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Gallery Goer

Symbolist Graphics
John Harrison

M.A. Vrubel, ‘The game of Naiads and Tritons’ 1896-1899

You still have time to catch the ‘the Prophet and the Dreamer. The graphic works of M.A. Vrubel and V.E. Borisov-Musatov’, at the Tretyakovsky Gallery, which is on until the 15th of November. The exhibition brings 250 works held in the Tretyakovsky gallery, St. Petersburg’s Pushkin museum, and from private collections.

These two artists, whose works have often been clubbed together as representing ‘the best of Russia’s silver age’, had more in common than not, although they had very different personalities and approaches. They both studied in P.P. Chistyakov’s studio in the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, but at different times. Chistyakov taught his students to concentrate on the ‘basic elements’ of elements, and to ‘recreate’ the objects, rather than recreate the external forms only.

V. E. Borisov-Musatov, ‘Requiem’ 1905

Both artists have similar techniques, although to see them you have to take a slightly altered view of reality. This can be perceived more easily in their graphic works than in their paintings. Both hardly used oils in their final years, although both died young, without having exhausted their full potential. Although they seldom met, both artists applied a new (for the time) symbolist approach to depicting reality, an approach which made it difficult for both artists to sell works for part of their careers. Both artists were consumed by particular ideals or symbols, this was their main driving force. Take for example the multitudinous drawings, watercolors and paintings that Vrubel worked on for his ‘Demon’ painting – he was obsessed with the theme!

V.E. Borisov-Musatov, ‘On the beach’ 1894

 Or for that matter, the whole cycle of works connected with Borisov-Musatov’s ‘Harmony’. Some say ‘Demon’ is Vrubel’s depiction of himself – the fallen angel for whom the world is both endlessly joyful and tortuous, whilst ‘Harmony’ depicts a completely different approach to life, and the perception of the individual as a part of nature. However that artist’s approach was not altogether joyful, as can be felt by his final, unfinished ‘Requiem’ cycle, a theme which seems to summarize the vast body of his works.

In their sheer exuberance of color, expressiveness, both artists present an inspiring show, something to warm your fantasy, away from the realities of a rainy Moscow Autumn day. You reach this exhibition by passing by, and in one sense through more realistic paintings of some famous Russian artists, and you leave in the same way. Symbolist imagery is cushioned, probably just as well.



M.A. Vrubel, ‘Harmed Demon’ 1902



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