Life Writing

In Russian, a painting or picture is a живопись [ʐɨvəpʲɪsʲ]. This comes from живой [ʐɨˈvoj] (alive, living, live, lively) and писать [pʲɪˈsatʲ] (to write). So you could say that a Russian painter is “writing life” and that their paintings are “life writing” [source].

An English word with a similar literal meaning, but a different actual meaning, is biography.

Another Russian word for picture, and also image or scene, is a картина [kɐrˈtʲinə], which comes from the Italian cartina (fine paper, map), from carta (paper, map, menu, card), from the Latin charta (papyrus, paper, poem), from the Ancient Greek χάρτης (khártēs – papyrus, paper), from χαράσσω (kharássō – I scratch, inscribe), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰer- (to scratch) [source].

If languages were logical and consistant, you might expect that Russian words for art, artist, painter, picture and to paint might be related to живопись. Most of them aren’t:

Art is искусство [ɪˈskustvə], which also means skill, craftsmanship, craft. It comes from the Old Church Slavonic искусьство (iskusĭstvo), from искоусъ (iskusŭ – test, experiment), probably from the Proto-Germanic *kustiz (choice, trail), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵews- (to taste, try), which is also the root of the English words choice, cost and gusto [source].

An artist or painter is a художник [xʊˈdoʐnʲɪk]. It comes from the Old East Slavic художьникъ (xudožĭnikŭ – artist, painter, master), from худогъ (xudogŭ – skillful, experienced, lucky), from the Proto-Slavic *xǫdogъ, from the Proto-Germanic *handugaz (handy, skilful, dextrous), which is also the root of the English word handy [source].

There are several Russian words for to paint:

  • рисовать [rʲɪsɐˈvatʲ] means to draw, paint, depict, and comes from the Polish rysować (to draw, sketch), from the Middle High German rīzen, from the Old High German rīzan (to scratch) [source].
  • красить [ˈkrasʲɪtʲ] means to paint, dye or adorn. It is related to the word краска (paint, dye, ink, colours), which comes from the Old Church Slavoic краса (krasa – decoration) [source].
  • писать [pʲɪˈsatʲ] means to write or paint (a painting). It comes from the Old East Slavic писати (pisati – to write, paint), from the Proto-Slavic *pisati (to draw depict, write), from the Proto-Indo-European *peyḱ- (to hew, cut out; stitch, embroider, sting; paint, mark, colour), which is also the root of the English words paint and picture [source].

mouse cat

An example of calligraphic art by Margaret Shepherd. More examples

3 thoughts on “Life Writing

  1. Not quite. Живопись is an uncountable noun meaning “painting” — it can mean painting as a genre (он занимается живописью, а она — графикой), or the painterly quality of a canvas (я хочу подойти поближе, чтобы посмотреть на живопись), or a set of paintings collectively (здесь выставлена живопись такого-то), but not a single painting, which would be a картина.

  2. F is right. Живопись carries the abstract and collective meanings of German ‘Malerei’ and French ‘peinture’, while картина refers to a “piece of painting” (‘Gemälde’/’tableau’). This is similar to the distinction between work and product.

  3. To be fair, the English word for “artist” isn’t related to the English word for “painting” either.

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