Various group and solo exhibitions of early twentieth-century Russian avant-gardist art shown in the late 1980s and 1990s in Western Europe, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’, aroused my professional interest in Russian art history. The renewed acquaintance first led to research in preparation for the design of courses about Russian art, secondly to a PhD-research project on the late nineteenth-century Russian art practices of Abramtsevo artists’ circle, and the hypothesis that this circle holds a key to a more profound understanding of ‘the Russian avant-garde’, and to Russian culture as a whole.
In Europe, the University of Leeds was the place par excellence to explore this subject beyond the formalist critical frame, as it encompasses fine art, history of art and cultural studies in one School, having a long history of allowing art historians to look at ‘art’ and ‘history’ in a broader cultural context. Consequently, a considerable amount of space of my PhD-project at Leeds was devoted to examining the nineteenth century in its philosophical, socio-historical, political and artistic contexts. This examination enabled me to identify a change of consciousness taking place amongst the Russian Intelligentsia, which caused a paradigm shift in Russian culture and shaped the activities of the Abramtsevo artists’ circle. It relocated its predominantly elite orientation on European culture (particularly French, German and Italian) to the introspection of its own shared cultural heritage: Russian history, Russian folklore and Russian religion.
Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55), weary of the implementation of revolutionary political as well as of religious ideas from the West, started to promote the ideology of ‘official “nationality”’. Using the despotic slogan ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Narodnost’, he violently suppressed any resistance, and kept the long exploited lower classes under control. The Russian Intelligentsia in contrast wanted to liberate the ‘narod’. At the same time women and Jewish participants amongst them fought for the freedom of the Russian people as well as their own rights.
Since the show in Maastricht encompasses primarily works from before the artistic revolution in 1915, and a number of works of the artist of Abramtsevo from the late-19th century, I want to offer an account of the artists’ negotiation of the changing world following the Age of Reforms in the 1860s, in which serfdom was ended and eyes were opened to the plight of the peasantry.
I will argue here, that the activities of Russian modernists should be read as closely engaged with the new socio-economical conditions of life of the peasantry on the one hand, and the new social values and aspirations of the intelligentsia on the other. Late nineteenth century artists promoted and explored peasant arts and crafts, Russian folk tales, epics and folk music as well as Russian religious heritage. Boundaries of fine and folk arts were crossed and related projects undertaken in, what was for artists, unusual disciplines, ranging from icons, architecture, stage design, ceramics and illustrative work. They not only produced fabulous paintings, drawings, sculptures at Abramtsevo, but initiated theatre and opera productions also.
These innovative experiments of the 1870s-1890s in Abramtsevo constitute the genuine avant-gardist moment, from which much, so-called Russian avant-gardist activity of the beginning of the twentieth century, became the better known product in the West. One only need to think of the Ballet Russes, Goncharova’s neo-primitivism, and the folk and religious idiom in the oeuvre of Malevich and Kandinsky.
The exploration of Russian folk and religious culture provided nineteenth century artist with tools to articulate a Russian identity in their art, and inspired future generations of artists and artisans to continue the use of a religious and folk idiom, and to explore Russian folk and religious culture further in similar projects, in the same variety of disciplines as the artists of Abramtsevo.
The early 20 century Russian modernists Natalya Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky moved however beyond the national in the 1910s in their abstract art. Before looking at their work, I would like to go back in history to understand the 19th century debate about the necessity of a national identity in the arts.
From Classicist to Russian Aesthetics
The academies which in the eighteenth century had played a considerable role in establishing a system of education and in defining relations between artists and the state were gradually emerging as citadels of conservatism and as obstacles to artistic revolution. (Sarabyanov)
For centuries, the artistic language of classical antiquity attracted the attention of the art world. It was regarded as worthy of imitation and appropriation in the Italian Renaissance, whilst the first generation of art historians in the eighteenth century, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) in particular, claimed it to be the most perfect language that had ever existed and newly established art academies and art museums conformed to his view. They communicated the classical ideal in their educational system and the presentation of their collections respectively.
The Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg was no exception in this respect. It was established in 1757 by Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in Count Shuvalov’s Palace, and its neo-classicist building on the Neva embankment, newly commissioned by her successor, reflects its idiom.
It was designed by a collective of a French trained architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe and the Russian architect Alexander F. Kokorinov and was radically reorganised and remodelled on the French Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture. Staffed mainly by French teachers, academic classicism and a restricted range of subjects were promoted from the start. The established education system left little or no space for artistic derivations or innovations. Prospective artists were subjected to a hierarchy of genres, were trained by drawing plaster casts of antique statues and copying engravings and paintings and were dependent on commissions from the imperial family, aristocrats and a handful of wealthy merchants.
In other words, art had become the handmaiden of courtly circles and a sign of status and civilization. It had little to do with the lived reality on Russian soil, let alone the Russian ‘narod’, who lived in a world apart from the powerful elite who literally ‘patronized’ artists, dictating what they should paint in terms of content and style.
As a consequence of a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Russian intelligentsia in the first half of the nineteenth century, and emancipatory movements within the art world and society at large, Classical aesthetics were found to be out of date and heavily questioned in the revolutionary 1860s. The challenge to articulate a Russian aesthetic had begun, not in the least instance among the artists of Abramtsevo, during time spent with the Artel (1860s), and alongside the Peredvizhniki (1870s-). Was there no Russian culture on Russian soil? None worthy of showing to the world?
As early as 1826, Russian intellectuals asked provoking questions to awaken the Russian people: ‘What have we Russians ever invented or created?’ ‘Why have we become strangers to ourselves?’ Pyotr Chaadaev, who posed these questions, was clearly frustrated about the backward state of Russia in comparison with the West, where according to him ‘the Kingdom of God was already realized to a certain degree’. According to Chaadaev, the unconscious state of the Russian spirit was due to Russia’s isolation, being ‘neither of the West nor of the East’. It was deprived of ‘the universal education of mankind’, was disconnected from its soul, and lacked the social responsibility to actually realise ‘paradise on earth’. He explains in his ‘Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady’, published in 1836:
It is one of the most deplorable traits of our strange civilization that we are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we. […] That is but a natural consequence of a culture that consists entirely of imports and imitation. Among us there is no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but tumble down upon us from who knows where. We absorb all our ideas ready-made, and therefore the indelible trace left in the mind by a progressive movement of ideas, which gives it strength, does not shape our intellect. We grow, but we do not mature; we move, but along a crooked path, that is, one that does not lead to the desired goal. We are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their own. All their knowledge is on the surface of their being; their soul is not within them. That is precisely our situation.’
Chaadaev’s voice was silenced by the government declaring him a madman, but his concerns were picked up by the Russian intelligentsia. According to the political journalist, Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), the publication of the letter was a ‘shot ringing out in a dark night’. It was followed by a never-ending debate among the intelligentsia about how to change Russia’s historical fate, which split into two camps: the Slavophiles and Westernizers.
The Sweeping Sixties
Chaadaev’s call for introspection and change, as sketched above, and the following debate among the Slavophiles and Westernizers largely brought about the changing socio-political conditions of the 1860s under which the nascent artists of Abramtsevo came to study at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg. Their Tsar, Alexander II, also sometimes called ‘the Tsar Liberator’ not only finally abolished serfdom (1861), but also initiated reforms in the judicial, educational, military (1855) and local political realms (1864) during the first decade of his reign (1855-1881). He further lifted restrictions on settlement and travel in the Pale of Settlement for so-called ‘useful’ Jews, attempted to reform the Imperial Academy (1859) and relaxed censorship (1865).
The prospective first circle of Abramtsevo (Repin, Vasnetsov, Polenov, Antokolsky) was thus confronted with a world in which change had become an imperative. People tasting the spirit of freedom had become more assertive, and debates more heated, whilst there were new opportunities, new experiences, and artistic challenges for themselves. Being in the same boat, as students, but from different walks of life, the artists enjoyed meeting each other outside the Academy. Taken under the wing of the rebel artist Ivan Kramskoy shortly after their arrival in St. Petersburg, they were the progressive artists of their time, who were able to question the Academic tradition and its classical aesthetics. They were eager to formulate a new, modern aesthetic, in which the focus was on contemporary Russian life in its diversity, from its rich cultural heritage to its social ills.
National Identity in Hegelian Terms
The focus on Russian reality and the formulation of a national identity in the arts saw different phases in Russia, and the future artists of Abramtsevo were in the centre of almost all of them. It is however illustrative of the position of these artists in general, that they became acquainted with the Mamontovs in Rome, and renewed this contact with them shortly after in Paris. Rome was the old classicist stronghold which the artists-students visited but with reluctance, whilst Paris was the new modernist artistic centre of Europe, where they settled down to continue their study.
The artists tasted the modernist spirit in Paris and hesitantly enjoyed and experimented with it in their art practice, in style as well as subject, as can be seen in Repin’s Parisian Café (1875, p.c.) and Polenov’s sketch Barge (1874-87, TGM). However, the power which the Academy, as well as Kramskoy and the influential critic Vladimir Stasov exercised on the artists abroad, as well as their own attachment to their country - they were often homesick - were such that the artists were forced to ‘take a step back’ when they returned to Russia. There they dealt in a more careful way with modernism, in a Russian realist style, appropriate to the Russian situation.
Whilst still in Rome and Paris, the artists were attracted by the relatively free and cosmopolitan spirit of the Mamontovs, who like them travelled widely in Europe and enjoyed discovering other cultures as well as delving into their own, without becoming ideological nationalists, as Kramskoy was at times and Stasov throughout his entire life. Although the latter two supported them at an earlier stage in Russia, they sent reprimanding letters to Paris reminding them of the essence of the ‘national strain’in art, whilst the Mamontovs, it should be acknowledged, later tended to Slavophilism, but never became dogmatic adherents of it. They were befriended by the famous writer and moderate Westernizer Turgenev, read classics of both European and Russian drama and staged both types of drama and operas in their homes in Abramtsevo and Moscow. Like the artists, the Mamontovs could not escape Stasov’s biting criticism either. The ideologue of nationalism accused Savva Ivanovich of a ‘too large dose of Italian trifles’ because of Savva Ivanovich’s love for Italian opera.
Rather than adherence to Stasov’s dogmatic nationalism, a romantic tendency aimed at transcending the national in order to contribute to Hegel’s concept of the universal Spirit can be noticed among Abramtsevo’s circle. In Vasnetsov’s words:
We must contribute to the treasures of world art by fully concentrating ourselves on the development of our national art, that is to say, that we with all perfection and wholeheartedness of which we are capable, must portray the beauty, power and meaning of our national life: our Russian landscape and the men of Russia, our present and past life, our dreams and our belief, and if we succeed, reflect the eternal and universal through our national reality.
Narodnost is often wrongly translated as nationality, whilst it means that which concerns the ‘narod’, the nation or the people. It could be described as representing a unique national spirit, identity and self-expression of a nation. For more information, see Maureen Perrie, ‘Narodnost′: Notions of National Identity’, Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940, ed. by Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 28-30. The first museum buildings ‘deliberately recalled past ceremonial architecture (…) of the ancient world’. ‘They make visible the idea of the state’ whilst their collections are displayed like ‘Roman displays of war trophies.’ See Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, Art History, 3:2, 1980, pp. 449, 451. Rosalind P. Gray, Russian Genre Painting in the Nineteenth-century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 2. Andrey Sinyavsky describes the Russian Intelligentsia as critically and independently thinking personalities. Often referred to as ‘the conscience of the nation’, in the late nineteenth century they observed but were restrained from power, whilst eager to serve the people. See Andrey Sinayevsky, The Russian Intelligentsia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 1-25. V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), p. 165. Chaadaev was a ‘catholicophile’, a sympathizer with Catholicism. See Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe: East and West in the Religious Ideology of Russia, trans.John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1999), p. 192. V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, 1953, p. 133, nn. 2 - 3. These excerpts are taken from the First Philosophical Letter. See in translation in: Marc Raeff, ed., Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 160-173 (162, 164). After the publication of Chaadaev’s article in the journal ‘Teleskop’, Chaadaev was subjected to house arrest with compulsory medical supervision daily for one and a half years. The journal was suspended, the editor, N. I. Nadezhdin, banished from Moscow, and the censor dismissed. See V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, 1953, pp. 148, 150. Chaadaev was further supposed not to venture to write anything after the period of house arrest was over. Ibid, p. 150. For the 1840s controversy, see my PhD-thesis. The term ‘Sweeping 1860s’ is introduced here as an equivalent to the Age of Reforms. Sweeping refers to first its reforms, secondly to its meaning as wide in range and effect. It is chosen because it alliterates nicely. Jewish merchants from the First Guild, university graduates and incorporated artisans were notably considered ‘useful’ Jews. See J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour. Russian History 1812-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 128. There is a newer edition of this book from 2002. David Jackson, ‘Western Aesthetics and Russian Ethics: Repin in Paris 1873-76’, Russian Review, 57, No. 3, July 1998, 394-409. In Russia modernization took a slower pace, and autocracy was still in place. Alarmed by the French revolutions, the tsars anxiously suppressed revolutionary forces within Russia, holding their country back from modernisation. The first circle of artists all studied and lived abroad, whilst Antokolsky emigrated to Paris in 1878 and Yakunchikova lived in Paris most of her life. Kramskoy was not as dogmatic as Stasov in his ideal of a national art. See Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 22, 62-63, 65. B. Chaliapin, An Autobiography as Told to Maxim Gorky, trans. compiled and ed. by Nina Froud and James Hanley (New York, 1967), pp. 132-35 cited in: Yuri Olkhovsky, Vladimir Stasov and Russian National Culture (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1983), p. 130. For Vasnetsov’s letter to Stasov, see В.M. Loбанов, Виктор Васнецов в Абрамцеве (Mocква: Изд. Oйру, 1928), с. 44.