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History of Russian fine arts
April 27, 2006 12:10


The history of Russian fine arts falls into two distinct periods, with the border between them marked by the reforms of Peter the Great. This distinction is utterly profound, dealing with the basics of artistic perception of reality.

Icon Painting
Theophanes the Greek
Andrey Rublyov
Ancient Russian sculpture
Western influence
National theme
Social realism and modern

Icon Painting

Painting in the Old Rus appeared and developed in close connection with icon venerating, based on the doctrine of God's incarnation. The first icon in the Christian tradition was an image of Jesus, which miraculously emerged in his lifetime. It is the "Holy Face", or "Icon of Christ not made by hand", sometimes also called "Veronica's Veil", based on the legend of its creation. The image is said to have been imprinted on a wimple placed by Christ against his face. Icon is a means for the Orthodoxy to state it as a clearly visible truth. In a way icon is divinity conveyed in images and not in words.

Undoubtedly, icon is not a picture but a sacred object. Icons are expected to heal and work miracles. Some of them were considered to be of a supernatural origin. Yet the majority of icons were created by humans. Icon painters had to be people of high moral ideals and of true faith. Only people with a rich inner life and considerable intellect could create icons.

An icon does not represent what the painter sees before him, but a certain prototype. Reverence for an icon stems from reverence for its prototypes. Hence its unique artistic style that has nothing to do with other arts. It does not aim to produce just an aesthetic impression. Icons are destined both to reflect and evoke prayerful concentration and serenity in communication with God. It explains peculiar artistic devices used in icon painting, such as reverse perspective, a number of viewpoints within the space of an icon, hierarchic placement of objects depicted, etc.

Icon painters did not usually invent their subjects as painters do. They followed a traditionally established iconographical type. Yet, even within the context of traditional biblical subjects and with all due respect for tradition, ancient masters were always able to enrich the canons.

Canonic types served as a point of departure. The artistry lay in their interpretation. Along with Christianity the Russian masters adopted Byzantium style and centuries old technique of painting. Later there developed local icon painting schools - in Novgorod, Pskov, Yaroslavl, Tver, etc. - each of them with certain painting peculiarities.

The highest peak of ancient Russian painting falls on the 14-15 centuries, due to such outstanding masters as Theophanes the Greek and Andrey Rublyov.

Theophanes the Greek was a remarkable artist, important not only as the author of outstanding paintings, but also as one who exerted a great influence on Russian art in the years when its basics were being laid. His art - passionate, dramatic, wise, austere, at times tragically intense and frequently lofty left a deep impression on his contemporaries. Few of the great master's works have survived. They can be seen in Moscow's Cathedral of the Annunciation. These are icons of the Deesis Range representing Christ Pantocrator (Almighty), the Virgin, St. John the Forerunner, the Apostles Peter and Paul, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom, all the saints shown as entreating the Lord to remit the sins of humanity. He used dense, opaque coloring, similar to examples of Byzantine panel painting.

Andrey Rublyov who played a great role in laying the foundations of mature Moscow icon painting, owed much to Theophanes the Greek, his teacher, whose beautiful colors and pure forms he inherited. Yet, Rublyov's lyrical gift made him the antipode of Theophanes, whose somber, dramatic images were always alien to him. To Rublyov God was not the terrifying and merciless force he was to the ordinary medieval mind. Rublyov humanized God and made him seem closer to the world. Rublyov's purity of heart is reflected in his translucent images with no trace of either the excessively fanciful touches of Romanesque art or the exaggerated expressiveness of Gothic paintings. The icons of Rublyov radiate an aura of exceptional gentleness. His Christ, his Paul, his archangels are endowed with an irresistible charm, a gentleness in which there is no trace of Byzantine severity. At the peak of his powers Rublyov created his most famous icon, that of the Trinity (1422 - 1427) in memory of St Sergius of Radonezh. This icon exemplifies the simplicity of his skillful style able to transcend pictorial constraints with spiritual ideas. The icon renowned for its highly lyrical, rhythmical and symbolical quality was created by the master as a token of spiritual unity and accord of the Russian people.

The icons and frescos of Moscow painters of the 15-16s centuries are characterized with gentle painting and harmony of palette. Their artistic devices found development in Dionisii's icons and frescos, attractive for their delicate proportions, festive colors and the balance of composition.

Ancient Russian sculpture existed in the form of decorative wood carving and was prevailingly polychromatic (similarly to European sculpture, it was painted with tempera or oil colors).

Sculptured were mainly images of saints, with most attention paid to the faces, while the figures were covered under the dresses and thus looked flat.

Western influence

From the middle 16th century Russian icon painting falls under the influence of Western European pictorial art. Courtier icon painting school turns to European plot schemes.

The late 16th - early 17th centuries marked the development of the Stroganov's school that consisted mainly of tsar's court masters and was peculiar for its finesse of palette, elaborate attention for detail and tendency for decorativeness and 'prettiness' of painting.

The second half of the 17th century saw the appearance of icons with elements of European painting: oil paints, endeavors of light and shade modeling and greater verisimilitude in picturing people and nature. The most famous representative of this trend is Simon Ushakov (17 century). This was also the time of first attempts of creating a secular portrait - the so-called parsunas.

Renewed interest for icons as a great art developed in the early 19th century in connection with clearing of darkened ancient icons and revealing their genuine palette. Artistic principles of icon painting were creatively applied by both individual Russian (V. Vasnetsov, M. Nesterov, K.Petrov-Vodkin) and foreign (A.Matiss) artists and avant-garde schools.


In the 18th - early 19th centuries the pictorial art in Russia driven by cultural demands of the society, embraces all the major stages of Western art: baroque, classicism and romanticism. The leading role in this process belongs to foreign painters and sculptors invited to Russia, but already during the reign of Elizabeth I there appear gifted and highly skilled domestic masters. From the mid 18th century academism becomes the prevailing trend, with its austerity of drawing, strict rules of composition, conventionality of palette, use of scenes from the Bible, ancient history and mythology. However the greatest achievements of this period were gained in the portrait rather than in historic painting (A.Argunov, A.Antropov, F.Rokotov, D.Levitsky, V.Borovikovsky, O.Kiprensky). The first outstanding Russian master of sculptural portrait was F.Shubin.

The hey-day of the academic school falls on the first half of the 19th century. The paintings by Karl Bryullov are remarkable for the blending of academic classicism with romanticism, the novelty of subject matter, dramatic effect of the plastic and chiaroscuro, complexity of composition and brilliant virtuosity of the brush. The first to enter the path of free and unconventional creation, he aroused deep interest in the audience and raised the social role of Artist. Alexander Ivanov's works bearing the flavor of his self-giving to servicing the ideal, outdo the stereotypes of academic technique. Later the best traditions of academism find their development in the colossal historic pictures by G.Semiradsky.

In sculpture the conventions of classicism were shaken by Nikolai Pimenov, whose Boy playing at dibs was estimated by Alexander Pushkin as the birth of 'folk sculpture' and by I.Martos, with their works conveying the present traits of reality and acquiring actual sounding.

National theme

Social aspirations of the 1860s - 1870s wake up the artists' interest in folk life. The year 1872 saw the foundation of Association of traveling exhibitions as a counter to the Academy of Fine Arts. The famous Wanderers (among them Ilya Kramskoi, G.Myasoedov, K.Savitskiy, I.Pryanishnikov, V.Makovskyi, I.Yaroshenko and V.Perov) resort to genre painting acquiring exposal character in their works.

The turning to national themes resulted in an unheard blossoming of historic and military painting. Genuine masterpieces of these genres were created by V.Surikov, Ilya Repin, Nikolai Ge, V. Vasnetsov, V.Vereshchagin, F.Rubo.

Uncoined composition and historic truthfulness are combined with skillful use of plentiful artistic devices in interpretation of historic images and events. The historic theme has a powerful sounding in sculpture as well (P. Antokolskyi).

These years saw the opening of the first national galleries; works by Russian artists start appear regularly at international exhibitions and foreign art shows.

Attaining creative independence in the 19th century, Russian painting develops in the tideway of European fine arts. Genre painting gives way to landscape. Endeavors to render air and light and working plain air, which are characteristic of impressionism, can be seen in paintings by F.Vasiliev, I.Levitan, V.Polenov, V.Serov, K.Korovin, V.Kuinji and A.Arkhipov. Symbolism, neoclassicism and modern have a considerable influence on A.Vrubel and artists from the World of Art (A.Benua, L.Bakst, E.Lansere) and the Blue Rose (S.Sudeikin, N.Krymov, V.Borisov-Musatov)


The 1910s are remarkable for the birth of Russian avant-garde striving to transfigure the very basics of art up to negation of art itself. A whole range of artists and art groups create new schools and trends which come to determine the development of the world art - these are suprematism (K.Malevich), improvisational style and abstractionism (V.Kandinsky), rayonism (Larionov), etc. Among the other artists, more difficult to classify or to "compartmentalize," were Filonov, and Chagall (the founder of expressionism); they stood apart from the rest not so much because of the essential direction of their works as because of their methods and particular sources of inspiration. Embodied in the rise and fall of these artistic currents, "the idea of renewal of art as a socially active force" remained strong and served as a unifying factor for the artists of the Russian avant-garde. Lots of avant-gardists went on their work in the Soviet Russia, yet many went abroad The 1920s saw the expansion of constructivism (V.Tatlin) that put forward the task of constructing material space for creation of logical and functional forms. At the same time the aesthetic and social principles of avant-garde undergo transformation - now the artists reveal their interest in life and ambitions to rebuild it with artistic means.

Sculpture in these years is no more identified with the plastics, showing the tendency to render the sculptural character of mechanical forms. The contrast between plasticity and geometric forms blends, thus disclosing unheard opportunities for industrial design.

Social realism and modern

In the 1930s avant-garde artists suffer from the Soviet ideological pressure; they are more and more often accused of formalism and indulgence of the bourgeois tastes.

Surrender to the official artistic doctrine of social realism impairs art of many Russian painters. However, the works of I.Grabar, P.Korin, A.Deineka, M. Saryan, K.Yuon, M.Grekov, M.Gerasimov and M.Plastov represent felicitous combination of realistic traditions with achievements of modern - mainly those of impressionists and Cezanne.

The 1960s mark the revival of the Russian avant-garde. International acknowledgement is gained by the art of O.Tselkov, V.Nemukhin, I.Shelkovsky, O. Rabin, A.Zverev, M.Shemyakin, L.Sokov, E.Neizvestnyi. Some of these artists followed or restored the principles of the already existing schools and trends, while others created new ones, such as conceptualism (Ilya Kabakov) and SotsArt (Komar, Melamid).

"Allowed', yet not para-governemental part of the Soviet art of the 1960s is represented by the artists of the so-called 'austere style' (T.Salakhov, S.Popkov).

Vera Ivanova



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