A few words about Russian art which is too little known in the West and was pretty well unknown to me on my first trip in 1991. But, I was an avid learner.
Everyone knows about The Hermitage. That is not Russian art. It is one of the world’s most important collections of Western art in the most elegant surroundings. Real Russian art is to be found in The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and in The Tretyakov (the old and the new museums) in Moscow. It can also be found in many other smaller museums about the country. Under communism, the state owned everything and private collections were confiscated.
When I first arrived, I was totally astonished to find a world of art in Russia that, in my unlettered opinion, was the equal of anything seen in the museums of the Western world. The Iron Curtain had kept it all a secret. I thought all Russian art was either religious icons, or Socialist Realism (and that being propagandistic). Indeed, religious art existed as the Russian church dominated society until the 18th century. The next phase reflected the growing Western influences after Peter the Great, and along classical lines (mainly portraiture, court painting, epic and religious scenes).
In the mid 19th century things started changing—concurrent with growing unrest and change in all of Russian society. There began a breaking away from the Imperial school in St. Petersburg and a migration to a study of common people and of Russia as it really was— impressionism. Near Moscow there is an estate called Abramtsevo, the home of the rich merchant Savva Mamontov. Mamontov turned his estate over entirely to the new wave of artists who wanted to show the real Russians in real-life situations. Out of this came the art and artists I most admire. The artists would travel the land and rivers and capture the essence of the common man. They would follow the Czar’s army fighting the Turks and study in Italy, the Holy Land, and Asia. Among these was a group was called the Peredvizhniki or The Wanderers. The industrial revolution brought the train to Europe and in France the Impressionists became a movement and a style, as the artist could travel and record his impressions of the country and life. Although Russia was 10-20 years behind Europe, these Russian Wanderers did the same thing–without the train.
This era (roughly 1860 to 1910) was the height of Russian impressionism and it reflects the changing thinking of the country and corresponds with “golden age” of the great Russian writers and poets. It co-exists with French impressionism and in my view is more meaningful and packed with feeling. This was the time that music and dance began to blossom, breaking away from the restrictions of the church that allows only the human voice. The great Russian composers developed at this time—and into the 20th century..
The time around the turn of the century was called “The Silver Age” in Russia and it was a cultural and economic boom. It is tempting to speculate what would have happened if Lenin had not come along. Russia, always behind Europe, was nevertheless on the same road. The Bolshevik revolution and the devastating civil war changed that. In the 1920’s art began more restricted by the state and many artists emigrated to Europe or America.
Socialist realism was meant to be not as the artist saw the people and the country, but as the State wanted the people to see themselves. I had a prejudiced dislike of socialist realism, until I understood there was often, as usual in Russia, a hidden truth in the expression. The glorification of smoking factories and smiling lady tractor drivers is boring or at best amusing. But, there is much that simply shows it as it was. Much of it was propaganda, but much is simply good and sensitive art.
Today, after several decades of confusion and lack of inspiration, Russian art is reviving as the artists are free to do whatever drives them.
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