The Silver Age of Russian Art in the Pre-Soviet Period
Continuing our series on the history of Russian art
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) were highly individualistic artists who enjoy world renown, but there was an additional bond of kinship between them with their shared interests in small town life.
Sunset after Rain
Larionov’s impressionistic painting “Apple Trees after Rain” (1906) conveys the charm of an old garden and the freshness of its rain-washed colors. In “Sunset after Rain” (1908) Larionov’s stylistic manner has changed to a sharp simplification of forms and laconic colors. With an expressiveness bordering on grotesque, he depicts a smalltown street scene after a down-pour.
Natalia Goncharova’s painting “Fishing” (1908) may be compared to a mosaic done in small brush strokes placed closely together. The pattern of silhouettes on the cold and gleaming early-morning sky enhances the decorative nature of the picture. The measured rhythm lends solemnity to the scene of daily toil, which is perceived as idyllic life in harmony with Nature.
Larionov’s and Natalia Goncharova’s creative work evolved rapidly, which led at one stage to an extreme subjectivism – the Luchist (ray) school, a version of non-reality. But the two artists’ abstractionist obsession did not last long. They became depictive artists again, and contributed greatly to theatrical set design.
In the complex and conflicting works of Marc Chagall, a mystical and highly subjective interpretation of life is combined with a true-to-life reflection of certain tragic and poetic aspects of modern living. This latter tendency became stronger during his return home after leaving Paris in 1910. Marc Chagall’s small painting “The Clock” (1914) stirringly conveys the secrecy of the night, the unrelieved misery of small-town existence, the bleak and monotonous passage of time. The imagery is a blend of the artist’s childishly acute sensitivity to objects typifying a mode of existence and his fantasy brought to life as in a bad dream. “Wedding” (1914-1918) is a compelling affirmation of the beauty and tenderness of love, which transforms the world and miraculously unites the earthly and the celestial.
The Union of Russian Artists which was founded in 1903 had a majority of Moscow painters who developed the style of the impressionists in their work. The Russian landscape occupied a place of importance in their paintings.
Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939), an artist with a sanguine temperament, found inspiration in a Russian village landscape, in a Paris street scene, in the austere beauty of the North, and the sunlit scenery of the Crimea. What attracted him above all else was the world of color. He became an outstanding colorist in the paintings he did in the 1890's (for instance, “Winter” in 1894, with its delicate silvery-grey color scheme). With time his colors acquired an even greater richness and decorative expressiveness. His delight in the picturesque, his veritable infatuation with the play of color is beautifully rendered in “Paris Café” (1899- 1990). The virtuosity of his brushwork and his extra-sensory perception of the world are manifest in “Roses and Violets” (1912) and “Fish, Wine and Fruit” (1916). Korovin designed the scenery for a great number of stage productions, revealing a brilliant ability in that medium.
Igor Grabar (1871-1960) painted landscapes and still lives in the manner of Post- Impressionism. For a number of years he studied in Munich, and subsequently taught painting there. His “March Snow” and “February Blue” (both 1904) are done with small, thick brush strokes to convey the vibration of the air, the suffusion of the scenery with light, and the sparkle and softness of the snow. Grabar often returned to the same motifs to paint the changing colors of the landscape viewed in a different light.
Konstantin Yuon (1875-1958), one of the leading masters of the Union of Russian Artists, invariably drew his inspiration from the beauty of his native land. He had a propensity for painting scenes featuring interesting architecture or depicting busily moving crowds of people. He painted Moscow, Moscow suburbs, provincial Russia and ancient Russian architecture. Whereas the impressionists stressed the element of the accidental in their compositions and diffused the dimensions of objects in light and air, Yuon kept to strict drawing, to the actual shape of things and to a properly constructed composition, such as his “March Sunlight” (1915) which expresses the fullness and glory of life.
The portraits and genre paintings of Filipp Malyavin (1869-1940) were always included in the Union of Russian Artists’ exhibitions. Born into a peasant family, Malyavin became a monk as a young man and lived in the Afon Monastery. Afterwards he studied in Ilya Repin’s workshop and very soon became renowned for his paintings of Ryazan peasant women. A riot of colors, with shades of red prevailing, is the distinguishing feature of his mature work, such as “Whirl” (1906). The abandon with which the Ryazan women are dancing is expressed in the rhythm and the colors, and is rendered all the more dynamic by Malyavin’s characteristic manner of laying on the paint in large, energetic brush strokes.