Aleksandr Ivanov visited Alexander Herzen in London in 1857. By that year, Alexander ii’s plans to abolish serfdom had been already announced, prompting Herzen to call the tsar a “liberator” in one of his articles of 1858. In this context, Ivanov’s painting The Appearance of Christ before the People mirrored, to some degree, the current situation, and this influenced the artist’s decision to bring the painting to Russia.
Taking cue from Dmitry Sarabyanov’s seminal publications on the Stil Modern and turn-of-the-century Russian visual culture, the present article resituates Mikhail Vrubel’s œuvre “between East and West” by demonstrating that the artist moved beyond the narrowly circumscribed nationalist agenda typically attributed to the work he produced at the Abramtsevo and Talashkino artistic colonies. In addition to indigenous sources, Vrubel also assimilated a number of external artistic influences such as Jugendstil, medieval Gothic and Renaissance ceramics, Japanese and Chinese porcelain, and Egyptian and Assyrian art. Through a close analysis of Vrubel’s orientalist paintings, as well as his cycle of folkloric works such as Mikula Selyaninovich and the Volga (1896), I demonstrate that his aesthetic program crossed multiple boundaries: geographical, temporal, material, and institutional. Through a complex renegotiation of the global and the local, the past and the present, and the traditional and contemporary, Vrubel arrived at a strikingly modernist visual syntax, which paved the way for an entire generation of avant-garde artists such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Naum Gabo, among others. Using Vrubel as a case study, this article thus proposes to rethink the opposing binary categories of avant-gardism and revivalism, historicism and innovation, Orientalism and Occidentalism, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, as they have been applied to the trajectory of modern Russian art—a set of ostensibly fixed dichotomies that Dmitry Sarabyanov had repeatedly and successfully challenged in his own work.
This article focuses on manuscripts on color theory by the lesser-known Russian artist Ivan Kliun (1873-1943), who, in the early twentieth century, worked together with leaders of the Russian avant-garde in the cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg and made a significant contribution to the development of abstract art.
Kliun belongs to a group of Russian avant-garde artists who endeavored to discover entirely new methods for investigating artworks, to develop art theory backed by science, and to renew art. He faced these great challenges by scientifically researching the various elements of art such as color, form, texture, light, space, and the principles of their combination in a composition in order to illustrate which aspects of a work of art have an impact on the viewer and his psyche.
Kliun left behind a large body of writings, many of which are still unpublished. These writings contain his own reflections as well as excerpts from various scholarly treatises on color theory composed by international scientists. Kliun’s manuscripts offer a summary of relevant insights into the physical properties of color, tenets of contrast, and the sensual effects of color from works by Wilhelm Ostwald, Hermann von Helmholtz, Leopold Richtera, Matthew Luckiesh, and Albert H. Munsell.
Kliun’s writings reveal that, in the 1920s, the studies of color theory in Russia were based on the same sources as those abroad. Russian avant-garde artists and scientists followed the ongoing developments in color research and gained access to the latest foreign publications.
Among the artists of the Russian avant-garde, there was general agreement that the new art forms they were seeking were not to be found in the visible world but rather the artist’s own creative intuition. The true artist created freely and independently, without regard for the appearance of the objective world or conventional approaches to its depiction. In their explorations of the artistic process and the creative endeavor, the artists found inspiration in Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition as a philosophical method, which the French philosopher had formulated in his 1903 essay “Introduction à la métaphysique” (An Introduction to Metaphysics). Bergson’s ideas were further developed and integrated into the larger discussion about organic perception and creative intuition within the Russian cultural tradition by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky. Lossky’s own concept, which he called intuitivism, was developed as an alternative to Bergson’s philosophy; it was an attempt to unite pre-Kantian rationalism, particularly Leibniz’s monadology, with the strong tradition of mystical rationalism in Russian philosophy.
Kazimir Malevich related non-objectivity in art to creative intuition and promoted suprematism as a theory of unbounded creativity that could overcome the narrow notion of art and encompass all spheres of life. In suprematism, “art advances toward creation as an end in itself and toward domination over the forms of nature.” Malevich’s suprematist elements can be compared to Lossky’s substantival agents—they are a creation of the absolute, i.e., intuitive reason, and serve as fundamental building blocks of the world. The essay discusses the Russian interpretation of Henri Bergson’s L’Evolution créatice (Creative Evolution) by Nikolai Lossky and the role Lossky’s concept of intuitivism played in the art and art theory of the Russian avant-garde, specifically Malevich’s suprematism.
The paper deals with anti-Western motifs in Russian avant-garde culture, especially their refraction in Russian futurism. On the one hand, the tendency is linked to a strategic goal—asserting independent versions of this or that new form of art and, on the other, it coincides with fundamental features of Russian modernism such as archaization, national self-identification and Eastern cultures.
Valentin Serov’s (1865-1911) nude depiction of Ida Rubinstein, created in Paris in 1910, is one of the most striking examples of how the artist processed various Eastern and Western iconographic codes and subsequently found his own unique portrait formula.
Although we have some first-hand accounts of visits by American drama critics and theater directors to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, with one or two exceptions we do not know much about how American visual artists gained first-hand knowledge of the works of the Russian avant-garde at this time. Tracing the surprisingly rich history of American exhibitions of Russian art in the first half of the twentieth century, this paper examines the influence of Berlin and Vienna in shaping American exhibitions and also shows how curatorial decisions often determined which artists were associated with which movements, even when these associations would later be contradicted by historical facts. Indeed, style may be said to have played a subservient role as curators strove to associate the avant-garde with spirituality or to gain public support for starving Russian artists. Nevertheless, these exhibitions did bring significant works to the attention of American artists and the American public, revealing the significance of certain artists as well as collectors and curators in shaping the American understanding of the Russian avant-garde.