Ivan The Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 by Ilya Efimovich Repin, painted 1885. (The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow)
I had the opportunity to see this painting on tour at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago, which was the first time I heard the story of how it drove Abram Balashev mad.
The painting depicts the real-life murder of Ivan Ivanovich by his father, the Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, in 1581. Supposedly, Tsar Ivan (known as Ivan the Terrible) had beaten his son’s wife for wearing immodest clothing, and had caused her to miscarry. His son apparently confronted him about this and, in a fit of rage, Tsar Ivan struck him on the head, killing him.
When it was first exhibited in 1885, it was considered obscene, ostensibly due to the graphic portrayal of the bloody wound, though I suspect the madness in Tsar Ivan’s eyes was part of it nobody wanted to even mention. Rumour says that it made women faint. There are whispers that it drove people who viewed it to suicide, but nothing recorded.
On January 13th, 1913, a young man named Abram Balashev, suffering from severe mental illness and supposedly obsessed with the painting, took a dagger to the Tretyakov Gallery and stabbed the painting multiple times, ranting about the blood.
You can see in the detail that he pretty much went for Tsar Ivan. Though, as has been pointed out to me, he missed the crazy, crazy eyes.
The painting has since been restored, but the legend hasn’t faded. On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale: don’t look too closely at art, don’t listen too closely to the story, because if might show you something that you can never recover from.
On the other hand, it fascinates me. It’s not the only artwork to ever be attacked — the Mona Lisa has had more than a few — but it’s one of the few that people believe actually drove someone mad, like the legends that when the Furies appeared onstage in the Oresteia, women in the audience spontaneously miscarried out of fear.
That’s a strange sort of holy grail for any artist, visual or literary or otherwise. Certainly most artists don’t want to cause harm, but to make something out of yourself which has that much power is a temptation, and perhaps sometimes a desire.
Did the painting drive Abram Balashev to insanity? Probably not. We know now that most mental illness is caused by biological factors. It’s likely that Balashev was already on the verge when he became obsessed with the painting, and it simply became a focal point for his suffering. It’s not terribly likely that the painting itself ever actually drove anyone to suicide, either, even if it was more graphic and “obscene” than the culture of the day was accustomed to.
But as a story, it’s compelling. It’s mysterious. A magical object that has the power to alter reality simply by existing.
And it’s a dare: do you take the risk, look at the painting, and face the power it presents?