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The Arts

The Silver Age of Russian Arts – the first quarter of the 20th century
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Continuing our series on the history of Russian Art

Nikolai Sapunov
“Vases, Flowers, Fruits” (1912)

In the rapid development of Russian art after the first Revolution of 1905, a place of importance belonged to the work of the “Blue Rose” group – as one of its first exhibitions was called. Their precursor was Borisov-Musatov.

The leading member of the “Blue Rose” was Pavel Kuznetsov (1878-1968). In his picture “Evening in the Steppe” (1912) he does not paint the scene from nature, but translates his impressions of the steppe in the Volga country and Central Asia into a symbolic image. He paints the simplest, eternal elements of being – the earth and the sky, animals and plants, man and the fruits of his labor, generalizing the forms to the utmost by streamlining the silhouettes, and using just two basic colors, developed into a soft harmony of shades by applying the paint in light, transparent layers. The idyllic image is almost incorporeal in its spiritualized wholeness – an embodied dream of peace and happiness and of man’s harmony with the world.

Nikolai Sapunov (1880-1912) is another exquisite colorist, paints his still life “Blue Hydrangeas” (1907) in his favorite combination of blues, yellows and oranges. Like his other paintings, this still life has an effective composition and is beautifully decorative. Nikolai Sapunov also did a lot of work for the theatre.

The pre-revolutionary period of Martitros Saryan (1880-1972) is well-represented in the Tretyakov Gallery. “A Date- Palm Egypt” (1911) was inspired by the impression of his travels. It is an image of sweltering heat. The drawing is energetic, rhythmical and simplified. The strong taut curves of the palm fronds, painted against the blue sky, seem to personify the erupting fecundity of the earth. Saryan paints the jubilant beauty of the world, majestic and meaningful even in its simplest manifestations.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin
“Bathing the Red Horse” (1912)

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) is an artist with a philosophical cast of mind and a leaning towards symbolical images of impressive significance and decorative beauty. He constructs his paintings on contrasting blots of intense color. In “Bathing the Red Horse” (1912), the boy rider, lost in thought, seems to be subordinated to the solemn and powerful movement of the fantastic horse. This bright image is full of inner tension. While affirming the beauty and dignity of life, Petrov-Vodkin infuses his picture with a feeling that great changes are coming. In the painting “Girls on the Volga” (1915), Petrov-Vodkin creates something lyrical out of a quite ordinary scene of girls coming to take a bath in the river, and it acquires the solemnity of a profoundly meaningful rite.

A great number of usually short-lived associations sprang up in the decade preceding the Great October Socialist Revolution, and one of the most stable proved to be the Bubnovi Valet (“Jack of Diamonds”) whose first exhibition was held in 1910. The young painters who belonged to this group and gave it such a strangely provocative name, took a determined stand against mysticism and overcomplicated symbolism, against naturalism and the over-indulgence in impressionistic studies which were very popular at that time. They maintained a crudely joyous and sanguinely sensuous attitude to life, and upheld the beauty of the carnal and of the materially tangible. Attention was concentrated on the con- struction of the picture, and the shape of objects had their geometrical outlines strongly emphasized. By color contrasts and by a deliberate simplification of the shape of things, and by “sculpturing” the images with thick paint, the “Jack of Diamonds” artists gave their objects a hyperbolized three-dimensional solidity, creating a vividly decorative material world. They mostly concentrated on still life, drawing on the experience of Russian folk art in painting ornamental trays, signs, chests, and so forth. They assimilated the latest accomplishments of Cezanne, Matisse, and other French artists. The techniques they used in painting still life left an imprint on their work and the pictures of the “Jack of Diamonds” group were extravagantly colorful; the objects strongly sculpted and their texture meticulously rendered.

In some of their canvases, the young artists subordinated the live perception of nature’s beauty to their preferred expressive interpretation of the objective world, and did so to a point where the purely formal element began to predominate – coming into conflict with the basic orientation of the group’s nucleus. Although they had these general features in common, each of the artists had his own distinct individuality.

Aristarkh Lentulov
“Church of St. Basil the Blessed” (1913)

The extravagantly decorative picture “Pumpkin” (1914) by Ilya Mashkov (1881- 1944) is a typical example of his temperamental brushwork. He exaggerates the size of the objects, as was done in painting shop signs, and boldly contrasts his intense colors applied in large blots. In the display at the Tretyakov Gallery the lustiness of this painting is juxtaposed to the controlled color-molding of the objects and the carefully balanced composition of “Still Life with a Blue Tray” (1914) by Alexander Kuprin (18880-1960). “Agave” (1916) by Piotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956) is notable for the wealth of expressive juxtapositions of shapes and colors in a space of small depth along with its variety of textures.

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943), one of the leading “Jack of Diamonds” artists, had a genius for translating his impressions of 16th century Russian architecture into a dynamic, exuberantly fantastic spectacle; a glorious display of forms and colors that makes one think of church bells pealing on a holiday. At one time Lentulov was strongly drawn to Cubism and Futurism, and his is typical of that period in his career.

Rafail Falk (1886-1958) demonstrated his flair for trenchant characterization in the portrait he painted of journalist M. Refalov (1915). The rhythmic energy of the generalized forms is combined with subtle changes of color and a wealth of shades in each of the basic colors. The portrait is lyrical and psychologically expressive.

To be continued

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