Russian sculpture of the silver age of russian art – first quarter of the 20th century and the beginning of the Soviet period.
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Anna Golubkina (1864-1927) a pupil of Rodin presents a remarkably psychological characterization of a man living a tense and complex intellectual life in the bust of writer A. Remizov (1911). The energetic shaping of the wood, bearing traces of the sculptor’s temperamentally wielded chisel, is typical of Golubkina’s style.
Pavel Trubetskoy (1866-1938) was truly gifted at capturing that which was most characteristic in his sitter, and his elegant sculptures create the impression of an impulsively but accurately caught likeness instantly captured in bronze. One of his best works is the statue of the painter Isaac Levitan (1889). Trubetskoy worked in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Milan and Paris, and earned wide renown for his sculptural portraits, genre compositions and monuments.
Unlike Trubenskoy and Golubkina, Sergei Konenkov (1874-1971) was very little affected by the influence of impressionism. By cleverly exploiting the natural twists and knottiness of a tree trunk he carved his “Field Goblin” (1910) in the guise of a typical old Russian peasant wearing bast shoes and leaning on a staff.
Interest in the poetic structure of their images, widespread among artists and sculptors of different schools, was natural in the early 20th century. It stemmed from a conscious or intuitive rejection of the anti-aestheticism and the prosaic philosophy of the bourgeois society of the time; the “one-dimensional” intellectual atmosphere of the petty bourgeoisie with its bleak standardized thinking, its pragmatism, and its lust for money. This rejection was a form of aesthetic protest against reality. And it went hand in hand with utopian hopes for a new style of life according to the laws of beauty utilizing the impact of art. The social struggles in Russia that were to become the center of a mighty revolutionary process gradually dispelled these illusions. But it was the 1917 October Revolution that finally showed that a radical reconstruction of life in Russia was only possible by means of social revolution. And the revolutionary movement of many millions of people swept up the artists and their artistic culture.
The Great October Socialist Revolution opened new horizons for the multinational art of Russia. The Revolution brought a cardinal change in the self-awareness of the people, their attitude to art, and to the artist’s vision of his relationship with society. A campaign for the elimination of illiteracy was launched on a nationwide scale, and a wide network of schools and cultural-and-educational establishments was established, especially in the outlying non-Russian districts. A system of art education was also organized and a large number of art schools and workshops were opened, admitting anyone who wished to study, and the first exhibitions of Soviet art were arranged by the state. The post–Revolutionary era demanded that artists should rise above any individualistic or ivory-tower tendencies, and that they should give a truthful interpretation of the new reality, and take an active part in socialist construction.
The new themes and the new range of images captivated the artists, but they soon discovered that these images called for innovative development of the finer traditions of Russian art culture. A new methodology gradually took shape, based on a historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development, with an appraisal of life and the new post-Revolutionary world from the point of view of the political builders of socialism and communism. In the 1930’s, when sufficient experience in this new style had been accumulated and the typical features of Soviet art became clearly defined, the methodology came to be called Socialist Realism.
The establishment of the new Soviet art made it imperative for artists and sculptors, whatever grouping they belonged to before the Revolution, to join forces. This extremely important challenge was founded on the basis of Lenin’s plan for monumental propaganda, published in 1918, the gist of which was that artists belonging to different generations, all those who sincerely wanted to participate in the revolutionary transformation of life, should be drawn into the socialist construction. In the years of the Civil War (1918-1920) and foreign intervention and in the years of hunger and economic dislocation, new experience was acquired and new techniques were learned from the practice of mass propaganda art. Some examples were the designing of decorative setting for revolutionary parades and other festive occasions; erecting sculptural monuments, sometimes from temporary materials; painting political posters; and designing books that were brought out in popular editions and circulated on a mass scale.
The diversity of styles and means used in the graphic representation of life during the first ten years following the Revolution were enormous. The images created by Arkady Rylov (1870- 1939) in his painting "In the Free Blue Expanses" (1918) is a romantically exalted impression of a northern sea on a sunny day and the free flight of white birds in the great blue sky. The measured rhythm of their outspread wings is reflected by the movement of the clouds, the sailing vessel, and the waves. Everything in this painting expresses the joy of living, and the feeling is fully communicated to the viewer. This seascape further develops the decoratively romantic style of landscape originated by Kuindji and taken up by his pupils such as Rylov.
Mitrofan Grekov (1882-1934) based his small picture “Off to Join Budyonny’s Army” – a Revolutionary army leader – on his personal impressions. We see a mounted soldier with a spare horse making his way across the sun-scorched steppe to the Red Army detachments, and as he rides along he stitches a red ribbon on his cap. Grekov was with the First Calvary Army throughout the Civil War, and he was extremely familiar with what he was depicting in his paintings. This was a typical episode of the Civil War days, rendered with winning simplicity and showing how strong the blood ties were between the Red Army and the ordinary people, who regarded it as part of themselves. Grekov’s numerous canvases, among them battle paintings, were often included in exhibitions during the late 1920's and 1930's reviving memorable moments of the not so very remote past.