odour of the mass of sun-kissed carrion, and covers his fine curved nostrils with a sleeve of gorgeous yellow embroidered in crimson. The con- trast in this painting between the traditional dignity of dress and attitude and the utter barbarism of action, between the scientific beauty of the architecture and decoration of the palace, the still-life testimony to the civilisation of past ages, and the soulless brutality of these people as they are, is very striking, especially when we glance from this painting to that one which occupies the principal position in the gallery. In it the Emir and his suite stand in the great temple of Samarkand, and return thanks for the victory at the tomb of a saint,—no other than Tamerlane, whose traces are still in the land in heaps of human skulls, piled up in thou- sands, the mullion objects of every-day life, the sport of children, beguiling by vain hope of pickings the crows whose remote ances- tors waxed fat on the lavish leavings of Timour. One of these ghastly monuments, with a disorderly fringe of crumbling under-

jaws, and fragments of sword-cleft frontal-bones, faces us on the opposite wall, but there is no discord in the grand, grave, sublime beauty of the thanksgiving scene. The marble mosaics of the lower walls give place to blue and gold arabesques of wonderful harmony and glow above, the pillars are seemingly of alabaster, and the noble tombs, one of white marble, with lace-like fret- work, another of green marble, or some other precious material, are truly grand and solemn, fit resting-places for men to be held in memory, perpetual and terrible.

The Public Celebration of Victory is a wonderful scene ; horribly barbarous, wild, gorgeous, and lazy. The noble mosque, with melon-shaped domes at the corners, half ruinous, but rich in colours, and with bounding tigers and full-faced moons still clear upon its lofty frontal, is surrounded by a motley crowd, some lying, some sitting, to whom a dervish, clad in white, one of a number similarly attired, declaims lines of re- joicing from the Koran, while he grasps a tall pole with the head of a Russian soldier stuck upon it. Several of these ghastly trophies adorn the scene, and are regarded with utter indifference. Some figures in the foreground with gourds and dogs are things of shreds and patches, but what shreds and patches they are ! The air is full of arrowy rays of light and darting heat ; the shadows are black furrows ; a halted string of camels mope about the great temple, their riders, muffled in heavy garments, listen listlessly to the dervish ; and on the edge of the crowd is a great chief, stern, thin-faced, cruel, in fine barbaric dress, and mounted on a dapple- grey horse of the steppe, which will carry him seventy miles with- out a stop or a feed ; everywhere the keen lances and the dangling horsetails.

In the second room the pictures are less terrible, but they are equally strange, equally unlike anything familiar to us in represen- tations of the East. These tremendous gorges, with the yellow plains below ; the bright red mountains, with dashes of green vein- ing; the wonderful pink and white flowers, tall and branching, like trees with us ; the intense blue of the still water, the pine clumps ; the huge frowning rocks ; smooth and black, and the stony tracks, which glitter with specks of colour, so that looking at them, the jewelled streets of the Apocalyptic city seem a likely and familiar image ; these are not like any other combinations in painting, and yet there are scenes of calm and rich pastoral beauty. In such are the tents of the Kirghiz pitched, some wonderfully rich and fantastically beautiful, others plain and poor, but all alike in construction, easy to strike, and handy to pack at the wanderers' will, when they travel to the mountains, sometimes to the level of the snow-line. No. 57 is a beautiful scene, called

Tamerlane's Gate." The broad,tranquil, winding water, overhung by the great rocks, bordered by the rich plains, where gentle creatures, not human, wander and feed, once ran red with the blood of the -Uzbeks and the Kipchaks. No. 58 is a ruinous khan on a wide sultry plain, where all nature seems to faint under the glare. But the blessed wells of Murza-rabat are there, " in the hungry steppe between two towns." A small picture shows us the solitary figure of a Kirghiz soldier, resting against.a tent-side ; he is quite motionless, but the barbarism, the ferocity iu him, are expressed in some indescribable way, which makes him as terrible as any crouching tiger or lean starved wolf of the steppe. Near him is a picture full of beautiful contrast. On the brow of a great height, with a background of mountain flowers, stands an eager, solitary, listening stag ; beneath are rolling hills, vast plains, dim hot distances, and the faintly indicated sea. There are ruins, yellow and dry, like cork, in their age, and ruins grey and grim, with unexpected scraps of the red glaze which once encrusted them, looking like ominous dashes of the prevalent blood ; but they are not sad, they are all basking like the men and the beasts, and the grasses and the skulls, in this strange, beautiful, inhuman land.