Russian Art and Artists (8): 1905 and The Blue Rose Group

“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” [1925] 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]

There is a very short film clip from 1925 of Anna Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan on YouTube:

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:

Taking the Veil [1898; State Russian Museum]

The Hermit [1889; Tretyakov Gallery]

The Sacred Lake (c.1920s? c/o Christies]

There is a great essay on Nesterov’s paintings at the Christies website:

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.

The Pool [1902; Tretyakov Gallery]

In these first few years of the 20th century, as the Tretyakov Magazine notes:

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 [1905]

“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.

Until then take care and stay safe, Mark


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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