Regardless of your political or philisophical position, there’s a surprising amount that can be learned from Russian social realism of the twentieth century. I’m talking about painters like Kustodiyev, Ioganson, Surikov, Plastov and Klychev — names that are not generally familiar to most in the West. These workers, often employees of the state, produced monumental canvasses in a trained academic style, with humanistic and socialist themes. Typical would be By the Sea, (1956) by A. Deyneka, which shows strappingly healthy and radiant Russian women hanging fish to dry on a windblown beach. Here we have striking compositional features such as isolated elements juxtaposed with impinging shapes, attention to negative areas, thoughtful distortions, spirited lineups with foreground and background interaction, playful lapses, and a grandiose power of design.
Soviet painters may have been in the grip of nineteenth century shibboleths and forced for their livelihood to cater to the politics of the day, but the works are often academically brilliant. A lot of these paintings have remarkable control of color and light, often achieved by confident and energetic impasto and intelligent scumbling. Surfaces are professional and deserving of close examination. The often monochromatic or analagous color schemes simply take your breath away.
A few months ago I was in the summer palace of Wallid Jumblatt, one of the rebel warlords of Lebanon. There on the wall of one of the chambers was a recent and massive oil of a couple of Russian officers attempting to control their black and white stallions, one going this way, one the other. This quality piece, undoubtedly a gift from the friendly Russians, was by a master who did not sign his or her name.
PS: “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth.” (Leo Tolstoy)
Esoterica: The Volga Boatmen. Many will remember Repin’s painting of the knot of peasants dragging a fat scow along the river. It contains one of the great compositional devices. As the figures brace and pull against their yolks they radiate from an off-screen fulcrum, pushing the foreground figures toward the viewer and giving design power to the picture. I’ve always wondered what Norman Rockwell was doing among those guys.
The following is selected correspondence relating to the above and other letters.
Thank you for writing.
Features of current Russian arts
Yaroslaw & Olga, Moscow
As to Russian art the first main feature of is the multinationality. The Russian means at least three large sources: of the Slavian, Turkian and Hungaro-Finnish nationality groups. Except this, the powerful one is the Hebrew source of the Russian art. Of course, each nationality contributes to the Russian art and we have more than 160 nationalities living in the Russia as in the country of their origin.
There are interesting examples, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin had the Arabian origin, the mother of the famous Russian writers Wassiliy Zhukowskiy had the Turk nationality. Many of writers, musicians and artists of Ukranian origin were Russian and Ukranian arters simultaneously.
We are now such Russian arters too. The opposite side of this feature of the Russian art is the open face to the all World. The Internet is the future possibility to demonstrate it. The World will see the Russian art more full in future yet, it has rich resources now but have no enough the Internet possibilities.
The second main feature of the Russian art is its mass spreading. Each Russian family have had experience of the creating of something of “artive” (Excuse, it is difficult to translate). The large quantity of artists in the former Soviet Union were working at the art factories producing decorative home “artive” objects. It was. And it was not only positive when mass “artive” copies were producing without any need. The hard economical crisis had positive influence as selective instrument for the best commercial art achievements but it had negative influence for some unique no commercial art. As example, it is pity that nice “grandmother’s” handwork laces are without need for New Russias. But those are unique, only those grandmothers are able to create such laces, but not young women.
Therefore the New Russias are not obligatory belonging to the Russian Culture. This New Russias Culture is mostly commercial culture, so the Russian Culture and the New Russias Culture is not same culture.
Something rotten everywhere
Valery, Moscow, Russia
I am 52. It is cold and wet in Moscow now and always — almost 3/4 of the year. And my bones ache of it. This is the arthritis or something like that embitters my life the last 30 years. Really I need another climate. Hot and dry. And sea. But all this demands money. A lot of money. I am a physicist and mathematician. Writer and philosopher. Historian and musicologist. Who wants me in this country, Bolshevistic Russia, with its extreme ingnorance, low-grade culture and primitive instincts? Such was my illusion. Now, due to the internet, I became aware that in the West people are even worse than the Russians. Generally, they are superficial, indifferent and cold-blooded, absolutely incapable to form their own view or judgement. It is the experience gained from participation in various international fora (newsgroups) – in physics, history, politics, classical music, painting and animation. Something is wrong in this world. And I know what.
A. Tiomkin, Odessa
Russian painters of the Soviet, when the USSR was by Stalin and money was being handed out were paid well. The state paid selected painters even more than physicians. In our land of huge population there were very few. Only the best could apply. Consequently some of the best painters in the world at that time were working for the USSR system. Western art, to them, because of bourgeois sentimentality and the everywhere terrible quality and absurd themes, was, at the time, just a laugh for us to have.
The more demanding art
Luise Perenne, Fountain Valley, California, USA
Although a lot of the State-supported Soviet Art was used as propaganda, the fact is that the Russian Arts Academy-trained painters were still learning the time-honored craft and techniques of painting while the West was becoming enamored of the vagaries of what an artist friend of mine calls “the paint mop on the wall” school of modern art. I’ve never been sold on the “Reality is a Crutch” and “If you can recognize it, it can’t possibly be Art” criteria that seems to pop up like a gopher in the well-mowed lawn-like minds of some art snobs. If people like to be neo-Rothkos and Pollocks, I say “That’s fine. Go to it!” But it does get tiresome to be treated like an “art retard” because I prefer the more demanding art of accurate and sensitive drawing/painting ability. The latter is one of the few joys-of-accomplishment I have. It hurts to have it dismissed as “irrelevant to the world of art today.”
State of change
Chad Hopkins, Philadelphia, USA
Russian artists are currently going through the same changes that Western artists were going though several generations ago. Their high academic standards are being lost and the teaching of technique and methodology is a dying activity. The idea that ugly is okay, even good, is taking over and independent self expression at the expense of quality is showing itself. This together with the problem that there is little or no middle-class collectorship in the Russian states, together with bankrupt governments, leads the new breed of Russian artist to look abroad for some sort of light at the end of the economic tunnel.
Aspects of Russian art
Catherine Yakovina, St. Petersburg, Russia
Pavel Filonov was poor man. His fate is not too easy. Filonov did not graduate any Art Institute. He began to study at the high Art Institute. But he had own point of view to creativity. So he was expelled from Institute. Later Filonov had a big problem when he was a teacher in Art Institute. I read that chiefs compelled his to leave the Art Institute. It was a persecution for Filonov. It was dirty articles in newspapers. Then he had not possibility to be a teacher in Art Institute. The main pain for him was a prohibition of his big exhibition in Russian Museum. This exhibition was prepared. Later it was prohibit. The exhibition was not open for viewers. Also they decided to deprive of pension. He had not money. He starved. The government had not wished to help him. He died in poverty in 1941. And he presented all his art works to Soviet State. His sister presented all his art works to Russian Museum in 1977. Sad story.
I like old masters of Russia. I like the art works of Vroubel, Borissov-Moussatov, Chagal, Levitan, Korovin. I could tell many great names some more. The great book of artists who live in Russia. Every artist bring own feeling of life in art. I like transparency of Borissov-Moussatov’s art works. It reminds me of dreams. Vroubel was a master of game with beautiful colours. Chagal was a painter who created new space by his art works. Man and woman who are flying in the sky… Strange windows. Chagal bring own style of paint in art. Levitan told to Korovin that he (Levitan) would like to show sadness of nature. He told that Korovin wanted to show a gladness only. I think it is really so. Levitan was right. His paintings are full sadness and beauty of nature. The paintings of Korovin are bright examples of happiness and gladness. I like the view of nature by this painter. It is my childhood. It is my feelings too.
It is very pity that we understand how wonderful the art of this painters at present time only. They had much problem at their time. Usually talented people are very unprotected. They need support of viewers and government. They need in attention to their art. Sad life. We understand many important things when we lost them. I have taken a look at present artists of Russia. I know a lot of talented artists. What I can help them? Nothing… I am the same too. I have attempt to tell my words in art. I have attempt to show my feelings to viewers. I am glad that Internet help in it. Old Russian masters had not Internet. I think plenty of very talented art works of old masters are not known at present time too. Their art works can bring beauty and kindness to public all over the world. Thank you Robert for your email about artists from Russia. Always I read your emails with attention. I agreed with many thoughts which you write. It is important piece of my present life.
“Deep will call to deep.”
Julia Lesnichy, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
I am happy you have shed some light on Soviet realism, which was indeed the reflection of the Soviet people’s patriotism and hope for the better future, as all these painters worked in the times of Stalin rule and remained alive. I think Russian realism was influenced more by such outstanding artists of the 19th century as Repin, Serov, Vrubel, Kiprensky, Vasnetsov, Levitan. As for the 20th century there were Petrov-Vodkin, Falk, Filonov who generally belong to post impressionism.
(RG note) Thank you to everyone who wrote, especially Russian artists who found it within themselves to write in English. What a medium this Internet is!
Many artists wrote to ask if there was any place on the Internet they could look at work by the artists I mentioned. My experience of these artists has been in chance encounters in museums in different parts of the world, and older art books which I treasure in my studio. Karen Rugala of Art Promotions wrote to advise of a site where you can see the sort of freshness and broad handling I was talking about. http://www.artpro.com/. Go to the link for the Russian Painters Collectors Club.
Also, Amazon offers various books including Hidden Treasures: Russian and Soviet Impressionism 1930-1970s by Vern Grosvenor Swanson.