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Art and the Great Utopia

Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art

by Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier
Columbia University Press, 248 pp., $37.00

Aleksandr M. Rodchenko/ Varvara F. Stepanova: The Future Is Our Only Goal

catalog of an exhibition at the Austrian Museum for Decorative Arts, edited by Peter Noever, essays by Aleksandr N. Lavrent’yev, by Angela Völker
Prestel, 260 pp., $65.00


by Dmitri V. Sarabianov, by Natalia L. Adaskina, translated by Marian Schwartz
Abrams, 396 pp., $39.95 (paper)

The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–1932

catalog of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Guggenheim Museum, 732 pp., $50.00 (paper)

Street Art of the Revolution: Festivals and Celebrations in Russia 1918–33

edited by Vladimir Tolstoy, edited by Irina Bibikova, edited by Catherine Cooke
The Vendome Press, 240 pp., $50.00


An atmosphere of mystery and romance, with a tragic overcast, has always attended discussions of that constellation of artists and movements we call the Russian avant garde. Despite the flood of information over the last five years—dozens of survey and monographic exhibitions, and many times that number of books and articles—the air is still heavy with myth. The fascination with the period leading up to and following the Russian Revolution lies not only and perhaps not primarily in the objects the artists produced, but in the aura of great events—war, revolution, famine, terror—that surrounds them. To a degree unprecedented in modern history, artists after the Revolution became agents of the state and sought to merge ideology and artistic discourse. The same artists and their art were soon disowned and repressed as ideological enemies by the revolutionary government they so passionately served. Some, like El Lissitzky and Klutsis, went on to create icons for the Stalinist state; others, like Tatlin and Malevich, appeared to draw back, returning to a private, figurative art that also seemed to spell defeat. Some, like Rodchenko and Stepanova, did both.

There seems to be a moral lurking here somewhere. In fact few periods in art history have been so often subjected to political mythologizing—from West and East, right and left. Assessments of the aesthetic, political, and moral legacy of the Russian avant-garde unavoidably transgress the traditional concerns of Western art history and are inevitably affected by one’s view of the Bolshevik Revolution and its relationship to the rise of Stalinism. Small wonder that there is still intense disagreement over the reasons for the avant-garde’s rise and fall. But Russian art is no stranger to politics. Their jealous liaison did not begin with the 1917 Revolution; nor, for that matter, has it ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ilya Repin (1844–1930), the subject of Elizabeth Valkenier’s Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art, is an important figure for any study of Russian visual art of the last two centuries. The career of this realist painter spanned the historical period from the emancipation of the serfs to the consolidation of Stalin’s power after Lenin’s death. During his lifetime the monopoly on the arts held by the Imperial Academy (founded in 1757) was broken, and private patronage of the arts grew and flourished; censorship was relaxed and artists were freed from obligatory involvement with the tsarist state, only to be resubjected to control by the Bolshevik state. Though Repin was ambivalent about the Revolution and spent his last years in Finland, in the Soviet Union his work eventually became the model for Socialist Realism, and a Repin cult was actively promoted by the regime. Little known in the US, in Russia he has probably been the subject of more studies than any other artist.

Elizabeth Valkenier’s superb book shows how Repin’s artistic development and Russian realism in general were dominated by the political and social issues of the time. Until the 1870s, Russian art was almost entirely under the control of the Academy, whose graduates faithfully turned out rather stale Neoclassical works on mythological and Biblical themes. The Academy exercised paternal supervision over an artist’s career even after his graduation—down to specifying a painting’s subject matter and style. In addition to being the arbiter of lucrative commissions and travel stipends to study the Old Masters in Europe, the Academy awarded prizes that came with a particular civil service rank and salary. Repin himself was born into the family of a military settler, a category of peasant just above serf. It was by winning the Small Silver Medal award in 1865 that he received the title of “free artist,” which corresponded to the lowest civil service rank and entitled him to full citizenship, freeing him from labor and military service.

Repin grew up in a provincial town in the southern Ukraine, where he was trained as an icon painter and worked restoring churches. In 1863, the year Repin arrived in St. Petersburg to begin his studies, the first major rebellion against the Academy occurred: fourteen artists left in protest over the assignment of compulsory subjects for medal competitions. By 1871 Repin had completed his course of study at the Academy, winning the Big Gold Medal with his sleek, Neoclassical Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter. At the same time he was already at work on The Volga Barge Haulers (1870–1873), which broke with the Academy not only in its subject matter, but in its bold, painterly realism, which itself seemed a criticism of the Academy’s stagnant doctrine. A large canvas (approximately 58 by 110 inches), it depicts downtrodden peasant laborers moving toward the viewer in a procession that has epic and Biblical overtones, despite the largely unsentimental, even unflattering, light in which the haulers are presented.

Liberal critics like Vladimir Stasov, an influential opponent of the Academy, had been pressing for a national art that would portray the reality of Russian life and elevate “the people” to the status of heroes—something unacceptable to the Academy, with its codified classical tradition. Stasov hailed Barge Haulers as the work of a “powerful artist and thinker,” which was high praise, as Valkenier explains, for “in the Aesopian language of the day, made necessary by censorship, ‘thinking’ was the code word used by the liberals to say: ‘critical of the existing conditions.”’ Barge Haulers was shown to admiring viewers both in Russia (where even Dostoevsky praised the painting) and in Vienna in 1873; it transcended the banalities of the genre painting that had previously dominated Russian realism, and was widely perceived to mark a new era in Russian painting. Repin became famous overnight.

In the early 1870s, the fourteen artists who had seceded from the Academy in 1863 formed the Association of Traveling Art Exhibits (known as the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers).1 Repin joined the group in 1878, after his Academy stipend came to an end. The first independent artists’ organization in Russia, the Association sent exhibitions of its members’ work throughout the country. Its emphasis on a didactic, emotional realism that criticized social conditions—the poverty of the countryside, the corruption of the clergy, the suffering of the peasants, etc.—soon made its exhibitions far more popular than those of the Imperial Academy. But the Peredvizhniki’s work was often attacked in the press for being weakly executed, tendentious, political illustration. Repin’s technical skill was indisputable, however, and his canvases drew the largest crowds and the most heated critical discussion. Paintings like They Did Not Expect Him (1884), which depicts a political exile returning home to his family, and Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan (1885), a melodramatic portrait of the monarch embracing the son he has just murdered, created an instant sensation at the association’s annual shows.

Throughout his career, Repin was caught between the politics and pieties of tsarist traditionalists, liberal nationalists, and Russophile conservatives. These factions all shared a deep-seated anti-individualism, rooted in Russian orthodoxy, which was often expressed in a profound ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward the West. For the regime as well as some of its critics, fidelity to Russia was a sacred trust, and the artist was bound by moral contract to serve Russia first and foremost—though each side construed fidelity in its own way.

Almost everything a painter did was seen through this prism. Influenced by Manet and the Impressionists when he lived in Paris in the mid-1870s, Repin produced a major canvas, Paris Café, a scene of Parisian leisure devoid of Russian didacticism, which was accepted in the 1875 Salon but ignored by the French critics. On his return to Russia in 1876 he even flirted with Impressionism when he painted On the Turf Bench, a portrait of his family relaxing outdoors. Both works caused a scandal in Russia. Traditionalists saw Repin’s “French” paintings as tantamount to rejection of the motherland, since neither their style nor their subject matter was condoned by the Imperial Academy (in this equation the Academy = Tsar = Mother Russia).

But the liberals were also suspicious of the West’s “corrupting influence” and they, too, demanded allegiance to Mother Russia. Their opposition to the Academy sprang, in part, from a perception of it as an artificial, foreign presence on the native soil of Russian moral genius. For a critic like Stasov, to paint scenes of idle repose in an Impressionist style was also to betray that genius. He felt that Repin had to “exorcise foreign devils,” to shake off the influence of “a milieu that was harmful…[and…] inside Russia…regain his powers—the full power of a realist, of a national artist…fully capable of creating and representing thoroughly national types and scenes.”2 Russian art was supposed to have a message. Repin himself quickly abandoned Impressionism, complaining of its empty formalism.

Repin was deeply affected by Tolstoy’s views on art (his visits to Tolstoy led to memorable portraits of the writer). But, as Valkenier takes pains to show, this impulsive, contradictory man also valued the artist’s right to aesthetic freedom, and he ultimately rejected Tolstoy’s calls for a prescriptive, moral art. Though many of Repin’s most famous pictures are dramatic expositions of social issues or historical scenes, he also painted quite a few religious subjects (particularly in his later years) and was well known for his portraits, which, whether of his family, rich society figures, or writers and artists, include some of his best work. There was more than a little distortion of historical truth in the Soviet canonization of Repin as an artist whose “faithful adherence to the teachings of Herzen, Bakunin, and Chernyshevsky…presented a perfect model for Socialist Realism.”

The question of how—and which—Russian art could best express a specifically national identity continued to arise. From Repin on, virtually every successive generation of Russian artists, whatever its stylistic affinities, however great its debt to Western art, has reacted against its predecessors by appealing to this issue. Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the cosmopolitan World of Art group, which regularly included artists like Degas, Monet, and Puvis de Chavannes in its exhibitions (and which reflected influences ranging from William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Aubrey Beardsley to Hokusai), deplored nineteenth-century Russia for having produced only derivative art: Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and the Realism of the Peredvizhniki. 3

Diaghilev, too, wanted to see a strong, original, national school—one that would take its place alongside the art of Europe’s other great nations. Even Diaghilev, though an ardent critic of the Peredvizhniki’s simplistic, storytelling art, felt that the “greatest merit of [realist painters] Surikov, Repin and, above all, Vasnetsov,…lies in the fact that they have not feared to be themselves…. They challenged the West…. They are the primitives of the renaissance of our art in the Russian, national spirit.”4 Moreover, the chief patrons of Diaghilev’s group were Savva Mamontov and the Princess Tenisheva, founders of the artists’ colonies of Abramtsevo and Talashkino, respectively. Both colonies stimulated renewed interest in icons in the late nineteenth century and fostered a revival of traditional Russian peasant art and crafts, many of whose decorative motifs were incorporated into the stylized, artnouveauish work of World of Art artists like Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst, Konstantin Somov, and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky.

  1. 1

    Valkenier previously published a study of the Peredvizhniki: see Russian Realist Art: The State and Society (Columbia University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    Stasov in a letter to I. Kramskoy, quoted in Valkenier, p. 74.

  3. 3

    John E. Bowlt, The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the “World of Art” Group (Oriental Research Partners, 1979), p. 69.

  4. 4

    Bowlt, The Silver Age, p. 70.

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