Research series: Russian Art and Artists (16): Towards Revolution

“The City Square” – Natalya Goncharova’s 1914 set design for Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Paris [MoMA, New York]

Through the first half of 1914, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company and holding an exhibition of Goncharova’s paintings. The declaration of war, however, sent them back to Moscow. Larionov was called up. Goncharova portrayed the war as a mythic encounter, Russian soldiers accompanied by hosts of angels.

Goncharova: Mythical Images of War from a series of lithographs published late 1914

These are, remarkably, patriotic, notes Anthony Parton: “an apocalyptic view of the war in which Russia and its allies were supported by an angelic host in their battle against dark material and spiritual forces.” Other images include St George, St Michael and angels fighting with aeroplanes: see University of Notre Dame for full series). There is a sense in this apocalyptic vision of spiritual battle that Goncharova is invoking the ‘Destiny of Russia’ concept: that Russia is “divinely ordained to play a key role in shaping world events”.

Other artists were also forced to return home. Chagall returned from Paris to marry his beloved Bella:

Marc Chagall: The Birthday [1915; MoMA]

Having found a desk job with the War Office, he was nevertheless horrified at the idea of being conscripted, the talk of war all-encompassing:

Chagall: The Smolensk Newspaper [1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The sole word visible in the newspaper is “war”. Walther and Metzger, write in the Taschen monograph of Chagall: “The ‘paper is on the table between the two men, whose conversation appears to deal exclusively with the carbage ahead in Europe. The olf Jew, resting his chin thoughtfully in his cupped hands, is thinking of the compulsory conscription Tsarist regimes have been imposing on his people from time immemorial. [His opposite number] whose suit and hat pronounce him to be a bourgeois, [is not] at all enthusiastic either; he is seen mopping his brow in distraction.”

Chagall wasn’t called up, indeed he remained in Russia through until the early 1920s, as did Wassily Kandinsky who, like Goncharova, saw Russia in a grand, epic and spiritual light:

Kandinsky: Moscow – Red Square [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

Amidst the richly vibrant colours and textures, lines and patterns, we see Moscow, with all its churches and cupolas; Red Square has been painted frontally, raised on the heavenly hill. Right at the centre, Boris and Gleb, the two founding Saints of Russia gaze upwards. Above, we see the rainbow, symbol of the Archangel Michael:

the chief archangel, the Archistratig, the head
of the Lord’s heavenly warriors, the guard and protector of God’s honour.
Under his leadership the heavenly forces defeated the devil in battle. He
is therefore the patron saint of chivalry and warriors… [Museum of Russian Icons]

The artist wrote that he particularly loved the time, when the sun goes down and “melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating.” This hour of sunset is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.”

Much had changed since Kandinsky had last been in Moscow, and whilst his ‘ways of seeing’ – that colour vibrates with emotion like music – were radical, others had even more far-reaching visions that would lead to Liubov Popova’s 1921 vision of the city which, with its light and air, steel and glass, stands in extraordinary contrast to Kandinsky’s Moscow:

. Popova: maquette for the City of the Future [1921, photographer unknown]

So how did we get there? Well there’s a photograph of Popova’s studio (taken by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924) that suggests the course that Russian avant garde art took in the wake of Malevich’s Suprematism.

Right: Space-Force-Construction [1921; Tretyakov]

The paintings on the wall above the City of the Future model are from Popova’s Space-Force-Construction series, which had evolved from the colour architectonic paintings we saw in our last episode. Malevich had created, in Suprematism, an entirely new artistic language that dispensed with representation and perspective, emphasising instead geometric shapes and dynamic movement. That breakdown of traditional painting – the Black Square and White on White being the most radical examples – and ways of seeing visual art, led to a period of deep, analytical experimentation of line, colour, shape, movement and recession. Olga Rozanova was painting ‘non-objective compositions’ that, by 1917, were truly brilliant examples of such experimentation:

Non-Objective Composition [1917, Ulyanovsk]; Green Stripe [1917, Rostov]; Colour Painting [1917, St Petersburg]

For Rozanova, colours and colour combinations were the primary building blocks of creative art. For other artists, other aspects came to prominence. In the photograph of Popova’s studio, for example, we see her space-force-construction paintings emphasise line as the dynamic force and – essentially – she brings material texture (faktura) to the fore: notice the paint veers from smooth to rough, and notice especially that this is not painted on traditional canvas, but unprimed plywood, large areas of which are left bare.

This recognition of the very materials used in art-making and the materiality of the art-work itself was central to the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin.

Valdimir Tatlin: The Sailor (probably a self-portrait) [1912; State Russian Museum]

Tatlin, having run away from home as an eighteen year old, became a sailor, travelling the world. Even so he kept up with the avant-garde artists, friends with both Larionov and Goncharova, and painted in the ‘primitivist’ style as we see in The Sailor. Living in great poverty, Tatlin managed to visit Paris and his hero Picasso in 1913 – returning to Russia filled with radical Cubist ideas. As Camilla Gray notes, it was in the winter of 1913-14 that Tatlin took the first step towards what would become Constructivism. Now the difficulty is that many of the early works were lost or destroyed, so there is a reliance on black & white photographs. Here, however, is that first step:

Tatlin: The Bottle [1913; location unknown, photograph from Camilla Gray’s “The Russian Experiment in Art”]

With wallpaper, wood, metal and glass, The Bottle is an exploration of different materials and their properties – the “culture of materials”; Camilla Gray explains: the object, the bottle, is still recognisable as the shape that has been incised onto a strip of metal. But it is not the individual object that is Tatlin’s subject matter, rather its ‘bottleness’ is being analysed. We see the shape silhouetted against a metal strip. But of course one can see through glass, so Tatlin recognises that idea of ‘seeing through’ by using a wire mesh. Moreover, glass is shiny, so the metal behind the mesh has been polished. Each element of a glass bottle has been isolated, taken separately and re-considered. The curve of the bottle, for example, has been taken away from the bottle and transferred to the near-cylinder of metal right at the centre – the reflection of light on the metal paralleling the reflection of light on the bottle. As this metal cylinder arcs out into real space, it contrasts with the flat silhouette of the bottle and the flatness, to the left, of a square of wallpaper. However, even the wallpaper’s flatness is usurped by its trompe l’oeil decorative patterning. Gray summaries: “Thus, a typical ‘enclosed’ space [the bottle] is dissected part by part, attribute by attribute, the analysis being conducted in a series of planes which contrast the idea of ‘real’ and ‘illusory’ space.”

Left: Wood, Metal, Leather [1913-4; Tretyakov Gallery];

Right: Painting Relief: Selection of Materials (iron, stucco, glass, asphalt) [1913-4; presumed destroyed

Using a variety of raw materials – wood, tin, plaster, glass, steel and more – Tatlin explores and combines them to create contrasting textures that illuminate the material properties of each element, extending the ‘picture’ out into real space. This extension he then takes further, removing any reference to the flatness of the framed picture, by creating corner-reliefs:

Corner Relief [1915; destroyed]

Corner Relief [1916; State Russian Museum]

“These corner constructions were Tatlin’s most radical works. In them he has created a new spatial form: a continually intersecting rhythm of planes whose movements jut into, cleave, embrace, block and skewer space” – Camilla Gray.

Alongside Tatlin was fellow-constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, whose initial works on paper and canvas explored lines, which Brandon Taylor in Tate Papers perfectly emphasises are ‘non-descriptive lines’, and would lead, like Tatlin’s work, into three-dimensional ‘real’ space:

Rodchenko: Line Construction [1920; MoMA]; Spatial Construction: Circles within Circles [1921; whereabouts unknown]

You’ll have noticed that we have slipped into post-Revolutionary time, and the Constructivists were very much part of the revolutionary aesthetic those first few utopian years, their artworks tending towards the scientific and the architectural. Notice, for example, the parallel here:

On the left we have Rodchenko’s “Composition No.47” [1917; oil on wood, State Russian Museum], the principles of which the artist re-directs two years later into, on the right, a Design for a Kiosk [1919; private collection]. The avant-garde’s radically new ways of seeing and creating were – at least to them – allied with the radical transformation of society. Even Malevich’s Suprematism was deployed in the decoration of post-Revolutionary Petrograd/Leningrad:

This is Natan Altman’s design for Uritsky Square (Palace Square) in Petrograd in celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. An unknown photographer captured the scene: a cheering crowd behind whom large ‘Suprematist’ panels (of colour) had been constructed:

This, however, is another story for another Research Series.


Russian Art & Artists – Towards Constructivism

Thank you so much for following this series, i hope you have enjoyed and, as ever, if you are able to donate it is hugely appreciated. All best wishes for now.


This is the last regular ‘episode’ in this ongoing series as ‘live’ events return, but there will be further articles in the future – simply “follow” The Common Viewer and a notice will appear in your email inbox.

To send us on our merry way then, with all best wishes, here is Varvara Stepanova’s 1920 painting “Musicians” [Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]:


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (15): Suprematism – Malevich, Rozanova and Popova

We’ve seen over the last few episodes that, since Diaghilev’s comment in 1905 that “we are witnessing the greatest historic hour of reckoning, of things coming to an end in the name of a new unknown culture”, the Russian art world became a site of rapid, experimental change through the work of artists such as Goncharova, Chagall, Kandinsky and many others. This explosion of painting was linked to the work of modernists right across Europe – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso – adopted into and transformed by the Russian context of ideas, culture, philosophy and indeed the increasingly unstable political situation.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, links with European artists were cut but, within Russia, the avant-garde continue their radical experimentation.

Out on the streets there were strikes and demonstrations. The news from the war is that tens of thousands of men – barely trained, barely armed – are dying en masse at the front. It becomes clear that Tsar Nicholas is clueless at military strategy and that the Tsarina is influencing social policy by way of the disreputable figure of Rasputin. The strikes and demonstrations grow louder, increasingly political as left-wing activists, especially the Bolsheviks, rally citizens towards revolution.

Meanwhile, artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has been quietly cooking up a revolution of his own…

Malevich: Peasant Women in Church [1911; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

As with the other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich had explored Symbolism, Impressionism and by 1911 a Post-Impressionist “Primitivism” akin to that of Natalya Goncharova. These brusque paintings were very much part of a radical art movement that intended to shock the viewer with their non-naturalist depictions and roughly-textured painting. With its roots in Paul Gauguin’s pictures of Brittany and the villagers of Pont-Aven from the 1880s, Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” also reflects – especially by way of the mask-like faces – the more recent work of Picasso, in particular perhaps Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Paul Gauguin: Breton Peasant Women [1894; Musee d’Orsay, Paris]

& Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

What is fascinating about Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” canvas is what is on the other side of it. Note how the peasant women are painted really quite sculpturally, they are rotund, their arms and bodies look solid… well on the ‘verso’ of this painting, we find Malevich, just one year later, moving away from that brusque, textured primitivism to take on, via a version of Cubism, a much cleaner sculptural, and uniquely cylindrical style:

Malevich: The Woodcutter [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The human form has been radically simplified, yet one feels the woodcutter’s strength; he is a monumental figure reflecting his importance in village life. All around him are cylindrical logs – neither background nor foreground – integrating the figure into his work, this very moment of concentration. It’s a delicious patterning of distinct, clearly formed shapes, and they have a sense of movement and dynamism.

Malevich: Taking in the Rye [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The paintings strike one as extraordinarily modern – that tubularity, the almost metallic sheen – and yet fascinatingly they depict the changing of the seasons and the traditional rural work that has been done since time immemorial. If there is a sense of ‘futurism’ here, it is far from the machinery, urbanisation, transport and war of the Italian Futurists. Closer to that sense of speed and dynamism of the city, and the fragmentation of modern life is:

Malevich: The Knifegrinder [[1913; Yale University]

“The workman sharpens his knives at the foot of a flight of steps, visible upper and lower right… The arc of the steps curves around the knifegrinder, whose rhythmic movements Malevich has indicated by the repetition of the foot upon the pedal, the repetition of fingers and hands and the duplication of the nose and other facial features. The grinding machine provides the pivot of the composition [as] the rhythm of rotation appears to spread out like ripples from the centre of the machine animating the flight of steps…” [John Milner: Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, 1996].

Through all this Cubo-Futurist experimentation, Malevich is searching for something: he wants to release art from matters of representation, from the depiction of nature and so-called reality. And, in 1913, he staged an opera at the Futurists Theatre called “Victory Over the Sun”.

Left: Poster advertising “The World’s First Four Productions of Futurist Theatre” at Luna Park Theatre, St Petersburg, 2nd-5th December 1913, including “Victory Over the Sun”.

Right: “The Aviator” painted by Malevich in 1914 [Russian Museum]

The main thrust of Victory Over the Sun, is that the sun represents nature, logic and rationality (the Enlightenment) and therefore the past and present. Victory will represent the future, and its hero is the Aviator or the New Man, of the future, a Traveller in time and space who was later painted by Malevich full of symbolic references. He wears a top hat with a ‘0’ on it from which come beams of light; the Zero might represent a starting point. The playing card in his hand might represent chance and the Tarot (which fascinated Malevich).

Understanding the painting can get rather complicated, for example the ray of light illuminates and splits some lettering which, together, in Russian spell “apteka” meaning “chemist” – the KA might refer to the character of a traveller in a poem, and/or to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Certainly there are layers of meaning, the images relating to language and words as well as possibly fellow Futurist poets involved in Victory Over the Sun.

The costumes for the Opera were designed by Malevich: they are quite bizarre visually with patches of bright colour, and also bizarre in effect: some of the colours would be illuminated by the stage-lighting, and so fragmenting the image on stage, moreover the costumes were made of soft fabric, undermining their solidity.

Malevich’s costume designs: State Museum of Theatre and Music, Saint Petersburg.

The Opera itself was bombastic and absurd. Unsurprisingly it had a mixed reception, some criticised its lunacy, others delighted in its eccentricity. Malevich himself was thrilled with it all, see: Victory Over the Sun for more detail.

As we can see from these newspaper images, Malevich’s backdrops were as peculiar as his costumes; and they include something very important. Joseph Kiblitsky of the State Russian Museum notes that the outline of a square appears in the first, second and third scenes, then, in the fifth, a pure black square on a white plane. It was the first time Malevich had depicted any type of black square. In the play, the image simply symbolises the victory over the sun, like an eclipse, the black covering the white. But for Malevich it seems there was more to it. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he had come about something by chance but that he knows is valuable. Throughout 1914 he experiments…

Malevich: Composition with ‘Mona Lisa’ [1914; State Russian Museum]

The words on the canvas: “chastichnoe” means partial; “zametnie” means eclipse; “peredatsa kvartina v moskva” means we have surpassed the picture in Moscow. Note how the image of the Mona Lisa has been crossed through and torn, it almost disappears in the cascade of Cubist squares – it is a partial eclipse of the old art. In solitude and secrecy, Malevich continues working in his studio and then, in 1915, there was an extraordinary exhibition:

0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition [December 1915; St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd)]

It must have been bewildering to any common viewer that happened to be passing by! And, displayed on the corner – just as a Russian would hang an icon – is Black Square.

Malevich: Black Square [1915; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an icon, the likes of which we had never seen before: the icon of a new world order, a new means of making art. Malevich has stripped away all representation and left us with nothing, a void, a blank, a black square. He called it the Zero of form (remember The Aviator’s top hat?).

Black Square seems to erase, end, annihilate all the paintings that went before. It is the end of art.

If the traditional Orthodox icon was our connection to the heavenly, then to what does Black Square connect us?

Outer-space? Nothingness?

It is worth noting that Black Square has no horizon: hang the painting any way you want and it remains a black square floating on a field of white – Malevich has released the artist from gravity.

But above all it is just, simply, a black square – a geometric, mathematical form. Unsullied by nature or politics or human history and society. It is pure. “It is the face of new art. The Square is a living, royal infant” said Malevich:

“It is everything.”

The photograph of the exhibition shows there were other paintings too: the Black Square had given Malevich entry into the development of a new purely artistic alphabet: squares, crosses, circles and so on. Releasing us from the chains of Art History, this is Suprematism – painting founded on pure artistic forms.

Black Circle [1915; State Russian Museum]; White on White [1918; MoMA, New York]

So what does Malevich, and other artists inspired by his work, do with these new forms? The development is rapid. From the bold simple forms we soon move into formations of complex, dynamic planes, shapes and colours:

The painting at the Tate is a marvellous example: we can see a white on white triangular form around, over, under which other shapes are floating in various directions, some are coming forward, whilst others cross over (reminding us again of the impact of the costumes and backdrops in Victory Over the Sun).

Importantly too, colour is kept within the forms and very much part of the dynamic ‘non-gravity space’ within the picture frame.

We can turn to other artists who took up Malevich’s Suprematist ideas and created The Supremus Group, including Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) who I would call a Suprematist Colourist:

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Yekaterinburg]

Rozanova uses both bold and more subtle colours, from stark red to gentle peach and lilac; and note how at the bottom left she has ‘quoted’ Black Square.

Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Samara]

“Throughout Rozanova’s career, colour remained her chief concern. In sophisticated abstract paintings [those shown above], she reveals a ‘discordant concordance’ of interactive coloured planes to reveal her own variant of Suprematism based on the dominant role of colour.” [Nina Gurianova in “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, Royal Academy, 1999].

For Rozanova, it is colour that has the dynamism Malevich attributes to shape; her work blazes with colour, contrasts that create movement and rhythm. Her aim was “to convey the immaterial essence of colour, its inner energy and luminosity…”

For Liubov Popova (1889-1924), shape and colour were certainly central, but it is perhaps a combination of texture and structure that stands out in many of her Suprematist paintings, which she called ‘architectonic’

This “Painterly Architectonic” at the National Gallery of Scotland is described as: “characterized by dynamic, overlapping planes which seem to float in space. The coloured diagonal shapes in this painting suggest movement but also a sense of balance. The modelling of the shapes suggests a light source from outside the frame.”

That latter statement suggest something quite different to anything found in Malevich’s Suprematism; the Gallery seems to be suggesting that Popova imaging her abstractions as physical architecture out in the ‘real world’. And that, perhaps, is why she is so interested in texture – faktura – the actual material of the painting, which would lead her towards Constructivism, yet another aspect of the radical avant-garde in Russia, as we will see next time.

Describing the art of Liubov Popova in “The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922”, Camilla Gray notes how difficult it is to categorise the works such as the Architectonic Paintings from 1918 below, yet how exciting they are:

“They are often executed on a rough board, and the angular forms in strong blues, green and reds are brushed in on this crude, raw surface, leaving the impression of a lightning-swift movement, a darting, breathless meeting of forces…”

Russian Art & Artists 15 – Suprematism

Thank you for reading this episode of our ‘gentle’ research into Russian Art & Artists! If you are able to ‘donate’ that would be marvellous – many thanks and all best wishes.


Our next episode:

Russian Art & Artists (16): Constructivism and Tatlin’s Tower

will be published by Sunday 25th July 2021

Let’s finish, though, with two gorgeous colour sketches by Olga Rozanova [1917; private c/o Wikimedia]:


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (14): The Cubo-Futurists

By 1912, Moscow was one of the key nodal points in the networks of European modernism, with Russian artists working across Europe and European artists visiting Russia, and exhibitions, catalogues and magazines all part of the circulation of visual ideas and experiments – including Cubism and Futurism which, combined, became a significant movement in Russia known as Cubo-Futurism, or Russian Futurism and would lead to the developments of Rayonism, Suprematism and Constructivism as we shall see.

Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), was based primarily in Kyiv, Ukraine (where, the Tretyakov notes, she was “a magnetic figure…the toast of the town”), exemplified the extent of the ‘travelling artist’ as from 1907 – 1914 she working in St Petersburg, Moscow, Venice and Paris, becoming close to many of the leading artists and taking part in a variety of key modernist exhibitions (see Daily Art Magazine). She learnt of Cubism directly from Braque and Picasso, intrigued by its revolutionary approach to exploring the dynamics of vision and modern life.

Left: Cubist Nude [1912; MoMA, New York]. Right: Still Life [1913; Thyssen, Madrid]

Importantly, and interestingly, however, whilst the early Cubists played it down in their often sombre paintings, Exter’s work is full of colour, one of the significant aspects of Russian avant-garde art both, say, in the paintings of Goncharova and, looking ahead a little, that of Malevich. As the Thyseen Museum notes with regard to “Still Life”: …whereas the spatial fragmentation and use of collage evidence her experimental zeal, the vivid colours are drawn from Russian traditions. Colour, for the Russian avant garde was very much part of its ‘revolution’ against bourgeois and academic traditions.

Nadezhda Udaltsova (1886-1961) also studied and worked in Paris, taking on the ideas of Cubism. Though much of her work from this period has been lost, what remains is glorious, especially (to my mind):

At The Piano [1915; Yale University Collection]

As the fragmentation emanates from the woman’s hands playing the piano keys and the ruffling of the score so it feels as if we can see / experience the vibrations and rhythms of the music itself, the gradations of the colour segments create a sense of the fleeting notes as they concentrate then dissolve into the air. And I love the look of concentration on her face, the word BACH by her forehead gives the idea that woman and composer interweave: they come together, unite at the meeting point of the music.

Alongside Udaltsova in Paris was another remarkable artist central to the development of Russian art: Liubov Popova (1889-1924) whose study of the European Renaissance paintings along with Russian art history, especially icon paintings, underpinned her experimental ‘laboratory’ of art-making.

The Traveller [1915; Norton Simon Foundation]

This abstracted composition suggests the speed and sense of dislocation associated with modern transport, and seems to include an oblique self-portrait in the central figure: a woman wearing a yellow necklace and high-collared cape who reads a magazine or newspaper in her seat on a train, grasping a green umbrella in one gloved hand. Snatches of words (including the Russian terms for “gazette,” “hat,” “2nd class,” and the roar of the train) vividly convey the sights and sounds of locomotive travel. With her use of found text, fragmented forms, and shapes rhythmically repeated to create a sense of acceleration, Popova assimilated both French Cubism and Italian Futurism in a uniquely Russian hybrid known as Cubo-Futurism. [Norton Simon]

Untitled [1915; Guggenheim, New York]

There is a marvellous overview of Popova’s career by Joyce Kozloff in Hyperallergic; one paragraph of which reads:

There was much discussion of faktura (the physicality of surface) as content. Popova’s mixed media, non-objective paintings on wood met these conditions gracefully. Lines zigzag across their surfaces, weaving in and out of patches of colour, breaking up and crossing, some in concentric circles, others zooming upwards in parallel formation toward a cosmic unknown, and still others ripping diagonally through hovering shapes and shadows.

We discussed the term faktura in connection with Goncharova’s art – it is an element that would come increasingly to the fore amongst the Russian experimentalists – the texture of the surface whether in paint, collage or sculpture. Popova would be a leading light here, her work with figures such as Tatlin and Malevich signalled by abstracts such as her Painterly Architectronics series from 1916, one of which is in the National Galleries of Scotland:

Whilst Natalia Goncharova’s paintings rarely become absolutely abstract, another painting at the National Galleries of Scotland reveals her interest in the experiments Popova pioneers:

Goncharova, Natalia; La foret (The Forest) [1913]; National Galleries of Scotland;

Goncharova had long been interested in Cubism and Futurism, each working in synthesis with her explorations of colour and subject matter all of which often brought her increasing public venom as much as acclaim. we can see the principles of Cubism here in The Forest as the picture space is fragmented and distinct planes of colour then bleed into each other (‘passage’). Yet notice how rich her colour remains; the decorative brilliance of the painting even as we – even in reproduction – can see the roughness of the paint (‘faktura’).

The natural world of the forest seems in contrast to some of Goncharova’s more apparently Futurist works that express the speed of the modern city and the industrial world:

The Weaver [1910; National Museum of Wales]

The Weaver – also known as Woman and Loom – gives us the speed and frenetic activity of the working world; the Cubo-Futurism fragmenting any placid visual experience for the viewer. However, whilst we might recognise the dynamic element of the Futurist aesthetic, it is also increasingly apparent that the woman seems to be dissolving/fragmenting/metamorphosing into the loom: she is disappearing as the machine remains fairly solid. As Anthony Parton recognises, Goncharova’s did not take Italian Futurism at its word, but used it to question the social politics and ethics of ‘the machine age’.

Cyclist [1913; State Russian Museum]

Cyclist is often regarded as one of the archetypal works of Futurist painting, both in Natalia Goncharova’s oeuvre as a whole and the Russian art of the early 1910s in general. It embodies such typical features of Futurism as constant repetition, dislocation of the contours of the figure, which seems to be recorded in temporal and spatial sequence, and the interspersion of fragments of street signs, in order to convey the bustle, noise and movement of the city

so notes the State Russian Museum website. However… a bicycle hardly expresses the dynamic of modernity does it? And note the cobbles he’s riding over. Then, in the background to the left, there is a finger (the hand of God?) pointing him in the opposite direction. Goncharova seems to be deploying all sorts of Cubist / Futurist elements in order to usurp the very aesthetic of modernism it would usually express and applaud.

What Goncharova – along with her partner Larionov – does seem to be very interested in is how Cubist fragmentation and Futurist dynamism relate to light and how it can be refracted into shape, colour and texture. This became known as Rayonism, or Rayism and first came to public attention at The Target exhibition in Moscow, 1913.

Rayonists aimed to create an art that represented the immaterial world beyond the human eye, or the ‘fourth dimension’, by capturing the rays of light reflected off objects in the material world. Dynamic lines were added to their paintings, to suggest the movement of light and energy. Recent scientific discoveries on the discovery of x-rays and radioactive rays may have influenced their depictions of time and space and a further reality beyond the naked eye. 

National Galleries of Scotland

Rayonist Lilies [1913; Perm Art Gallery];

Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow [1913; Guggenheim, New York]

In their “Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto” (1913), Goncharova and Larionov declared:

Long live the beautiful East! We are joining forces with contemporary Eastern artists to work together.

Long live nationality! We march hand-in-hand with ordinary house-painters.

Long live the style of Rayonist painting we have created – free from concrete forms, existing and developing according to painterly laws!

That which is valuable for the lover of painting finds its maximum expression in a Rayonist picture. The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, its saturation, the relation of colour masses, depth, texture; anyone who is interested in painting can give [their] full attention to these things.


Unlike Gonchariva’s paintings in which there is usually an identifiable source or subject, for Larionov, Rayonism would lead to absolutely abstract pictures, this ‘second phase’ was called Pneumo-Rayonism in which the object has been completely removed giving the viewer an extraordinary experience of rhythmic patterns as the picture dissolves, reforms,, twists and shifts in criss-crossing lines and fireworks of colour:

Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red [1913; MoMA, New York]

This all leads us back to that concept “faktura”, the surface texture of the picture and the open recognition of the material elements of a painting, and will lead to almost scientific analyses in artists studios by the time of the 1917 Revolution and, in the short term, a turn to Russian abstract art:

Olga Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Samara Art Museum]


So, next time, we will turn to: Malevich and the Art of Suprematism which will appear here on The Common Viewer by Monday 12th July.


Russian Art and Artists (14): Russian Futurism

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The Russian Futurists’ paintings were just a part of the controversial culture they created in Moscow and St Petersburg:

Aiming to subvert the dominance of Western culture, the Moscow artists adopted a strategy of the provocatively absurd. Beginning in 1912, Goncharova would stroll down Moscow’s luxurious Arbat Street painted in gaudy colours. In the evenings, she performed with her partner Mikhail Larionov at Cabaret No. 13 – Frieze magazine.

In fact, with other Futurists, Goncharova – and Larionov – would paint strange symbols on their faces; it was extremely provocative, a ‘slap in the face’ of bourgeois culture:
faces are like the screech of the
warning the hurrying passers-by,
the drunken sounds of the great

(from “Why We Paint Ourselves” 1913; see: History Transformation of Design)

To the left here is a photograph of Goncharova with her painted face. To the right is a still from a film called “Drama in Cabaret No.13” made in 1914. Goncharova and Larionov had set up two theatrical cabarets, one was called the Pink Lantern the other Cabaret No.13; there were wild exhortations of poetry, performance art and much heckling from (and towards) the audience.

The Futurists abused the “crowd” with all the words at their disposal, and the audience tormented these “clowns of art” mercilessly … as a result the artist Goncharova slapped a certain barrister. A disgraceful, brazen, and talentless can-can reigns dissolutely in the temples of art, and grimacing and wriggling on its altars are these shaggy young characters in
their orange shirts and painted physiognomies
wrote one reviewer (who clearly didn’t appreciate the evening!)

The Drama in Cabaret No.13 film told a Futurist drama: on a typical evening, the Futurist artists gather to perform in honour of Goncharova. There are dances, poetry recitals and Goncharova herself performs a Futurist tap-dance. The evening concludes with Larionov dancing a tango, during which he kills his partner – Goncharova. He goes to bury her in a snowdrift, but is witnessed by the other artists and so finds himself excommunicated from Futurism. Unable to bear the pain of such a sentence, he himself dies.


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

One of the paintings we discussed in the piece on Natalya Goncharova a couple of weeks ago, was her “Rabbi with Cat” [1912; National Galleries of Scotland] – a fascinating image, that links in closely to Goncharova’s radical desire to portray the peoples of Russia usually left out of art. More than that, the painting recognises the persecution of Jews – both on a community level and on the individual level. In the background of the picture we see two Jewish men carrying sacks on their backs: are they fleeing a pogrom, a violent displacement so regularly experienced by Russian Jews, a history of persecution went back centuries? And in the foreground the rabbi, with a look of sadness in his eyes, holds a cat. It’s a strange image, seemingly symbolic; yet it could be that Goncharova is presenting a singularly personal moment of reflection: the rabbi must flee his home, leaving the pet behind. It’s a moment of sympathy; the artist and the viewer connecting with this individual man having to deal with awful circumstances.

As we’ve seen, Natalya Goncharova found her vision of Russia and Russian people through her experiments in Post-Impressionism and it seems to me that the cross-over of Parisian modernism with the Russian social, political and cultural contexts of post-1905 engendered a remarkable fusion of expression and representation: a liberation for artists in terms both of what they could paint (the subject matter) and the ways in which they could paint (the brilliance of colour, the disregard of formal perspective, the texture of painterly faktura). On or around 1910 and the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, this would both shock the general viewer and provide the catalyst for ever more radical experiment among the avant garde artists.

When it came to representing Jews, however, Goncharova was – for all her sympathy and empathy – looking from the outside.

It was another artist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who brought aspects of the Russian-Jewish experience to the canvas.

Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Brushes [1909; Dusseldorf]

Chagall was born Moische Segal in Vitebsk, a village in the Pale of Settlement (in today’s Belarus), a stronghold of Hassidic Judaism which encouraged “intuitive communion with God and universal love. The Hasidic Jews loved to dance and chant, their hearts fired with ecstasy” writes Jacob Baal-Teshuva, who suggests: “Chagall’s work undoubtedly sought to communicate this love, this joyfulness to the world.”

There is an extensive article on Wikipedia covering Chagall’s life.

My focus here is on the early years, especially ‘on or around 1910’ which is when Chagall left Russia for Paris and when the full impact of Post-Impressionism began influencing his art. It seems important to say though that whilst colour, texture and non-perspectival design had a dramatic impact, Chagall’s vision was never diluted or disrupted. He used these new ideas and techniques to find ways in which he could emphasise his own ideas ever further.

The Model [1910; private; c/o “Chagall” Walther & Metzger, Taschen]

The experience of journeying from Vitebsk to Paris – even by way of a few years studying in St Petersburg – must have been astonishing for the young artist. Despite his precarious day-to-day existence and poverty, he plunged into both modern art and the Old Master paintings on show at the Louvre. “The Model” was one of the first Parisian paintings. The Taschen authors invite us to look at: “the thick application of the paint and the frayed, fibrous juxtaposition of colourful brush-strokes [that] reflect contemporary colour theories. Chagall’s subject is a studio scene, and thus a meditation on his own work, but his model is holding a brush as well and painting a picture herself, which metaphorically creates an atmosphere of prevalent creativity… “

It’s as if Chagall is breathing the very air of art, living in art and painting every moment in every way – even the artist’s model is a painter! The colours are rich, the brush-strokes loaded; the whole scene is given a decorative flatness – one can almost feel Chagall’s excitement: in Paris, the very epicentre of the art world.

Another early Paris painting is at the Tate:

The Green Donkey 1911 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by Lady Clerk 1947

The Green Donkey [1910; Tate]

The Tate display caption reads:

While living in Paris between 1910 and 1914 Chagall made many works based on nostalgic memories of his Russian homeland. The naïve style and curious subject of this painting reflect the artist’s preoccupation with folk traditions, particularly those of his Jewish heritage. At one time known as ‘Village Scene’, the colouring and strange arrangement of figures evoke a fantastical scene. While this may relate to a folk tale, no specific narrative for the green donkey has been identified.

Whilst his head must have been a whirl of colour, form and modernist experiment, Chagall nevertheless recognised that for him the importance of his art lay in the subject matter that had been central to both his life experience and his painterly vision for years: the village and community, the heritage and cultural imagination of Vitebsk.

This pen and ink drawing was made in Paris [1911; Pompidou Centre]; the artist has his brush and palette – and his mind is full of pictures of Russia.

It’s worth exploring the Pompidou Collection – here – they have many of his sketches, as well as paintings; it’s quite an insight ‘beyond’ the famous pictures and gives us a much fuller record of his experiments.

Sadly the majority of Chagall’s very early work, that painted in Russia before 1910, has been lost – actually stolen by a picture-framer in St Petersburg – but it’s fascinating to look see:

The Dead Man [1908; Pompidou Centre]

It’s not the best reproduction I’m afraid, but it seems to relate an extraordinary episode. A dead man lies in the street, candles have been placed all around him. A woman seems to be calling for help, or wailing; a man behind her looks on. There’s something almost nightmarish – certainly surreal – about it. Could it have happened – an awful event in Vitebsk? Meanwhile another man (Chagall’s uncle) is sitting on a roof playing the violin – an image to which Chagall often turned, indeed there’s a glorious early drawing, again in the Pompidou collection:

The Violinist [1908; Pompidou Centre]

Christie’s notes, with regard to another painting, that, [j]ust as The Fiddler on the Roof was…. derived from tales of life in Hasidic communities, so too Chagall revived that constant presence of the violin in town life. Even Chagall’s own uncle would play, as he himself remembered… ‘uncle is playing the violin… The man who spent the whole days leading the cows into the sheds, tying their legs, and dragging them around, is playing now, playing the rabbi’s song’.” The violinist then recalls both community and familial life for Chagall. And whilst in The Dead Man one might imagine the tune to be mournful, here one hopes it is rather jollier:

The Wedding [1909; Zurich]

A much livelier street scene certainly – the violin player leading the procession – and, again, one that Chagall could have witnessed in Vitebsk. Moreover, it might also reflect his meeting with and love for Bella Rosenfeld (they would marry in 1915).

The Birth [1910; Zurich]

These are all universal experiences, especially birth and death, but from a distinctly Vitebsk perspective, the heritage that gives Chagall his ways of seeing. Notice that even in The Birth the villagers are present – along with a young calf; even the birth of a child is a matter for the village community. Note too the man – presumably (hopefully) the father – hiding between the curtain and the bed!

In Paris:

“Chagall was exhilarated, intoxicated, as he strolled the streets and along the banks of the Seine. Everything about the French capital excited him: the shops, the smell of fresh bread in the morning, the markets with their fresh fruit and vegetables, the wide boulevards, the cafes and restaurants, and above all the Eiffel Tower. Another completely new world that opened up for him was the kaleidoscope of colours and forms in the work of French artists… Yet in the end Chagall remained true to his feelings, to his memories of Vitebsk, and to his Russian homeland” writes Baal-Teshuva, and in the end what we see in the first Paris paintings is a sort of exploration and balancing, a weighing up of new ways of painting with whether they extend and expand what it is that Chagall wishes to express and represent.

Finding himself a studio in La Ruche (which one can still visit) in Montparnasse, Chagall painted through the night, experimenting with Post-Impressionist ideas.

Father [1911] (left) and The Studio [1910] (right) [both Pompidou Centre]

One feels both Matisse and Van Gogh in these paintings, as Chagall explores. He is searching though not for ‘new images’ but to find ways in which he might give greater expression to his own vision – that unique ‘Chagall’ vision – which, in the short term also included experimenting with Cubism.

The Poet (Half Past Three0 [1911, Philadelphia]

As the Museum of Philadelphia notes:

This painting is a portrait of Mazin, a Russian poet who often stopped by Chagall’s studio to drink coffee while his friend painted late into the night. Diagonal shafts of color generate kaleidoscopic energy, and the transparency of forms creates a teasing, ambiguous effect; the portrait detaches from ordinary reality. Mazin’s topsy-turvy head may relate to an idiom Chagall would have known from his childhood spent in the Jewish community of Vitebsk in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. The Yiddish fardreiter kop (turned head) signifies a giddy mental state—an apt description for this image of poetic inspiration.

And for Chagall, an artist, like a poet, has a fardreiter kop – artists see things differently.

Moreover, Chagall was learning fast. There is, for example, a fabulous Parisian rendition of The Wedding:

The Wedding [1910, Pompidou]

The scene has been extended – it’s more like a stage set – into Cubist blocks, and the procession (still led by musicians, including the violinist) has become an extraordinarily colourful Fauvist affair, yet the painting retains its distinct Vitebsk, folk-ish, Jew-ish quality. The Pompidou quotes Chagall saying:

“I painted turning my back on what was in front of me.”

which recalls the poet with his upside down head: Chagall is not looking at the present, but back to the past, to Vitebsk and his experiential inheritance – even in the centre of Paris.

I and the Village [1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

Chagall looks into the eyes of the animal – there is a thin white painted line connecting pupil to pupil; the milkmaid, the village houses, a man with a scythe and a woman come to mind; the painter-with-the-turned-head see some of the houses and the woman upside down, cast in a semi-cubist geometric scenario, all brilliant with colour. Memory, folktale and fantasy all play their part, illuminated by Post-Impressionism.

“I and the Village” is recognised as a key work from these Paris years, a sort of manifesto. Chagall was in Paris until 1914, the war and revolution then kept him in Russia until the early 1920s; but those four years working in the French capital engendered his unique vision – the combination of memory and homage, folk-tale and fantasy, his Jewish heritage and a Post-Impressionist liberation of colour, design and expression.

Feast of the Tabernacles [no date; Israel Museum, Jerusalem]



Russian Art & Artists (12) – Marc Chagall

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We will return to Chagall’s work again in the context of the 1917 Revolution. First though, on 12th June, we turn to another Russian artist working in Europe on or around 1910 – Wassily Kandinsky.


One last Chagall painting, for we should never forget the whimsy his art:

Rain [1911; Guggenheim, Venice]


Chagall’s “My Life” – In his colourful, dreamlike autobiography, written as he was about to leave his homeland for good in 1922, he vividly brings to life the memories and places that fed into his unique work, from his shtetl childhood to revolutionary Russia and Belle Epoque Paris. 

and the authoritative Jacob Baal-Tusheva: Chagall [Taschen; 1998]


Research series: Russian Art and Artists (11): On or Around 1910 – the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, Moscow

Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) The Barber [1907; State Russian Museum]

It’s an exhilarating coincidence/ parallel that, as Roger Fry et al. showed the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London – shocking and horrifying the viewers, in Moscow at the same time, the Jack of Diamonds exhibition opened – shocking and horrifying the viewers there also.

The title was enough to cause distress: as Anthony Parton tells us, a Jack (or Knave) of Diamonds refers, in the parlance of the Russian vernacular to prisoners and social outcasts – “In this way the artists self-consciously put themselves beyond the pale of social acceptability.” And with Natalia Goncharova especially present at the exhibition – showing numerous paintings and, of course, being a woman – she was readily dubbed by the press the Queen of Diamonds, giving her an immediate notoriety.

In looking at some of the artists showing at the Jack of Diamonds exhibition, I hope to

  1. recognise some of the key artists of the time
  2. suggest the ‘aesthetic context’ in which Goncharova’s paintings might be seen
  3. question what it was that made the paintings so shocking: a) subject matter, b) florid colour and c) exaggerated textures

“The key figures of the new movement became the young painters Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin, Robert Falk and Vasily Rozhdestvensky. The group included painters both from Moscow and from the Russian provinces who were established in Moscow, the unofficial metropolis of new Russian art. The “Knave of Diamonds” show shocked the public……the ‘bad-taste’ of the subjects…” [Tretyakov], such as those by Goncharova’s partner, Mikhail Larionov:

Mikhail Larionov: Soldier Resting [1910; Tretyakov Gallery]

Larionov’s art is regularly dismissed; it is often ‘brutal’ and ‘badly’ painted. London gallerist and Russian Art expert James Butterwick for example is very dismissive in his Russian Art & Culture article, which we might contrast to the exuberance of the Tretyakov’s Yevgenia Ilyukhina, curator of New Perspectives on Mikhail Larionov. What is important though, at this time in Russian Art, is that Larionov is very much part of the artistic generation who not only learnt from the Post-Impressionist movements of Paris but then deployed these radical modernist ideas to blast contemporary Russian art – the naturalism and social realism of the Wanderers, the dream-like atmosphere of the decadent Symbolists – out of its safety zone. Larionov’s work is deliberately harsh, his subject matter deliberately brutish – especially his soldiers who are not romantic and heroic in their military uniforms, but uncomfortable and uncomforting. Larionov was called up for military service himself at this time, he would have seen the ‘reality’ of soldiers’ lives, the hard training and squalid barracks: note the graffiti on the fence behind the resting soldier; there would be crude imagery and rough language, not ‘high’ academic art, in the soldier’s everyday world.

Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944): Self-portrait and Portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky [1910; State Russian Museum]

Mashkov’s double portrait of himself with fellow artist Konchalovsky similarly questions the ‘refined’ arts and indeed the image of the ‘gentleman artist’. Both artists are represented in shorts, almost naked, like athletes; their poses and appearance inspired by portraits of boxers and wrestlers. It’s peculiar and controversial. But note that amongst the dumb-bells on the floor and their muscular torsos, they are musicians – one with a violin, the other with sheet music. There are books about art and artists (Cezanne and Matisse) on the shelf above them. Moreover, they are surrounded by ‘folk’ artefacts – the pictures of flowers on the wall are like tea-trays; there are flowers on the tablecloth; the music on the piano is a popular ditty. High art is mixing with low art. The wrestlers are scholars; creative visual art can be found in all sorts of places. As the State Russian Museum notes: “Mashkov’s portrait was perceived as a manifesto of a new movement in art, intending to make viewers pause, look and think”.

As we can see from these two paintings, Portrait of E. I. Kirkalda [1910; private] and Boy in an Embroidered Shirt [1909; State Russian Museum, c/o Bridgeman Images], Ilya Mashkov was inspired to experiment in a very Matisse-like spirit. The subjects are flattened and decorative, the patterning and colours are at the fore. As Christie’s notes, Mashkov later recalled:


Those powerful and rich colours certainly come through in much of the Jack of Diamond’s exhibition – they are unrelenting, inflammatory and provocative:

Natalia Goncharova: Spring [1910; private]; Spring in the Country [1910; private]

And then, there’s the faktura, the texture of the painting; the revelation of the painted surface as a painted surface. In many ways this is more important than the use of colour, and it was important, Anthony Parton writes, for two reasons: it contravened Academic expectations of ‘polished brushwork’, and it usurped the illusionism – the suspended disbelief – of a painting’s ‘realism’. Faktura meant that we can see that the painting is a ‘created object in its own right’, it is made of paint on canvas and pretends to be nothing else.

Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), the second artist in Mashkov’s painting of the two apparent wrestlers, was similarly enthralled by colour and faktura. He had seen the exhibition of Monet’s Haystacks series in Moscow in 1895 (which had similarly inspired Kandinsky), an influence that led to:

Belkino Garden [1907; c/o Christies]

“What had impressed [Konchalovsky] as a young boy in Monet’s painting, [he] recreated in his Belkino landscape: a vibrant sense of life, spontaneity and radiance of the image, free and light application of brushstrokes, and decisive renewal of a pictorial palette.” [Christies Lot Essay].

And, building on that Monet influence, as Russopedia notes:

In 1907 Pyotr Konchalovsky attended the exhibition of works by Van Gogh in Paris. It impressed him greatly and made a significant impact on his work. Later he would write: “Van Gogh gave me the understanding of painting as art. I shall not mark time any longer; I shall go forward, as now I know how an artist should paint nature. A real artist should not just copy it, he should underline its characteristic features.”

Van Gogh’s idea are certainly noticeable in Konchalovsky’s works of 1907-1910, from those painted on a trip to Spain to those of provincial Russia:

The Bull Fight [1910; c/o Wikimedia]; Tea Room in Khotkovo [1911; Konchalovsky Museum, Moscow]

Whilst Goncharova and Larionov would leave in 1911 to form The Donkey’s Tail, the artists of the Jack of Diamonds group continued to exhibit through until 1916. One particularly important member was Robert Falk – of whom there is a significant exhibition currently running at Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery.

Falk’s work shifts between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including Cubism:

Portrait of a Woman [1910]; Church in Lilac [1912; Treyakov]

But some of his most interesting work is that painted in Russia’s eastern republics.

Girls of Konotop [1912; Saratov State Museum of Fine Arts; see Tretyakov Gallery Magazine]

The simplification of form, the rhythm of line and dramatic colouring gives an ‘exoticism’ to the painting that will be replicated by many of the early Ballet Russes’ productions in Paris and London.

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) is also extremely interesting. His early work is particularly Fauvist in colour and form, but by the early 1910s he develops an intriguingly radical style as in this glorious representation of St Basil’s Cathedral [1913; Tretyakov]:

In many ways the 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition marks both a beginning and an end. It was the end of the Russian artists’ (perhaps too) close proximity to French Post-Impressionism – a period of intense absorption and experimentation from 1905-1910, say. And it was the beginning of an ever more expansive investigation into colour and faktura that would take the Russian avant garde through to the Revolution of 1917 and into the first radical years of the Soviet Union. Whilst other exhibiting groups would appear, the Jack of Diamonds series of shows would include many of the leading artists, as we’ll see over the next few weeks and months, and it continued in many ways to be a hub for Russian – European (French, German and Italian) artistic dialogue.

One of the artists who showed at that first 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition was Chagall, whose art we’ll look at next.

Russian Art & Artists (11): The Jack of Diamonds 1910

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Do let me know how your own Russian Art research is going – anything you might be seeing or reading.

We’ll finish with a glorious Kandinsky, who also showed at the 1910 exhibition; it’s interesting to note too that some of his paintings would be shown at Fry’s Second Post-Impressionism Exhibition in London.

Here’s Landscape with Factory Chimney [1910; Guggenheim]


Research series: The Art and Artists of Russia (10): Natalia Goncharova – part one

Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova (1881-1962)

Self-Portrait with Lilies [[1907; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]; Sunflowers [1908; State Russian Museum, St Petersburg]

Now I have to be honest, I absolutely adore Goncharova’s art – it can reduce me to tears with its beauty. At the 2019 exhibition at Tate Britain I almost bowed down before her Self-Portrait, of which the Tretyakov notes:

The snow-white blouse with blue and pink overtones, framed with a blue contour, is like a white primed canvas with flaring yellow lilies on it. The flowers look like a blazing torch in the artist’s hands. 

The “Sunflowers” painting I have as a postcard, bought in St Petersburg so long ago it is yellowing; it sits before me, framed, on my writing table as it has done for years: the bold colours and textures, the patterns of petals and leaves – there’s a joyous naivete, a thrilling exuberance.

In that lynchpin decade for Russian society and culture following the 1905 Revolution, the art of Natalia Goncharova seems to connect everything together: from the subject matter of everyday Russian life focused by the late 19th century Wanderers movement to the importance of decorative folk art, and all within the pan-European dialogue brought about by Post-Impressionism.

In ‘Part 1’ here, we’ll look at Goncharova’s formative years, 1907 to 1911 as she explores the art of Russia and Europe, experiments with her paint brush as if in conversation with other artists, and presents her own unique and pioneering vision to the world.

In the catalogue preface to her one-woman show in 1913, Goncharova wrote that one of her aims as an artist was:

“To apprehend the world around us in all its brilliancy and diversity.”



I’ve not ‘filmed’ it this week, but I am putting together a film to discuss the artists who were Goncharova’s contemporaries around the time of the infamous 1910 Jack of Diamonds exhibition, to give a broader context and resources for further research, which I shall ‘publish’ in the next week or so.

Goncharova’s paintings are scattered across galleries throughout the world; I have attempted to source as many of the images here as closely as possible and connect them to their home galleries via hyperlinks and/or their publication in books and catalogues for further research. Alongside the 2019 Tate catalogue edited by Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, one of the key books for English readers is Anthony Parton’s superbly illustrated “Goncharova: The Art and Design of Natalia Goncharova” published by the Antique Collectors’ Club in 2010.


As we noted last time, the Golden Fleece magazine and its subsequent exhibitions were especially important in the post-1905 cultural climate of Moscow and St. Petersburg as they, along with the collections brought together by Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, connected Russian art and artists with broader European developments in painting, particularly Post-Impressionism.

The Shchukin collection, for example, included Van Gogh’s “Memory of the Garden at Etten (aka. The Ladies of Arles)” [1888, now in the Hermitage collection] and Gauguin’s “What, are you jealous” [1892, now at the Pushkin Museum] along with many more, including works by Matisse.

Goncharova’s very earliest works include Impressionist canvases as well as Symbolist paintings, yet it’s Post-Impressionism, with its colour and heavier textural brushstrokes and the move from ‘realist’ perspective to a more decorative flatness that really stimulates her vision.

Willows [1906; National Gallery of Armenia]; Landscape with Izby [1908; private; Moscow]

Woman with Flowers [1908; private]; Still-life with Lilies and Lacquer Box [1908; private; London]

Perhaps one of the most influential Gauguin paintings for Goncharova might be:

Ruperupe (Tahiti Is a Wonderful Land. Gathering Fruit) [1899; Pushkin Museum]

It’s as if Goncharova enters into an artistic dialogue with Gauguin, her response is:

Planting Potatoes [1909; Pompidou Centre, Paris]

As Anthony Parton writes:

In its large-scale format and in the monumental forms of the figures [this] painting recalls the work of Gauguin, but Goncharova replaces the olive-skinned Tahitians with the swarthy peasant women of rural Russia… The trees and foliage are reduced to schematic geometrical shapes and the peasant women are treated in a stiff and angular manner which gives them a statuesque presence in the landscape.”

Indeed it is notable that Goncharova began her artistic career as a student of sculpture; but these women – who, in contrast to Gauguin’s ethereal figures who seem almost to float – are fundamentally grounded, notice their solid feet firmly planted in the soil. These “rough-hewn and monumental” figures are all part of what would be called Goncharova’s “Primitivism” – and they are imbued with a distinctive Russian quality, not only as contemporary rural-workers but by way of their ancient heritage, a ‘pagan’ Russia that was of interest to many artists at the time.

Such are the connections that we might link Goncharova’s “Planting Potatoes” with other paintings such as “Pillars of Salt” [1909; Tretyakov], the ‘stone women’ – ancient idols found across the steppe of Ukraine and, indeed, Picasso’s “Three Women” in Shchukov’s collection [1908; now in the Hermitage].

(We might also link the Ballet Russes and their performance in 1913 of “The Rite of Spring” with Roerich’s pagan backdrops and Stravinsky’s ‘barbaric’ music.)

Connections such as these opened the way for Goncharova’s vision, as Christie’s notes in regard to “Picking Apples”:

Picking Apples [1909] is one a series of highly important paintings of Russian Peasants made by Natalia Goncharova between 1908 and 1911, that proudly announce the awakening of a new indigenous spirit in Russian art and lay the foundations of its avant-garde.

With their simple two-tone costumes of white and pink seeming to echo this clear division of earth and sky, the community of peasants is rendered in such a way that it punctuates and articulates the simple and idyllic landscape without disturbance or rupture. Gathered around the trunk of an apple tree that harmoniously divides the flattened vista à la Gauguin along the lines of the golden section, these peasants lead the eye across the canvas in such a rhythmic and lyrical way that they assert a keen identification between figure and place. As this formal harmony makes clear, these peasants belong to this land [c/o Christie’s Lot Essay].

We should also note the Tate‘s “Gardening” [1908]:

Gardening 1908 Natalia Goncharova 1881-1962 Presented by the artist 1961

Again we have monumental women, gardeners, working, their feet in the soil. And notice the comic ‘awkwardness’ of the perspective – the head of one of the women passing by in the background seems to belong to the woman in the foreground who is bending down to plant. And that action, brings Vincent Van Gogh into the conversation as well – remember the Ladies of Arles?

Van Gogh’s most famous paintings are, perhaps, the sunflower series – the paintings he hoped would decorate the walls of the Yellow House at Arles which he would share with Gauguin (the experiment in living that came to such a dramatic end). Indeed the Hermitage now has Gauguin’s “remembrance” painting:

In 1901, when this painting was produced, Gauguin was still living in Tahiti and nearing the end of his life. Yet the subject dates back to the time of his friendship with van Gogh, in whose work the sunflower motif, a symbol of the sun, occupied a special place. In 1888, both artists worked together at Arles in Provence, and van Gogh painted a number of now famous still lives with sunflowers. Gauguin took to growing these flowers in Oceania from seeds sent specially from France. The artist’s fantasy turns reality into mystery, the eye which takes shape in the centre of the flower in the background creating a mystical mood, recalling the “all-seeing eye” which is often found in Christian churches. The face in the window also has much in common with the blank features of Buddha. Thus the exotic land of Oceania was combined with nostalgic reminiscences of the Europe the artist had left behind – Hermitage.

Goncharova puts herself directly into the conversation:

Still Life with Sunflower [1909; private]; Still Life with Sunflowers [1909; private]

Sunflower Harvest [1911; private]

The still-life-with-flower paintings are immensely important for it is here that Goncharova is able to fully exploit her fascination with bold colour, decorative pattern and generous texture – combining, as it were, the lessons and ideas of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse. But it is by painting the scenes of rural Russia and everyday Russian people that Goncharova marks the significance of her work:

“The material of a work and, beyond that, its creative spirit, lies not in the individual, but in the people, in the nation to which the individual belongs, in its earth and nature. It is part of the common popular soul, like a flower on a huge tree” – Goncharova, 1914 [quoted by]

The idea of a painting being a flower of the common culture is a glorious concept; it suggests a shared creativity – like a dance breaking out after the harvest has been brought in.

Khorovod (The Round Dance) [detail; 1911; private]

Not that any of this was appreciated – at least not by the critics of the Jack of Diamonds exhibition (1910-11; Moscow), indeed Goncharova’s subject matter, her colours, the primitivism of it all was scandalous; she became notorious. It didn’t stop her. Rather it made her push ever further with her ideas and experiments. Along with her pictures of peasants, she sought to depict the range of diverse Russian peoples – including the Jews. As Anthony Parton notes, the Russian state at this time was deeply anti-Semitic and there were horrific pogroms. Moreover, Jewish figures were rarely the subjects of Russian art. The National Gallery of Scotland has in its collection, for example:

The two men carrying sacks in the background are Jews fleeing a pogrom. The Hand of God can be seen in the top-left corner, blessing the Rabbi, who may be stroking the cat for the last time before he too departs. The painting delivers a poignant message about compassion, suffering and religious intolerance – National Galleries of Scotland.

Such a painting combines Goncharova’s sympathy towards the diversity of Russian peoples and interest in traditional cultures and beliefs – marking her out even further as against the ‘bourgeois establishment’. And her notoriety was only increased when she represented Orthodox subject matter and Christian figures – not only because of her style, but because she was a woman. Yet as displayed in the Tate 2019 exhibition, some of these paintings are amongst her most beautiful works, perhaps especially:

Mother of God [1911, triptych; Tretyakov]

In many ways, Goncharova found in her art a vehicle for social and political comment, especially as we’ve seen with regard to her appreciation of peasant life and rural customs; we might see in much of her 1910-1912 work as a sociological documentary of sorts – and her ‘primitivist’ style is as important in that as the subject matter itself: both are rooted in the Russian cultural experience – an experience she frames against the ‘academic’ art of the bourgeoisie.

Winter: Gathering Faggots [1911; Tretyakov]

Goncharova’s artistic rebellion will continue.


But first I’d like to follow two parallel Post-Impressionist paths:

29th May – The Art of Marc Chagall, who looked to Jewish village life for inspiration; and,

12th June – The Art of Wassily Kandinsky, who imbued abstraction with Russian Orthodox beliefs;

then on the 26th June – we’ll return to Goncharova and her experiments in Cubism and Futurism.

Russian Art and Artists – Goncharova (part one)

If you are enjoying this research and are able to ‘donate’ even occasionally, I am extremely grateful!


Oh, okay, just one more GORGEOUS painting!

Gathering Apples [1910; Philippe Samuel Gallery, Paris]



For further reading, there is a fascinating article in the Tretyakov Magazine about Russian artists involved in the Jack of Diamonds exhibition and the dialogues they created between Eastern and Western visual cultures:

“The East, Nationality and the West” | The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine

and for Goncharova and Gauguin:

Early Goncharova and Gauguin | The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine

There’s a great article about Goncharova on the Christie’s website: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) (

and the Sotheby’s website too is worth investigating: Natalia Goncharova | Art, Biography & Art for Sale | Sotheby’s (

Also, Russian Art Week, Summer 2021 is coming at the end of May – a rare chance to really explore Russian art in London: Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture (


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


The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2): Catherine the Great

View of St Petersburg and the Neva River (1753)

Continuing our introduction to Russian art, the Russian 18th century was particularly turbulent when it came to monarchs. Peter the Great died in 1725, leaving the legacy of the St Petersburg project. His wife, Catherine I, took over for a couple of years; then his son, Peter II ruled, again for just a few years. A rather dissipated and resentful young man by all accounts, he even moved the Russian capital back to Moscow, so dismissive was he of his father’s projects.

The decade-long rule of Anna (1730-1740) brought a little more stability, though apparently she was extremely cruel. However, she did turn the focus back to St Petersburg, introducing the Arts to the curriculum of the Academy of Science and instigating fashions for theatre, ballet and opera – mind, this ‘history painting’ made nearly a century and a half later in 1872 by Valery Jakobi conjures up the ‘bawdiness’ of Anna’s court.

Valery Jakobi (1834-1902): Jesters at the Court of Empress Anna [1872; Treyakov Gallery]

Her successors Ivan VI and Anna Leopoldova reigned for less than a year before Elizabeth Petrovna seized the throne, ruling for twenty years (1741-1762). Described as “volatile, vain and violent”, Elizabeth was nevertheless a popular monarch, ushering in an Age of Enlightenment. It was in her reign that the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage) was built for example. A music-lover, she also held grand ‘fancy dress’ balls. Most spectacular were the ‘Metamorphoses Balls’ which required everyone to dress as the opposite sex, Elizabeth favouring the guise of either a Cossack or a carpenter (if only there were photographs!).

It was her relationship (in every sense of the word) with the art collector Ivan Shuvalov that is perhaps most important to us for, in 1757, Shuvalov proposed the establishment of the Academy of Three Noble Arts (Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) for all gifted boys from any part of society.

A. Zyablov: View of Ivan Shuvalov’s Art Gallery [1770s; c/o Wikipedia]

As can be seen from this picture, Shuvalov’s collection was very much of European art. We noted last time that Peter the Great would send promising artists to Italy, Holland or France to study, even if they were serfs*. One young man, we saw, was Ivan Nikitin who had painted Elizabeth Petrovna in her youth.

Ivan Nikitin: Portrait of the Young Elizabath [1720s; State Russian Museum]

Fyodor Rokotov (1736-1808) was also from a peasant/serf family but he would study at St Petersburg’s Academy of Three Noble Arts, becoming one of the most famous and in-demand portraitists of the century.

Fyodor Rokotov: Lady in a Pink Dress [1770s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Elizabeth Petrovna certainly increased the status of art in Russia. She was succeeded by Peter III, who, within months, was deposed and murdered (probably) on instruction from his wife: Catherine II. Styled as Catherine the Great, she would rule from 1762-1796 as the most successful, innovative and cultured ruler since her grandfather-in-law, Peter. As Susan Jacques writes in her introduction to “The Empress of Art”,

“Catherine the Great was one of history’s greatest patrons of art and architecture, both in scale and quality. Under her patronage, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance the likes of which Europe hadn’t seen since the reign of England’s Charles I.”

Valery Jakobi: The Inauguration of the Imperial Academy of Arts [1889; Louvre]

Under Catherine, Shuvalov’s school became the Imperial Academy of Arts (its inauguration would be represented again a century later by Yakobi), and Fyodor Rokotov would be made an Academician, and one of Catherine’s portrait painters:

Fyodor Rokotov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1763; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraits such as these would be copied, reproduced in engravings, and used as source material for further portraits; they were symbols of monarchy, majesty and power and consequently sent out to be displayed throughout the Russian Empire and, indeed Europe.

Another Russian artist of note was Alexei Antropov (1716-1795), the son of a government official, who worked as a fresco-painter in palaces and churches alongside studying portraiture. He too would portray Catherine in all her finery of state.

Alexei Antropov: Portrait of Catherine the Great [1760s; Tretyakov Gallery]

Portraiture was definitely the genre of choice for the monarchy and aristocracy through the Russian 18th century and how suitable for the people of St Petersburg – surrounded by waterways and canals across the city, and mirrored interiors in their grand houses, portraits were yet another reflection of their status as ‘new Russians’. The majority of artists working and teaching in Russia did, however, still came from abroad; Europe was understood throughout the age of Catherine as the crucible of civilisation and culture. And perhaps nowhere, and no-one, makes that more obvious than Catherine’s art collection at the Hermitage.

As with portraiture, so an art collection was a symbol of power and prestige, which Catherine recognised in her first mass purchase in 1764: the collection of Frederick the Great of Prussia which included:

Frans Hals: Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Glove [c. 1650; Hermitage]

Catherine turned committedly to the study of art, reading deeply, conversing by letter to Voltaire, and sending agents out across Europe to spend huge amount of money on ‘ready-made’ art collections from Paris, Holland and beyond.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio): Danae [c. 1554; Hermitage]

Notably for those of us in the UK perhaps, the Walpole Collection (see Houghton Hall Revisited] was a particularly esteemed purchase as it included a number of works by Rubens.

Rubens: Landscape with Stone Carriers [c.1620; Hermitage]

[It is possible to ‘visit’ the Rubens room virtually via the Hermitage, just click: here]

 “When [Catherine] died in 1796, Russia’s imperial collection boasted some 4,000 Old Master paintings, 10,000 drawings, 10,000 engraved gems, and thousands of decorative objects” notes Jacques.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn: Young Woman with Earrings [1657; Hermitage]

It’s also important to note that alongside the Old Masters, Catherine also collected contemporary art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Iron Forge Viewed from Without” [1773, Hermitage].

The Hermitage website says: “This was the first English painting to enter the Hermitage when it was acquired by Catherine the Great in 1774. We do not know how it was that Catherine had heard of the talent of this artist who was still so little known in his own country, but this purchase characterizes her as a perspicacious collector.”

Moreover, Catherine commissioned work from some of the most famous and leading artists of the day, including Angelica Kauffmann,

Portrait of Countess Anna Protasova and her Nieces [1788; Hermitage]

(a portrait created by means of sketches sent from Russia), and Joshua Reynolds who chose to paint

“The Infant Hercules Slaying Serpents” [1789; Hermitage]

as a symbolic reference to the power of the Russian nation. Catherine was, apparently, not very impressed upon seeing her great Empire portrayed, even symbolically, as a baby! She’d probably have been even less impressed if she’d known: “Reynolds experimented with paints and techniques and the surface of the painting began to show signs of physical distortion and changing colouring even in the 18th century” (Hermitage).

She even “summoned” – as Susan Jacques put it – the British painter Richard Brompton to St Petersburg for “he has great talents”, Catherine wrote after he had portrayed her beloved grandsons.

Richard Brompton “Portrait of Grand Dukes Alexander Pavlovich and Constantin Pavlovich” [1781; Hermitage]

Another artist who came to St Petersburg, this time fleeing the French Revolution, was Elizabeth Vigee le Brun who stayed for six years. Meeting Catherine the day after her arrival, she reports the monarch declaring:

“I am delighted, madam, to see you here; your reputation has preceded you. I am fond of the arts, especially painting. I am no connoisseur, but I am a great art lover.”

Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: Portrait of Princess Galitzin [1797; Baltimore Museum of Art]

Vigee Le Brun painted numerous notable portraits of Catherine’s Court (see Gazette de Beaux Arts article) bringing striking colour and a romantic, even sensual aspect to Russian portraiture (sometimes too sensual for the increasingly prudish Catherine!).  

One of the last paintings of Catherine herself was by the Ukrainian artist Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825).

Catherine II during a walk in the Tsarskosyelsky Park [1794; Tretyakov Gallery]

Catherine thought it too informal, but it became hugely popular for its Rococo flair, and widely copied.

Catherine the Great died in 1796, her son Paul taking power – a ruthless, much-disliked Tsar but who, nevertheless inherited a love of art and collecting. However, he would be murdered in 1801, and Catherine’s mantle passed to Alexander I.

A new century had dawned.



We’ll discuss the situation of the serfs more fully at a later date. From Wikipedia: The term “serf”, in the sense of an unfree peasant of tsarist Russia, an unfree person who could be sold.


Our “book of the week” just has to be “The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” by Susan Jacques [Pegasus Books, 2017] which is brilliant: very well written; easy to read, and absolutely packed with research and information.

The Art and Artists of Russia (Part 2)

Thank you so much if you are able to contribute.


Next time:

On Saturday 6th February, we’ll enter the 19th century: the turbulent times of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to see how the war against Napoleon would lead to a student revolt at the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Until then: take care and stay safe!