Sunday, December 7, 2014

Between Icons and Abstraction: The Russian Art that Westerners Don't Know

Western art enthusiasts have selective knowledge of Russian painting.  When we think about Russia's contributions to art history, we tend to think about modernists like Kandinsky and Malevich, or else perhaps we think of Russian icons, which are recognizable to us but poorly understood.   We are also familiar with the socialist realism imposed during Stalin's Soviet regime, though it is usually dismissed as insignificant.  We are far less familiar with the art and artists that thrived in the centuries between the icons and the modernist iconoclasts.  Many painters who are cherished by Russian museum-goers are unknown to the international art world.  On a recent trip to Moscow, I was lucky to learn a little bit about these Russian masters.  Here I will focus on works in the The State Tretyakov Gallery, which may be the best place to view paintings that are entrenched in the Russian canon.

Pavel Tretyakov (right) was a merchant who began amassing an art collection in the mid-19th century.  In 1892, he donated his collection to Russia, and it remains the crown jewel in a city that hosts many superb museums.  The Tretyakov Gallery has a spectacular collection of icons, as well as a gallery for contemporary art, added in the 1980s.  By default, I would have gravitated to these historic bookends, but, with the encouragement and patient instruction of Russian friends, elected to spend time with the paintings created in between  The Gallery includes works spanning 1,000 years, but the lion's share date from the 18th and, especially, the 19th centuries--works by those who lived during or shortly before the life of Pavel Tretyakov.  His was a cutting edge collection.

The work is no longer cutting edge, but it is easy to see how it  excited and provoked viewers in the final century of Tsarist Russia.  We see a succession of styles-- neo-classicism, romanticism, social realism, and forms of symbolism--which recapitulate the artistic breakthroughs in Western art.  These works are, to that extent, accessible to Western visitors, and it is exciting to discover talented artists who were working in these familiar idioms.  At the same time, there are ways in which these artists clash with Western taste.  Jaded as we are, certain forms of narrative realism have been given second-tier status in our canons.  Likewise for history paintings and genre paintings, which once had an exalted status.  The Western canon has transformed with shifting trends, and artists who experienced great fame in their lifetimes have been relegated to footnotes because of the subjects they preferred to paint.  The Russian canon includes works that prevailing Western tastes might resist, but it is rewarding to spend time with them.  These works are masterful in execution, and they are a window into Russian history.  They also shed light on the Russian modernist painters who so admire.

Let's begin our tour in 1784 with Ivan Argunov's austerely composed Portrait of an Unknown Peasant.  Argunov was a serf who began as an icon painter but went on to develop a style that helped to define Russian portrait painting.  He trained painters who taught in the newly established Imperial Academy of the Arts, but retired from painting shortly after this portrait was made, in order to perform duties for his master's family.  As we can see here, he adopted neo-classical formalism in his work, showing the influence of continental styles, but his careful attention to traditional Russian dress shows that he is firmly grounded in the local culture.  It is also noteworthy that he chose to paint a peasant (or at least a woman in peasant dress) is such a stately fashion.  Russian art is noted for its dignified portrayals of the poor and working classes.  Argunov's own humble roots are proudly proclaimed with this gesture, which forecasts times when high art will become accessible to all.

Vladimir Borovikovsky was another artist who began as an icon painter at the end of the 18th centery.  Born to a Cossack family in Ukraine, he went on to a distinguished career as a portrait painter, perfecting a style known as sentimentalism.  Argunov's interest in peasant attire reflects a sentimental spin on classical forms, but Borovikovsky takes this farther, softening his lines in a way that shifts from the geometrical ideas of classicism to a sweeter form of idealization. His Portrait of M.I. Lupukhina (1794) is a perfect example.  It has the tender allure of a Grueze painting, without drifting, as does Grueze, into the saccharine.  He also manages to integrate his subject with the natural surroundings, an organicism that signals the Romantic styles that would soon follow.

Romanticism comes out more fully in the early 19th century, with the work of Karl Bryullov, an academy professor who spent time in Germany and Italy.  The Tretyakov collection includes several Bryullov canvases, including The Rider, a portrait of a woman on a horse, with a child and two dogs. Bryullov's neoclassical training is evident in the poised formality of the female figure at the center, but the horse on which she sits bucks wildly, evincing the Romantic ideal of untamed nature.  The architectural details also impart a classical feel, but the blood red cloth visible on the interior, and the foreboding forest in the background reveal Bryullov to be a Romantic.

Bryllov's most famous painting, the Last Days of Pompeii, confirms this designation.  It hangs in St. Petersburg, but a small study can be seen at the Tretyakov (above right).  Here, tormented figures writhe beneath a crimson sky.

The Tretyakov collection also includes a masterpiece by Bryullov's follower, Konstantin Flavitsky, titled Princess Tarakanova, in the Peter and Paul Fortress at the Time of the Flood.  Tarakanova claimed rights to the throne during the reign of Catherine the Great and was imprisoned in St. Petersburg.  According to one legend, depicted here, she died when the prison was submerged during the flood of 1777.  Flavitsky captures the moment as floodwaters pour into her cell.  His chiaroscuro, dramatic staging, and deference to nature's power captures the spirit of Romanticism.

A detail reveals that a rat is climbing on the the Princess' bed, clinging, like her, for its dear life.

Other academy professors perfected the art of genre painting.  Vasily Pukirev's Unequal Marriage is
a compelling example.  Here a young woman endures a wedding ceremony with a man many decades her senior.  Though somewhat comedic, the picture is a powerful indictment of economic disparity.  Pukirev himself was born poor, and the woman he loved was forced by her parents to marry an elderly man with better finances and a higher social station.  Another Pukirev--Artist's Atelier--can be seen at the top of this post.

Both Bryullov and Pukirev create narratives in their paintings.  They use a single moment to tell a story.  Narrativity finds its consummate realization, however, in the work Vasily Surikov.  Famous for grand canvases, teaming with figures in action, Surikov is among the most celebrated painters in Russia.  Here I've reproduced his Morning of the Streltsy’ Execution, a lavishly detailed canvas that depicts soldiers en route to the gallows in Red Square.  The Streltsy were a military unit that was originally assembled by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.  In the 17th century, they tried to rebel against Peter the Great, and were brutally tortured and killed.  The executions did not take place next to St. Basil's church, as depicted here, but Surikov uses the church to represent the overwhelming power of the state against insurrection.  Though officially a history painting, it delivers a political message.  The exact content of that message is somewhat opaque.  The Streltsy are depicted as fearless, but beaten, with weeping women clinging to them and crowd of dejected onlookers; this evokes empathy.  But Peter looks downward from his horse with stately repose and stern confidence; there is no attempt to demonize him, and Surikov may have believed that history was on his side.  This ambivalence is best expressed by a figure in the center of the canvas--a soldier perched higher than Peter in the picture plane, wearing a military coat that resembled Peter's,  indicating that he is a member of Peter's victorious army.  But this figure is also hunched forward, and carries a candle, which evokes mourning, and his coat is unbuttoned exposing his long white shirt, which exactly mirrors the attire of the fallen rebels.  If the figure is among the victors, then why does his posture convey defeat?  Perhaps Surikov is telling us that the Streltsy rebellion was both right and wrong: right to challenge the standing Tsar, but wrong to advocate his replacement with another dictator.  A rebellion with the right spirit but the wrong cause.

A related theme is depicted by Ilya Repin, another one of Russia's most revered history painters.  He depicts Peter the Great's half-sister Sophia, whose rule he had quashed in order to become Tsar.  The full title is: Tsarina Sophia in 1698, a Year after her Confinement to the Novodievitchi Convent, at the Time of the Execution and the Torture of All her Servants.  Repin depicts the deposed ruler as defiant; she is an immovable pillar with crossed arms and fiery eyes, which stare directly at the viewer.  An innocent-looking child appears in the shadows behind her, and the window on the right reveals one of the Streltsy hanging from a noose.  Repin is commenting on Peter's brutality, but Sophia was also ruthless, as this depiction suggests with her malevolent gaze.  Is Repin telling us that both leaders were bad?

An answer is suggested by another Repin painting: his portrayal of Ivan the Terrible, Russia's most infamous Tsar.  In this scene, the turbulent ruler has just murdered his son, Ivan Ivanovich, in a fit of rage.  Ivanovich had been groomed for succession, and, after the filicide depicted here, the throne went to Ivan the Terrible's other son, Feodor, who wasn't fit to rule, leading the country into troubled times.  The painting is chilling.  The murderous monarch clings to the bloodied head of his son, with eyes staring madly into space--horrified by his own actions.  The son, in a bewildered trance as he nears death, rests his hand on his father's arm, as a baby might when cradled in parental arms.  The composition is horizontally decided between the wall of the dusk-black room and the blood-red rug below.  Father and son form a black and white mass in the center--they are yin and yang caught in the spotlight.  Together Repin's paintings serve as an indictment of despotism and forecast the coming revolution.

Repin also painted a magisterial portrait of Tolstoy, which can be seen at the Tretyakov.  The two had much in common.  In 19th century Russia, they were perhaps the most famous figures in their respective arts.  They were both populists, who felt compassion for the common people, despite coming from privileged backgrounds.  They were also friends.

There are other superb literary portraits in the Tretyakov collection, including a handsome portrait of Puskin by Orest Kiprensky, and a somber and statuesque Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov.

Perov was the artist counterpart to Dostoyevsky, just as Repin was a counterpart to Tolstoy.  He developed a style called critical realism that focused on the life or ordinary people, especially the working poor.  He breaths life into his subjects, and captures them at moments of hardship or peril.  One poignant example is The Last Journey, which depicts a coffin on a horse-drawn sled during a harsh winter snow.  A mother hunches over to guide the struggling house, and two mournful children sit next to the cheap wooden box containing their father.  This is not just loss; it is desperation.  Who will sustain the family now?  Like Dostoyevsky, Perov has a grim view of the human condition.  This painting was inspired by a poem called Red-Nosed Frost, by another literary giant, Nikolay Nekrasov.  Here is a translation of the opening stanzas (altered to preserve rhyme):

An old roan horse is stuck in the snow
Two pairs of frozen shoes lay
The edges of a mat-covered coffin show
Projecting from the wretched sleigh

An old woman in mittened hands
Has gone down to prod on the horse
On her eyelashes hang icicle strands
From the cold, of course

Perov's paintings might be passed over as maudlin genre scenes contrived to pull at our heartstrings, but, when juxtaposed with the literary works of Dostoyevsky and Nekrasov, we can see him as more of a philosopher, struggling with the hardship of his age--hardship that would soon lead to political upheaval.

Surikov, Repin, and Perov were all members of an artist group called the Peredvizhniki (or Itinerants), who broke off from the academy and began mounting touring (or itinerant) exhibitions.  This gave them greater freedom in both style and content.  The Itinerants also included a number of nature painters, who are highly esteemed by Russian art lovers.  The most iconic painting  in this category is Ivan Shishkin's Morning in a Pine Forest (popularly known as three bears, even thought there are four).  Bears are a popular symbol in Russia, and this painting has been endlessly copied and reproduced.  We shouldn't let its mass appeal distract from its technical achievements.  Like the impressionists, Shishkin developed innovative ways of painting light.  Notice his skillful treatment of fog, and the way the morning sun penetrates the leafy canopy.

Where Shishkin is a master of the forest, Ivan Aivazovsky is a master of the sea.  Born to Armenian parents in Crimia, Aivazovsky was one of the most prolific painters in the history of art, with some 6,000 paintings to his name.  Most of these are seascapes.  Like Turner, he uses the sea to create deeply expressive works, with crashing waves as stormy skies externalizing the tumult of the soul.  Like Turner, too, he can also be viewed as a pioneer of abstraction, though I'm not sure he has this reputation in Russia.  Among the Aivazovskys at the Tretyakov, I was most impressed by one showing a sea that bisects the canvass into two tonal planes.  The sea is calm at first glance, but rising waves and a dark cloud suggest that a storm is brewing.

I was also taken with a seascape by Nikolay Dubovskoy, which contrasts murky still water with a billowing cloud formation that spreads across the sky like a floating duvet, which portends either comfort or doom.

The most memorable landscape at the Gallery belongs to another artist, Arkhip Kuinji.  His Night on the Dniepr is a remarkable work that shows moonlight reflecting on a river.  The painting is mostly a black field with light forming an abstract play of forms.  Most striking is the iridescent quality of the light.  One of my Russian friends commented that the painting is impossible to reproduce, because no photo can capture the effect.  Kuinji originally exhibited the work in a dark room; it astonished those who saw it.

Though officially a member of the Peredvizhniki, Kuinji is a counterpoint to painters like Perov.  Rather than depicting the horrors of human life, he retreats to nature and renders it otherworldly.  Another striking example--Elburs, a Moonlit Night--is displayed above.

Departures from realism became more common as the 19th century drew to a close.  In 1890, Nikolai Ge, a veteran of the Peredvizhniki, painted What Is Truth?, which depicts a confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus.  Conservatives charged Ge with blasphemy because his Jesus is cast in shadow, looking frail and gaunt next to the magisterial Pilate.  Bulgakov must have had this painting in mind when he has Pilate say:

"Why did you, a vagrant, stir up the crowds in the marketplace by talking about truth, when you have no conception of what truth is?  What is truth?..."The truth is, first of all that your head aches, so badly, in fact, that you're having fainthearted thoughts about death.  Not only are you too weak to talk to me, but you're even having trouble looking at me.  That I, at this moment, am your unwilling executioner upsets me.  You can't think about anything and the only thing you want is to call your dog, the only creature, it seems, to whom you are attached.  But your sufferings will soon end, and your headache will pass."

Ge's painting qualifies as realist, in some sense, but it can also be compared to Viennese expressionism and other fin de siecle movements that began experimenting with expressive distortions of the human  form.

The flight from reality is far more pronounced in the work of the symbolist painter, Mikhail Vrubel.  Vrubel rejected the naturalism of the Peredvizhniki and developed a distinctive style that uses unnatural colors, like the post-impressionists, and articulated brushstrokes, like Cezanne.  Thematically, he is more like Redon, though his work could not be mistaken for any of these figures in the French pantheon.  It is entirely his own.  Vrubel had a Polish Father and a Danish mother, but he was decidedly Russian, and the Tretyakov Gallery has an impressive collection of his work, including monumental paintings and decorative arts.  Among Vrubel's most famous images is his Seated Demon, created in the same year as Ge's What is Truth? It is based on Mikhail Lermontov' poem, The Demon.  Here is Francis Storr's translation of the opening:

A spirt fallen from the realms of light
Above this dim world winged his weary flight,
For memories came crowding thick and fast
Of vanished splendours and delights long past. —
How erst, a Cherub bright, he loved to race
With fiery comets through the fields of space;
No mists could blind, no clouds his progress bar,
He followed knowledge on from star to star.

Vrubel's work abandons the realism that had dominated Russian painting for well over a century.  The other painters I have discussed aimed for greater retinal accuracy.  The neoclassical painters idealize, the Romantic painters dramatize, and the critical realists indulge in simplifying selectivity to portray human hardship, but each school tries to impress viewers by painting what might be characterized as photographically realistic details.  The late 19th century saw a break from this throughout Europe, and Russian art exhibits this pattern as well.  Vrubel's figures are certainly recognizable, but he is also doing something else: he is painting paint.  His work draws attention to the painted surface and thereby opens space for the next generation of artists who will give up on conventional representation and paint colors and forms (see another example below).  Vrubal would live long enough to see the very beginning of this revolution before dying of syphilis in 1910.

As someone familiar with the art of Western Europe, my visit to the Tretyakov Gallery was both exciting and challenging.  Exciting because I was able to learn about painters who are manifestly superb, and can be compared favorably to their Western counterparts.  Russia is known in the West for its 19th century music and literature, but deserves equal recognition for visual arts from that period.  Thus, strolling through the Tretyakov is a revelation.  It is also a challenge, because certain aspects of this art run counter to trends we have come to value.  Much of the art can be described as illustrational (tending to look like illustrations in picture books), narrative, sentimental, and designed for mass appeal.  Much of the work is also political, and hence focused on as much on message as form.  All five of these feature can be seen in Perov's "Troika" below--a famous Russian painting that a Western art enthusiast might be (too) quick to dismiss.  When paintings like this went out of vogue in the West, we began to neglect past painters who produced them.  Our art history books often tend to neglect history painters, genre painters, and, to some degree, landscape painters, despite the prominence in the past.  We have rewritten art's progression as an Oedipal series of stylistic innovations, in which each generation invents new ways of seeing, with little emphasis on what is seen.  We favor artists who shocked ordinary viewers, and were more interested in challenging status quo in the art world than challenging the ruling elite.

Through this lens, Russian art in unlike Western art, concerned as it is with recounting episodes in Russian history or revealing the plight of those who suffered under Tsarist rule.  But these features are also worthy of celebration.  In the Western canon, too little is political, and art becomes a commodity for those in power, rather than a voice for the powerless.  At least that was the case before the 20th century.  Moreover, one can look past content and appreciate stylistic features of the Russian masters.  They too were engaged in a process of constant innovation in ways that parallel, but never merely ape artistic breakthroughs in the West.

For those who are familiar with Russian icons and avant garde, the neglected centuries in between are also instructive in another way:  they provide a missing link.  Recall that Argunov and Borovikovsky began as icon painters.  The Tretyakov has a magnificent icon collection, including some by Andre Rublev--the most famous icon painter of all (celebrated in Tarkovsky's film, the best biopic ever made about an artist).  The flat surfaces of these old masterworks (above) contrast with the illusionistic realism of the work I have been discussing, but there are also features in common -- a solemnity, for example, and an attention to form.  One can view some of these pictures as icons come to life.  Compare Repin's sinewy portrait of Ivan the Terrible or Ge's gaunt Jesus to the Rublev below.

Rublev's icons also have a formal integrity that gets recapitulated throughout Russian art.  Repin's Ivan is, once again, a case in point.  Viewed in terms of its formal qualities, it is an exercise in graphic minimalism.   I also mentioned the formal excellence of Kuinji and the bisected canvas of Aivazovsky, where geometry takes center stage.  Such sensitivity to geometry may originate in icon painting, and it culminates in the constructivists, like Malevich and Popova.  I compare a Popova painting from the Tretyakov to an icon below.  Though manifestly reacting against retinal realism, the Russian constuctivists are also borrowing from their aesthetic history.

The flipside of minimalism is visual complexity.  In church settings, icons are often presented crowded together on great walls.  Some of the 19th century painters, like Surikov and, later, Vrubel, create large paintings that are very difficult to parse.  This too suggests continuity with older traditions.  These contrast with Malevich-style minimalism, but the find an analogue in Russia's best known modernist: Kandinsky.  Kandinsky actually began his career making illustration in the folk style, with costumed figures, spired buildings, and dense forests.  The visual complexity of his early abstract paintings can be understood against this background.  Whereas Malevich distills art into monolithic geometric forms, Kandisnky offers lyrical organicism, with decentralized compositions that dazzle and confound the eyes.  The reflect two sides of the Russian legacy in art.  Here is a Kandinksy with a painting from the Tretyakov icon collection.

There is much more to say about Russian modernism, but my goal here has been to share the lessons I learned about Russian art that proceeds these the modernists, who are already well-known in the West.  This earlier art has been neglected, and the Tretyakov Gallery offers a welcome education.

Addendum on Nonconformist Art

Before closing, I want to mention that the Western neglect of Russian art does not end with the advent of modernism.  We have also neglected most of the Russian art that came after the modernists.  The Western narrative about Russia has it that Stalin ended the era of experimentation, when he mandated a shift to socialist realism.  There is much truth to this, but the spirit of experimentation and political resistance is irrepressible Russia.  Unsurprisingly, many artists continued to make avant grade innovations in Soviet times, without state sanction.  These "nonconformists" forged underground movements, mounted apartment exhibitions, and staged impromptu performances. (Right: "Glasnost" screened onto an issue of Pravda by artist/poet Dimitry Prigov, 1988.)

While visiting Moscow, local friends kindly arranged for me to see a private collection of this hidden art.  The collection is hosted by the Russian State University for the Humanities, and tours can be privately arranged.  It was amassed by Mikhail Alishbaya, one of the best heart surgeons in Russia and an incredibly prolific medical author.   Alishbaya buys art that he loves with no intention of making a profit.  He has mounted many exhibitions, and works to raise awareness about nonconformist art.  When I visited, he was giving a personal tour, and his passion was manifest (I am grateful to Katya Fedotova for arranging the tour and telling me about Alishbaya).   I learned about artists who were violating aesthetic norms imposed by Stalin, both during his regime and on through the end of the soviet period.  This art picks up where Malevich left off, and it also gestures back to the earlier traditions that we have been exploring.

One example is Vasily Sitnikov, who was arrested by authorities in 1941, and interned in a psychiatric institution under insufferable conditions until the end of the war.  The painting above, from 1940, gestures at the constructivst tradition, while also recalling 19th century landscape painters, such as Kuinji.

The next example was was created by Olga Potapova in 1961.  For American viewers, it may evoke abstract expressionism, but the painterly style likely owes a debt to Vrubel.

A 1971 photograph by Francisco Infante can also be seen in the collection.  Born to a Spanish father, and raised by his Russian mother, Infante made important contributions to land art, placing mirrors in natural settings.  Still active today, his work merges the aesthetics of Malevich with earlier landscape artists, such as Shishkin.

By the late 1960s, a group who called themselves the Conceptualists was emerging.  One member of this group is Pyotr Belenok, who developed a an innovative method that combined abstract brushwork with collage elements.  The example here, from 1968, is typical.  It wittily unites Russia's legacy of abstraction with the prior traditions of figuration; abstract forms are reinterpreted as cataclysmic meteorological events. Belenok participated in the infamous bulldozer exhibition in 1974.  This was a public display of art that was demolished by soviet authorities, giving rise to international outrage and (some) recognition outside of Russia.  Belenok died at age 53 in 1991, but he was able to witness new freedoms that he had fought for.

Visually the work of the the Moscow Conceptualists bears little resemblance to the art considered above, but they share something important in common.  In the 19th century, Russian art was used as instrument of social criticism; though officially recognized, it challenged the absolute power of the Tsar.  The art of the Conceptualists is also an art of protest.  It belongs to a long tradition that spans from the Peredvizhniki to perestroika, and from Pukirev to Pussy Riot.  This spirit of resistance is part of what makes Russian art so compelling.  If we limit our purview to icons and constructivists and ignore this long tradition, we will  miss one of the most important lessons we can learn from Russian painters: works of art can make contributions to the craft while remaining socially significant.


I dedicate this post, with gratitude, to my friends in Moscow who patiently exposed me to the art the I have described here: Andrey Mertsalov, Artem Basedin, Masha Ananina, Eugene Loginov, and Katya Fedotova.  They taught me most of what I shared above.


  1. Many simply beautiful paintings. Russians and Germans, in art, to this day seem more in tune with the natural world than the rest of us. And like Russian art, respect for nature is often absent in the West. I imagine German appreciation is an extension of agrarian traditions, and of course the harsh nature of winter is more pronounced in Russia (Oymyakon, anyone?) and thus the rituals of Solstice are probably more appreciated.

    Modernism and realism paintings remind me much more of The Master and Margarita, a harsh and ugly story which is bafflingly admired among the well read. I understand the message, but still, just too severe.

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