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Art History

Russian Symbolism
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

The word symbolism derives from the Greek “Symbolon” and means a symbol, a sign. It is a direction in painting, which appeared in the 1970-1980s and had its climax at the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century in France, Belgium, Germany, Norway and some other European countries, including Russia, as well as in America. Russian symbolism is considered to be one of the strongest schools in this movement.

Originally symbolism was a literary movement. The most outstanding representatives of the early symbolism were the French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine and others. Symbolism in Russian poetry as well as later on in painting was inspired first of all not by the material world, which is a far cry from perfection, but by the spiritual world, full of lofty ideas and impulses.

Nevertheless the aesthetics of symbolism do not presuppose an absolute juxtaposition of the world of ideas to the world of things. The priority of symbolism is a desire to bridge the gap between these different worlds, which exist both in man himself and in the surrounding world. It was Russian symbolism that achieved this goal most successfully. Russian symbolism gave the world the priceless works of Mikhail Vrubel, Valentin Serov, Nikolai Roerich, Konstantin Somov and other well-known and outstanding painters whose works are part of a golden artistic heritage.

Symbolics, of course, had appeared much earlier than symbolism as a direction in the arts. It was born almost together with mankind. The traits of symbolism are characteristic of any picture devoted to a religious cult, which originally strove to unite the world of spirit with the world of matter, for example the depiction of the Gods of Ancient Egypt and Babylon and the Christian Saints and Apostles.

Nevertheless the strict aesthetics of symbolism were worked out by the French symbolists and the Russian symbolism of the Silver Age, as well as by the American symbolists, which stood a bit apart from the European trend.

In painting, symbolism concentrates not on everyday life, but on divine forces, which reveal themselves through the feelings of the characters or the phenomena of nature. One of the strongest Russian symbolist paintings is: “The Seated Demon” by Mikhail Vrubel, which is actually an illustration of the eponymous poem written in 1837 by the Mikhail Lermontov (1814- 1841). Both the poet and the artists had an ideal of a proud disobedient creative character. The essence of this image is twofold. On the one hand, the grandeur of the human spirit, on the other hand the immeasurable pride, the overestimation of the personal forces, which leads to loneliness. However, Vrubel’s Demon has much more ennui and anxiety than pride and grandeur. Vrubel himself had a really Divine colorist gift. All his life he was making his colour palette more and more sophisticated and found new combinations that the world had not known before.

While European symbolism pays tribute to Christian and Biblical subjects, Russian symbolism does so to a lesser degree, which allows one to speak about it as a separate phenomenon, highly individual and having its own unique aesthetics.

Valentin Serov (1865-1911) in his famous painting “The Rape of Europe” (1910) did not try to depict the well-known ancient myth so much as to portray the emblem of the whole of Greek art “with its high decorative qualities bordering on pathos”, as the artist himself wrote in one of his letters. In this work as well as others, the artist plays with art history: the rhythmically diving dolphins remind one of Greek frescoes of the 6th century, while his bull himself is very similar to the images of bulls on the ancient Greek amphora. The unexpectedly bright and meaningful look of the Bull contrasts with the stiff face of Europe, which is nothing but Cora’s mask with its enigmatic archaic smile, a kind of a symbol and an eternal mystery not only of the whole Greek art, but of the whole ancient world.

Apart from mythological characters, Russian symbolism of the Silver Age portrayed personalities not of a divine nature, but personalities whose emotions nonetheless create the impression of loftiness and inner concentration. The portrait of the lady artist E.M. Martynova (1897—1900) by Konstantin Somov (1869-1939) is a highly poetic image of a sophisticated and creative woman. A young lady in a light blue décolleté with a book of poetry stands against a green bush. The artist transfers his model to the world of the past, puts an old fashioned dress on and places herself against a background of a decorative park. As a member of the World of Art group, Somov stylizes the landscape. The viewer is attracted by the unusual contrast of the stylized park of the old times, of the 18th century dress of the model and the complicated inner world of the lady artist, Somov’s contemporary.

Victor Borisov-Musatov (1970-1903) became a symbolist on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, a highly complicated epoch highly rich in large creative individualities. However, existing side by side with Vrubel, Serov and others, he found his own original way in the arts. The peak of his creativity is “Pond” (1902). The artist’s poetic dreams are depicted here in a perfect form. Everything is balanced in this painting, falling into line with the complicated but strict musical rhythm of the line and form. The color is also in line with the strict rhythm, the repetition of blue, tender violet and green correlations. This canvas looking like a tapestry is monumental and lyrical at the same time. The most intimate movements of the artist’s soul stand still in a beautiful moment, in the bewitched and magic world of beauty. That was the happiest period in the short life of the talented artist when the girl he was in love with agreed to be his wife. Both the bride and the sister of the artist acted as models for this great painting.

Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947), artist, writer, philosopher, a legend of a man is one of the greatest figures of the Russian symbolism and Art Nouveau. His creativity is an exclusive phenomenon in the history of both Russian and world art. His canvases attract one by their original themes and subjects, by their poetry and deep symbolism. The unusual life of Roerich is a legend itself. He started out in Russia and ended up in Asia, having gone through Europe and America. In his painting “The Himalayas, the Pink Mountains”, for example, Roerich expressed not just mountains in a symbolic form, but his philosophy and his religion, the meditation of a Guru praying for the world.

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