RUSSIAN ARTS: MASTERS & MASTERPIECES
The history of Russian arts is every bit as complicated and dramatic as the arts themselves. It is a history of abrupt shifts and authoritarian decrees; artistic successes marred by political disgrace; masterpieces created and destroyed; strokes of genius, policies of mediocrity, and entire aesthetic movements swept in and out on the coat tails of yesterday’s rulers.
Art in the Service of the Church
The excitement began in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity on behalf of the Russian state. The decision brought artists and artisans pouring in from Byzantium to help build the infrastructure of the new religion. The earliest of these artists are anonymous to us, but the Russian religious aesthetic was sufficiently developed by the 14th century to warrant the fame of certain masters.
Theophanes the Greek came from Byzantium in the 1370s and brought with him a mystical aesthetic, with frescoes that seemed like constellations of eyes. His most famous Russian student, Andrey Rublyov, is considered the greatest of medieval Russian painters. The wistful, elongated figures in Rublyov’s icons are gracefully balanced, particularly in The Trinity (1411), his masterpiece. He blended the classical heritage of Theophanes – the mystical emphasis on symmetry, the focus on eyes – with his own instinct of figuration and earth tones, drawn from his Russian roots.
The Russian icon was much more than a painting; it was thought to actually stand in for the particular saint depicted, which appealed to the taste for mysticism that Russia inherited from Byzantium. Pskov, Novgorod, Kiev and Moscow all had their own styles, and the early icons that survive in these cities today provide tantalising clues to their onetime spiritual atmospheres.
Early Russian architecture, too, was distinctive by city. From the time of Prince Vladimir’s adoption of Christianity in 988, the church became the most important building in a Russian town. In fact, legend holds that Vladimir’s choice of Orthodox Christianity as the state religion relied heavily upon tales of the beauty of St Sophia in Constantinople ( Istanbul ).
As Christianity moved into Russia, careful attention was paid to church construction. Churches were the first structures to be built from stone, rather than wood, and as such they became mini-fortresses, harbouring grain and important civic documents in addition to religious services and iconography. Exterior ornamentation detracted from the stability implied by simple, sturdy structures, so in many cases ornamentation was reserved for the interior.
Novgorod’s St Sophia (1045), for instance, was built along fortress-like lines, with tiny slits for windows and a hulking, simple exterior. The one detail on the outside, however, is a significant one: the onion domes atop St Sophia are thought to have been Russia’s first, replacing tent roofs that burned during the 14th century. The onion shape was apparently chosen for its practicality, as it evenly distributed the weight of the timbers.
As architects grew more confident, designs began to reach further upwards, the number of windows increased, entryways became more decorative. This later style is typified in the churches of Vladimir, such as the Uspensky Cathedral (1158-60), decorated with icons by Rublyov, among other artists.
The beauty of the Vladimir churches became so renowned that Ivan III sent architects to study them and return to Moscow with fresh ideas. His architects then combined the Byzantine-influenced styles they found in Vladimir’s designs with Russian additions and the increased decoration demanded by the nobility. St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is one result of this blending and is emblematic of what came to be known as the ‘Moscow style’: a combination of domed and tent roofs, exterior decoration to the point of whimsy, and a smattering of massed gables.
The written word in early Russia was not treated to such decoration; it was regarded merely as a means of transmitting information and teaching. Chronicles of early Russian history, the lives of saints, and biblical stories were written down, often in quite beautiful verse versions of the Church Slavonic language. Yet the authors of these works (known as ‘bookmen’) were regarded merely as conduits for the recording and spreading of information and spiritual truths. One chronicle, The Campaign of Igor (13th century; anonymous) relates the story of Prince Igor’s campaign against the invading Polovtsy. The stylistic blend of epic style, patriotic hymn and rhythmic verse demonstrates the range of techniques used in the early era, even though writing was not acknowledged as an art.
The rhythmic nature of chronicles such as The Campaign of Igor prompts speculation about the incorporation of song, although no traces of musical settings exist. The scant evidence of earlier, pre-Christian artistic activity also points to music: the skomorokhi, or minstrels, were pre-Christian itinerant entertainers who plied their trade in villages and courts, singing, dancing, and performing comedic skits. Christianity was not kind to these players: the Orthodox Church regarded theatrical activity as evil, and the skomorokhi were eventually outlawed.
In 1652, the patriarch Nikon cracked down on what he perceived to be excessive Western influence in Russian iconography: realistic details and secular backgrounds betrayed the influence of visiting German artists and an unacceptable degree of individual artistic expression. These innovations, according to Nikon, threatened the absolute, objective truth the icons were meant to represent, and he called for their suppression. This gesture amounted to the first public recognition of Western influence in Russia.
At the time of Nikon’s pronouncements, it had been six centuries since Russia had experienced active cultural exchange with the West. Tsar Alexey (1645-76), however, turned a more sympathetic eye to Western culture, and his son Peter (the Great), who traveled extensively in Western Europe, loved it. Far from fretting about individual consciousness in art, upon coming to the throne Peter (1682-1725) would rip art – and culture more generally – forcibly from the didactic and religious purposes it had long served.
In 1712, Peter moved the Russian court northward from Moscow to a brand-new city, named St Petersburg after his patron saint. The move would significantly affect every aspect of Russian culture, but the single most important work of art it would spawn was the city of St Petersburg itself. Peter ordered that
he city be built along a European model favoring wide boulevards, clean lines and stately grandeur, as opposed to the dense, mazelike Moscow. He traded in the lush splendours of the Kremlin for the more austere elegance of the palaces he had seen in France and especially in Amsterdam.
St Petersburg is no less the creation of Peter’s successors, particularly the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine. Elizabeth (1741- 61) reverted to more ornate architecture in her commissions, favoring the designs of Bartolomeo Rastrelli, born in Italy and raised amid the creation of Versailles. Among numerous creations throughout Russia, Rastrelli was responsible for the rococo Winter Palace (1754-62) now the home of the Hermitage Museum.
Catherine the Great (1762-96), on the other hand, clung closer to Peter’s preference for the simple and elegant. Upon coming to power, she demoted Rastrelli and hired a handful of neoclassicists to continue the development of St Petersburg in more restrained fashion. Yet despite their individual preferences, one trait is common to Peter, Elizabeth and Catherine, the three great builders of St Petersburg : all three placed the State ahead of the Church, reversing the legitimising structure that had been in place since Russia’s founding. From now on, the church would have to answer to the State, and not the reverse, and artistic production would focus increasingly on the secular.
The Influence of the West
Peter and his successors brought artists of every discipline from Western Europe to mould Russian aesthetics in the secularist tradition. Naturalism was in fashion in France, Germany and Italy ; soon, it was fashionable in Russia, too. Russian artists traveled through Europe for training, and in 1757 the Academy of Fine Arts was founded in St Petersburg, staffed by Western-born teachers. Carefully trained in classical principles, some artists, including Karl Bryullov and Alexander Ivanov, managed to imbue their works with animation and spirit but most art of the time was painfully academic.
The bulk of 18th-century Russian writers, too, struggled to produce pieces that were better than imitative of their Western models. They started by attacking the stilted and chaotic condition of the Russian language, which was trapped somewhere between Church Slavonic and uneducated dialects. During the mid-18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov, philosopher, scientist and author, standardised Russian literary language, classifying it into generic styles. Vasily Trediakovskyjoined him in establishing versification guidelines; and Alexander Sumarokov pitched in to systematise literary genres.
All three men practised what they preached, writing in the forms they theorised. In fact, Lomonosov, Trediakovsky and Sumarokov were largely responsible for dragging Russian literature through all the phases of Western European literature and onto its own feet in the span of 50 years, an historical blink of the eye. Despite various false leads and much mediocrity, at the end of the 18th century, Russian literature as such existed, where before it had not.
Taking advantage of the newly available Russian literary language, Nikolai Karamzin, author of plays, novels and poetry, also produced the weighty History of the Russian State (1826). It was the first serious attempt to account for the nation’s evolution. In his work, Karamzin acknowledged the rich contributions of the Russian folk, providing a foundation for many folk-oriented pieces of literature in the 19th century.
Music lagged behind literature in finding its Russian idioms. Art music (sometimes referred to as ‘classical music’ – neither traditional/folk music, nor popular music) was simply imported wholesale from Western Europe throughout the 18th century. Even Orthodox chant took a turn westward; Dmitry Bortniansky, the most successful composer for the Church during his time, was sent to Italy for his training and wrote in distinctly Italian style. Orthodox chant was gradually forgotten, and Western-style polyphony came to be regarded as appropriate to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Peter’s reforms-and specifically his very deliberate embracing of the West – would set the tone for all aesthetic activity to follow, into the present day. Peter’s reforms at one and the same time opened Russia to the West and prompted fresh perspective on the native cultural idioms of Russia itself Entering the 19th century, artists were self-consciously aware – for the first time since early Christian art and architecture – of those traits that defined Russian culture.
In the process, Peter set in place the enduring concern of Russian art over its relationship to the West. After Peter, an artist could welcome Western influence into his work or resist it, hut he could not ignore it. Though Russia is often regarded as ever lagging just behind the latest trends in art, in a way Peter anticipated the tenets of 19th-century modernism by instilling in the artist a self-conscious awareness of his place in aesthetic history and cultural development The materials of tradition and culture writ large became equally as significant, and just as readily recognised, as the materials of paint, word, or note.
Finding Russia in the Folk
As the cultural eye of Russia, having witnessed the world beyond, turned purposefully inward, the ‘folk’ – the Russian peasant, the villages, the age-old traditions that had always been inextricable from daily life – became commodities of the highest aesthetic order.
The valuation of Russian folk life appeared in every artistic discipline, but none so famously as literature. Building upon the tremendous strides made by the linguistic and literary innovators of the 18th century, Russian authors of the early 19th century began composing works that had no parallel in Western Europe. They were too clean and structured to be called simply romantic, yet their freedom of expression and attachment to the Russian folk moved them beyond 18thcentury classicism. They summed up the classical lessons learned during the 18th century, welcomed the romantic trends from the West, and anticipated the realism that would soon take hold, all at once. And so began the Golden Age in Russian Literature.
Without question the biggest name in the early Golden Age was Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin’s most successful works were his verse-form dramas, including his ‘novel in verse’, Yevgeny Onegin (1833). Onegin is one of the original ‘superfluous men’ who would become such a literary presence through the rest of the 19th century. He trifles with a country maiden, kills her sister’s fiance in a duel, and generally seems intent upon pricking at his ennui until he succeeds in making himself really suffer. Pushkin played the part not only in literature but also in life: his passionate personality and pen often got him into trouble, including exile and, tragically, death by duel.
To this day, Pushkin is so revered in Russia that he can seem to tower far above and even outside his era, but in fact he was decidedly a man of his time. Other members of the romantic movement – Lermontov, Griboyedov and Zhukovsky – wrote works in similar style and lived similarly tumultuous, romantic lives. But Pushkin is the one generally credited with having set the dynamic force of modern Russian literature in motion. For more details about Pushkin, see the boxed text ‘Duels, Fools and Poets’ in the Western European Russian chapter.
Pushkin had a foil and a successor in Nikolai Gogol, a mysterious wordsmith whose almost absurdist style was both far ahead of its time and a predecessor of later 19th-century realism. In The Overcoat (1842), Dead Souls (1842) and other works, Gogol reduced the Russian experience to its external appearances, thereby both drawing attention to influences and cultures that had created the modern Russian world and trivialising the whole package.
Dostoevsky once said, ‘We all come out of Gogol’s overcoat’. This comment acknowledges the way in which Gogol’s seemingly superficial, trivial style, cast in an intuitively textural Russian language, in fact cut deep to the heart of the Russian condition.
Fyodor Dostoevsky himself approached that condition from the opposite direction: while hardly shying from the physical realities of his characters, the great Dostoevsky novels (Notes from Underground, 1864; Crime and Punishment, 1866; Brothers Karamazov, 1880) have psychology as their starting point. These books are directly concerned with the psychological, emotional and spiritual experiences of their characters, even as those experiences are reflected in – and often fed by – physical surroundings.
Leo Tolstoy was more balanced in his portrayal of Russia and Russians. In his novels Anna Karenina (1873) and War and Peace (1869), he creates characters who are sympathetic and true to a general reader, as opposed to Dostoevsky’s dark, voyeuristic realism. Tolstoy does not shy from the beautiful in his novels, in addition to the ugly; in Dostoevsky, moments of beauty must be sought in glimmers through the cracks of the relentless challenge he poses to life: to demonstrate meaning.
The novels of Ivan Turgenev have a still softer edge. Turgenev, decidedly a realist, nonetheless blended elements of romanticism into works such as the novel Fathers and Sons (1862).
In music, the turn to the ‘folk’ was the work of Mikhail Glinka, father of Russian art music. During the 18th century, some references to peasant song begin to appear in letters and small publications, but it was not until Glinka’s groundbreaking operas of the mid-19th century that these songs achieved high artistic status. Glinka wove folk songs into the very fabric of A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), the first Russian operas. In so doing, he inaugurated the ‘New Russian School’ of composition that would dominate Russian music through most of the 19th century.
Glinka’s progeny includes Modest Musorgsky, composer of the intensely folkoriented operas Boris Godunov (1869; the second version 1872) and Khovanshchina (1886). Of all Russian nationalist composers, Musorgsky was the most tragic. An artist of indisputable genius, he was too impatient to study orchestration techniques and as a result many of his pieces had to be completed by others. Increasingly tormented in life, he eventually drank himself to death. Musorgsky’s prolific colleague Nikolai RimskyKorsakov would eventually take a position at the St Petersburg Conservatory, belying the rogue reputation of the New Russian School and forming a link into the 20th century.
Peter Tchaikovsky, though he had his tensions with the nationalist school, shared with them the valuation of ‘folk’ materials and themes. In the West, however, Tchaikovsky is best known for his generally romantic ballet scores, through which Western Europe came to know the prestigious St Petersburg Imperial Ballet. The scores of Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892) and Swan Lake (1895) were all choreographed by Marius Petipa to worldwide acclaim.
Just as the New Russian School of music was coming into currency in the mid-19th century, a handful of visual artists split from the Academy of Fine Arts to embark on a similar path. They called themselves the peredvizhniki (wanderers), and they ventured back through Russian history and deep into the Russian countryside in search of realistic Russian themes, styles and techniques. Artists including Ilya Repin cast their rural subject matter in passionate, realist tones; Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73), in St Petersburg’s Russian Museum, takes on physical labor with unstylised directness.
20th Century: Age of the Isms
As the 20th century arrived, the artistic movements that had brandished the sharpest edge in the 19th century had dulled, essentially becoming the new academy. The New Russian School of music, led by RimskyKorsakov, was ‘securely locked in the conservatory’: what had been a somewhat subversive trend, resistant to the mainstream, had now become the standard – the Academy itself. In the visual arts, the peredvizhniki increasingly repeated themselves, succumbing to the demands of their patrons. The fragmented plays of Anton Chekhov represented the last, though powerful, gasp of Russian literary realism.
In the waning years of the century, modernism began to take hold and soon gave rise to a succession of big-name movements: symbolism, futurism, suprematism, construetivism. These were the aesthetic concepts that would accompany the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the tumultuous years of revolution, and the dawn of the Bolshevik state.
Early symbolist writer Valery Briusov stuck close to a French model of symbolism, but his successors – especially Viacheslav Ivanov, Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely – developed a more distinct Russian symbolist idiom. By creating superior realities in art and then reading that art back onto life, these authors believed that reality itself would become better. Blok and Bely, in particular, pursued their principles to the point of writing poetic death into their works.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was the primary practitioner of futurism, abstracting and schematising language in his efforts to release its creationary power. Originally enthusiastic about the Soviet project, Mayakovsky became so disillusioned that he committed suicide in 1930.
These literary movements had parallels in music and the visual arts. In music, the dominant figure of the Russian avant-garde was Alexander Scriabin. An avowed symbolist, Scriabin devised a system attaching specific colours to certain sounds. His music was essentially atonal and completely different from anything else being composed at the time; in fact, in 1961 it was regarded as sufficiently futuristic to serve as the soundtrack to Gagarin’s inaugural space flight.
In painting, as in literature, the tenets of symbolism were idealistic and focussed on the perfectibility of life through art. The fantastical abstractions of Vasili Kandinsky embraced spirituality rather than materialism. In reference to their nonrepresentational forms, as well as his sense of music in his work, Kandinsky generically titled many of his works Improvisations and Compositions.
Kandinsky belonged to a broad, conceptbound group formed in 1898, Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art). While Mir Iskusstva encompassed a variety of aesthetic styles, most members were sympathetic to the symbolist project. Artists Leonty Benois and Lev Bakst were involved in Mir Iskusstva’s most enduring project, the Ballets Russes, as set designers. As such, they brought their visual interpretations of Russian culture to the Parisian stage and were among the elite group that introduced the Russian version of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) to the West.
Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, shared the Symbolist belief in the superiority of art to reality. Unlike hardcore Symbolists, however, Diaghilev allowed art to remain in a specialised space, without asking it to improve upon life itself. With the help of artists from every discipline, including the folk song-derived scores of Igor Stravinsky, Diaghilev orchestrated every aspect of meticulous ballet productions such as The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913), to rousing success in Paris. Blok, Bely and Scriabin, meanwhile, in trying to draw more from art than it was able to give, drowned in their own symbolist projects.
Partially out of Symbolism and partially in contrast to it grew the Russian avant-garde. Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova and Vladimir Tatlin were among the major artists who emerged in the 1910s, adopting the primitivist tendencies and folk source materials of the symbolists, yet pushing them ever further towards abstraction and political message. Malevich’s suprematist painting Black Square (1913), on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, took the final step toward abstraction by eliminating all representation from the canvas, as form triumphed over content.
Once the materials of representation had been broken down into their component parts of shape and colour, there was nothing to do but recombine them. Thus arrived constructivism, in quick succession to suprematism.
Malevich turned to constructivism, and Tatlin was a pioneer in the style. Along with other revolution-minded artists, Tatlin demanded that form follow function in art; there was no room in a revolutionary world for wasted ideas. For the most part, however. Tatlin’s projects turned out to be exceedingly idealistic and were never built, and we are left with so many models, including Monument to the Third International (1919-20).
Constructivism did, however, leave a mark on the built architectural environment of the Soviet Union. Determinedly geometric forms became the structural components of public buildings in which form strove to demonstrably follow function. The offices of Pravda in Moscow were one famous example.
All of this furious artistic experimentation came crashing to a halt in the late 1920s, as Stalin’s repressive stance towards aesthetics became clear. In 1932, an official state aesthetic was announced: socialist realism. While the tenets of socialist realism remained treacherously ill-defined (an artist could be exiled or worse for failing to adhere to them, however earnest the intent), they involved a return to realism along the lines of the 19thcentury peredvizhniki, as well as a depiction of ‘reality in its revolutionary development’, as it was infamously decreed.
Experimentation in architecture was an immediate casualty of the socialist realist doctrine, as monumental neoclassicism replaced constructivism. Ironically, the functional, structure-baring aesthetic basic to architectural constructivism would find new voice internationally during the mid-20th century. While the tendency produced such landmarks as the Pompidou Centre in Paris, however, in Russia it was now stripped of artistry and resulted in the characterlcss blocks that cover much of the modern Russian cityscape.
A number of artists managed to produce quality work under these difficult circumstances. From its introduction to Russia in 1898, film had become a favourite art form with Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov among the most famous practitioners.
The preferred technique was for many years that of montage, or rapid editing cuts. The artistry of Eisenstein and his montage technique in films such as Battleship Potempkin (1925) endured into the Stalinist era, and Ivan the Terrible, parts one and two (1944-46) is regarded by many as his greatest work.
The majority of films produced during the 1930s and 1940s were propagandist, or at least were strictly in line with the Party’s socialist realist ideals. However, the film idiom was by this time so dominated by montage that even these conformist films provide an interesting and artistically convincing portrait of the aesthetic age. In an art form as young as film, it was difficult for the authorities to sift the contrived from the natural, which in theory they privileged; all film was both contrived and naturalistic to the developing audience. Thus Fridrikh Ermler’s film Counterplan (1932), considered an important influence on the development of socialist realist doctrine, is nonetheless quite powerful artistically.
Among Soviet writers, Sergei Bulgakov, with his fabulously popular novel The Master and Margarita (1940; published 1967) sustained the mystical strains of Russian literature within the framework of a classic romance. In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak casts the Revolution in powerfully mythical terms. Poet Anna Akhmatova lived tragically long while witnessing many of her contemporaries being hauled off to prison or death. The elegant clarity of her poetry is a crucial document of the age.
Perhaps the most sobering written account of the Stalinist age is The Gulag Archipelago (published 1973), by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in the Stalinist Gulag, wrote about it in three volumes, then spent the remainder of his life in exile, following the publication of his work abroad.
Musically, the compositions of Dmitry Shostakovich and the Soviet-era works of Sergei Prokofiev are currently regaining favour as critics realise that political exigencies do not automatically spell artistic staleness. And visual artists, including Alexander Gerasimov and Alexander Deineka, managed to create paintings of immediacy and power even within the confines of socialist realism.
With Stalin’s death in 1953, the artistic atmosphere in Russia eased up a bit and freer expression crept back into the arts. In the late 20th century, Russian artists were playing a familiar game of catch-up, as they finally explored the artistic innovations and experiments that had been taking place in the West during their long years of isolation and repression. Abstraction and references to previously taboo forms such as the religious icon began to reappear on canvases. The progressive musical practices of Western composers found their way into the compositions of such prominent late- and post-Soviet composers as Alfred Schnittke and Sophia Gubaidulina.
In film and literature, the portrayal of individuals with individual consciousnesses regained legitimacy. Oleg Kovalov is among the film directors who have returned to the subjectivities of the earlier 20th century and put them to the task of social critique; his Concertfor a Rat (1995) re-examines montage techniques but in order to undermine, rather than prop up, supposed Soviet realities. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun, which won an Oscar in 1994, poignantly treats the Stalinist purges.
The philosophical novels of Viktor Pelevin are among those historicising the concept of the individual and questioning modern perspectives, testing them against the demonstrably failed Soviet perspectives.
As Russian artists enter the 21st century, they once again find themselves in a period of dramatic change, again faced with the task of aesthetically sorting through the cultural, social and historical legacies of their country. Perhaps what is most amazing in the Russian arts is that in the face of these pressures and this complexity of creative circumstance, artists, writers and musicians time and again have made astonishing stylistic moves, often ushering in new aesthetic eras with a single gesture. No doubt the Russian artist of today, too, will manage to press materials and ideas borrowed from others or imposed by tradition far beyond what anyone could imagine.