A few words about Russian art, which is too little known in the West and was pretty well unknown to me on my first trip in 1991. But I was an avid learner. And I love it!
Everyone knows about the Hermitage. That is not Russian art. It is one of the world’s most important collections of Western art in the most elegant surroundings. The museum itself, the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, is a work of art — designed by an Italian. Real Russian art is to be found in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and in the Tretyakov (the old and the new museums) in Moscow. It can also be found in many smaller museums about the country. Under communism, the state owned everything and private collections were confiscated.
When I first arrived, I was totally astonished to find a world of art in Russia that, in my unlettered opinion, was the equal of anything seen in the museums of the Western world. It had all been kept a secret behind the Iron Curtain. I thought all Russian art was either religious icons, or Socialist Realism (and that being propagandistic). Indeed, religious art existed while the Russian church dominated society until the 18th century. The next phase reflected the growing Western influences after Peter the Great, and along classical lines (mainly portraiture, court painting, epic and religious scenes).
Then in the mid-19th century things started changing — concurrent with growing unrest and change in all of Russian society. There began a breaking away from the Imperial academy in St. Petersburg and a migration to the study of the common people and of Russia as it really was — impressionism. Near Moscow there is an estate called Abramtsevo, the home of the rich merchant Savva Mamontov. Mamontov turned his estate over entirely to the new wave of artists who wanted to show real Russians in real-life situations. Out of this came the art and artists I most admire. The artists would travel the land and rivers and capture the essence of the common man. They would follow the tsar’s army fighting the Turks, and study in Italy, the Holy Land and Asia. Among these was a group called the Peredvizhniki, or The Wanderers. In Europe, the industrial revolution brought the train to France and the Impressionists became a movement and a style, as the artist could travel and record his impressions of the country and life. Although Russia was 10-20 years behind Europe, these Russian Wanderers did the same thing without the train.
This era (roughly 1860 to 1910) was the height of Russian impressionism and it reflects the changing thinking of the country and corresponds with the “golden age” of the great Russian writers and poets. It coexists with French impressionism and in my view is more meaningful and packed with feeling. This was the time that music and dance began to blossom, breaking away from the restrictions of the church that allowed only the human voice. The great Russian composers developed at this time — and into the 20th century.
The time around the turn of the century was called “The Silver Age” in Russia and it was a cultural and economic boom. It is tempting to speculate what would have happened if Lenin had not come along. Russia, always behind Europe, was nevertheless on the same path. The Bolshevik Revolution and the devastating civil war changed that. In the 1920’s art began restriction by the state and many artists emigrated to Europe or America.
Socialist realism was meant to be not as the artist saw the people and the country, but as the state wanted the people to see themselves. I had a prejudiced dislike of socialist realism, until I understood there was often, as usual in Russia, a hidden truth in the expression. The glorification of smoking factories and smiling lady tractor-drivers is boring or at best amusing. But there is much that simply shows it as it was and it is up to the viewer to get maybe a hidden message. Much of it was propaganda, but much is simply good and sensitive art.
Of course I have my favorites among the Peredvizhniki, but too many to list here. But among the artists are Perov, Surikov, Shishkin, and of course Repin. In his Religious Procession in the Region of Kursk there are so many stories among the characters, but the underlying challenge is evident on the hillside of barren trees in the background – a fatal drought. And there is Vereschagin, who painted the greatest scenes depicting the uselessness of war. Russian art says a lot.
Today, after several decades of confusion and lack of inspiration, Russian art may be reviving as the artists are free to do whatever drives them. And I have seen a little.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.