The Avant-Garde and Russian Painting 1900-1930s
from the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Dr. Evgeniya Petrova
Vice Director, the State Russian Museum
  In the very centre of St. Petersburg, just a short walk from Nevsky Prospekt, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, the Mikhail Palace, built in the 1820s for Grand Duke Mikhail, son of Emperor Paul T. The palace remained in possession of the imperial family until 1896, when it was given over to house the first Russian State Museum of National Art.
  Since that time the main collection of the Russian Museum, now around 380 thousand times, has been held here: in addition to icons, paintings, graphic works, prints and sculpture the museum has marvellous collections of coins and decorative and applied art. The area covered is mainly Russian art from the 18th century to the present day.
  Unfortunately, due to lack of space, the great wealth of the collection remains inaccessible to the average visitor. Many works are still unpublished, and this has contributed to the comparative lack of knowledge of Russian art in the world as a whole. Overseas exhibitions are one way of attempting to acquaint the world with Russian culture.
  The present exhibition in Sapporo covers Russian art of the period from 1900 to the 1930s. The number of works is small, with Japanese viewers able to see just over sixty works from the vast collection of the Russian Museum. The main criteria used in the selection of these pieces were to give some idea of the quality and the variety of genres and style available and to present the main Russian painters.
  Why did it seem that this was the period which would be most interesting to viewers in Sapporo?

  Firstly, the present exhibition is to a certain extent a continuation of the acquaintance of the inhabitants of the northern island with the history of Russian art: in 1990 a show of pictures by Russian Realist artists of the second half of the 19th century was held in Sapporo and Kasama on the initiative of the Hokkaido Shimbun Press. Visitors can now look at the following era in the development of Russian art.
  The second, and most important, reason for the selection of works from 1900 to the 1930s was the desire to acquaint the Japanese viewer in Sapporo with some of the special characteristics of Russian artistic culture, so brilliantly expressed in the first decades of the 20th century, a period known in Russia with good reason as the Silver Age.
  The beginning of the 20th century was a time of great literature, of philosophy and fine art, which were to contribute to world culture for many years.
  Clearly these sixty or so works cannot reflect the full richness and variety of Russian art of the period. The pictures selected for exhibition in Sapporo, however, represent the main trends in Russian art of the time, with works by artists famous throughout the world, such as Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich. It includes some of the best works by these and other artists, well-known to art-lovers through numerous reproductions in books on the history of art (Natalia Goncharova's Cyclist, Mikhail Larionov's Venus, Wassily Kandinsky's Blue Ridge and Twilight etc).

  Japanese viewers will also see works with which they are less well-acquainted but which reflect the unique artistic atmosphere in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
  What does art of the period from 1900 to the 1930s represent?
  The boom - we could say explosion - in the Russian fine arts at the beginning of the 20th century was the result of their particular path of development. From the 18th century, when Russia turned its face decisively to the West, the country had to try and catch up with the West in all things, including culture. Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Sentimentalism, Romanticism which had grown up gradually in Europe over more than four centuries, were all concentrated in Russia in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. It was thus understandable that these stylistic trends were not, as a rule, to be found in their pure form. Works of the Russian Baroque, Rococo, Classicism and Romanticism differ notably from their European counterparts, above all in the noticeable blending of styles. It was probably only in the second half of the 19th century, with the establishment of Realism as the dominant trend in Russian art, that Russia could really match the West, but having once picked up speed Russian art did not flag, rushing on to new things.
  The famous ‘universal responsiveness’ and receptiveness of the Russian soul, the orientation towards the West inculcated into the intelligentsia during the 18th and 19th centuries helped in the integration of Russian culture.

  Almost all artists in the 19th and very early 20th centuries had a chance to study in or travel to Europe. Russian exhibitions included works by foreigners. Russian magazines, particularly those of the end of the 19th century, regularly published superbly illustrated articles on Western art, and by the beginning of the 20th century famous private collections such as those of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin already included works by Matisse, Denis, Cezanne, Gauguin and others, as yet not fully valued in Europe.
  The majority of significant Russian artists passed through a period of enthusiasm for European trends in art. French, German and Italian variations on Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were well-known to teachers in the main Russian art schools, the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Yet it is difficult to find in Russian art mere copies of the works of great European artists.
  Konstantin Korovin has long been considered to be the most outstanding exponent of Impressionism in Russia. Indeed, he left numerous still-1ifes and landscapes painted in a fluent, lively, direct manner, and yet, for all the outer similarity between his works and those of French artists, the colour scheme of Korovin's paintings is too full of bright-green, bright-red and intense brown colours which are not to be found in Western European Impressionist works. His large, finished pictures such as the portrait of Fedor Chaliapin, which is included in the exhibition in Sapporo, have a certain sketchiness usually found in studies. This unfinished quality, found in nearly all of Korovin's works, corresponds most closely to the Russian comprehension of the principle of depicting the world ‘in an impressionistic manner’.

  In general the conception of Impressionism in Russian art was very vague and only partly corresponded to the European version. Impressionism, for instance, is the term applied to the canvases of Vasily Vereshchagin painted during his trip to Japan in 1903, one of which, The Shinto Shrine in Nikko is included here.
  Impressionistic traits have also been identified by art historians in the work of artists of the Blue Rose group, led by Viktor Borisov-Musatov.
  Even Rayism [ Rayonnism ], a trend developed at the beginning of the 1910s by Mikhail Larionov, is often described as a development of the artistic principles of Impressionism.
  Such a broad understanding of Impressionism within Russian art is probably indicative simply of a lack of mere imitators of this tyle.
  It is also surprising that Futurism did not find any direct followers, although it did leave its mark on the work of several leading artists such as Natalia Goncharova.
  The influence of German Expressionism in Russia was also only indirect. Many outstanding Russian artists studied in Munich in the studio of Anton Aib&, but echoes of Expressionism are to be found not only in their works. Many artists such as Boris Grigoryev did not study in Germany themselves yet were still influenced by; say, the work of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky; himself a student of Azbe.
Grigoryev did indeed borrow his cruel, brutal reflection of the world from Expressionism (Girl with a Churn), but his works are set apart by their soft plasticism and rich coloration.

  The peculiarities of the Russian artistic mentality, as indeed of that of any other people, lay in a desire to accumulate alien experience and transform it on the basis of national traditions (ancient, folk, classical). At the turn of the 20th century this trend became particularly acute in Russia and there was widespread interest in specifically Russian elements in history, Philosophy, literature and fine arts.
  It is curious to note that at the beginning of the 20th century severalstudents of Ilya Repin, an artist fully within the European trend, sharply departed from their traditionally Realist style. Filipp Maliavin began to recreate images of the forgotten, almost pagan Russian village. His numerous peasant women in their bright national costume are embodiments of Wild, primeval, uncivilised beauty, retreating under the onslaught of urban culture. Maliavin's pictures are both portraits and symbols. They are, as it were, not personal; this is one of their main differences from the Realist portrait of the 19th century.
  Russia is seen slightly differently-despite some similarities-in the works of another student of Repin, Boris Kustodiev. The festive mood and fairground atmosphere in his canvases recall the luxury of merchant life. This voluptuous comfort so beloved by Kustodiev was still to be found in the Russian provinces, but the artist was inspired not only by reality. Eyewitness accounts, the popular prints or lubok, shop-signs and works by folk artists also served as sources for his work, in which nature and reality are combined with nostalgic dreaming, fairytales and irony.

  In the work of the so-called Neo-classicists an interest in old Russian life and art was combined with recollections of the European Renaissance. The works by Zinaida Serebriakova and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin included in the exhibition were created in this syncretic spirit, although Petrov-Vodkin's Boys also reveals the influence of Matisse. But local colour and the approach to mass and volume in the naked figures bring the latter work and others, including Fantasy, closer to the traditions of ancient Russian icons.
  The reflection of national culture in the heritage of the artists of the Knave of Diamonds group is more unusual.
  Ilya Mashkov, Peter Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov and others were acquainted with Cubism and admired Cezanne, but their strong involvement with old Russian architecture, folk toys, painted trays and spinning-wheels, the lubok and amateur shop advertisement signs which hung over boutiques and workshops, served to‘adjust’the Cubist approach in their works. The painterly freedom, daring, the bouffonade and grotesque of the works of masters of this group attracted many others to join their ranks.
  Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky were also members of the Knave of Diamonds for a short time. Such varied individuals united under a single flag mainly because of the group's orientation around the folk basis of creativity and emphasis on the‘primitive’.
  Goncharova and Larionov were probably the first

artists in Russia who permitted themselves to break down the accepted system, oriented towards producing a professionally executed likeness of the world. Goncharova and Larionov tried to restore something of a primeval approach to art, turning to folk art of various Eastern countries and creating a new style in Russia, later called Primitivism. At the same time Kandinsky and Malevich were working along similar lines, but in their case it took them in a totally different direction, seeking their own individual means of embodying the world. These two artists are often lumped together under the single term of‘abstractionism’because behind their totally different paths lay a common aim, the spiritualisation of art, its purification from‘objectivity’. They also did not bypass folk sources in art. Kandinsky's interest in Russian folklore was combined with a love for German medieval manuscript illustration and stained glass. Malevich was during an early stage influenced by Impressionism and Art Nouveau, but later he was undoubtedly attracted by icons, Russian embroidery and wood carving. Satiated with the pure sources of folk art, having mastered the experience of their predecessors, both these experimentalists created their own artistic systems. Their artistic exploration was of radical significance and universal value, both Malevich and Kandinsky pushing art to the limits, laying out the ground for non-figurative painting, although the energy and symbolism of Kandinsky's poetical spiritualism were the opposite of Malevich's bombastic plasticity and constructivity.

  By the beginning of the 19l0s it seemed that Russian art included such a wide variety of styles that further diversification was impossible. Many felt that the objective reflection of the world in art no longer answered contemporary levels of development of humanity, science and philosophy. Kandinsky, Malevich, Filonov and others each sought their own way out of this dead end.
  Kandinsky overcame objectivity, creating a sort of cosmic model for a pictorial-symbolic world. His abstract pictures ( Blue Ridge, Twilight, compositlon No.223 ) are reproductions of events and emotions outside time and space. The painterly colour area and lines united into specific compositions interact and turn into dramatic situations which seem like explosions and catastrophes.
  Malevich's creative path was more tortuous and full of contradictions than Kandinsky's. Proclaiming in his Black square, an icon of the 20th century, his passage beyond the boundaries of zero, Malevich concentrated on a system which he himself named Suprematism or‘a new pictorial realism’.
   In 1915 his first 39 non-objective pictures were shown at the exhibition 0,l0, marking a new era in the history of art. But for Malevich himself the birth of Suprematism did not mean a complete move over to abstraction. In his works of the l920s and early l930s the artist tried to combine recognisable objectivity and a generalised geometrical treatment of the world.

  It was around this time, 1913 to 1914, that Pavel Filonov formed an unusual and original artistic method to which he was to remain faithful to the end of his days. He called himself ‘the painter of the invisible’. The artist saw each object and phenomenon not from the position purely of form and colour, but as an element of organic nature. Depicting, as he saw it, processes taking place in nature, he became joint author, joint creator of that nature. Separating the whole into its component atoms, the artist at the same time thought in generalised categories. He creafed more than a few so-called‘formulae’, model embodiments of feelings and conceptions, for which he could not find more suitable forms of expression.
  Thus, the main leaders of the Russian avant-garde−Larionov and Goncharova, Kandinsky, Malevich and Filonov−offered the world their innovative discoveries as early as the first half of the 1910s, and the Russian avant-garde was fully formed well before the Revolution in 1917, an event which has often been mistakenly connected with experimental trends in Russian culture.
  The second half of the 1910s and the 1920s was an interesting and dramatic period in the history of Russian culture, a time of great hopes and great compromises. The Revolution seemed to correspond to that innovative spirit which then held painters, sculptors and architects in its grip. There were new possibilities in construction, in the design of urban and rural streets and housing, and artists of different professions joined in the creation of the so-called proletarian, anti-bourgeois art.

  The process of revolutionary transformations was accompanied by unprecedented activity among the creative intelligentsia. Artists saw their destiny as being to change the style of everyday life. Malevich, Nikolai Suetin, IIya Chashnik and others worked on forms and painted designs for china, creating a constructive appearance which was suitable to the times. Liubov Popova, Alexandra Exter and Varvara Stepanova paid much attention to textile design. El Lissitzky, Kasimir Malevich, Alexandra Exter, Pavel Filonov, Mark chagall and others brought about a reform in theatrical design. Many new elements were introduced into everyday life through posters, a visual background accessible to the masses, and through books illustrated by leading graphic artists.
  Artists in post-revolutionary Russia were able to do much to change man's environment. But the situation with easel painting was more complex. In the 1910s and the 1920s the range of artistic trends and directions was very wide: one and the same exhibition could include the most radical and the most conservative artists. Society, however, had less and less use for easel paintings, and competition between the avant-garde artists and the conservatives was unavoidable. The new Communist government still had not set artistic policy and thus there was a natural battle for the new spectator, a search for the shortest path to their hearts and minds. At the same time some thought that social revolution was unavoidable and would immediately lead to a revolution in the people's

consciousness, in patterns of thought and perceptions. They linked social transformation with permanent change, a sort of ‘explosion’in the aesthetic mentality. Others felt that the‘face’of the new era should be established through means usual and comprehensible to contemporaries, the majority of whom had a very blurred conception as to what art was.
  The dialogue between the traditional realists and the artistic radicals poured out in manifestoes and programmes put out by the numerous groupings which sprang up one after the other, frequently disappearing as quickly as they had appeared.
  In a relatively small exhibition it is difficult to show the full range of post-revolutionary art in Russia. Nonetheless, it does include abstract works by Kandinsky produced in 1919, Vladimir Lebedev's Cubism. Woman Ironing (1921), and Constructivist works by Natan Altman, Ivan Puni (Jean Pougny) and Alexandra Exter. Along with pictures by Malevich and Filonov they present those trends in the avant-garde for which the basis was laid in the first decades of the 20th century.
  Figurative art, which flourished richly in the paintings of the artists of the Knave of Diamonds, remained popular with the public long after the Revolution. Alexander Kuprin's still-lifes shown here in Sapporo present us with some idea of the nature of their work during the post-revolutionary era. Of course the new life, the new situations which had appeared, required artistic reflection.

  Particularly perceptive works were created by artists during the Civil War. The war brought much suffering and deprivation to the people, the country was hit by famine and many were left without any means of support. The paintings of Vera Pestel (Interior. Family at Table), David shterenberg (Still-life with Lamp and Herring) and Vladimir Lebedev (Katka) are just a few examples of the numerous depictions of the theme of calamity.
  Several artists of the 1920s, in the desire to better understand the contemporary situation, went to work in factories, on collective farms and on construction sites. As a rule their work during this period still had no sign of any programmatic or ideological traits, simply demonstrating through expressive means the tempo and signs of the emerging industrial civilisation (Alexander Labas, The Train).
  Many artists of the period took to romanticising everyday life, whilst they turned to the most varied sources and traditions. Viacheslav Pakulin (Woman with Buckets) and Alexei Pakhomov (The Reaper), in depicting rural life, were clearly orienting themselves around Renaissance frescoes and primitive art. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, without changing his pre-revolutionary style, created in Fantasy a sort of idealistic symbol of the revolutionary era.
  Of course, the range of artistic trends in the post-revolutionary era was considerably richer than can be seen from the selection of works presented in Sapporo. Artists worked in varied styles. But on 23 April 1932

an ominous document appeared, the Party's resolution ‘On the restructuring of literary and artistic organisations’. Essentially this resolution established the legal right of existence of only one form of artistic expression, that which was to be given the name ‘Socialist Realism’.
  To this day it is not clear exactly what this phrase meant, but we do know full well what sterile art it led to. ‘Socialist Realism’did not cover even the work of such as Petrov-Vodkin, Samokhvalov and Deineka, whose works can be seen in the current exhibition. The narrow dogmatism of the aesthetics of Socialist Realism meant that it was always possible to find the necessary ‘heretics’who were considered unfit by the party bureaucracy. Many artists continued to work as they had before but their canvases were not exhibited and were not purchased. Magazines and journals remained silent on the subject of their work right into the 1960s.
  We hope that those years have gone forever and that the history of Russian art of the 20th century will now be seen in all its richness, with its wealth of artists and trends.
  We shall be extremely happy if the exhibition put together for Sapporo reveals to the Japanese viewer the Russia of the first decades of the 20th century, with its characteristic artistic experimentation and peculiarities in the perception of the surrounding world and of art.


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