ARTODOX features important artists from Russia (1960's to 1990's).
By appointment only
"There is no must in art because art is free"
More than 35 artists from Russia
12pm - 10pm Mon. - Sat.
By appointmenyt only
Major Movements in Russian Art after 1850
The 1850s marks a shift in the development of Russian art. During this decade, a division
emerged between what might be called the classical and modern eras of Russian art. For
the first time, the power of the conservative St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts was
challenged by a group of young and idealistic painters who believed in the didactic power
of art to communicate social and political messages. The academy also lost much
authority with the deaths of two of its most renowned painters, Karl Brullov and Alexandr
This group of painters existed roughly from the 1860s until the late 1880s. The
emergence of the group coincided with the development of literary realism. Like the
prose writers Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the painters of this group emphasized social and
political dimensions of art rather than formal aesthetic features. The Wanderers were
highly influenced by the flowering of the democratic movement led by Nikolay
Chernyshevsky. Favorite subjects of the Wanderers included the Russian peasantry,
Russian landscapes, historical events, and Russian political and clerical figures. Fiercely
patriotic, the Wanderers discouraged ties with European art and, in particular, frowned
upon the developing movement of Impressionism in the west. The group’s main
theoretician was the critic Vladimir Stasov. Important members of the Wanderers
included Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Perov, Ilia Repin, and Vasiliy Surikov. Perov’s Easter
Procession (1861), Repin’s Volga Barge-Haulers (1870-1873) and Surikov’s Boyarina
Morozova (1887) and The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy (1881) are excellent
examples of the work of the Wanderers.
An important factor in the changes that took place in Russian art in the 1880s and 1890s
was the establishment of artists’ colonies by wealthy patrons. Industrialization in Russia
had led to the migration of peasants from the countryside to major cities. With this shift in
location, native Russian art traditions began to be lost. Members of the industrialist
autocracy began to realize the significance of this loss of cultural heritage and decided to
create places where artists could gather and study native Russian art. Two such places
were Savva Mamontov’s estate outside Moscow called Abramtsevo (which you can still
visit today) and Princess Tenisheva’s estate Talashkino located near Smolensk. Artists
who participated in these workshops were encouraged to pay attention to traditional
Russian art. This helped pave the way for the extraordinary achievements of “The World
The World of Art
The World of Art was a circle of young artists, philosophers, writers, and musicians that
appeared in the early 1890s in St. Petersburg. The group emerged in opposition to the
staid traditions of the previous generation represented by the Wanderers. Advocating an
“art for art’s sake” approach and a Wagnerian synthesis of the arts, they rejected the
Wanderers’ naturalistic canvases that drew upon political and social themes. The leader
of “The World of Art” was the dynamic figure, Sergei Diaghilev, and their main
theoretician was the artist and art critic, Aleksandr Benois. Among the many artists who
joined their ranks were Konstanin Somov, Lev Bakst, Evgenii Lancere, Mstislav
Dobuzhinskii, and Ivan Bilibin. The group was eclectic in nature and never rallied around
one particular or concrete set of principles. Instead, they drew on a variety of influences
to create a resurgence of interest in the arts. They were attracted in particular to the art
of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries and created many images of old
St.Petersburg. Among their favorite painterly subjects were stylized depictions of old
estate gardens, masquerades, and the figures of the commedia dell’arte (Harlequin,
Pierrot, and Columbine). With the help of wealthy patrons, they produced an innovative
journal of literature and the arts called The World of Art (1898-1904). This journal, filled
with colorful reproductions and decorative graphics, contained articles on both native
Russian art and European art. Led by Diaghilev, the group also sponsored a series of
exhibitions under the same title, “The World of Art.” Later after the first wave of “The
World of Art” had ended, Diaghilev recruited many of the artists associated with the
group to work with him on the Ballets Russes. The last official exhibition of “The World of
Art” took place in Paris in 1927. Prior to World War I, “The World of Art” had a
tremendous impact on Russian painting, book illustration, theatrical design, architecture,
and sculpture. Its members were responsible for encouraging artistic ties between
Europe and Russia and, in general, fostering a new appreciation for the synthetic
possibilities of the arts.
Horse Rider by Karl Brullov
Fishermen by Vasiliy Perov
Salome by Leo Bakst
The Russian Avant-Garde
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Russian artists were introduced to the latest developments in European art. Rich merchant-patrons provided a source of patronage for the arts and opened their private collections of art to the viewing public. Thus within their own country, Russian artists were exposed to such contemporary European art movements as Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. Young Russian artists also travelled extensively, visiting the studios of western artists and major European museums. A variety of new artistic groupings emerged in this intense and energetic time. New theoretical programs were devised and published in manifestoes, and numerous exhibitions of contemporary painting were organized. Russian artists used material from their own folk and religious traditions and incorporated the latest ideas emerging in the European context to create some of the most experimental art of the period. They explored the limits of verisimillitude, leaving behind what they perceived to be the strictures of representational art, as they turned ultimately to the creation of non-objective, abstract canvases.
Both painters and poets of the avant-garde shared a desire to work out new ideas in visually unconventional ways. Whether on canvas or in the creation of theatrical productions, whether in manuscript books or in the layout of text of individual poems on the printed page, artists and writers experimented with abstract representations. While painters were interested in such concepts as the “surface-plane,” “texture,” and “color,” poets were attempting to explore - through something they called “trans-sense” language, the basic components of the word itself.
The incredible artistic energy of these pre-revolutionary groups culminated in the period just after the Russian Revolution. In the years immediately following 1917, artists were recruited by the reigning political authorities to reconceptualize the role of art in society. Numerous theories were debated; new art schools were established; and leading artists battled for control over the new artistic ideology being formed. Eventually, the vigorous debates and experimentation of the late teens and early twenties disappeared under the increasingly rigorous control of artists by the Soviet political leadership.
The main representatives of the neo-primitivist movement are Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964). Their painting combines a nationalistic attention to folk and religious art and an expressionistic style informed by the work of such painters as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Goncharova’s painting The Evangelists (1910-11) combines the influence of the icon-painting tradition with the strong lines and colors of the Fauves. In 1912 the painting was deemed too blasphemous to be shown. Goncharova’s The Cyclist (1912-1913), with its emphasis on speed and machine animation, reflects the influence of the Italian Futurists both in color and feeling. Goncharova’s work attracted the attention of Diaghilev, who commissioned her to design the settings and costumes for a number of his Ballets Russes productions.
Like his partner, Goncharova, Larionov was heavily influenced by Russian folk art, especially the lubki, the popular wood engravings. He challenged tradition with his coarse drawings of human figures, which are marked by a child-like simplicity and crudeness of line. A good example of his neo-primitivist work is his series of depictions of soldiers, which he completed after serving in the military in 1908-09.
Seminal exhibitions that contained neo-primitivist work included the “Jack of Diamonds” exhibition in Moscow in 1910 and “The Donkey’s Tail” exhibition held in March of 1912.
Cubo-Futurism is marked by close connections between poets and painters. The five pivotal figures of Cubo-Futurism were Aleksei Kruchenykh, the brothers David and Vladimir Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Benedikt Livshitz. The main tenet of the Cubo-Futurist credo was a belief in the need for a break with the past. This, this group disdained existing painting traditions; they rejected most ardently the Russian tradition of realism, which included not only the Wanderers, but also “The World of Art” group, and Symbolism with all its inherent mysticism. They were influenced by French Cubism and Italian Futurism, in particular; however, with the onset of World War I, they became increasingly interested in forming a new national art that would contribute to society and parallel new ideas in economics and politics. Passionate about reconnecting art to everyday life, they staged intentionally provocative events in order to arouse public response. For example, they were fascinated for a time with face-painting and even wrote a manifesto entitled “Why We Paint Ourselves.” They also created a controversial Cubo-Futurist opera entitled Victory over the Sun, which was performed three times in Petersburg in 1913. The painter Malevich, the poet Kruchenykh, and the painter-musician Matiushin collaborated on this project. The Cubo-Futurists projected self-confident energy and enthusiasm for experimental painting. Perhaps some of the best examples of the work of Cubo-Futurists are the collaborative books they created using mixed typefaces and many different kinds of illustration, including paintings, engravings, and drawings. One might look, for example, at Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov’s Igra v adu (1912), which was illustrated by Goncharova.
Rayonism cannot be considered a genuine movement, but the term refers to an important set of experimental paintings completed by Larionov and Goncharova and exhibited in 1913. These compositions depict rays of light intersecting with tangible objects and dissolving in shifting patterns. In his manifesto on the topic, Larionov announced his interest in the effect of light rays on objects and forms. Larionov was inspired by Cubist and Futurist paintings, and his work foreshadows the development of total abstraction in Russian painting. In Goncharova’s paintings of this sort, the objects struck by the rays of light are more discernible, and, indeed, her compositions tend to be less abstract that Larionov’s.
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was a critically important and intriguing member of the avant-garde. He was a painter of humble Polish-Russian background, who was essentially self-educated. Despite his lack of formal education, he produced a great deal of theoretical writing. He absorbed many of the trends around him, including a fascination with the icon, the lubok, and Expressionism. Malevich was the creator of Suprematism, a system of painting proclaimed in 1915. The most famous example of this type of painting is Malevich’s Black Square, which was exhibited in 1915. In his mature style, Malevich believed that painting was not about creating representations of objects or people, but rather about thinking on canvas. For Malevich, painting was the art of discovering visual analogues for internal experience and consciousness. His Suprematist paintings consist of simple geometric shapes in solid planes of color. He was inspired by the pseudo-religious ideas of theosophy and also the mystical writings of Piotr Uspensky, a psychologist and philosopher. In 1918, after completing a series of paintings called White on White, Malevich essentially gave up painting and turned to architecture.
Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) was the founder of Constructivism, a movement begun in 1921 and based on the utilitarian function of the materials of art, what Tatlin called an organic synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting. Constructivists emphasized, in particular, the tactile qualities of material and the use of non-art materials in their paintings and sculptures. Inspired by modern technology and the new notion of the factory, the Constructivists embraced the new arts of cinema, photography, and industrial design. An intense rival of Malevich’s, Tatlin proclaimed not the importance of the picture plane, but rather the significance of volume in art. Tatlin’s unrealized Plan for the Third International (1919-1920) combined the engineering aspects of Constructivism with social commitment.
The monument was planned as a massive structure which would stand in Petrograd and serve as the executive command center of the Workers’ International. The shift from interest in easel painting to industrial and machine culture was advocated by such art critics as Nikolai Tarabukhin, the author of From the Easel to the Machine.
Aleksandr Rodchenko was a leading advocate of this new movement. His minimalist paintings shown in 1921 were a farewell gesture to what he believed was the tired art of studio painting. Other significant participants in this group were Varvara Stepanova, El Lissitsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Liubov Popova.
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) was born in Omsk in 1956 to a Polish father and a Russian mother. In 1874, he moved to St. Petersburg to study law, but like many other Russian painters of the time, gave up on a law career and turned to art instead. In 1880, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts and embarked on a new path that would lead to a remarkable body of painting. Inspired both by western art and native Russian art (icons, fresco, mosaic, and folk art), Vrubel invented his own synthetic style. His paintings are highly-stylized, that is, they depart from the realist tradition in which he was educated, and manifest his passion for color, line, and geometrical arrangement of the picture. Fascinated by Lermontov’s long poem, The Demon (1829-39), Vrubel repeatedly portrayed the image of the devil on canvas. These paintings became his most famous. Vrubel’s demon became symbolic of the artist’s own struggles with mental illness. Eventually, he was placed in an insane asylum, where he lost his vision in 1906 and died four years later. At his funeral in 1910, the poet Aleksandr Blok delivered Vrubel’s eulogy.
Vasiliy Kandinsky (1866-1944) decided on an art career late in life. He left the law profession and turned to painting at the age of 30. Kandinsky split his time between Russia and Germany and encouraged artistic ties between the two countries. Fascinated by the expressive potential of color, Kandinsky began to experiment with the correspondences between color and emotion and created canvases on which colored forms take on an existence apart from any real objects. In his theoretical writings, such as Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he tried to define the expressive characteristics of different colors and also the links between color and sound. He is best known for three sets of paintings, Improvisations (1909), Impressions (1911), and Compositions (1910-1913). Kandinsky discovered a whole new kind of dynamic pictorial space, in which conventions of perspective are completely abandoned. Like Malevich, Kandinsky was a forerunner in the development of abstract art.
Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) work is singular for the period; his paintings are highly recognizable, but difficult to link to any particular school or movement. His paintings remained representational, although they contain dreamlike, illogical qualities to them. In this sense, Chagall’s work anticipates Dada and Surrealism. His work is populated by rural peasant folk, Jewish rabbis, village musicians, and animals, and often contains biblical themes. Chagall was an important figure in the post-revolutionary art scene; he led an influential art academy in Vitebsk for a time.
Pavel Filonov’s (1883-1941) work is also highly individual and distinctive. He is known for his extraordinarily delicate, intricate, and time-consuming work; he often labored for eighteen hours a day on his paintings. Even though his paintings are in oil, they give the impression of watercolor. They depict people and objects, landscapes and dreams, broken into tiny bits of color, giving the viewer an overwhelming feeling that she is gazing at a mosaic instead of a painting. Filonov was interested in children’s art and also the art of the insane.
Socialist Realism was embraced by Stalin in 1934 and adopted as the only style possible to fulfill the demands of the new Soviet state. The Socialist Realist ideology governed art in the Soviet Union for the next fifty years and effectively ended the search for new forms of artistic expression that had dominated Russia in the early twentieth century. Abstraction was rejected in favor of art forms that promoted what was perceived as “politically correct.” In a way, the unbending aesthetic of this period echoed the ideas of the Wanderers, who had insisted on the social function of art. However, unlike the Wanderers, the proponents of Socialist Realism believed more in projecting images of the ideal Soviet reality than the real conditions of the people. According to advocates of Socialist Realism, the job of the artist was to promote the heroic and optimistic elements of Soviet life as if they were reality itself. They believed that art should always be instructive and useful. New and unswerving demands were placed on artists to present positive and life-affirming portraits of Soviet leaders and citizens, scenes of the ideal worker and peasant, images of Russian military victories, and so on. Those artists who refused to honor the new dictates of Soviet art, as designed by the new All-Russian Academy of Arts (established in 1932), were labelled “formalists” and often faced active persecution. For several decades, the only art that was able to be viewed in museums, galleries, or public sites was Socialist Realist art. Socialist Realist art contains repetitive themes and subjects (hearty, young people at work; vigorous, happy leaders shaking hands with grateful citizens; vibrant scenes of hearty peasants, etc.) and can by characterized by a monumentality of style. Examples of Soviet Realist art include Vasily Yefanov’s An Unforgettable Encounter(1936) and Sergei Gerasimov’s Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin (1938). Socialist Realism dominated not only the fine arts of painting and sculpture, but also architecture.
Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova
Autumn in Bavaria by Vasiliy Kandinsky
Bathing Woman by Vladimir Tatlin
Holy Family by Pavel Filonov
Demon by Michael Vrubel
Laying Nude by Michael Larionov
Morning Storm by Kazimir Malevich
Noa's Arc by Marc Chagall
Unforgettable Encounter by Vasily Yefanov