Developments in the 19th Century



 




Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


 




SYMBOLISM

in

the Slav Countries





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)



 



 




 

 


C o n t e n t s:
 
The Great Upheaval
France
Great Britain and the United States
Belgium and the Netherlands
German - speaking Countries and Scandinavia
The Slav Countries
The Mediterranean Countries
Post-Symbolism
 


 

 

collections:
Frantisek Kupka
Alphonse Mucha
Jacek Malczewski
Bruno Schulz
Mikhail Vrubel
Mikolajus Ciurlionis
 
 





The Slav Countries

 


 

 

 

For Russia, the first decades of the century marked a crucial phase in its troubled history. Torn since the early 19th century between a keen interest in the West, and the deep suspicion with which Western religion, scientific and political ideas were often viewed, the country was plunged into an insoluble debate and an equally insoluble institutional crisis.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 necessitated a fundamental restructuring of rural society, which inevitably led to yet further reforms. Land had to be distributed to the emancipated peasants. The intelligentsia took an interest in the fate of the peasantry. Its first naive impulse, in 1874, was a crusade to educate the popular classes and prepare them for the coming revolution. The repression which ensued favoured the development of terrorism, culminating in the assassination of Czar Alexander II in March 1881. The timing was unfortunate: he was on his way to the Duma to sign a liberalising law.
The development of the railway and the industrialisation of the country led to the rise of a new class, coinciding with the decline of the landed gentry. Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), himself the grandson of emancipated serfs, paints a humane and moving portrait of "lives coming undone" among the incomprehending gentry. (He also wrote an amusing parody of Symbolist theatre in The Seagull.)


The arts, in this context, were torn between the traditional, populist views of the Wanderers (Peredwishniki), who favoured a realistic chronicle of Russian life, and that of cosmopolitan artists and writers receptive to Western ideas. Orthodox Russia was also attracted to the Symbolist spirit, precisely to the extent that religious Symbolism remained a potent force in that country. In 1899 a number of these "cosmopolitan" artists, founded the magazine Mir Iskustva (The World of Art) in Moscow. They wished to keep their readers informed of significant artistic events in Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. Notable among them was Sergei Diaghilev who was later to found the Ballets Russes, Leon Bakst, his stage and costume designer, Constantin Somov and above all the painter Mikhail Vrubel.

Despite his short and tragic life,
Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910) was the most influential of the Russian painters working in the Symbolist vein. The son of Danish and Polish parents, he studied law in Saint Petersburg before enrolling in that city's School of Fine Arts at the age of twenty-four. He devoted five years of his life to restoring the frescoes of the Church of Saint Cyril in Kiev and finally settled in Moscow where he was welcomed into the circle of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. At his request, Vrubel created opera sets and designed various objects manufactured at the artistic colony which Mamontov had established on his country estate.
Vrubel depicted a variety of subjects, including ballet and mythological (Pan, 1899) and allegorical themes. But his reputation is based on a series of paintings illustrating Lermontov's poem "The Demon". It is the story of a quasi-supernatural being who is in love with the beautiful Tamara. He arranges for her fiance to be assassinated by bandits, then seduces her in the convent to which she has retired. She dies and the Demon remains alone and in despair. The figure of the Demon undergoes a slow transformation in Vrubel's paintings. First depicted as a "demon of superhuman beauty" he eventually becomes, in the words of George Heard Hamilton, "a being half-woman, fallen to earth, his body contorted and crushed, his wings with their peacock feathers crushed beneath him, and on his face an expression of unspeakable despair". Vrubel himself went mad at the age of thirty-six. He lost his sight at forty and died four years later. Identifying Vrubel with his theme, the painter Vassili Denissov (1862-1920) commemorated Vrubel's death in his water-colour The Fallen Demon, on the Death of Mikhail Vrubel (1910).
 

 

Mikhail Vrubel

(see collection)

 



Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel
Seated Demon
1890
 

   

Leon Bakst (1866-1924) made his reputation by designing sets and costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, but his paintings are very much in the Symbolist vein. Terror Antiquus (1908) shows the sinking of Atlantis, and with it, a world and its values cataclysmically destroyed. Konstantin Somov (1869-1939) was also active in the circle of Mir Iskustva. His manner is more traditional than that of other Russian artists mentioned so far, at times romantically atmospheric (as in his Fireworks of 1922), at others bizarrely evocative (as in Sorcery of 1898).



Konstanin Somov
Sorcery
1898
 

 



Leon Bakst
Terror Antiquus
1908
 

   



Leon Bakst
Coppelius and Coppelia
1904

 

 

 

Mysticism and eroticism characterise the Symbolist works of Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), whose marked tendency to polarisation between two colours or even monochromaticism foreshadows Suprematism; thus the yellow of The Flower Gathering (1908) or the red of Oak and Dryads of the same period. But Malevich's Symbolism also partakes of the heady atmosphere of Russia with its religious, theosophical anthroposophic, esoteric and occult activities. The Flower Gathering has an esoteric philosophical import in direct line of descent from the Nabis  , and in particular from Maurice Denis, who had visited Moscow and exhibited there. Yet in this mystical garden, the feminine triad may well be regarded as a Far Eastern version of the European "Three Graces". And in Oak and Dryads we may perhaps detect a synthesis of Greek tradition, the Biblical tradition of the Tree of Life and the Far Eastern "tree of illumination". The mystery of the Cosmos is presented to our eyes in the meeting of the male (the phallic tree) and female (the womb within the tree). Epitaphios (The Shroud of Christ) is orthodox in inspiration but draws on Buddhist models despite the icono-graphical debt it owes to Vrubel's Kiev frescoes.



Kasimir Malevich
Epitaphios
1908
 

   




Kasimir Malevich
Oak and Driads
1908





 
   
   

The Lithuanian artist, Mikolajus Ciurlionis (1875-1911), lived in poverty and solitude, taking a passionate interest in the writings of Nietzsche and Rudolph Steiner and in the mythology of his own country. He lived in Warsaw for six years and died at the age of 36. His work, still relatively unknown in the West, combines the decorative and the mystical. Tending toward abstraction, it draws much of its inspiration from music, as in his Sonata series.

 

Mikolajus Ciurlionis

(see collection)

 
   



Mikolajus Ciurlionis
Star Sonata. Allegro
1908

 

 

 



Mikolajus Ciurlionis
Rex
1909

 
 

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