Russian Fine Arts
Russian fine arts is synonymous with magnificent galleries and world renowned artists. From the icon paintings of 11th century Kievan Rus' to the contemporary art of the 21st century, visitors are amazed to discover Russia's rich and dynamic art history and culture.
Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan (1880-1891)
An early form of Russian art, dating back over 1000 years, is icon painting. The Russian icon typically entails a sacred person or religious event, painted on a wood canvas.
The tradition of icon painting was adopted in Kievan Rus' following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 A.D. While early icons were painted to the strict models of Byzantine art, Russian masters including Andrei Rublev (1360s-1427), helped to develop a style unique to Eastern Europe.
This traditional Russian style, a nonrealistic stylization, continued unabated until the later half of the 17th century. It was at this time that artists, led by Simon Ushakov (1626-1686), began to experiment with fresh new styles from Western Europe. This innovation in Russian icon painting coincided with a split in the Russian Orthodox Church, in which the State Church adopted comprehensive reforms, while traditionalists or "Old Believers" held steadfast to tradition, including the traditional style of icon painting.
The most comprehensive collection of icon paintings can be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The collection includes priceless works dating from early Russian Christianity, all the way to the Stroganov School, the last major Russian icon movement which thrived in the late 16th and 17th centuries.
The Protestant and Catholic influence on Russian icon painting inevitably brought about the movement of classical painting as well. While Classical Art of Renaissance was long established in parts of Western Europe, it wasn't until 1757 when the Russian Academy of Arts was created in Saint Petersburg to instruct local artists on ancient and neoclassical styles.
A few early members of the esteemed academy include Dmitry Levitzky, Anton Losenko and Fyodor Rokotov, while notable classical painters of the early 19th century romantic era include Karl Briullov and Alexander Ivanov.
Some of Russia's most notable artists and works of art come from the realist movement. A favorite style of the 19th century, Russian realist painters accurately illustrated portraits of their contemporaries, historical genre scenes (like the Repin painting above), as well as magnificent landscapes typical to the Russian Empire.
While some artists stuck to portraits and depictions of aristocracy, many others started to produce works of Russian peasantry and their suffering. This type of critical realism, which flourished in 19th century Russia under Alexander II, later became a model imitated by "Socialist Realist" artists of the Soviet Union.
As in all forms of painting, there is a transitional period which incorporates styles from two or more different movements. Such was the case in the transition from realist painting to the modern art of avant-garde. Russian painters including Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Nicholas Roerich and Mikhail Vrubel developed their own unique styles that did not definitively fit into one movement or the other.
Not so much a distinctive movement, Russian avant-garde describes a myriad of modern art forms including constructivism, futurism, neo-primitivism, rayonism, and suprematism amongst others.
- constructivism - refers specifically to a group of artists who sought to move beyond the autonomous art object, extending the formal language of abstract art into practical design work.
- futurism - a social and artistic philosophy established by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in which artists glorified all that was modern, industrial and technologically advanced by striving to depict the "universal dynamism" they perceived around them.
- neo-primitivism - movement that took its name from Aleksander Shevchenkos Neo-primitivizm (1913), which describes a crude style of painting based on the conventions of traditional Russian art forms such as the lubok, the icon, and peasant arts and crafts.
- rayonism - a short-lived, but important step in Russian abstract art, Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, by using dynamic rays of contrasting color, representing lines of reflected light.
- suprematism - an art movement focused on fundamental geometric forms (in particular the square and circle), in different colors, without any obvious sense.
Russian avant-garde thrived from the late 19th century all the way until the Stalin's rise to power. By 1932, restrictions were imposed on what artists could paint, with a direction towards socialist realism as opposed to modern art.
While theoretically, Soviet art would include everything post-revolutionary, the true era of Soviet art (unified associations of artists organized to serve state interest), never really started until 1932. With the establishment of the Moscow and Leningrad Union of Artists in August 1932, officially approved art was now required to follow the doctrine of Socialist Realism.
While strict socialist realism was the prominent style early on, many artists eventually incorporated new, innovate technique in the latter years of Soviet art. Despite this innovation, restrictions on what artists could paint were never really abandoned until the late 1980s.