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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Arts

Russian Art on the Cusp of the 19th Begining of 20th Century
Olga Slobodkina

Valentine Serov
An Overgrown Pond

The period from the 1890s to November 1917 was a time of vigorous and contradictory development of Russian art. It proceeded through contradiction and tragic conflict in the epoch of imperialism during the upsurge of the revolutionary movement. Three revolutions took place in Russia in the course of a mere twelve years, and art absorbed and expressed this complicated atmosphere of Russian society, with its own language the worries and hopes, the discontent with the present, and the expectation of change.

Never before was the quest for new means of artistic expression pursued with such zest, and it led to a reassessment of Russian and world art and a modification of aesthetic concepts, largely influenced through assimilation of the experience in France, Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries. This was possible due to the considerably extended international relations of Russian art, which, for its own part, strongly influenced the development of European culture of that period. The immensely rich traditions of the Eastern peoples also invited the close attention of Russian painters. Professional artists also began to draw on and exploit in a great variety of ways the inexhaustible treasures of Russian folk art.

Valentine Serov
A Girl With Peaches

Until the end of the 19th century there were the two principal, conflicting movements the Society of Traveling Art Exhibitions and Academism. The beginning of the 20th century saw a growing number of new trends and numerous new groupings.

It was at this time that Russian theatrical art earned world fame for its novelty and artistry. Sculpture, which has been on the decline in the latter half of the 19th century, began to revive. Black-and-white art attained the status of an independent branch, and during the first Russian revolution of 1905 it played a big part in the trenchant political criticism of the existing regime. At the turn of the century there were an extraordinary number of striking individuals among painters, sculptors and graphic artists, whose work is well represented in the Tretyakov Gallery.

At the turn of the century the prevailing tendencies were poetic imagery, monumentally decorative generalizations, and a leaning towards grandeur of murals and frescoes even in easel painting. The customary boundaries of different genres became blurred, but at the same time such genres as landscape and later still life developed with special vigor.

The new processes taking place in art were clearly manifested in the work of Valentine Serov (1865-1911), one of the greatest painters of his epoch and its unquestionably greatest portraitist.

Valentine Serov
A Girl in the Sun

Valentine Serov was a pupil of Ilya Repin and of Pavel Chistyakov, who was an outstanding teacher of the Academy of Arts. When Serov first began to paint he tried to express his own feeling for the poetry of life, of mans harmony with his environment, and the integral beauty of the world. To this, his early period, belong the classically clear, lyrical landscape An Overgrown Pond (1888) and two masterpieces A Girl With Peaches (1887) and A Girl in the Sun (1888). A Girl With Peaches is not only a perfect likeness of Vera Mamontova, daughter of the famous patron of arts, but is also an image of lighthearted girlhood in a more general sense. The keen glance of the charming, sun-tanned girl, the rosy bush on the fuzzy-skinned peaches on the table, and the fresh green leaves outside the window, are all rendered with genuine artistry. The play of bright, clear colors creates the impression of pearly steams of light and air flowing through the room.

In the 1890s, in his search for sharper characterization, Serov gave up the colorful palette of his earlier works for a more restrained use of color, for laconism and stern simplicity. In the portraits of his friend, the painter Konstantin Korovin, and the Italian singer Francesco Tamagno, he gives the two men a profoundly individual characterization, using his expressive means very sparingly and each time finding a new, inimitable composition and color scheme.

Valentine Serov
Peter I

Serovs infatuation with the heroic, noble and beautiful in the human being was most fully embodied in the portrait of the famous dramatic actress Maria Yermolova (1905). The inspired image, imposing the proud, reflects the inner beauty of the personality. Serov achieved this effect with his expressive, precise drawing, and the perfect silhouette, filled with color.

He continued his search for greater expressiveness of the inner significance of a character in other genres as well, for example in the historical Peter I (1907). He interprets the construction of St. Petersburg as a fierce combat between men and an elemental force; he shows the might and drive of Peter, energetically striding ahead against the wind, and at the same time implies that there is something inhuman and terrible in his advance with which the others cannot keep up. The tense rhythm of the procession is sharply accentuated. The landscape augments and enhances the impact of the image. In this single episode, the artist has succeeded in communicating the uniqueness of Peters epoch.

Sergei Ivanov (1864-1910) was a master of genre and historical pictures. In his early work, On the Road. Death of Re-Settler (1889), Ivanov tells the tragic story of a peasant family that went to seek its fortune in strange parts, like thousands of others driven from home by need, and who then lost the family breadwinner on the road. In 1905, he painted a series of episodes from the first Russian revolution. In his historica painting, Arrival of Foreigners. 17th Century (1901), the atmosphere and details of living during that long past day are rendered with admirable authenticity.

Nikolai Kasatkin (1859-1930) was the first painter to portray the life and work of Russias proletariat. He made regular trips to the Donets coal mines, and produced a cycle of paintings, one of which was the portrait Miner (1894) showing a young woman worker who is cheerfully and confidently making her own way in the world.

(to be continued in the next issue)

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