Russian Art End of the 19th — Begining of the 20th Century
Continued from August
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
The peasant theme prevailed in the work of Sergei Korovin (1858-1908). The subject of the painting Village Meeting (1883-1893) was suggested to Korovin by the new relationships that resulted from the social differentiation of the village community. The villagers gathered to investigate the case of a poor peasant versus a kulak. The drama of the situation is stressed by the psychological contrast between the two main characters – the despair of the poor peasant, and the insolent and arrogant humor of his opponent. None of the villagers dares to stand up for justice and wrong triumphs over right. Korovin did not flinch from showing the grim truth of life in his pictures and that was one of his strongest points.
Among the numerous pictures painted with a passionate, sweeping brush by Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930), Laundresses stands apart (end of the1890’s). The daily grind in the dark basement where the dim light from the small window barely trickles through the clouds of steam is rendered in a tragic key.
Historical genre painting was very popular at the time, and some of the best were produced by Andrey Ryabushkin (1861-1904). He came from a family of serf icon painters, and had a passion for the bright clear colors of Russian folk art. He was also exposed to the influence of ancient Russian monumental painting whose decorative qualities won his greatest admiration. Ryabushkin’s earliest works were devoted to the life of contemporary peasantry, and later he chose scenes from 17th century Moscow for his primary subjects. For all the authenticity of the episode, his picture A Wedding Procession in Moscow, Late 17th Century (1901) is perceived as a dream world of harmony and beauty, complete with the festive, picturesque covered sleighs, dress, and all that was typical of Russia in the pre-Peter the Great epoch. The solitary figure of the girl in the foreground brings a note of sadness into the joyful picture. The excitement of the scene is contrasted with the peace and quiet of the springtime landscape at the hour before twilight when the stoves are lit and smoke trails from the chimneys.
Andrey Ryabushkin “A Wedding Procession in Moscow”
Victor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) whose work belongs at the summit of Russian art at the turn of the century, created a poetic world of inspired, sublime images. In his earliest paintings he developed the lyrical line in Russian landscape. Later, the influence of the French Impressionists enriched his quest, but it did not become the determining factor in his mature work.
Victor Borisov-Musatov “Emerald Necklace”
He painted some of his best pictures in the first years of this century: Tapestry, Pool, Ghosts and Emerald Necklace. These elegiac images of the past, so different from the prose of modern times, are not identifiable with any particular historical epoch. The motif of Man and Nature is interpreted as a musical consonance and is permeated with a mood of inner significance.
Borisov-Musatov’s Pool (1902) is constructed on the principle of a decorative panel. The perfectly balanced composition, the softness of the large areas of color with inner shadings, blending into one general bluish hue, with the flowing rhythm of the lines – everything conjures up the impression that one is hearing music. The actual beauty of life and a dream of beauty are merged into one, and by “changing” the world according to his own poetic fantasy, Borisov- Musatov creates an image of sublime beauty and harmony.
At the end of the 1880’s, a group of young St. Petersburg painters, joined by several Muscovites, set up a new association of artists, called The World of Art. They published their aesthetic program in a magazine of the same name and organized regular exhibitions of the members’ works. Soon the Association won the support of a number of Russia’s biggest artists. In their theoretical views and practice the members of the Association were united by their striving for greater artistry and higher professional skills and by their rejection of featureless modern stereotypes, and their loathing of a certain philistinism.
With their acute awareness of the disharmony in their contemporary world, these artists offered instead their romantic dream of a world transformed and perfected by beauty. Finding an example of an integral vision of the world in the classical images of beauty, they passionately popularized the culture of past centuries. At the same time they wanted to build up their own sophisticated culture with a poetically refined modern idiom that would be capable of expressing their quest for the unmistakably individual characteristics in man and his surrounding world – landscape, architecture, everyday objects and art. They countered not just the stereotypes of academism, but also the naturalistic tendencies of the later peredvizhniki (traveling artists), giving their due, however, to the masterpieces of Repin, Surikov and other great masters. As for The World of Art members themselves, most of them excelled in drawing, in small intimate paintings, and in stage scenery. T
he Association made a valuable contribution to Russian culture in that it was instrumental in raising the standards of professional skills and extending the relations between Russian and European art. It brought new blood into the art of scenic painting and drawing, and book designing in particular. By popularizing the gems of Russian 18th and early 19th century art, an epoch that The World of Art people characterized The Paradise Lost.
Alexander Benois (1870-1960), a painter, etcher, master of stage decor, and a prominent historian and critic of art, was the Association’s main ideologist. One of his best works is the small picture The King’s Promenade (1906) from a large cycle on the theme of Versailles in the reign of Louis XIV. With his romantic and poignant feeling for the transparent beauty of an ancient park on an autumn evening, Benois imaginatively peoples it with the shadows of the past. The royal procession with its elegantly unhurried rhythms and fanciful graceful silhouettes, resembling the elaborate linear arabesque of the late baroque, seems to be moving across the stage. As a faintly ironic contrast to these stiff, haughty figures, Benois plays up the liveliness of the bronze little boys in the fountain group. The image created by Benois is complex in mood: although there is a hint of sadness in it for the transience of human life. It affirms the greatness of human genius embodied in works of art that live for centuries.
Alexander Benois “The King’s Promenade”
To be continued in the next issue