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Modern Russian Pioneers II: Breaking with the Past

Breaking with the past
Russia certainly was not the only country with a feudal system in 19th century Europe. It is not a coincidence that a critical realist current in art emerged in mid 19th century in France also. Like Russian realists after the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, French artists sympathised with the so-called 'lower' classes after their 1848 revolution and the abolishment of slavery in French colonies a year later. This can be demonstrated in Gustave Courbet's famous painting of the 'Stone Breakers' (1849) and Francois Miller's 'Sower' (1950). Vincent van Gogh famously followed in Millet's footsteps in the 1880s wishing to become a peasant painter whilst Ilya Repin painted his 'Head of a Shy Peasant' (1876) on his return to Russia from Paris, where he had familiarised himself with the French art world.

Repin took lessons from the academic rebel Kramskoy in order to prepare for his admission exam to the Academy in 1864. This meant that Repin was introduced to current debates about art, as well as left-wing politics upon his arrival in St. Petersburg and before his years in Paris. Kramskoy, convinced Repin and his mates, that art should not exist in a separate elitist realm, apart from everyday life. Inspired by contemporary politics and literature, he encouraged the artists to portray not only the Russian courtly and imperial elite, but the ‘common people’ also. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 had brought the Russian people to the fore; artists were now challenged to portray all subjects of the nation. In fact, artists were pushed into the role of ethnographers who were supposed to study and present the Russian people to the nation in their paintings. 

The question of the peasant was indeed the topic of the day, as Fyodor Buslayev, a friend of the Mamontovs’, revealed in 1868: ‘The study of the people is the science of our times’. This is corroborated by Repin some years later also, as a letter to Stasov reveals: ‘Now it is the peasant who counts. It is necessary to represent his interests.’

The task was challenging indeed. As artists had traditionally been largely dependant on commissions to produce portraits of members of the court, and the upper or monied classes, the ‘narod’ had hardly ever been a subject of study for artists before. Kramskoy therefore asserted that artists needed to collect material to acquainten themselves with the characteristics of the Russian people. As hinted at above, the authority with which Kramskoy tackled the problem of unfamiliarity with ‘the other’ lower classes can be questioned. Yet, the search for a national identity in the arts in Russia had begun with the ‘discovery’ of its people, the vast majority of Russians who so long had been neglected and suppressed by a minority of the court circle, aristocrats and the clergy. 

Unlike Alexei Venetsianov in the 1820s and contemporary French painters like Jean-Francois Millet, who painted labouring peasants in the field, Kramskoy and Repin portrayed peasants as individual human beings against a plain background. The two artists provided psychological insight into their world by concentrating on the peasant’s face, from which troubled eyes gaze at the viewer. By making portraits of the peasantry in a similar vein to society portraits, art could overcome class division and forge national union. Yet, whilst the change in portraiture and genre pieces aimed at humanising the peasant, perhaps even sanctifying them as faces on icons, one may wonder how peasant-sitters conceived their finished portraits. Were they not still painted as a sort of curiosa or ‘the other’, newly discovered class, rather than as one, together with the others, of the nation?

It can be stated that Natalya Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich continued the newly established realist peasant painting tradition, romanticising and modernizing it in the 20th century. Raised in the countryside themselves, they shared the awakened socialist concern with the plight of the peasant in the modern age.

The women of Abramtsevo
This concern manifested itself most clearly in the humane and artistic efforts of two women of late 19th century Abramtsevo: Elizaveta Mamontova and Elena Polenova. They tackled the following questions: Why should education be for the priveleged only, and children of the impoverished be deprived of it? Why should families be split up between cities and villages for survival (employment) sake? Why should medical and pastoral care not be easy accessible to all?

Mamontova set up a peasant school on her estate in Abramtsevo, provided its pupils with kustar tools, jobs and a library, and sold their artifacts in town. Her pupils were no longer forced to migrate to the metropolis. She and her husband furthermore provided peasants in the vicinity with the necessary health care, - setting up a hospital and hiring doctors during the cholera epidemics of 1871- and with pastoral care, - constructing an easy-to-reach church on their estate (1881-82) during Easter 'floods'.

The artist Elena Polenova assisted Mamontova with the establishment and management of a museum of folk art, kustar workshops and the dissemination of Abramtsevo furniture through commerce and exhibitions.

In addition, the Mamontov couple provided their peasant neighbours access to theater and opera performances by setting up a private Theatre and Opera House on their estate. Attendance of such performances had previously been the exclusive domain of state officlals and the 'upper' classes. The Mamontovs opened their doors to all to enjoy!

The Significance and Reception of Abramtsevo’s Stage Designs
Vasnetsov’s designs can be considered as having extraordinary significance for the history of Russian theatre design, as they were among the first to be created by a fine artist. Along with Polenov’s designs, they gave impetus to many prospective painters to work beyond the confines of the fine arts. In Mamontov’s Theatre and Opera House alone, their spontaneous theatrical experiments were soon followed by Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, Mikhail Vrubel and Apollinariy Vasnetsov, the younger brother of Viktor. The artists of Abramtsevo not only elevated the status of theatre design in a similar vein as they had raised the level of the Russian arts and crafts, but also challenged the contemporary stage design of the Imperial Opera.
The latter not only indolently reused the same sets in various plays, but the sets usually indicated solely the setting and period of the scene. The artists of Abramtsevo, by contrast, were involved in production as a whole, and delved deeply into the content of each individually painted set, attempting to create the right atmosphere for the scene.

For his costume designs, Vasnetsov painstakingly researched peasant garments and embroidered ornaments in order to evoke the illusion of a real life experience of traditional Russian rustic ways of life. This attitude changed the significance, purpose and quality of theatre design altogether; it ‘allowed the Abramtsevo artists to influence the evolution of Russian stage design and paved the way for the splendid scenic achievements of artists such as Lev Bakst and Ivan Bilibin’, and in the longer run the extraordinary sets of twentieth century avant-gardists such as Lyubov Popova and Alexandra Exter. Since stage designers, actors and musicians collaborated closely in Mamontov’s Opera House and tried to convey a story in one style, their performances can be considered as ‘Gesamtkunstwerke’.

According to Stanislavsky the public was overwhelmed:
'We saw for the first time, instead of the conventional crude sets, amazing creations of Vasnetsov, Polenov, Serov and Korovin, who together with Repin, Antokolsky and other first class Russian artists of the time literally grew up and lived in Mamontov’s house as members of his family.'
Korovin and Goncharova
Konstantin Korovin was involved with Abramtsevo's Private Opera company from 1885-1891 and continued to work in the Imperial theatres in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 20th century. He was encouraged by the Mamontovs to explore Russian artistic culture in the North and was Goncharova's teacher at the Art Academy in Moscow (MUZhVZ) at beginning of the 20th century. 
The latter, famous Russian avant-gardist, undoubtedly familiarised herself with the multiple innovative late-nineteenth century practices of Abramtsevo artists’ circle, holding a key to a more profound understanding of her own prominent role in ‘the Russian avant-garde’.

Abramtsevo’s ample and inventive artistic practices following the nineteenth-century paradigm shift in Russian consciousness and the socio-political Age of Reforms, can indeed be regarded as constituting a real ‘avant-garde moment’, without which the early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde would not have evolved in the same format. This will be demonstrated in three case studies: firstly Natalya Goncharova and secondly Kazimir Malevich, thirdly Vasily Kandinsky. All of them are linked by intermediaries to the Abramtsevo circle and have been chosen because of their continuation of emancipatory initiatives and activities in multiple disciplines. 

To be continued...

E.В. Kузнецова, M.M. Aнтокольский: Жизнь и работа (Moсква: Искусствоо, 1989), cc. 30-31. Repin made a portrait of Kramskoy in 1882. Федор Буслаев, Этнографические статьи о России и странах, ей принадлежащих (Москва: Изд. неизв.,  1868), с. 95.  With thanks to Prof. Orlando Figes for his brilliant paper ‘The Image of the People in Modern Russian Art’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 8 February 2008. Surely, not all peasants negotiated difficult living conditions in the same way. The peasant named Mina Moiseyev, for example, painted twice by Kramskoy, glances at the viewer with a big smile.  John E. Bowlt, The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the “World of Art” Group (Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1982), p. 38.  Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 81. 

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