After a recent visit to the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I was struck by the conversation between Western and Russian modern art that could be seen playing out on the canvases.
Starting from the early 1900s, Russian artists worked in conditions of increasing hostility to influence from the West, as the Soviet regime came to power and consolidated its hold on the artistic sphere. Despite the effort to constrain “bourgeois tendencies” in Russian art (as Western influence was called), the works of domestic painters show a clear dialogue with European modern art that gradually gave way to a unique blending of Western tendencies and Russian themes.
Below is a brief exploration of the Western influence in Russian modern art.
Cezanne in Moscow
One of the earliest 20th-century Russian artistic movements to draw directly upon European trends was a group that called itself the “Jack of Diamonds” (Бубновый валет or Bubnovyi valet). Founded in 1910 after an exhibit of French cubist paintings in Moscow, the group broke ranks with the realist tendencies of 19th-century painting in Russia to explore emerging modernist styles.
Works by the group’s leading artists — including Ilya Mashkov, Aristarkh Lentulov and early Kazimir Malevich — show the visible influences of Cezanne’s studies of fruits and landscapes (in fact, the Jack of Diamonds gave rise to the term “Russian Cezannism”), Matisse’s fauvism, and Picasso’s cubist style.
Unlike their contemporaries Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky, who achieved broad fame after emigrating to the West, the artists of the Jack of Diamonds group continued to live and work in Moscow despite being subjected to criticism for their “leftist tendencies.”
The result was often times a unique combination of European style and Russian thematics. This includes Malevich’s cubist studies of Russian peasants, or Lentulov’s application of futurist tendencies — originally meant to reflect the rhythms of the industrial age — to a completely incongruous subject matter: traditional Russian architecture.
A particularly curious aspect of early 20th-century Russian art was the portrayal of Biblical events with a domestic spin. In Yuri Annenkov’s “Adam and Eve,” the progenitors of all mankind are placed into a distinctly Russian setting, with Adam strumming the balalaika. The cross on Eve’s neck features the slanted crossbeam that is associated with the Orthodox church.
More curious still is the placement of religious subject matter against the backdrop of the new Bolshevik regime (one of the key attributes of the new Soviet leadership was its militant hostility towards religion). The following painting by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a key figure in Russian modern art, portrays a Virgin Mary-like figure in post-Revolutionary Petrograd. The artist himself had started out as the student of icon painters, and the style of early Russian and Byzantine icon painting carried through in his subsequent works.
The new woman
If there’s one thing the Soviet Union can be praised for, it’s the emancipation of women in Russia’s traditionally patriarchal society. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, women began to be viewed as an essential part of the labor force, and the Soviet government passed a series of laws to enable women’s productivity in the new worker’s society. Thus, women were granted full legal equality to men in the workforce, at home and in education. For the first time in Russia, women were able to divorce, received 8-week paid maternity leave and were paid equal wages to men. In 1920, the Soviet Union became the first country in Europe to legalize abortion.
Pre-revolutionary Russian art already saw the emergence of important female artists like Natalia Goncharova, who adopted the modernist tendencies of their contemporaries in Europe to portray women’s life in Russia.
The emancipation of women in the political sphere transferred to the cultural sphere, where women became leading artists, athletes and scientists in the Soviet Union. (The Soviets also sent the first woman into space, in 1963). Later works of Soviet art feature women playing sports, working in factories, and otherwise engaging in activities that were previously reserved for men.
Soviet still lives
The Russian term for “still life,” натюрморт (natiurmort), was taken directly from the French expression nature morte, which literally means “dead nature.” The genre traditionally meant to reflect the beauty of inanimate objects while reminding the viewer of the impermanence of all living things — think of Dutch 17th-century still lives, which often feature a human skull as a clear memento mori, a reminder that you, too, will die.
The Soviet still life lends to the genre a delightfully ironic Russian flavor. The “beautiful objects” portrayed on the canvas are staples of the national cuisine: dried fish, mushrooms, fancy breads, preserves. In later years, as the initial optimism about the socialist project gave way to Brezhnev-era stagnation and the Soviet collapse, Russian artists began to paint the daily objects of their drab existence.
The New Tretyakov Gallery is located at 10 Krymsky Val (metro Oktyabrskaya or Park Kultury). It has free admission on Wednesdays.