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« Replacing California | Main | Euphony and the Art of Writing »

October 17, 2009

Pre-Revolutionary Russian Art and Culture

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I finally got around to buying a book I've had my eye on for several months.

"Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture" by John E. Bowlt

It was published by The Vendome Press which is responsible for a similar book about Vienna that I had reservatons about, and another, "The Society Portrait," that I realy liked.

I finally decided to buy it because it was richly illustrated and covered a period of art that interests me greatly: the transition to modernism. For example, below is an image of a painting shown in the book, and it's by an artist I wasn't aware of.

"Pool" by Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) - 1902
Tempera on canvas. Alternate English title: "The Reservoir."

I'm about halfway through reading the book's text and thus far my reaction is mixed. It's useful when it focuses on paintings, sculptures and architectural examples. For example, I found it helpful to read the suggestion that the dominant school of painting during that period was Symbolism. I haven't made up my mind that Bowlt's assessment is correct; I need to do some research of my own before I accept it. The idea is definitely food for thought even though I wonder if the writer might have stacked the deck by including a possibly disproportionate number of works by Mikhail Vrubel, a Symbolist to the hilt, who I wrote about here.

He also mentions that Russian arts lagged behind trends and fads of countries farther west, a reasonable assumption. And valid (for some artists, anyway) is his contention that what might be termed the weight and pervasiveness of historical Russian culture affected how those westerly fashions were manifested by Russian hands.

My problem with Bowlt is that he falls into what I consider the trap of trying too hard to link artists and works of art to contemporaneous events and phenomena. Of course an artist is influenced by the world around him. But it's likely that he's also influenced by past art if he has at all studied his craft. Then there's the matter of the artist's temperament and personality, hugely important for his creations.

Here, from the the first page (99) of the chapter "The Shock of the New" is the sort of writing that annoys me:

The consequent and fundamental dichotomy between the vestiges of a patriarchal social order and the semaphores of a new modus vivendi, between country and town, stasis and action, aristocracy and democracy, released an energy and dynamism which, in turn, guided many of the explorations and discoveries of the Russian Silver Age.

Aside perhaps from the bits about aristocracy and the specific mention of Russia, this sentence might have been applied to almost any Western society at virtually any time between 1750 and 1950. Which means it is useless.

I should mention that I might never have purchased the book if I hadn't visited Russia. I have walked the streets of St. Petersburg and, to my wife's horror, zig-zagged through central Moscow by myself. So some of the views in old photographs included in the book were familiar. Moreover, I visited the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow and viewed a number of the paintings included in the book. I'm sure there are readers who would have less trouble making a connection with a never-visited place than I might. Nevertheless, the value of personal contact with a place is immense.



posted by Donald at October 17, 2009


Here's someone you must be acquainted with: Ilya Repin. ( He's the Tolstoy of Russian painting.

Posted by: Faze on October 18, 2009 11:32 AM

Faze -- Yes, I'm familiar with him and am surprised (now that you remind me) that I haven't done an article about him. I have at least one book about him and the subject of the current post includes a photo of Repin and Tolstoy as well as one of Repin's portraits of the writer -- the one showing him barefoot.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 18, 2009 11:58 AM

Hello, I happened upon your website as I am attempting to locate information about pre-revolutionary russian dance. My grandmother left me the most beautiful pre-revolutionary russian dancing boots and slippers - 2 pair each of incredible hand-tooled leather, amazing color, simply lovely. I am trying to locate a source where I might find out information about these treasures. I would appreciate any leads you might have. Thank you.

Posted by: Laurie on November 8, 2009 12:05 AM

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