Russian Art: In Search of Identity

Дата публикации: 07 сентября 2018
Автор(ы): A. Tolstoi
Публикатор: Шамолдин Алексей Аркадьевич
Номер публикации: №1536328832

A. Tolstoi, (c)

Putting together within the framework of one and the same review a book by Gleb Pospelov, a Russian art expert, and a collection of articles (collective monograph) has not been something accidental.

First, both were produced within the walls of the State Institute of Art Criticism of the RF Ministry of Culture.

Second, they sum up several years of studies whose findings have been "put to the test" of several scholarly sessions and international conferences (including one organized by a Commission for studies of the Russian avant- garde at the Department of Literature and Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences). But the main "bond" between the two parts of the book is their subject matter: examination of Russian art in its "European dimension" - something which calls for an analysis of its national character and what one could call specifics of self-identification.

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by Andrei TOLSTOI, Cand. Sc. (Art Criticism), leading researcher of the Research Institute of Theory and History of Fine Arts, Russian Academy of Arts

Gleb POSPELOV, "Russian Art of the Start of the 20th Century. Destiny and Appearance of Russia", M., Nauka, 2000. - 128 pp. Collection of articles: "Russian Avant-garde of the 1910s-1920s in the European Context", M., Nauka, 2000. - 310 pp.

The book of Gleb Pospelov is the result of his reflections on Russia's fine arts of the modern period. As different from his previous book "Russian Art of 19th Century. Problems of Understanding of the Time" (1997) in which the author focused his attention on key phenomena and personalities in our paintings of the time, while examining problems associated with the turn of the century only in passing; in the book under review the main subject of research is the "turning point" at the start of the 20th century.

In his introduction to the book the author traces the links of continuity with the earlier stages of development of our national art, building bridges between the 19th and 20th centuries. His conclusion is that the theme of Russia emerged in a similar philosophical-cultural key on no less than two occasions - in the 1830s and again at the turn of the century - as a kind of a "frame" for the epoch of historism*. To my mind even this kind of a "through" comparison of the two centuries speaks of a fresh look of the researcher on his subject matter. Now that the 20th century is already a thing of the past, and the 19th century, an even more distant past, what catches the eye are not so much their dissimilarities, as their identity, or things in common, and it is this stand alone which holds out a promise of drawing some really fruitful and adequate conclusions.

In the view of our author, the two time borders of the epoch of historism produced similar types of attitude to the theme of Russia: one - generalizing its identity as compared with both the East and the West; and the other - the duplicity of the country itself, torn between reason and uncontrolled spontaneity, between enlightenment and barbarity. The first "type" of the interpretation of this theme manifested itself in literature, such as Pushkin's "Tale of the Golden Cockerel" (1835), in the lyrical reflections in Gogol's "Dead Souls" (1824), and in the fine arts of the turn of the century it is represented above all by some "generalizing" paintings (like

* Historism - a 19th century school of arts aiming at an exact reproduction of the spirit and form of historical styles and national historical images. - Ed.

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"Bathing of Red Horse" by Petrov-Vodkin) or whole artistic cycles, artists of Dyagilev's "seasons", such as M. Larionov and N. Goncharova as well as M. Shagal, B. Grigoryev et al. As for the contradictions associated with the very essence of Russia's artistic image, they were reflected in the 1830s in the legacy of the same Pushkin ("Bronze Horseman") and Gogol and at the turn of the century - in the paintings of V. Surikov, V. Serov, R Malyavin, I. Grabar and M. Nesteroy, to name but a few. As Gleb Pospelov points out, the continuity in the formulation of problems between the 1830s and the beginning of the 20th century was reflected in frequent resorts of the masters of the second period to what we call illustrating and rethinking of the legacy of the first one - something that was common for the schools of "miriskustniks"* (members of artists' union "World of Arts"), neoprimitivists and expressionists, including the "stankivists", "illustrators" and "scenographs".

Separate chapters of the book under review describe different aspects of the main subject "Waxing Russia" (the analysis covers the legacy of I. Grabar, K. Yuon, E Malyavin, M. Nesterov and K. Petrov-Vodkin); "Russia Elemental or Spontaneous" (portraits of actors by Serov), "Russian Fairy Tales" (works by M. Larionov and N. Goncharova) and, finally, "Faces of Russia" as represented by B. Grigoryev's works.

Every chapter offers an analysis of the artistic legacy of different masters with the author finding not only an adequate approach to each of them, but also changing his intonation at no sacrifice of the integrity and individuality of the author's method. And what especially catches the eye, is the "freshness" of assessments although the author of the book described his "personalities" on more than one occasion in recent years.

The content of the book exceeds the thematic and even chronological boundaries set by the author himself. He not only makes extended references into the 20th century culture, while digging at the roots of the problems being discussed, but also traces the logi-

* "World of Arts" - artists' union (1898-1924) established in St. Petersburg by A. Benua and S. Dyagilev. They championed the slogans of "pure art" and "transformation" of life by art, rejecting both the academism and the tendentiousness of the peredvizhniks. Dedicated to the poetry of symbolism, they often withdrew into the fairytale world of the past. - Ed.

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cal completion of a subject in the Russian artistic and philosophical legacy of the first third of the 20th century. In conclusion Pospelov offers a general review of the works of Russian philosophers and publicists, and also painters who, willingly or unwillingly, looked at Russia from a distance, from immigration which accounted for their "impartial" assessments of its destiny (something which turned out to be even more fruitful than a view from "within"), and also of artists, who, while staying on their native soil, withdrew into a kind of an "underground". Singled out among them are the late Nesterov and P. Korin with his series of paintings "Requiem (Russia that was)". This kind of a conclusion of the book adds to its orderly and finished composition, turning the author's conception which it conveys into one of the most meaningful attempts at a contemporary interpretation of a major period in the history of our national culture of the start of the 20th century. This is especially important at the turn of a new century when the old myths and illusions, same as the established methodological formulas and assessments, should become things of the past.

And even despite the serious problems under consideration and the broad coverage of the related subject matter, the book is of but a moderate size. It offers a whole range of color and black-and- white illustrations, including the first publication of an author's reconstruction of an advert of Dyagilev's "Season" of 1910 for which V. Serov painted an extravagant and elegant portrait of Ida Rubinstein in the role of Cleopatra. But even so, G. Pospelov was obliged to restrict himself in his article to a very concise, and almost summary-like presentation of his views and opinions. It is therefore not surprising that some of the chapters leave room for a more comprehensive analysis.

Another article which should be of a considerable interest to the reader is a collective monograph "Russian Avant-garde of the 1910s-1920s in the European Context" which raises a number of fundamental problems in the history of the 20th century national art which are considered today from a kind of a historic perspective that provides for a reassessment of the established views and priorities. Having read the book, one comes to the conclusion that the composition and relative proportions of its parts adequately reflect the priorities of our present-day art criticism.

The monograph gives prominence to some general culturological subjects. As is unfortunately the case in our artistic studies which focus on spatial and visual arts (which are traditionally called descriptive arts), they seldom raise problems that not only accentuate the idea of originality of our national cultural heritage, but turn to some general European themes which bring together the artistic quests at different ends of the continent. One of them is a theme of what we call the global change, or broadening of the spectrum of

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artistic paradigms of the last century as compared with the 19th century. This problem is considered in an article by A. Yakimovich. This author, who has devoted much of his time of late to some of the universal problems of the cultural heritage of the 20th century, is now offering the reader a kind of its "dynamic model". Interacting within it are the concepts of "civilized values" inherited by the 20th century from the earlier times with their strivings for the ideals of progress and enlightenment and what we now call "biocosmism" in which Man ceases to be the center and the purpose of all (as is the case in constructivism or purism*, for example). And it was the 20th century that produced the phenomenon of a totalitarian state in which the role of an individual was reduced to a minimum and his place was taken over by a controlled mob, or masses, often motivated not by some rational, but biological instincts and a striving towards chaos in which the individual will be dissolved in some illusory "community" and not only in social life, but also in culture. Within this context the arguments of A. Yakimovich look really penetrating and exact in many respects. The second in importance in the 20th century art seems to be the problem of self- determination or self-identification of national artistic cultures at the turning point of our history. In the 1900-1920s this was a problem of central importance for the symbolists and for representatives of different sec-

* Constructivism - school of art of the 1910s-1920s which manifested itself mainly in architecture, design, scenography and printed graphics. Purism - an art movement launched in 1918 by the painter Amedee Ozenfant and the architect and painter Le Corbusier. Their aim was to purify cubism by stripping it of its decorative features. - Ed.

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tions of the Russian avant-garde. The attitude towards this problem marked the watershed between representatives of the "new" and "the latest" (most novel) art when the enlightened "europeism" of the followers of the school of "miriskustniks" was confronted by a kind of "nationalism" of neoprimitivist artists, like M. Larionov, who relied on a profound knowledge of the artistic experience of the West which they conscientiously rejected. (An article by N. Stepanyan examines conflicting views on the past and future paths of development of national art.)

Our painters, especially of the early decades of the 20th century, shared an acute sense of their special and missionary role in European culture which was closely associated with their stand on national cultural identity. All the main representatives of this school of thought had their personal views on the problem and the most clearly formulated of them are the stands of N. Goncharova, K. Malevich* and P. Philonov. One can say that in the theoretical conjectures of Malevich the idea of the world-historical role of the Russian avant-garde (in the form of suprematism**) attains its most vivid expression, while in the case of Philonov it, while changing in its content, enters into a dramatic conflict with the surrounding reality. An article by E. Basner of the State Russian Museum offers a detailed analysis of the basic distinctions and nuances of the missionary ideas of Russian artists of the period.

What we call the artistic "self-determination" of the Russian artists of the first third of the 20th century was unthinkable without them formulating their attitude towards the founding fathers of the French postimpressionism and the fauvism*** and cubism which followed. Opinions and assessments of the masters of the Russian avant-garde concerning the art of Sezanne, Matisse, Russeau and the early Picasso revealed the different artistic orientations of these European masters and their Russian admirers and promoted in a way the artistic progress in this country which usually looked back at French "discoveries" and innovations. This set of problems is discussed in the monograph by M. Bessonova who is

* See: M.P. Vikturina, "Secrets of the 'Black Square'", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1997 . - Ed.

** Suprematism - school of Russian avant-garde art founded in the 1910s by K. Malevich - a variation of geometrical abstraction. - Ed .

*** Fauvism - French school of art of 1905-1907 striving for greater emotional charge of artistic expression, dynamics and intensity of color and rhythm. - Ed.

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using some fresh and unconventional comparisons.

The notion of "text", which is used in the sphere of visual arts and which has been borrowed from the theory of informatics and works of the Tartu school*, does not rule out its literal interpretation and application for literary works. The Russian literary avant-garde of the 1910s produced no smaller resonance than the public statements of artists of the circle of D. Burliuk** made at the same time. Both strove to come back to some sources of artistic creativity, and thus secure the right of "the primary opinion". The monograph makes an attempt to draw a comparison between the "first say" of poets-futurists and the artistic decor of their books. In his essay on the subject V. Rabinovich expresses the view that the creation of an avant-garde text was regarded as a kind of a public act and one can hardly challenge this conclusion.

The general problems of assessment by Russian 20th century artistic culture of its "creative individuality" inevitably calls for a look into some more particular problems of mutual attraction and repulsion with respect to the Western culture of the same time.

A French art expert, J. Marcadet, contributed an article entitled "Fernan Leget and Russia" in which he rejects the established views on the proximity of the works of the French artist of the early 1910s and the first "peasant" cycle of paintings by K. Malevich and in which the art of Leget is compared with the works of such painters of the period as P. Filonov and A. Ekster.

In recent time studies of the artistic legacy of Malevich (including theoretical and even poetic works) have reached a scale which makes it possible to speak of the appearance of a whole new area of research ("Malevich legacy studies") which goes beyond the boundaries of the humanities (his theoretical works gave prominence to problems of natural and even technical sciences). The collection sheds light on many facets of the personality of the gifted artist.

An article by D. Sarabyanov entitled "Malevich Between French Cubism and Italian Futurism" examines the problem of "cubofuturism" as a synthesis of the two European trends which were blended into a new entity on the Russian soil by the author of the famous "Black Square". Another article on the intercon-

* Tartu semiotic school established in the 1960s at the Tartu University Department of Philology. The establishment and development of this trend in science is inseparably linked with the person of Yu. Lotman (1922-1994). - Ed.

** Also see in this issue: N. Briedis, "Enigmas of Four Canvases". - Ed .

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nections of the art of Malevich and his European contemporaries was contributed by art expert A. Babin of the St. Petersburg Hermitage. Analyzing certain theoretical works of Malevich and the accompanying reproductions, the author of the article comes to the conclusion that while discussing the stage of cubism, the famous art reformer turned to the experience and concrete works not only of Picasso, but also of J. Braque.

A prominent role of Malevich in European culture is discussed in an article by a Polish scholar E. Mali-novsky "Avant-garde in Poland in 1918-1923 and Its Links with Russian Art" the central figure of which is El Lisicky, a "comrade-in-arms" of "the great Kazimir".

The "theme of Malevich" is further pursued in an article by O. Shikhireva entitled "Logic of the Irrational" about the late period of the artist (with emphasis on his works of the "peasant cycle" whose dating is confused by the painter himself). This article acquires special importance in connection with the latest dating of these works. V. Rakitin also discusses the response of the West to the demise of the great artist and his funeral ceremony featuring a "suprematic" coffin designed by one of his closest pupils - N. Suetin. And that does not exhaust the list of articles in the collection describing the various aspects of life and artistic legacy of Malevich.

In comparison with the aforesaid section of the collection, a more modest place is assigned to other major figures of the Russian avant-garde, such as V. Kandinsky. An article by M. Sokolov is entitled "Blue Horseman* at Monsavalt. The Wagnerian Theme in Kandinsky's Art in the 1900-1910s". It discusses the influence of the "super art" theory of the German 19th century composer on the philosophical views of the artist and traces the evolution of some of his images and scenic ideas. Like most other articles in the collection this one attracts the reader by the novelty of its comparisons and the suggested parallels. An article by M. Lista "Kandinsky and Shonberg, or the Idea of Gesamtkunstwerk Between Russia and Germany" puts forward an interesting question about the nature of the scenic compositions of Kandinsky, above all his "yellow sound" in the context of the searches for "synthetism" and "synesthesia" in the

* Society organized by Kandinsky - Ed .

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Russian (Skryabin) and German (Shonberg) musical art and culture of the early 20th century.

Nor can one pass in silence one of the key themes of the collection - the artistic legacy of the "first wave" of the Russian emigration. The subject is suggested by the analysis of the cultural legacy of Kandinsky who left Russia in 1921. To this day there continues a controversy between our and foreign art experts on whether he was a German artist of Russian descent (and there is a similar controversy about Shagal and his alleged "French" roots) or a Russian emigre who worked in Germany and France. And the crux of the matter, of course, is not the ethnic attribution of this or that artist who left his country sooner or later, but in the spirit of his art, in the preservation of the Russian cultural identity. With reference to Kandinsky, this problem calls for some really in-depth artistic and philosophical analysis. And the same applies to the person of I. Puni - a Russian futurist, constructivist and "absurdist" whose stay in Berlin in 1920-1923 is discussed in the book by an American authority on the subject J. Boult. His article is bristling with little known facts about the works of the painter in various genres.

As different from the above examples, the problem of non- assimilation of the artistic trends of the West looks far less complicated with reference to the legacy of the painters M. Larionov and N. Goncharova. Even while working in France from 1915 to the last

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days of their lives-the beginning of the 1960s-they never parted with their Russian roots and artistic interests (as proved by their works painted abroad which were on public display at the Moscow State Gallery in 1999-2000, and also by their letters published in recent time and the conclusions of G. Pospelov whose book we discussed before). The "foreign" period of work of these two painters is discussed in an article by A. Lukanova who examines their "Paris legacy". And since the article is based on a conference presentation made in the spring of 1997, many of the facts and views suggested by the author have now been supported by the aforesaid exhibition of works of Larionov and Goncharova.

Among the Russian emigres in Western Europe some had left their native soil far ahead of the revolutionary and military tremors which hit Russia in the first third of the 20th century. Deserving of unquestionable attention among them is the person of the painter M. Vasilyeva (1884-1957). A German art expert Ada Rayev has contributed an article on the subject entitled "Artistic and Personal Experience of a Russian Painter in Paris in the 1910s-1920s". It supports the view that the contribution of this or that artist to the artistic legacy of his native land may not be directly linked with his or her concrete works, but can consist in the establishment of art studios and workshops-in an active involvement in "near-art" life. This directly applies to the example of M. Vasilyeva who organized a charitable canteen for Russian POWs during World War One who found themselves in Paris without work or a piece of bread.

The present review does not cover all of the articles in the aforesaid collection. But even that speaks of the whole range of problems and methods involved in such studies, of a wealth of the evidence involved, including some very new and hitherto unknown facts. This makes our collective work - together with some similar existing and coming publications, like "Russian Avant-garde of the 1910s-1920s and the Theater" (2000), "Russian Cubo-futurism" (2001), "Artistic Legacy of M. Larionov and N. Goncharova" (2001) and others based on recent conference discussions as well as the study of G. Pospelov which is under review - an embodiment of an innovatory trend in our national art criticism of the day which is successfully progressing within the walls of the State Institute of Artistic Studies.

Опубликовано на Порталусе 07 сентября 2018 года

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