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History of Art

The World of Art group
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky,
Courtyard in St. Petersburg.

he World of Art group was very important in the celebrated art of the Silver Age of art in Russia, which in turn played a very significant role in the history of Russian symbolism and art nouveau. This movement started in St. Petersburg at the end of the 1890s. The first members were Alexander Benua, Walter Nouvel and Dmitry Filosofov. Leo Bakst, Eugene Lancere, Konstantin Somov and Sergei Dyagilev joined later. A magazine, with the same name was first published in 1898 by group members. The founding members were St. Petersburg artist Alexander Benois and Sergei Dyagilev, the theatre entrepreneur, patron and organizer of the famous festival of Russian art in Paris “Russian Seasons”.

After 1904, the group expanded and lost its ideological unity. In 1904-1910, most World of Art members joined the Union of the Russian Artists. After the 1917 Revolution, many artists had to emigrate. The group ceased to exist in 1924.

The artistic orientation of the World of Art group was interconnected with art nouveau and symbolism. To counterbalance the so-called traveling artists (a famous 19th century realistic movement), World of Art members proclaimed lofty aesthetic principles of self-expression of the individual. In one of the first issues of the movement’s magazine, Dyagilev wrote: “A work of art is important not by itself, but only as an act of expression by its creator.” Supposing that civilization is antagonistic in regard to culture, members of the World of Art group looked at the art of the past for inspiration. On the pages of their magazine, artists and writers opened up the beauty of the Russian Middle Ages for the reader, in both architecture and icon-painting. This culture was not adequately appreciated at that time, they thought. They also revealed the elegance of classical St. Petersburg and its neighbouring palaces. They made the public ponder over the fact of how contemporary ancient civilizations were, and to reconsider their national artistic and literary heritage.

The group’s main idea was laid down by the outstanding art patron and connoisseur Sergei Dyagilev (1872-1929) in an article he wrote: “The complicated issues. Our alleged decay”. Beauty was declared as the main idea of the fine arts, and not just beauty, but subjective beauty as perceived by each individual artist. This gave the artist absolute freedom when choosing topics, images and expressive means. This was quite new and extraordinary for Russia.

The World of Art group helped Russian audiences appreciate many interesting facets of Western culture, for example Finnish and the Scandinavian painting, the British pre-Raphaelite artists, as well as the graphic art of Beardsley. The artists grouped around Benois and Dyagilev considered it very important to cooperate with symbolist writers. In 1902, the poet Andrey Bely published his article, The Forms of Art. After that the most famous poets-symbolists were regularly published in the magazine. World of Art artists, however, did not involve themselves only in symbolism. They strived towards not only stylistic unity, but also towards creating a unique creative personality. They shifted the emphases from the issues of the form to the problems of creating a pictorial language.

The World of Art was very versatile. The artists involved painted, worked as theatrical designers, and decorative applied artists. However, the most important place in their heritage belongs to graphic art.

Leo Bakst, sketch for Scheherezade

Alexander Benois excelled in graphics. His illustrations he created for Alexander Pushkin’s poem, The Bronze Horseman, from 1903 to 1922 are striking. St. Petersburg itself became the protagonist of the whole cycle. Its streets, canals, architectural masterpieces are revealed in the cold austerity of thin lines, against a dramatic contrast of bright and dark patches of light.

Leo Bakst (1866-1924) was strongest in theatre design. The most interesting are his works for the operatic and ballet productions of “Russian Seasons” in Paris in 1907-1914. Bakst drew sketches for the sets and costumes of the Salome opera by Johann Strauß, for Scheherezade. Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, for the ballet Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy and other productions. Especially gorgeous are his costume sketches, which became independent graphic works of art of their own right. The artist designed the costumes keeping in mind the system of movement of the dancers. Through the lines and the colour, he aimed to reveal the design of the dance and the character of the music. His sketches amaze one by their insight into the nature of the image, the nature of the ballet and their extreme elegance.

One of the main themes for many of the artists of this group was the art of the past, nostalgia for the lost ideal world. Their favourite epoch was the 18th century, and first and foremost, the Rococo period. The artists did not only try to recreate that time, they directed public attention to French art, to Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard for example.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Man in Glasses.

The works of Alexander Benois are connected with the images of “the gallant age” where the palaces and parks of Versailles are presented as a beautiful and harmonious world, but abandoned by the people.

Rococo motives are especially expressive in the works of Konstantin Somov (1869-1939). He became a serious student of art history as a young man (his father was the director of the Hermitage Museum collections). Somov graduated from the Academy of Arts and became a committed connoisseur of Rococo painting, which he incorporated into his own paintings. The main genre of his creativity could be called a variation of “the gallant scene”. The characters of Antoine Watteau come back to life in Somov’s canvases—ladies wearing beautiful dresses and wigs, actors of the comedies of the masques. They flirt with each other and sing serenades in park alleys surrounded by the caressing glow of the setting sun.

Alexandre Benois, Chinese Pavilion.
The Jealous One.

However, “the gallant scenes” in Somov’s paintings were not devoid of pain. It is not by chance that the image of death appears, for example in his water-colour, Harlequin and Death (1907). The composition is strictly divided into two halves. In the distance we can see a traditional set of Rococo clichés: the starry night, love couples and so on whilst in the foreground we see characters wearing masks, including the Harlequin wearing a motley costume and Death, a skeleton with a black cloak on. The silhouettes of both figures are delineated by sharp broken lines. In this bright palette, in the intentional striving for a stereotype, one can feel a gloomy grotesque atmosphere. Refined elegance and the horror of death turn out to be two sides of the same thing.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875-1957) concentrated on city landscapes. His Petersburg, unlike Benua’s Petersburg, is devoid of romantic charisma. The artist chooses the most unattractive views, showing the city as a huge mechanism killing the soul of man.

The World of Art did not exist for long as an integral literary and artistic group. In 1904 the movement’s magazine was closed because of differences between the artists and writers. When the group was restored in 1910 its members could not regenerate its former glory. However, the group left a deep mark in the history of Russian culture.

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