See beauty everywhere (+slideshow)

“The eyes of the people must be trained to see beauty everywhere, in the streets and railway stations.” This was the philosophy of Siberian-born Savva Mamontov, the late nineteenth century railway tycoon, who gathered the finest artists of the age into his creative colony at Abramtsevo deep in the woods north of Moscow. Many of the painters whose work enriches Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery lived here and inspired each other. You can still visit the estate at Abramtsevo, a museum of unspoilt Russian architecture on the banks of the picturesque Vorya River.

All photos by Phoebe Taplin
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The journey starts, appropriately enough, from Mamontov’s Moscow railway station (now called Yaroslavsky Station). This fairytale building, designed by Art Nouveau architect, Fyodor Schekhtel in 1902, is decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles made in the Abramtsevo workshops. The station, one end of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway, takes its inspiration from the Russian north with turrets, a pitched roof and paintings of the northern lights. Visitors to Abramtsevo take the train from Yaroslavsky station to Abramtsevo station and the museum is a 20-minute walk along a winding path through birch and pine trees, over ravines and rickety bridges.

The modest main house, originally built of wood in the late eighteenth century, stands on a high bank above the river. Steps lead down from the veranda to a pond with three bridges, a scene that has featured in numerous Russian paintings. The exhibition inside is largely concerned with the Aksakov family, who owned the estate in the mid-nineteenth century. Their visitors included such literary greats as Gogol and Turgenev. There are also paintings of the local landscape by members of Mamontov’s circle, like Mikhail Nesterov and Vasily Polenov, and brilliantly coloured stoves made by the artist, Mikhail Vrubel.

You can see more of Vrubel’s ceramics in the neighboring "workshop," with its intricately carved eaves. His experimental use of metallic glazes produced gleaming, iridescent colours. He also designed the ceramic bench, nicknamed “Divan with Sirens,” that still looks out across the valley. The old wooden kitchen houses a collection of peasant crafts, gathered by the artists in search of a style that was rooted in Russian culture. The resulting "revivalist" movement had a huge influence on art, architecture, music and theater. The sculptor, Mark Antokolsky, one of the founders of the Abramtsevo circle, wrote: “What we wish to see in art are sagas, fairy tales, dramas, the history of the past and the events of the present.”

Viktor Gartman’s quaint bathhouse, with its green and red checkered roof, is an early example of the style, sometimes referred to as neo-Russian. The cosy rooms are full of woodcarvings from the Abramtsevo workshops. Elena Polenova oraganised the carpentry workshop from 1885. The jewel of the estate is the church, dedicated to the Veronica Icon, the image of the savior not made by hands. This brilliant little building was the result of a creative collaboration between several Abramtsevo artists. Viktor Vasnetsov designed it in 1881, after studying a variety of ancient Russian churches, combining traditional architectural elements from Novgorod, Suzdal and Pskov. The tiny, whitewashed interior is decorated with one of the most interesting collections of art in Russia: a carved iconostasis with icons by Repin, Polenov and Nesterov, a mosaic and painted choir stall from Vasnetsov and a tiled stove by Vrubel. The first service was Polenov’s marriage to the artist, Maria Yakunchikova. Vasnetsov also made the little children’s playhouse behind the church, which – with its wooden owl over the door - has become an unofficial symbol of Abramtsevo.

There is a spiritual resonance about this hidden valley. Aksakov chose the location for its nearness to the lovely monastery at Sergiev Posad. One visitor, Jacqueline Gaskell, said: “I think every visitor to Moscow should see Abramtsevo. The Russian countryside here, which has been so often painted, gives you a real sense of the Russian soul. More than any of the Europeanized suburban estates, this place is Russia. It couldn’t be anywhere else.”

Travel details

Trains to Abramtsevo leave from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station roughly every hour during the day. Since the station is so remote, only local trains, which stop everywhere, will halt there, making the trip almost an hour and a half. The journey is rarely boring: as well as forests, dachas and churches outside the window, there is a procession of buskers and vendors inside the train. A return train ticket costs 231 roubles.

Refreshments

The fancy Gallereya Restaurant opened two years ago a few steps away from Abramtsevo estate. The restaurant and adjacent hotel, in a lavish neo-Russian style complete with decorative tiles, overlook the valley where some of Russia’s most famous paintings are set. A bowl of soup with warm bread and herb butter won’t set you back too much. A pot of tea is 70 rubles, a bargain by Moscow standards. There is even a small playground and an aviary to amuse the kids. If you need something cheaper or quicker, visit the local shop. This authentic village store, complete with abacus and smell of weary produce and pork fat, can serve you a cup of sweet coffee and a poppy seed bun.

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