Russian painting & sculpture of the Silver Age
first quarter of the 20th century and the beginning of the Soviet period
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Pavel Trubetskoy (1866-1938) had a gift for grasping that which was most characteristic in his sitter, and his elegant sculptures create the impression of an impulsively and accurately caught likeness instantly embodied 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.
Anna Golubkina "Starost"
Anna Golubkina (1864-1927), a pupil of Rodin, gave a remarkable 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.
Unlike Trubetskoy and Golubkina, Sergei Konenkov (1874-1971) was hardly affected by the influence of impressionism. By cleverly exploiting the natural twists and knottiness of a tree, he carved his “Field Goblin” (1910) in the guise of a typical old Russian peasant wearing bast shoes and leaning on a staff.
The 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 antiaestheticism and prosaicism of the society of the time, the “one-dimensional” intellectual atmosphere of the petty bourgeoisie with its bleak, standardized thinking, pragmatism and greed for money. This non-acceptance was a form of aesthetic protest against what existed. And it went hand in hand with utopian hopes of reformatting life according to the laws of beauty by just using the impact of art. The social struggles in the country that had become the center of a mighty revolutionary process gradually dispelled these illusions. But it was the 1917 October Revolution which finally showed that a radical reconstruction of life in Russia was only possible by means of a social revolution. The movement that engulfed many millions of people also embraced the creators of the professional artistic culture.
The Great October Socialist Revolution opened new horizons for the multinational art of the Soviet Union. The Revolution brought a cardinal change in the selfawareness of the people, in their attitude towards art, and into the artist’s concept of his relationship with society. A campaign for eliminating the illiteracy of the population was launched on a county-wide scale, and a wide network of schools and cultural-andeducational establishments was constructed, especially in the outlying non-Russian districts. The system of art education was also re-organized and a large number of art schools and workshops were opened, admitting anyone who wished to study. 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, taking an active part in socialist construction.
The new themes and the new range of images captivated the artists, but they soon discovered that these themes called for an innovative development from the finest traditions of Russian art. A new method gradually took shape, based on a historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development, and an appraisal of life’s phenomena from the point of view of the builders of socialism and communism. In the 1930’s, when sufficient experience had been accumulated and the typical features of Soviet art had become clearly defined, the method 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 problem was tackled on the basis of Lenin’s plan of monumental propaganda, published in 1918, the gist of which was that artists belonging to different generations and all of those who sincerely wanted to participate in the revolutionary transformation of life, should be drawn into the socialist construct. In the years of the Civil War and foreign intervention (1918-1920), and in those years of hunger and economic dislocation, new experiences were acquired and new techniques were learnt from the practice of mass propagandist art. Examples included designing the decorative setting for revolutionary parades and other festive occasions, erecting sculptural monuments (sometimes from temporary materials), painting political posters, and designing books which were brought out in popular editions and circulated on a mass scale. The diversity of styles and techniques used in the graphic representation of life during the first ten years following the revolution was enormous.