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Religious icon painting prevailed in Russia until the European Baroque style surfaced in Moscow in the seventeenth century. With Peter the Great (reigned 1682–1725) came radical change and Russia’s ascendance as a European power. From then on Russian artists were both inspired to emulate their Western counterparts and provoked to assert their Russian identity. Contemporary Russian artists continue to experience this dynamic tension in the international art world.
Russian art is far less well known than Russian literature or music, but it has a rich history—both as part of and set apart from European tradition.
Early Russian Religious Art: 1000–1700
The Russian acceptance of Christianity from Orthodox Constantinople around 988 BCE determined the distinctive forms of Russian religious art—churches with cupolas, which later evolved into “onion” domes, and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Icons, mosaics, and frescoes were windows to heaven, depicting holy persons in their transfigured state, beyond the boundaries of the natural world. Generally icons were unsigned, painted by a collective of artists as an act of worship. Such sacred art, protected from radical innovation by theology, dominated Russian culture for centuries.
Russian icon painters were no doubt inspired by the legendary Virgin of Vladimir, a tempera painting brought from Constantinople to Kiev in the twelfth century. It was moved later to the new capital of Vladimir, then to Moscow in 1365, and, because it was reputed to protect those who lived in the city where it was displayed, it remains one of Russia’s most revered holy images. More humanized than many icons of the Byzantine era, the Mother and Child are shown touching cheeks and gazing tenderly at each other. Russia’s most famous icon painter was Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–1430). In his remarkable tempera panel called Old Testament Trinity (Three Angels Visiting Abraham, c. 1420s?), the angels are harmoniously composed so that their figures form a circle echoed in the shape of their halos.
The Mongol invasion (1237–1240) and occupation, which lasted until 1480, limited Russia’s contacts with Western culture without radically influencing its Christian art, although Oriental influences can be detected in applied and decorative art. From the 1470s through the 1490s Italian architects constructed many buildings in Moscow’s Kremlin, but the secular art of the Renaissance made little impact. No realistic likeness survives even of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV, reigned 1533–1584), although he and other Russian rulers appear in idealized form in religious art.
The seventeenth century is known as an age of transition in Russian culture. Influences entered from Ukraine, annexed to Russia in the 1650s, and from Belarus, both of which, as part of Poland, had experienced Catholic Baroque culture. The ornate style of the later seventeenth century is sometimes known as Moscow Baroque. Some Western European artists and craftsmen entered the czars’ service, working in the Kremlin studios, where they contributed to the production of the first stylized portraits of Russian rulers and nobles. The icon The Tree of the Muscovite State (1668) by the Moscow artist Simon Ushakov (1626–1686) contains a small portrait of Czar Alexis I (reigned 1645–1676). Ushakov incorporated elements of Western perspective and lighting effects into this and other icons. Alexis’s daughter Sophia (1657–1704) was perhaps the first Russian woman to have her portrait painted; generally the segregation of upper-class women from male society created strong resistance to female portraiture.
Eighteenth-Century Cultural Revolution
The modernizing czar Peter the Great (Peter I, reigned 1682–1725) brought radical changes to Russia and made the country a major European power. The showcase for Peter’s cultural reforms was his new capital and “window on the West,” Saint Petersburg, founded in 1703. Virtually all of Peter’s chief artists and architects were foreigners. The Frenchman Louis Caravaque and the German Gottfried Tannhauer painted portraits and battle scenes and helped to train a new generation of Russian secular artists, including the former icon painter Ivan Nikitin (c. 1680–1742?).
Nikitin himself became an iconic figure for a time. His bold and creative approach, which reputedly surpassed his foreign counterparts’ unfeeling treatment of Russian subject matter, was especially evident in the expression of grief and loss in the deathbed portrait of Peter attributed to Nikitn, who in fact left behind only two signed canvases. Contemporary Russian art historians are now free to acknowledge and study the original foreign paintings (and their full impact) inspired by Peter’s patronage. Although Peter hired the Italian sculptor Carlo Rastrelli (1675?– 1744), most famous for his controversial equestrian statue of the czar, Orthodox suspicion of “graven images” retarded the development of a Russian school of sculpture. After Peter’s death his daughter Catherine thwarted the planned bronzing and prominent placement of the statue in front of the palace because of its Baroque qualities, but the work was eventually lauded for its likeness to Peter and for conveying character evocative of the epoch.
Peter’s reign marked the beginning of an “era of apprenticeship,” when Russia mastered the conventions of Western art under the sponsorship of the imperial court and aristocracy. High art rarely penetrated into the peasant village, where culture retained traditional features. But the barrier between the Westernized upper classes and the peasantry was not impenetrable. Folk art assimilated Baroque and Classical decorations, while educated Russians collected lubok woodprints (popular prints often circulated as broadsides) and read folktales.
In 1757 the empress Elizabeth Petrovna (reigned 1741–1761) founded the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. With a curriculum rooted in the study of classical history and classical models, it remained the unchallenged center for training Russian artists, architects, and sculptors until the mid-nineteenth century. Successful graduates were sent to France or Italy for further training. In 1764 Catherine the Great (Catherine II, reigned 1762–1796) issued the academy’s charter of imperial patronage. Catherine was an avid collector, buying numerous paintings by old masters and works of applied art. One of the academy’s first Russian professors of painting was Anton Losenko (1737–1773), whose Vladimir and Rogneda (1770) was the first work on a theme from Russian history. The many portraits by Dmitry Levitsky (1735–1822), another academy associate known as “Russia’s Gainsborough,” include the allegorical Catherine II in the Temple of Justice (1780s), seven canvases from the 1770s depicting Catherine’s favorite students at the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls (a school she founded in 1764 to nurture and cultivate loyal subjects), and a number of “society portraits” that created an image of the aristocracy Levitsy’s patrons hoped to emulate. The range of Russian subject matter was still limited, however. Aristocratic patrons preferred Italian and classical vistas to scenes of the Russian countryside or town. Serf artists trained in Western idioms were more likely to produce Russian scenes, such as Portrait of an Unknown Woman in Russian Dress (1784) by Ivan Argunov.
From Romanticism to Realism: 1800–1880
Napoleon’s burning of Moscow in 1812 and the march on Paris by Alexander I (reigned 1801–1825) in 1814 aroused patriotic feelings about Russian culture; German Romantic ideas about national “spirit” (geist) further stimulated a search for Russian themes, as did the slogan of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” propagated by Nicholas I (reigned 1825–1855). The portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1827) by Orest Kiprensky (1782–1836), which depicted Russia’s national poet inspired by his muse, celebrated the literary life, while portraits of serfs at “home” on the land, produced in the 1830s by their noble master (and painting teacher) Aleksi Venetsianov, seemed simultaneously to support Russia’s existing ideology and set the stage for the Realist movement to come. Still, many artists with royal patronage studied and painted classical scenes in Europe; The Last Days of Pompeii by Karl Briullov (1799–1852) was the first such Russian painting to receive international acclaim. Some of these academic painters could incorporate a Russian nationalistic message into works done abroad, as did Alexander Ivanov (1806–1858); his biblical scene, The Appearance of Christ to the People (1837–1857), prefigured what Ivanov believed to be the Russians’ destiny as God’s chosen people.
The middle of the century saw a significant shift in Russian painting as younger artists forsook many of the approved themes of the royal academy. A decisive event came in 1863 when a group of fourteen students walked out of the Academy of Arts, turned their backs on its royal patronage, and began to paint realistic scenes of everyday Russian life that were often infused with strong overtones of social protest. (Just two years earlier Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had freed 22.5 million serfs from private ownership, and the general feeling of emancipation that ensued allowed artists to approach painting as a vehicle for social criticism.) Under the leadership of Ivan Kramskoi (1837–1887), the group established the Society for Traveling (Itinerant) Art Exhibitions to show their independent works in towns and cities away from the capital. Soon dubbed the Wanderers (Peredvizhniki), they continued to express the critical progressive spirit of the age of reform under Alexander II, appealing both to disaffected intellectuals and the rising Russian bourgeoisie. In fact it was wealthy new industrialists, such as the Moscow-based Pavel Tretiakov (1832–1898) who bought their paintings, thus creating the first art market in Russia and breaking artists’ dependence on royal and aristocratic patronage.
The strong social commentary in their work and its exclusively Russian content appealed to both liberal political thinkers and Russian nationalists. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings from the age of reform is Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–1873, also known as The Volga Boatmen) by Ilya Repin (1844–1930). The painting, with its line of peasants exhausted from brutal work—all of them ragged and aged except for the young blond man rising up in their midst—embodied the suffering of the Russian people while it conveyed the hopes for a generation of youth awakening to the need for change and reform. Other Wanderers’ paintings, such as Easter Procession (1861) by Vasily Perov (1833–1882), criticized the cruelty or corruption of both the religious and political establishment. But there was another side to the Wanderers’ work. Their ultrarealistic paintings had a strong nationalistic appeal, as in the quintessentially Russian landscapes of Isaak Levitan (1860– 1900) and the more chauvinistic, sweeping historical panoramas of Vasily Surikov (1848–1916). Surikov’s General Suvorov Crossing the Alps (1900) depicts a scene from the Napoleonic wars, while his Yermak’s Conquest of Siberia (1895), with musket-wielding Cossacks slaughtering arrow-shooting natives, more directly relates to Russia’s imperialistic expansion. In fact, by the end of the century, the Wanderers and their realistic style were no longer critical of the czarist order and had been appropriated as a national school of painting.
The Birth of Modern Russian Art
The radical impulse in Russian art, both stylistically and politically, would come from a very different direction. Again the artistic stimulus originated in Europe and the patronage from Russia’s new bourgeoisie. Prominent among such benefactors was the merchant-industrialist Saava Mamontov (1841–1918) whose artists’ colony on his estate north of Moscow became a cradle for modern Russian art. Among those who gathered there in the 1880s and 1890s were Vasily Polenov (1844–1927), a pioneer of Russian plein air painting; Konstantin Korovin (1861–1939), “Russia’s first Impressionist”; and Mikhail Vrubel, whose fragmented brushwork in Demon Seated (1890) prefigured Cubism while his play of light on water in works such as Swan Princess resembled Impressionism.
Vrubel was the most obvious connection between these late-nineteenth-century innovators and the more radically modern avant-garde that arose in the years before World War I, but this blossoming of the new had an organizational headquarters in the Saint Petersburg–based World of Art group (Mir iskusstva), which incorporated figures from the performing arts such as the ballet impresario Sergey Diaghilev. Set and costume designs for Ballets Russes, which took Europe by storm after its opening in 1909, drew heavily on those inspired by World of Art aesthetics, and thus established a precedent for the close association of visual and performing arts in the Russian avantgarde of the 1910s and 1920s.
World of Art’s dissemination of works by Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and others, as well as purchases of modern Western art by entrepreneur collectors, paved the way for Russia’s own prominence in the avant-garde. In the first two decades of the twentieth century as new art movements swept Europe, Russian artists, often after a spell in Paris or Berlin, made their own original contributions. Pavel Kuznetsov (1879–1968), for example, promoted Symbolism with his tempera painting Blue Fountain (1905), in which shadowy figures hover near a fountain—symbolic of life—set against a backdrop of green-blue foliage. The Russian avant-garde was showcased in a series of radically stylized exhibitions such as Blue Rose (1907), Knave of Diamonds (1910), Donkey’s Tail (1912), and Target (1913). Typically, as in other moments of Russian history, the strong connections with Europe in the early twentieth century provoked assertions of Russian identity.
Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964) and Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) declared that Western art had nothing to teach Russia. These and other artists found inspiration for their neo-Primitivist works in peasant villages, among city low life, and in icons, lubok prints, signboards, and painted toys. The most innovative was Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935), who painted his way through Impressionism, Primitivism, and Cubo- Futurism, the latter being a fusion of French Cubism and Italian Futurism. (His Knifegrinder of 1912 is an example of how Cubo-Futurism’s systematic and tubular geometric patterns, as well as the diagonal tilt of those forms in the picture plane, give the illusion of three dimensions.) In what Malevich called an attempt to free art from the “ballast” of objectivity he founded Suprematism, a style heralded by the exhibition of his seminal Black Square, the “zero of form,” at the “0.10” exhibition in 1915. It signified a landmark in the evolution of Western Art—from reproduction of natural forms to pure abstraction—but other Russians were also in the forefront of experiments with abstraction. In Germany, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was independently pursuing his own experiments in the reduction of figurative elements and expressiveness of colors and shapes (Improvisations, 1910–1920). In fact, seldom in world art has their been such an explosion of innovation as in the last few years of czarism in Russia. The artistic radicals were not politically active, but they fully shared the Bolsheviks eagerness to sweep out the old in favor of the new.
Russian Revolution and Soviet Art: 1917–1953
After the Bolshevik coup of October 1917, avantgarde artists rushed to assume the artistic leadership of revolutionary Russia. Some artists who would later leave the Soviet Union to become major figures in modern art in the West, notably Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, eagerly served the new revolutionary government. From 1917 well into the 1920s a gamut of artistic credos and styles coexisted, as the Bolsheviks had no blueprint for the arts but welcomed all who served the cause. Lenin was no avantgardist and opposed radical appeals to eliminate all “bourgeois” art, but he was glad to have the enthusiastic efforts of avant-garde artists in creating “agit-prop” art—posters, political cartoons, billboards, and designs for mass parades and political celebrations, all of which fused abstract and figurative design.
The project that best represents this brief, passionate embrace of political and artistic radicalism is the Monument to the Third International (1919– 1920) by Vladimir Tatlin, a leading member of the Constructivists. This group of artists believed that “fine art” was dead: artistic endeavors should employ modern, real-life materials—and preferably have real-life applications—in building, furniture design, clothing, theater sets, and costumes. Tatlin’s “monument,” never existing except in sketches and as a model one-tenth the scale of its intended size, was to have been a building of futuristic design: a 1,300-foot-high spiral tower of steel and glass with revolving parts that would span the Moscow River, house the headquarters of the international Communist Party (Comintern)—and surpass the existing architectural symbol of modernity, the Eiffel Tower. Given the technology of the time and the poverty of war-torn Russia, it was totally impractical—a dream project for a future that never was.
Other real-life Constructivist projects did materialize in the new society. Women artists had been prominent in the early stages of the Russian avantgarde and some of them, such as Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958) and Liubov Popova (1889–1924), became leaders in futuristic fashion design for the new society. The application of photography to graphic design and poster art was more directly useful to the new regime; innovators like Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1856) and El Lissitsky (1890–1941) were successful pioneers in the art of photomontage.
But the avant-garde ascendancy was short-lived. By the late 1920s it was increasingly being accused of “inaccessibility,” its “decadent” Western features contrasted with the “progressive” Realist art of the first workers’ state. With the consolidation of the one-party state under Joseph Stalin and the completion of the first phases of industrialization and collectivization, a monolithic artistic establishment emerged. In 1934, Socialist Realism was launched at the first Congress of Soviet Writers. Andrei Zhdanov (1896– 1948) summoned writers and artists to depict “reality in its revolutionary development” and to provide “a glimpse of tomorrow.” Socialist Realist works were supposed to inspire by embodying qualities of popular accessibility, Party spirit, ideological content, and “typicality.” (In the 1950s Soviet Socialist Realism would influence the state of “revolutionary” art in the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.) Among the best early exponents of Soviet Socialist Realism were Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971), who used sport and physical culture as metaphors for progress, and Alexander Deineka (1899–1969), who produced bold monumental paintings on labor themes. Another classic of Socialist Realism was Collective Farm Festival (1937) by Sergei Gerasimov (1885–1964), whose “glimpse of tomorrow” reveals happy, healthy workers presiding over tables groaning with festive fare. In sculpture the colossal Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937) by Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), which pairs a male factory worker and a female farm laborer holding aloft a hammer and sickle, the tools of their respective trades, became an icon of the USSR. During World War II Russian art remained Socialist Realist in style—modernism was still prohibited—but changed to become nationalist in content as artists depicted heroic war heroes and struggling partisans.
From the Thaw to the Fall—and Beyond
With Stalin’s death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization came a thaw in the arts; artists were allowed more scope for private themes and individual expression, but the government’s focus was still on positive portrayals of “real” Soviet life. Khrushchev himself famously denounced abstract art. In the 1960s and 1970s some artists tested the boundaries of official art by expanding the subject matter of Realism or by experimenting with modernist styles. The authorities quickly closed independent exhibitions, most blatantly by bulldozing an open-air art show in 1974. Many artists left the USSR for the West, while others, though disaffected with Socialist Realism, turned their backs on the West. Ilya Glazunov (b. 1930), for example, explored the pre-Revolutionary, Orthodox past in Eternal Russia (1988), a panoramic “group portrait” of iconic figures, both sacred and secular, who shaped one hundred centuries of Russian history.
In the era of glasnost and perestroika nonconformist artists such as Eric Bulatov (b. 1933), Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933), and Anatoly Zverev (b. 1931) were able to operate more openly, mocking the socialist artistic and political system with conceptual and installation art as well as painting and graphics. Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, pluralism has been the watchword of the “second avant-garde,” embracing irreverent pastiches of Socialist Realism and Soviet symbols, religious themes, abstraction, grotesquerie, nostalgia, eroticism and kitsch, pop art, and video and installation art—all the banned styles and subjects from the Soviet years.
The late 1990s and early 2000s have seen the virtual elimination of censorship, the opening of commercial outlets for sales and exhibitions, a buoyant market for Russian art, both in Russia and abroad, and a flood of Russian publications on previously neglected topics such as the pre-Revolutionary avantgarde and religious painting. Russian artists actively engage in the international art world but still in dynamic tension with their Russian heritage, both recent and traditional.
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