The pictures of Pictures at an Exhibition

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition based on a journey through his late friend’s art exhibit – but what happened to the pictures?

Viktor Hartmann's The Hut on Fowl's Legs
Viktor Hartmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with The Five – a group of 19th century composers who together defined the era of Russian Romantic classical music. I know, I know. I was a weird teenager. You have almost certainly heard their work: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Scheherazade, Alexander Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” from Prince Igor, and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” for example.

“Night on Bald Mountain” – sometimes called “Night on the Bare Mountain” – was immortalised in the closing sequence of Disney’s Fantasia, but it was not the most cinematic of Mussorgsky’s works. That title must go to Pictures at an Exhibition.

Pictures portrays in music a walk through an art gallery. Separate movements each represent a different picture, of gnomes or chickens or catacombs. They are interspersed with stately and careful “promenade” pieces. These represent the slow gallery shuffle while you’re waiting to see the next painting. You can hear the whole thing here:

Pictures was based on an actual exhibition. Mussorgsky’s close friend Viktor Hartmann, an artist, died suddenly in 1873. The following year, the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov organised an exhibition of his works. A still-mourning Mussorgsky visited the exhibition and wrote his musical suite based on ten of the pictures there.

But which pictures did Mussorgsky use? Most of Hartmann’s work is now lost, buried in private collections or landfills. Six of his surviving paintings and illustrations can be explicitly linked to the movements of Pictures at an Exhibition.

The picture of an ornamental clock at the top of this post, for example, inspired “Baba Yaga” (the movement about the witch who lived in a hut with chicken’s legs). “The Ballad of Unhatched Chicks” came from a ballet costume design:

Hartmann's ballet costumes for Trilby
Viktor Hartmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The spectacular finale connects to a Hartmann design for a gate entrance into Kiev:

Hartmann's plan for Kiev city gates
Viktor Hartmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alas, the pictures for many of the movements are lost to time. Other artists, however, have taken up the cause. In 1928 Wassily Kandinsky – the famed father of abstract art – made his own pictures and put them on stage, set to the music of Pictures at an Exhibition. Much of that staging, too, is lost… but if you want to see what that would have looked like, this 2015 reproduction is about as close as you’ll get:

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