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March 08, 2006

Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Far from Paris, far from the mainstream art history narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries are what I call Peripheral Artists who, I think, deserve recognition beyond their native lands.

Last September I was in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and found a large, purpose-built room containing striking romantic-expressionist paintings and panels/murals by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910).

Vrubel was born in Omsk, Siberia to an army legal officer and himself completed law training at St. Petersburg University in 1880. After that, he went over to the Imperial Academy of Arts where he studied under Pavel Tchistyakov. He was commissioned to paint murals and do icon-related work for the St. Cyril Church in Kiev and visited Venice to study early church art as part of the project. His mural designs for Kiev's St. Volodymir Cathedral suffered rejection, however.

During his Kiev stay he became interested in Mikhail Lermentov's poem, Demon, for which he began working up illustrations. Vrubel returned to Moscow in 1890, completing "Seated Demon," one of his most famous works. Although it raised controversy, the painting led to a commission from Savva Mamontov to decorate buildings. He also designed ceramic objects and was involved in stage design.

Vrubel met and married opera singer Nadezhda Zabela in 1896 and they had a child who died in 1903, an event that further destabilized his mind which had been tormented by childhood deaths of a brother and sister (he was briefly institutionalized in 1902). But he continued painting until 1906 when he was losing his eyesight. According to one source, he finally became so depressed that he stood before an open window so as to catch a cold that evolved into the pneumonia that killed him.


Vrubel - better portrait.jpg
Mikhail Vrubel.

Vrubel - Demon Seated in a Garden - 90.jpg
"Demon Seated in a Garden" 1890.

Vrubel - Swan Princess - 1900.jpg
"Swan Princess" 1900.

Vrubel - Seraphim - 04.jpg
"Seraphim" 1904


Vrubel allowed himself to be caught up in the romanticist and spiritual/religious thinking that were current in his times, possibly excessively so if his mental state is any indication.

Thanks probably to his study of mosaics and Christian art in Venice his paintings sometimes had a mosaic-like quality where paint was applied in different-shaped blocks varying in size by a factor of about two –- the background work in the Seated Demon painting contains a good deal of this.

Like many artists who moved in the direction of Expressionism he wasn’t afraid to sacrifice accurate representation for effect. Note that the eyes of the Swan Princess are anatomically too large.

Thanks to the large scale in which he often worked coupled with dramatic composition and stylized surface treatment, Vrubel’s paintings strike me as compelling to view, yet slightly disturbing –- perhaps a true reflection of his mind’s condition. In sum, an artist hard to forget once his work has been seen.



posted by Donald at March 8, 2006


20 Vrubels

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 8, 2006 11:15 PM

89 Vrubels

Olga's Gallery, lower resolution and pop-ups

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 8, 2006 11:33 PM

Wow. "Demon Seated in a Garden" is about 5 millimeters away from an early Kandinsky. Not that Vrubel was trying to contribute to the evolution of abstraction, but that actually makes the similiarities more striking. I hadn't been aware of Vrubel before; thanks for the preview.

It is interesting to see Vrubel's work as an additional confirmation of the links between occultist religion, Symbolism and the development of abstract painting in the late 19th century.

Isn't it interesting to note how little attention most accounts of Modernism pay to religious motives (and motifs)in art or society? Viewed objectively, the years when Modernism developed constituted a real flowering in religious terms. Amusing that this had been carefully excised from the 'standard' Modernist histories by the mid-20th century!

Ah, occultism, the 'secret heart' of rational Modernism. As Baudelaire--who coined the term, 'modernity'--shows in Les Fleurs du Mal, just because you no longer exactly believe in God doesn't mean that you don't believe in Satan!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 9, 2006 03:11 AM

Yeah, Fauvism came up in the blogosphere, and it was interesting to me that Gustave Moreau taught Derain and Matisse. Fauvism fits the narrative, but the Symbolists, of whom I have trouble naming five, have fallen out. But if I remember correctly, all the other artists thought highly of Odilon Redon. Wikipedia classifies Vrubel as a Symbolist. Moreau,Redon,Klimt,Chavannes,Bocklin bridges between the Academics and the Surrealists/Expressionists? How about Chagall?

And Picasso.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 9, 2006 04:29 AM

Very nice, Donald, and certainly worthy of attention. When I was in Russia I was surprised by the number of truly outstanding painters, such as Repin or Korin, whose masterpieces were hidden away in dusty state-owned museums. They are little known in the west, but they did lovely work. It kind of makes you humble about the U.S. being the hub of the artistic universe. Maybe there are a few things we don't know after all.

I understand that, as capitalism sweeps through the new Russia with a vengance, the robber barons are buying up this neglected, traditional Russian art and prices are going through the roof. Perhaps critical attention and aesthetic legitimacy will follow.

Posted by: David Apatoff on March 9, 2006 09:26 AM

"Neglected traditional art"? "Critical attention and legitimacy will follow"?

To say THAT about Vrubel, Korin and Repin is like...I'm trying to find an appropriate comparison state that Picasso didn't get the press he deserved.

Try google "art criticism vrubel", in world languages, and see the results, David.

I can't help but agree with your assessment that "may be there are a few things we don't know after all".

Posted by: Tatyana on March 9, 2006 10:48 AM

Just wanted to say I love this series of posts. Please keep it up.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 9, 2006 11:50 AM

There was definitely something in the air throughout Europe at the turn of the century: call it hysteria. Maybe the artists were anticipating the coming breakdown of Western Civilization. No way to prove it, of course. But the near hysterical element in Scandinavian, Austrian and German expressionism indicates a common apocalyptic mood.

Posted by: ricpic on March 9, 2006 12:07 PM

Tatyana, I salute you for knowing Vrubel well, but I suspect there was a reason Donald labeled him a "peripheral artist." I did as you suggested and googled him. I got several hundred hits. Then I googled some of his contemporary French impressionists and found hundreds of thousands of hits. 240,000 for "Monet art criticism" alone. I can't explain the difference in acclaim solely in terms of quailty (especially when it comes to Repin, whose work I prefer to Monet's.)

I guess it's one of those "the race is not always to the swift" things. If you happen to be a genius in a country where culture is later cut off at the knees by an authoritarian government with a taste for socialist realism, you won't get nearly the audience or fame that your lesser talented peers enjoy in a country where capitalism provides a cultural lubricant.

As another example, I don't think the NY abstract expressionists would have received nearly as much credit if Malevich and some of his peers were better known in the west.

Posted by: David on March 10, 2006 05:43 AM

David, there is no merit in my knowing about Vrubel: everyone who went thru mandatory reading of Lermontov's poem M'tzyri in 5th grade is familiar with his Demon, as it was a chosen illustration in literature textbook. And textbooks for every grade and every school are one and same for the whole country, unlike in America.

It's the same American self-centeredness as it was evident in the posts on Levitan and Serov: if these artists aren't known in US, it doesn't necessarily apply they are peripheral. The world doesn't rotate around America. Funny, while living in SU I met with the same attitude but with negative sign: the art world outside was constantly measured and compared against local artists, against what was collected in domestic museums (and btw, it makes no sense talking about "dusty state museum" in Russia: virtually ALL museums are state there; except some efforts by "new rich" like Khodorkovsky...but that's obsolete now. That doesn't mean they are poorer maintained than private ones - for comparison you have to have something to compare it to!)

There are so, so many really peripheral/unrecognised artists in Russia and former Republics of the Union there is no need to popularize the mainstream ones. Vrubel, Korin, Levitan, Repin are considered classics; their works fetch big money (I mean really big, not 5-figure sums) at auctions, the museums and galleries in the capitals display them respectfully and in impressive numbers, places where they lived (and their graves) are made into museums funded by the state.

Some examples of peripheral/marginal artists you can find in this Live Journal(Levkonoe lives in Ukraine and uses her blog as an onlne gallery for little-known and/or simply artists she loves); that's first that came to mind. She doesn't limit herself to Russian/Ukrainian art, you can even find an ocasional Kincade there, but it's a good source for first look at "marginal" artists.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 10, 2006 11:50 AM

Bob -- Thanks for the Vrubel links.

Friedrich -- Yep, there's a lot more to art history that one normally got in art history classes.

Bob (again) -- You mention Chagall. Which brings to mind his ceiling in l'Opera Garnier. I suppose I should write a post on that sometime, or even a general one on Chagall. But Chagall fans would be advised to run for the bomb shelter.

David -- There is a lot of nice painting that has gathered dust, though more and more of it is becoming appreciated. But it has been a slow process -- did the reappraisal of the Pre-Raphaelites begin as long ago as the 60s?

ricpic -- Are you thinking particularly of Edvard Munch? The guy could actually paint naturalistically, but he's mostly known for the Expressionist "The Scream." Plus he had some mental problems -- don't know if they were similar to Vrubel's.

Tatyana and David -- One reason I'm doing this "Peripheral Artists" series and gave it that name is because I got what was probably a typical late-1950s American art history education. Huge chunks of late-19th and early 20th century painting were ingnored if they weren't held up to redicule.

In recent years I've been coming across some of that work and realize that some of it is very good indeed.

Had I only known!

That's the problem. I didn't know because no one taught me. And I suspect that a lot of art history courses since my time haven't been a lot better regarding representational art. So I've launched this little educational project here at 2Blowhards highlighting artists I used to know nothing about, yet on discovery are worthy of appreciation and study.

The word "peripheral" (as I keep trying to make clear) is sort of a pun. Artists mentioned are peripheral to the history of painting as I (and others) received it in college. And it happens that these same artists (so far) come from what might be seen as Europe's geographical periphery. This does not mean that I regard them as lesser artists: in nearly all cases, quite the opposite.

The artists I've dealt with thus far are famous in their home countries for good reason. Some were well-known in Europe when they were alive, before Modernism in its various guises made its stealthy march from Paranoid Victimhood to Paranoid Establishment.

I don't regard this as some sort of "national character" issue: it's really more of a power politics thing within the art world.

Still, the fame of the Russian artists I've been featuring undoubtedly was held back by the Cold War. Many Americans were leery of all things Russian and the Soviet Union kept itself pretty well sealed off from Westerners and foreigners of all kinds save Party members and prominant fellow-travelers. (Yes I know there were plenty of ecxeptions to that sweeping statement. But the gist is true: think Intourist.)

Nor do I think it fair to fall back on a kneejerk notion of "American insularity" to explain our relative ingnorance of the likes of Gallen or Vrubel. In fine arts, Americans strike me as being quite the opposite of insular. In fact, for much of our history, we've had a self-image of being second (or worse) rate in all forms of culture. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but let me assert that, for almost any museum, shows featuring Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and Rembrandt will draw larger crowds than shows featuring home-grown Pollock, Motherwell or Warhol.

As I said, the problem lies in the art world itself. Its history had become unbalanced, distorted -- in America, at least. This 2Blowhards series is intended to let Americans learn what they've been missing all these years.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 10, 2006 01:49 PM

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