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Art History

The Silver Age of Russian Art
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Konstantin Somov
“Lady in Blue”

One of the most gifted masters of the Silver Age generation of painters was Konstantin Somov (1869-1939). He painted lyrical landscapes with subtle color combinations, ornately dramatized scenes and portraits that were remarkable for their depth of psychological penetration. The “Lady in Blue” (1897- 1900), a portrait of the artist Yelizaveta Martynova, is Somov’s masterpiece. This image, profoundly dramatic in its philosophy, poignantly expresses Somov’s bitter disillusionment with the world and is far more than a conventional portrait. The lovely and beautifully dressed young woman, alone with her book in a secluded corner of the park, is consumed by a morbid anguish of loneliness and her dissatisfaction with life. These notes sound all the more tense, as Somov discloses her state of mind by stylizing the pet motif of 18th century portraits; the idyllic harmony between Man and Nature. He changes the very substance of this dated idyll, and shows the woman’s discord with her own self and with Nature – where no disharmony was ever sensed before in this type of portraiture.

The theme of the modern city is interpreted dramatically and with an inner tension, in the work of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875-1957). He frequently draws a comparison between the beautiful architecture of an old city and the featureless uniformity of a modern city of his time. In the small picture “The Window of a Barbershop” (1906), the street at night is a playground for the mysterious games of sinister forces that crush man in his utter loneliness. As rendered by Dobuzhinsky, the bleak monotony of the dehumanized modern city with its pathetic remnants of living nature in the guise of kitchen gardens, is capable of harmonizing only with the insensitive person, without any individuality, and with all feelings desiccated by a cold and barren intellect (as in the picture “Man With Glasses”, 1905-1906).

Boris Kustodiev “Fair”

Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927) differed from the rest of the older generation of the “World of Art” painters in that his favorite theme was the festive side of national life. The manner he uses to render the picturesqueness of Russian provincial life is somewhat like that of old popular prints. By simplifying the forms with his clearcut drawing, and by exploiting the eye-catching brightness of color and its impressiveness if used in large areas, he makes his picture “Fair” (1906) a veritable song of joy. His actual impressions are imaginatively intensified and freed from anything that might spoil his good-natured delight in the colorful scene.

The charming self-portrait of Zinaida Serebryakova (1884- 1967) called “At the Dressing Table” (1909) is infused with poetry of the commonplace, and a radiant, happy awareness of the wonder of youth. In her genre paintings Serebryakova portrayed the life of Russian peasants, reviving by modern techniques of painting the forgotten idyllic traditions of Venetsianov.

Another active member of the “World of Art” Association was Alexander Golovin (1863-1930), an outstanding master of stage decor and an original portraitist. His “Spanish Girl” (1907) is done in his favorite manner of combining an ornamentally elaborate drawing with decorative use of color. This dramatized portrait of a type and not a definite person has the passionate, proud nature of someone like Bizet’s Carmen.

Nicholai Roerich
“Visitors from across the Sea”

Nicholai Roerich (1874-1947), a pupil of Kuindji, was one of those who joined the main body of the “World of Art” painters. A master of easel, stage scenery and monumental painting, Roerich produced several thousand works in the course of a life spent in Russia, India and the United States. His early picture “Visitors from across the Sea” (1901) painted in Paris, was inspired by his remembrance of the wide open spaces of the Novgorod area and Rimsky- Korsakov’s music on the subject of Russian legends. The picture is distinguished for its jubilant picturesqueness and the energetic rhythm of the simplified drawing. It reflects Roerich’s unfailing interest in ancient pagan Russia and his desire to express his ideal of the beautiful in an image of poetical history. Like many other “World of Art” members, Roerich took part in creating a novel decor for the Russian ballet and opera productions during the famous Diaghilev seasons abroad in 1907-1913, which made Russian music, dance and painting famous throughout the world and strongly influenced the development of Europe’s theatrical art. (Many of the stage sets designed by the “World of Art” members and other early 20th century painters are on display at the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum.)

Mikhail Vrubel
“Lucifer (Sitting)”

The paintings of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) passionately expressed the spiritual atmosphere of the turn of the century and became one of the period’s major cultural events. Vrubel’s enormous talent found an outlet in easel and monumental painting, in stage decor, in drawing, sculpture and applied art.

His creations are permeated with an acute, nervous awareness of the dramatic in life and of the agonizing discord between dream and reality. His craving for lofty beauty that would overrule the triteness of the commonplace explains the heightened spirituality of his images. By fusing reality and fantasy into one, he embodied the world of big human feelings in his paintings that involved many deeply probed planes; achieving a powerful impact.

All his life Vrubel was drawn to the theme of Lucifer as a personification of the rebel human spirit. In “Lucifer (Sitting)” painted in 1890, the majestic figure of this mighty being is shown amid fantastic giant flowers against a sunset glow. The image is full of titanic strength and also the despair of loneliness, of unappeased desires, impulses and challenges. An exquisite colorist, Vrubel conveys the inner intensity of the image with lusty, glowing colors applied in thick wide strokes as distinct as a mosaic. His heightened sense of color and his leaning towards monumental decorativeness are also pronounced in “Lucifer Defeated” (1902), the last of his paintings summing up his career on a tragic note. The lifeless broken body of Lucifer with huge wings outspread, lies awkwardly sprawled in the mountains, in the thickening darkness of night. But even as he lies dying, Lucifer is not broken in spirit, and his eyes are alive with a passion of suffering and anger. In this symbolical form Vrubel touched upon one of the cardinal philosophical problems of his time. His Lucifer personified the proud mutinous spirit of protest to whom passiveness and submission were alien things, but at the same time the image symbolized the tragedy of lone rebelliousness, doomed to catastrophe.

Most of Vrubel’s paintings are dramatically and psychologically expressive. In “Spain” (1894) and “Fortuneteller” (1895) he achieves his impact by the composition itself, apart from the characterization of the personages, by the tension of the color combinations and the rhythm of the brush strokes, which with their agitated patterns; emphasize the “faceted” shapes of objects.

An undercurrent of alarm runs through Vrubel’s portraits. The image of Savva Mamontov (1897), a millionaire industrialist and a great patron of arts, is endowed with strength, grandeur and at the same time a nervous premonition of something unknown and frightening. Every detail in this portrait serves its purpose of complementing the whole and the expressiveness of the image and is really remarkable.

Vrubel’s attraction to the world of fantasy and to fabulous and mythological images is inseparable from his extra-sensitive and poetic perception of nature, which always lives its mysterious life in his paintings (“Pan” 1899, “Lilac” 1900 and “Towards Night” 1900).

His decorative gift and musicality are also evident in his majolica’s such as “Sadko”, “Kupava” and others, which were inspired by his impressions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.

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