Painting and sculpture of Russia, including art from the USSR 191791. For centuries Russian art was dominated by an unchanging tradition of church art inherited from Byzantium, responding slowly and hesitantly to Western influences. Briefly, in the early 20th century, it assumed a leading and influential role in European avant-garde art. However, official Soviet disapproval of this trend resulted in its suppression in favour of art geared to the glorification of workers.
Russian art was dominated by the Orthodox Church which drew on the traditions of Byzantine art, producing outstanding icons, carvings, metalwork, and embroidery.
The arts declined during the Mongol occupation (mid-13th century to the end of the 14th century) but revived during the 15th century. The development of the iconostasis (a screen, decorated with icons, which separates the altar from the body of the church) created new opportunities for painters. This period saw the rise of the Novgorod School, noted for its rich colours, and the exquisite icons of Ivan Rublev, the most important Russian icon painter.
After the highpoint reached in the 15th century, icon painting gradually declined. A new style in icon art was inaugurated by the Straganov School in the late 16th century, the masters of which produced highly elaborate icons, mostly miniatures, while the 17th century saw the decline of the art into mere virtuosity. (By the 19th century it had degenerated into a mass-production monopoly in Vladimir.)
From the 18th century Western styles were gradually absorbed into Russian art. Despite the founding of the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg 1754 by Catherine the Great, court patronage of painting continued to be given chiefly to foreign painters and no major Russian talents emerged. As patronage became secular, Russian painting was devoted almost solely to portraiture. The leading Russian portrait painters are D G Levitski (17351822), the father of the Russian school of portraiture, and V L Borovikovski (17571826), a pupil of Levitski, both of whom studied under Italian or French masters in St Petersburg.
The earliest notable Russian sculptor was Count Carlo Rastrelli (died 1744) father of the architect Rastrelli whose best works include the well-known equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg and a bronze bust of Peter the Great in the Winter Palace, St Petersburg.
During the 19th century Russian art finally produced figures of international standing and sought to come to terms with its own cultural background. Venetsianov (17991847) evolved his own naturalistic style as a genre painter. His pupil Aleksiev, the first Russian landscape painter of any real note, is outstanding as a colourist. His successors in landscape painting are Aivazovski (18171900) and Lebedev (18121837). Italian art strongly influenced Russian art in the early 19th-century, as is shown in the well-known Last Days of Pompeii
by Brulov the first Russian painter to win international acclaim and the work of Ivanov (18061858), especially in portraiture.
The leading representative of the neoclassical style in sculpture was Shchedrin (died 1825), a versatile sculptor of statues, monuments and bas-reliefs, whose dynamic Marsyas
is in the Academy of Fine Arts (St Petersburg).
It was not until the 1870s, when Savva Mamontov assembled on his Moscow estates the group of artists later known as The Wanderers
, that Russian artists attempted any union with their own culture. They sought a closer link with their craft heritage, designing and making furniture and household objects. They also began the serious study of Russian folk-decoration and icon painting, which was to have such a strong influence on a later generation of artists. The leading spirits in The Wanderers were the sculptor Antokolsky (18431902) and the painter Vassily Polenov (18441927), both of whom met Mamontov in Rome. The classic work to come from this period is Vassily Surikov's The Boyarina Morosova
1887, a detailed, anecdotal depiction of Russian folk-history.
However, it was left to Symbolist Mikhail Vrubel (18561910) to indicate the future direction of Russian art. His illustrations to Mikhail Lermontov's poem The Demon 1890 show a constructive and stylized approach to space which was to echo the research of Cézanne (as in Vrubel's Portrait of Valery Briussov
1905) and even, in some pencil drawings, anticipates the Futurists.
Early 20th century
Towards the end of the 19th century the World of Art movement, which sought to combine 19th-century aestheticism with a return to Russian folk traditions, produced richly coloured, highly detailed works which had a profound effect on book illustration and stage design. In 1899 Benois and Serge Diaghilev
founded the review Mir Iskoustva
, and from this stemmed the brilliant phase of Russian ballet design, in which the names of Benois, Leon Bakst, Nicolas Roerich, and others are eminent.
Several important collections of modern art, including works by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, were built up by Russian merchants and frequent shows of European avant-garde work were organized in the major cities. Consequently, young Russian artists were often better informed concerning recent developments than were their European counterparts. Out of this knowledge grew genuinely Russian art, no longer relying upon Impressionism or post-Impressionism.
Although working mainly in France and Germany, Marc Chagall
took his subjects from Russian life and folklore, his highly personal idiom being far removed from current Russian styles. Wassily Kandinsky, who was to become the first truly abstract artist, left Russia 1896, though Russian folk culture played an important role in his development.
Thus the period 191018 shows a constant shifting of groups, all dominated by a desire for entirely abstract, nonrepresentational art. The artist most totally committed to abstract painting was Kasimir Malevich whose Black Square
1914 is the ultimate expression of his suprematism school, which stressed the spiritual values of abstract art. In sculpture constructivism became a major force, the attempts by Naum Gabo
, Pevsner, Rodchenko, El Lizzitsky, and Tatlin
to create an abstract sculpture from modern, often industrial, materials having a profound effect on the development of European sculpture. Other artists of the period include Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, and the sculptor Archipenko. From 1914 to 1922 Kandinsky was again in Russia, playing a leading role in helping to reform Russian art schools and museums.
Art and the Revolution
For a brief period following the Revolution, these artists gained control of the art schools, establishing procedures which were greatly to influence the Bauhaus. These ideas travelled from Russia with Lissitzky and Gabo, when the official attitude changed, and the Communist Party decreed a return to social realism in art. Some artists rejected painting entirely, Tatlin turning to industrial design and architecture, whilst others, like Lissitzky, produced graphics and posters.
All the revolutionary artists took an active role in theatre, Malevich's most abstract works being first used as scenery for Kruchenikh's Victory Over the Sun
1913. After the revolution the Agitprop train toured the country, with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda. Their dream was an art larger than painting in which the people became active participants. Thus the storming of the Winter Palace was re-enacted three years later at the actual site and involved 6,000 participants. The stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold incorporated these ideas in the theatre itself, and had actors within, around, and above the audience, often dwarfed by huge abstract sets of canvas and wood. These effects culminated in the plays The Magnanimous Cuckold
and Tarelkin's Death
(both 1922). As with painting, the theatre was finally forbidden such adventurous approaches, and only in film did the original vitality survive with the works of the directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and also Serge Eisenstein.
Under Stalin's dictatorship, avant-garde art was suppressed by the state and replaced by socialist realism. The period 192227 was marked by the formation of groups of painters seeking a new style, such as the Association of Russian Revolutionary Artists (ARRA) whose members depicted themes from the revolution. Of these groups the leaders were Katzman, a founder of ARRA, a portrait-painter, and S Karpov. D Kardovski contributed a whole series of illustrations portraying the history of the revolution. The artist Lanser decorated one of the Moscow railway stations with paintings illustrating the work of Soviet construction. Stark realism characterizes the work of Soviet war artists generally. Some of the best examples of this realism are Gaponenko's Slavholders
, Dormidontov's Flames over Leningrad
, and Shmarinov's We Shall Never Forget
On the whole Soviet sculpture, which depicted the same subjects and themes, tended towards the monumental. Two well-known works are the statue of Karl Marx 1918 by Matveyev in St Petersburg (Leningrad), and the colossal Lenin Memorial
near Tiflis by Schadr. The influence of Western art movements grew increasingly strong, however, just before the collapse of Communist Party control in the early 1990s. Among the best-known in the West were the painting duo Komar and Melamid, who in the 1980s used an academic style to satirize Soviet art and politics.
Russian minor arts
Russian goldsmiths' and silversmiths' work is remarkable for splendour, richness of colour through polychrome enamelling, and liberal use of jewels. In the 17th century the work was typically Muscovite, but the 18th and 19th centuries showed a reversion to French influences. Peter Fabergé was the most renowned of Russian goldsmiths. The Imperial Easter Eggs
and other pieces he produced for the Russian court are among the most exquisite of all goldsmiths' work.
Of all the decorative arts of Russia, that of enamelling is perhaps the most characteristic, as well as one of the most ancient. Greco-Scythian work found in the tumuli of southern Russia affords evidence that Russian artificers were not exclusively dependent on Byzantine models, though there are many fine Byzantine specimens in Caucasia. The long Mongol domination of Russia had a strong influence on the art of enamelling, as it had on all other arts, though at this time Western influences were also making themselves felt, and the finest of Russian enamels belong to this period. The imperial orb, from the old Russian regalia of the 17th century, shows no trace of that barbaric feeling which is predominant in much Russian art.
Russian folk traditions represented, for example, in toys, domestic and farm utensils, and door and window-frame decorations and carvings remained largely untouched by Byzantine and Western traditions.
© RM 2014. Helicon Publishing is division of RM.