The landscapes and communities of England, the characters of bohemian Paris and London, the glory of the creative imagination…
There are three very exciting exhibitions coming this summer that will draw us out of the lockdown slumber to thrill us with paint, colour and the exuberance of living. And this common viewer for one is very excited!
(I’ve included as many links as possible for further exploration, but please let me know if there are any others I can add to build up our Common Viewer Resources!)
At Penlee House in Cornwall, they are celebrating the life and art of Laura Knight from 17th May to 16th September in what they’re calling a “major retrospective” that includes a number of paintings from private collections.
The exhibition will bring together over 60 works by the artist, exploring different themes she became fascinated with over her life. Her stunning landscapes in Cornwall, Yorkshire and Worcestershire will be shown alongside her paintings of circus performers and Gypsies.
And, as I was looking that up, I’ve also discovered not only that Barbara C Morden’s brilliant biography Laura Knight: A Life is being freshly published in paperback, but that Laura Knight’s autobiography “Oil Paint and Grease Paint” is to be republished in February 2022 – and that is excellent news indeed as it brings Laura Knight’s voice directly to us, as well as numerous anecdotes!
Meanwhile, over at Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (19th May – 30th August), there is to be a celebration of Nina Hamnett – the Queen of Bohemia as she was, quite wonderfully, known!
Hamnett’s paintings give us a glimpse into her life in Paris and London’s avant-garde communities, and into the relationships she forged. Her compelling portraits and skilful compositions such as her Parisian café scenes, reveal Hamnett to be one of the most talented and exciting artists of her time.
Eiderdown Books also include Eileen Agar by Laura Smith in their Modern Women Artists series:
Eileen Agar was an artist who explored painting, photography, collage and sculpture. Her independent and inventive experiments with assemblage and colour linked her work inextricably with two major art movements of European twentieth century culture: Cubism and Surrealism.
which coincides with the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition: Eileen Agar – Angel of Anarchy (19th May – 29th August).
‘I have spent my whole life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery.’
[Agar’s] art seems infused with a constant sense of the sea and the shore, but also with a characteristically independent joie de vivre. This survey of over a hundred works is long overdue, but better late than never.
Laura Smith has also edited a book “Eileen Agar” to accompany the exhibition that should be especially valuable as it brings together the insights of Andrew Lambirth and Marina Warner. I must also mention Michel Remy’s excellent book Eileen Agar: Dreaming Oneself Awake as well as BBC Radio 4 programme on Sounds about Agar by Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel Gallery, which is definitely worth hearing as an overview/introduction to the artist.
And of course Art UK | Home is as ever a fabulous website through which to explore all these artists.
Oh, what a summer of gorgeous looking we have ahead of us if we share Eileen Agar’s “hunger for new colour, new shapes, and new possibilities of discovery”.
“By the end of 1904, Russia was close to turmoil. Political violence was spreading, the economy was foundering, and harvest failures and a sharp rise in food prices were stirring discontent among the people.
A strike at the Putilov engineering works in St Petersburg spread quickly to other factories, and within a month 100,000 workers had downed tools. St Petersburg was suffering from a winter of discontent, with electricity cuts and growing shortages of essential goods.
On Sunday 9th January 1905, a procession of around 20,000 workers. Led by the priest and trade union organiser Father Georgy Gapon, defied a ban on demonstrations to march with a petition to the Winter Palace in the centre of St Petersburg. The petition asked Nicholas II to grant concessions to the hard-pressed labouring classes… Gapon had assured the authorities that the march would be peaceful – the workers carried icons and Nicholas’s portrait, and they sang patriotic songs including ‘God Save the Tsar’. But tension was high.
When the march passed a designated point, nervous soldiers opened fire leaving more than a hundred people dead in the snow.” [Martin Sixsmith “Russia”, 2011, BBC Books]
That day became known as Bloody Sunday.
After a summer of strikes and unrest, the Tsar announced the October Manifesto, a proclamation to introduce democratic reform.
Demonstration 17 October 1905 by Ilya Repin [State Russian Museum. St. Petersburg]
This is the moment depicted in Ilya Repin’s painting. However, despite the initial cheer, the Manifesto floundered, the Tsar back-tracked and Russia remained in a state of deep social and political disquiet.
The immediate success of the Manifesto, however, was followed by a return to the cycle of strikes and violence as the Autocracy gradually reaffirmed its power. Within months, executions were numbering more than a thousand. The Government began suppressing political parties; by 1906–07 much of Russia was under martial law. It appeared that instead of being a reform, the manifesto had been little more than a ploy by Nicholas to regain control of Russia. [Quoting: Sheila Fitzpatrick: The Russian Revolution. Oxford [1994; Wikipedia]
In her book “In Memory of Memory” (Longlisted for the International Booker Prize, 2021), Maria Stepanova describes a photograph from her family’s collection:
“It’s winter and the snow under their feet is trampled. Dark shaggy fur coats and hats with a spotting of white – the usual smudging you get on an old photograph, the dots and lines which obscure the picture. Great-grandmother Sarra, first on the left, looks older than her seventeen years. Her hat, the sort that’s fastened with pins, has slipped to the back of her head, a strand of hair has escaped and her round-cheeked face is red raw, you can see how cold she is. One of her hands is tucked into her coat’s cuffs, another is balled into a fist. Her right eye, injured on the barricades, is covered with a black bandage, like a pirate’s patch. This was in Nizhny Novgorod, the barricades were built during the uprising that began on 12th December 1905 and was put down by military after three days of street-fighting.”
The events of 1905 would be the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin”  with its famous scene at the Odessa Steps when soldiers begin firing: a nanny is wounded, loses her grip on the handle of a pram which continues, baby inside, to roll down the steps.
Bloody Sunday would prove to be a fundamental turning-point in the history of Russia.
“The atmosphere of political turmoil which surrounded the abortive Revolution of 1905 was accompanied by a new vitality in the arts” writes Camilla Gray. And to witness that vitality, as Orlando Figes says, “Moscow really was the place to be… [as] the Russian avant-garde burst onto the scene. Along with Paris, Berlin and Milan, it became a major centre in the world of art, and its extraordinary collection of avant-garde artists were as much influenced by trends in Europe as they were by Moscow’s heritage.”
Detail from Léon Bakst’s “Portrait of Diaghilev with his Nanny” [1906; State Russian Museum]
Indeed, the extent of artistic creativity through the following decade was extraordinarily dynamic and experimental. Again, 1905 symbolises a significant turning point, reckoned by none other than Sergei Diaghilev (who we shall meet ‘properly’ next time). Speaking in March 1905 to a host of artists, writers and curators, and having spent the previous year criss-crossing Russia to collect paintings for an exhibition, he said:
“…we witness the greatest historical moment of summing-up and closing down for the sake of a new, unknown culture which will issue from us but also brush us away. And so, without fear or mistrust, I raise my glass to the destroyed walls of beautiful palaces as well as to the new principles of the new aesthetics.” [Tretyakov Magazine]
That summing-up and closing-down of the old for the sake of an impossible-to-know future art was made visible, perhaps, by a few moments of dance – and the transformation of ballet.
In 1905, the ballerina Anna Pavlova asked choreographer Michel Fokine to create a solo dance for her, for a gala performance. He suggested a routine to the music of Saint-Saens cello solo The Swan [Le Cygne], but this would not be a strictly classical routine. Reflecting back, in 1931, Fokine said:
“This dance became the symbol of the New Russian Ballet. It was a combination of masterful technique with expressiveness. It was like a proof that the dance could and should satisfy not only the eye, but through the medium of the eye should penetrate the soul.”
In 1934, he would claim, further:
“…the purpose of the dance is not to display that technique but to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal. It is a dance of the whole body and not of the limbs only; it appeals not merely to the eye but to the emotions and the imagination.” [Michigan Opera]
It is compelling, beautiful – almost magical. And as such caught the zeitgeist of Russian art, 1905-8, precisely. As The Golden Fleece art journal, writing in the Preface to their first editions in 1906, noted:
“We embark on our path at a formidable time.
Around us, like a raging whirlpool, seethes the rebirth of life. In the thunder of the fight, amidst the urgent questions raised by our times, amid the bloody answers provided by our Russian reality… [we] are in sympathy… but we believe that life without Beauty is impossible…
Art is symbolic for it bears within it the symbol, the reflection of the Eternal in the temporal.
Art is free for it is created by the free impulse of creation.”
[quoted in Russian Art of the Avant Garde: Theory and Criticism, ed. John E Bowlt; Thames & Hudson 1988]
These words are very much the manifestation of the Russian Symbolist movement which, in 1907, exhibited under the name The Blue Rose Group.
Really, this was the second generation of Symbolist artists, the first centred on the art of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) – who we met at the Abramtsevo art colony, and working on the mural of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev.
Angel with Censer and Candle. Sketch for Vladimir Cathedral [1887; Museum of Russian Art, Kiev]
As well as the religious and heavenly, Vrubel’s focus was very much on fairytale, less the story as such, but more in terms of projecting a sense of otherness, an alternative reality; the condition of the soul.
It’s interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry for Russian Symbolism says that the artistic emphasis was on “mysticism and ostranenie”.
Ostranenie is a fabulous word: it means the strangely unfamiliar, the uncanny or unheimlich.
One of Vrubel’s most famous works: The Demon Seated [1890; Tretyakov Gallery]
It’s an extraordinary, beautiful picture, and actually a bit terrifying: a fallen angel with long ‘feminine’ hair and strong ‘masculine’ body; and yet they sit there passive and contemplative; melancholic. There’s a lost-ness, like Christ in the wilderness. And note how, surrounded by a scarlet sunset and heavy impasto flowers, the angel is trapped in the dimensions of the frame.
Along with the strange beauty of the subject, the emphasis on paint – the paint, the colour, the brush-stroke, the texture – is important. We might think again of those last two sentences from the Golden Fleece:
“Art is symbolic for it bears within it the symbol, the reflection of the Eternal in the temporal.
Art is free for it is created by the free impulse of creation.”
The Demon painting is clearly symbolic – though we don’t know how or why; there’s something ‘beyond’ the everyday about it; something ‘ostranenie’. Moreover, it is clearly expressive of an individual artist working ‘by the free impulse of creation’ – there is neither the classicism of the Academy, nor the Realism/Naturalism of the Wanderers movement. It is a free expression of the artist’s inner sensations and sensibility, created by an innovative (and indeed decorative) use of paint: colour and texture. It marks a distinct shift in Russian art history.
And surely one of the most glorious paintings by Vrubel:
The Six-winged Seraph (Azrael) [1904; State Russian Museum]
Again it’s a somewhat disturbing picture: Azrael is often the Angel of Death; here they are seeking us out with lamp and dagger. Yet how gloriously beautiful; the colours brilliant, like shards of diamond.
Mikhail Nesterov [1862-1942]’s work, in turn, deepens the Orthodox/ religious sensibility, his work creating the impossible-possible dimension of spiritual faith:
By turning her back on the viewer, [the nun] seems metaphorically to be choosing a life of solitude — one of the spiritual eternal, as represented by the Russian landscape.
Another type of ‘other-worldliness’ was that produced by Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) who combined that subtle medievalism present with a gentle (almost)-impressionism: his figures in historic garb creating a distancing effect which, along with the complete lack of narrative, gives his pictures a mysterious dream-like quality.
Art with its credo, “Beauty will save the world”, was again aspiring to beauty. Like other countries in Europe, Russia was looking for an unique national beauty and a national style with original roots reaching back to the Middle Ages and a source in folk art.
This idea leads us to the astonishing Beauty of Pavel Kuznetsov (1878-1968)’s Blue Rose work which is a poetic abstraction, and far less “haunted”…
The Blue Fountain [1905; Tretyakov Gallery]
There is a rhythm to the paint, a diaphanous glittering as the water cascades down. Water will make us think of Christenings and Baptisms… who are these figures placing a crown of flowers upon the child’s head?
The emphasis on blue – the colour of water and sky and infinite space – is a suggestion of transcendence.
Kuznetsov fellow-artist was the Armenian Martiros Saryan (1880-1972):
Fairy Lake [1905; Tretyakov]
Here, the blue inspires our fairy-imagination, but Sarayan would also bring an Eastern landscape and much stronger colour to the fore:
Enchantment of the Sun 
“His use of paint is sensuous, and his colour bold. But there is also mystery” writes Camilla Gray. And it would be easy to recognise the links between the Blue Rose artists and the future work of Chagall and Kandinsky.
Certainly, all of these elements would soon be re-viewed in a new, pan-European context, as the Golden Fleece journal organised three historic exhibitions that combined post-Impressionist works and the Fauve artists of Paris with young, up-and-coming Russian artists, including Natalia Goncharova.
The effect would be a decade of extraordinary, rapid and quite brilliant experiment.
The Art and Artists of Russia (8): 1905 and The Blue Rose Group
I hope this has been of interest and if you are able to ‘donate’ it would be a great help, enabling me to continue this research programme on the art and artists of Russia – thank you!
Next time, on Saturday 1st May, we’ll follow Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes to Paris and London.
As we’ve been exploring over these last few ‘episodes’ of The Art and Artists of Russia, the Wanderers were very much part of the social revolution that was taking place in 19th century Russia: a century in which the cultural sensibility of Russia pivoted away from the elite and the ‘European’ ways of St Petersburg towards a recognition – especially after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 – of a national Russian heritage: the landscape, its people, history and, indeed, contemporary life. This was all causing immense amounts of social and political turbulence, but the zeitgeist was very much in favour of the ‘peasant’ and the re-evaluation of native traditions, especially when it came to the arts.
Portrait of Savva Mamontov by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) [1897; Tretakov Gallery]
Elizaveta Mamontova Reading by Ilya Repin 
These developments had a powerful impact on Savva (1841-1918) and Elizaveta Mamontov, a married couple who owned the Abramtsevo estate just to the north of Moscow. Savva, a millionaire businessman from a family involved in the pioneering work of railroad construction across Russia, was a great patron of the arts and artists, indeed he was a singer and sculptor himself. Like his wife, he was greatly influenced by the Wanderers’ programme of bringing art back to the people.
Elizaveta was deeply religious and extraordinarily forceful. On her insistence a hospital was built on the estate following a cholera epidemic that had spread through the surrounding population; then a school – the first in the region.
Alongside the school she also had a studio built, and it was this studio that would bring artists, composers, art critics and writers together into what became known as The Mamontov Circle or The Abramtsevo Art Colony. Under Elizaveta’s gaze, and with the knowledge and assistance of Elena Polenova, the studio would soon become a professional workshop in which traditional arts and crafts skills were revived in the production of furniture, ceramic tiles (Russian Majolica – see https://www.russian-mayolica.com/articles/abramtsevo-ceramic-murals/ and fabrics that would then be sold through a shop in Moscow.
Majolica tiles with mythological sirin made for a bench by Mikhail Vrubel at Abramtsevo.
“[she] was one of the pioneers of the national-romantic movement in Russian modern art and of the beginnings of symbolism. As an active member of the Mamontov circle of artists, she was among the founders of the museum of folk art at Abramtsevo, as well as the ceramics, woodwork and carving workshops there. Polenova was one of the first artists to turn to book illustrations — over a relatively short period of time, from the end of the 1880s to the 1890s, she created illustrations for and adapted more than 20 collections of Russian folk fairy tales and proverbs”.
Together, Elizaveta Mamontova and Yelena Polenova travelled across the country researching traditional folk crafts:
“In 1885 Polenova and Mamontova started enthusiastically studying folk art and collecting the best samples for the house museum in Abramtsevo. The artist wrote to the critic Vladimir Stasov about her passion: “As long as we could, we bought carved objects which we were able to find during our trips — salt cellars, boxes, donets, shveikas, rollers (spindles), linen rollers, spinning-wheels, beaters (swingles); front parts of carts and sleds; children’s wooden chairs and benches. I sketched or photographed larger objects, such as tables, hanging wall cabinets, arks, benches (mostly not the hanging kind but the ones that are built into the wall and are part of the inner architecture of the izba [peasant house in rural Russia].) Thus, we ended up with a rather inclusive collection at Abramtsevo, and a whole lot of notebooks with sketches and photographs.”
Wall with a door. Sketch of dining room design for M.F. Yakunchikova’s country house in Nara, Moscow region. (Polenov Museum) and Sketch of a table for the carpentry workshop in Abramtsevo (Vasnetsov Industrial and Art College) [both c/o Tretyakov Magazine]
I have to say I find all this fascinating, particularly the folk tradition of Russia distaffs used for spinning and separating wool. Beautifully carved and painted, they were traditionally given by men or boys to daughters and sisters. They’re as much works of art as they are practical tools…
Distaffs from the Ferapontov collection
Most famously, perhaps, the Abramtsevo artists designed and built the Church of the Saviour after a flood across the local district had prevented people from attending the Orthodox Easter Service. Artists and writers all set to on architectural and archaeological research, came up with plans, decided a scheme and then worked on building it.
The Church of the Saviour Not Made by Human Hand, [is] a miniscule church based on the medieval Novgorod designs. Inside the church are icons courtesy of Ilya Repin and Michael Nesterov, and the tiled stove and mosaic floor (in the shape of a blooming flower) are examples of Vrubel’s and Viktor Vasnetsov’s work respectively.
All of the work on the Abramtsevo Colony set off a wave of Arts & Crafts enthusiasm which immediately become “fashionable” and would have its effect, at the turn of the century, on the development of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and well as the avant garde paintings of Kandinsky and Goncharova.
One of the artists most closely aligned with the Abramtsevo colony though was Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). From the St Petersburg Academy he became friends with Ivan Kramskoi, the leader of the Wanderers’ Movement, and Ilya Repin with whom he visited Paris.
And I just have to take a moment here to note this glorious painting made during that time in Paris 1876-7: “Acrobats. Festival in a Paris Suburb” which is on display at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St Petersburg.
Returning to Russia, Vasnetsov’s work became more closely aligned to the Wanderers and indeed the Abramtsevo aesthetic as his interests in Russian folklore, myth and fairytale grew.
Here, we see three of the most famous legendary bogatyrs, Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets and Alyosha Popovich in Victor Vasnetsov’s “Bogatyrs” [1898; Tretyakov Gallery].
The bogatyrs are the poetic heroes of the elite forces of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015 (they’re akin to the medieval knight errant of Western European legend):
The most notable bogatyrs [are]… the trio of Alyosha Popovich, Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. Each of them tends to be known for a certain character trait: Alyosha Popovich for his wits, Dobrynya Nikitich for his courage, and Ilya Muromets for his physical and spiritual power and integrity, and for his dedication to the protection of his homeland and people. Most of the bogatyrs’ adventures are fictional, and often included fighting dragons, giants and other mythical creatures. However, the bogatyrs themselves were often based on real people. Historical prototypes of both Dobrynya Nikitich (the warlord Dobrynya) and Ilya Muromets are proven to have existed. [Wikipedia]
It’s of note too that The Bogatyr Gates is one of the episodes in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.
My own favourite painting by Vasnetsov is:
The Flying Carpet [a depiction of the hero of Russian folklore, Ivan Tsarevich; 1880; Nizhny Novgorod State Museum]
Ivan is the main hero of Russian folktales. He is almost always portrayed as either the third son of a peasant family or the third son of a king. The friends and foes of Ivan Tsarevich are often mythic figures, from magical animals to deathless beings.
What is so wonderful about the painting though is that whilst Ivan and the Flying Carpet are necessarily fictional, imaginary – here he is with the magical firebird – Vasnetsov makes the possibility so real as Ivan flies over a very naturalistic landscape. It just evokes, to me at least, a glorious sense of wonder (and I’ve always, always wanted to ride on a Flying Carpet!)
And here is another famous character from Russian folktale:
Baba Yaga [1917; The House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov]
Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter her or seek her out. She may play a maternal role and has associations with forest wildlife… Her depictions vary greatly across tales, ranging from a child-eating monster, to helping a protagonist find his missing bride.
Here, in Vasnetsov’s painting, we see Baba Yaga at her worst – kidnapping a child – as she flies through the forest in her mortar, the pestle sweeping behind her to remove any traces of her being there.
Now Baba Yaga traditionally lives in a hut built on chicken legs which returns us to the Abramtsevo Colony where Vasnetsov built just such a hut!
However, as it is the Easter weekend, it seems more appropriate to finish on another of Vasnetsov’s projects – the interior painting of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kiev/Kyiv.
Here again, Vasnetsov reflects the myth and legends of medieval Russia (aka Kiev Rus) when Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Russia:
(left) Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir [1880; sketch for Vladimir Cathedral fresco; State Art Museum, Kyiv]
(right) The Baptism of Kyivans [1886, fresco, St Vladimir Cathedral]
Illarion Pryanishnikov (1840-1894) Easter Procession [1893; State Russian Museum]
The Orthodox Easter service is one of the most important religious festivals and, although I’m not sure if Kyiv is in lockdown, the usual service at St Vladimir’s would run something like this:
Easter Sunday morning in the Ukrainian tradition begins at sunrise. That is when the faithful arrive for Resurrection Services. The service before the Divine Liturgy consists of a procession which circles the church three times. The journey is made to symbolize the trip of the women to the tomb to anoint the Body of Christ on that first Easter morning. The makeup of the procession is similar to the one on Good Friday, led by a worshipper carrying the crucifix and altar boys using the kalatala (wooden clappers). Parish elders carry the Plaschenytsia (Holy Burial Shroud).
After the third passage, the procession stops in front of the church doors, which symbolize the impossibility of being able to enter the Kingdom of God before the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The priest sings the joyful Easter song “Khrystos Voskres” (“Christ is Risen”) the first time himself. All of the faithful repeat the triumphant hymn a second time. Then, striking the doors of the church with the crucifix to open them, the priest begins “Khrystos Voskres” a third time, as the congregation joins in. This dramatic entrance reminds us that Heaven is now available to all because our Savior has conquered death with His death. All enter the church and the Divine Liturgy of Easter, the Great Day, begins.