From the late nineteenth century until World War I, the Russian visual, literary, and performing arts achieved such creative brilliance that observers—not least the critic and poet Sergei Makovsky (1878–1962)—described the period as a "Silver Age." Many individuals, institutions, and ideas contributed to this renaissance: Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) and the St. Petersburg World of Art; painters Lev Bakst (1866–1924), Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870–1905), and Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910); writers Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), Andrei Bely (pseudonym of Boris Bugayev, 1880–1934), Alexander Blok (1880–1921), Valery Bryusov (1873–1924), and Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949); the Ballets Russes; the new theaters with their repertoires of Ibsen and Maeterlinck; and the architecture of the style moderne —all shared the eschatological mood of the fin de siècle heightened by the disasters of the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution.
There was a climactic and ominous sense in the culture of the Russian Silver Age, for its poetry spoke of femmes fatales and fleshly indulgence, and its painting depicted twilights and satanic beasts. Perhaps even more than the Western European Symbolists, the Russian poets, painters, and philosophers made every effort to escape the present by looking back to an Arcadian landscape of pristine myth and fable or by looking forwards to a utopian synthesis of art, religion, and organic life. For Russia's children of the fin de siècle, Symbolism became much more than a mere esthetic tendency; rather, it represented an entire worldview and a way of life that informed the intense visions of Bely, Blok, and Vrubel; the religious explorations of the priest, mathematician, and art historian Pavel Florensky (1882–1937); the decorative flourishes of Bakst and Alexandre Benois (1870–1960); and even the abstract systems of Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Bely's novel Petersburg, Blok's poem "The Stranger," Vrubel's images of torment and distress, and the galvanizing music of Alexander Skryabin (1872–1915) all express the nervous tension and febrile energy of the Russian Silver Age.
Its most original artist was Vrubel, whose fertile imagination produced disconcerting pictures such as Demon Downcast (1902, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow; hereafter "TG"). While the definitions "Art Nouveau" and "Neo-Nationalism" come to mind in the context of his work, Vrubel approached the act of painting as a constant process of experimentation, returning to his major canvases again and again, erasing, repainting, altering. His releasing of the energy of the ornament and his intense elaboration of the surface even prompted future critics to consider his painting in the context of Cubism, for his broken brushwork strangely anticipated the visual dislocation of the late 1900s.
Even so, a characteristic of the Russian Symbolists was more recreative than experimental in nature, characterized by the aspiration to restore an esthetic unity to the disciplines through the re-discovery of a common philosophical and formal denominator. To this end, they often explored more than one medium simultaneously. In keeping with this interdisciplinarity, the principal artistic and intellectual society with which many of them were associated was called the "World of Art." Hostile toward both the Academy and nineteenth century Realism, the World of Art owed its singular vision, practical organization, and public effect to Diaghilev, who in 1898 launched the famous magazine of the same name (Mir iskusstva, 1898–1904), sponsored a cycle of important national and international exhibitions, and propagated Russian art and music successfully in the West. The World of Art artists and writers never issued a written manifesto, but their attention to artistic craft, cult of retrospective beauty, and assumed distance from the ills of sociopolitical reality indicated a firm belief in "art for art's sake" and a sense of measured grace, which they identified with the haunting beauty of St. Petersburg.
The fame of several World of Art painters, particularly Bakst and Benois, rests primarily on their set and costume designs for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (1909–1929), which, with its emphasis on artistic synthesis, evocation of archaic or exotic cultures, and invention of a new choreographic, musical, and visual communication, can be regarded as an extension of the Symbolist platform. The ease with which the World of Art transferred pictorial ideas from studio to stage (for instance, productions such as Cléopatre of 1909, designed by Bakst, Petrouchka of 1911, designed by Benois, and Le Sacre du Printemps of 1913, designed by Nicholas Roerich [1874–1947]) was indicative of a general tendency toward "theatralization" evident in the culture of the Silver Age. Here was an exaggerated sensibility, but also a conviction that artistic movement was the common denominator of all "great" works of art. This could take the form of physical movement, such as dance, rhythm, and gesture, or of abstract equivalents, such as poetical meter and music, which, for all the Symbolists, was the highest form of expression, the most intense and yet the most minimal material.
A bastion of the Symbolist cause, the World of Art encompassed a multiplicity of artistic phenomena: the consumptive imagery of Aubrey Beardsley and the stylizations of the early Kandinsky; the Art Nouveau designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Elena Polenova (1850–98); and the Decadent verse of Zinaida Gippius (1869–1945) and Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1866–1941). The World of Art fulfilled the practical function of propagating Russian art at home and abroad and of granting the Russian public access to the work of modern
Western artists through exhibitions and publications.
The Russian Silver Age was not confined by strict geographical or social boundaries, for it also flowered—and perhaps more luxuriously—in Moscow and the provinces. Even Saratov, a small town to the south of Moscow, became a major center of Symbolist enquiry, thanks to the activities of the painter Borisov-Musatov, who, together with Vrubel, exerted a profound and permanent influence on the evolution of Russian Modernism. Impressed by Puvis de Chavannes and the Nabis during his residence in Paris, Borisov-Musatov incorporated their monumentalism and subdued palette into his elusive depictions of such wraith-like women as in Gobelin (1901, TG) and Reservoir (1902, TG). Evoking a gentler and more tranquil age, Borisov-Musatov shared the Symbolists' desire to escape from their troubled time, and one of his central motifs, the "Eternal Feminine," aligned him with poets such as Bely and Blok.
Borisov-Musatov also established a short-lived but crucial school of painters, for he was the direct instigator of the "Blue Rose," a movement which can be considered the real beginning of the avantgarde in Russian art. Apologists of Bely's esthetics and Blok's poetry, the Blue Rose artists, especially their leader, Pavel Kuznetsov (1878–1968), used a particular repertoire of symbols (blue-green foliage, fountains, and vestal maidens) in order to evoke the global orchestra that they heeded beyond the world of appearances. Concerned with the oblique and the intangible, they dematerialized nature and thereby heralded the radical concept of the picture as a self-sufficient, abstract unit. The Symbolist journals, Vesy (Scales, 1904–1909 [last issues appeared only in 1910]), Iskusstvo (Art, 1905) and Zolotoe runo (Golden Fleece, 1906–1909 [last issues appeared only in 1910]), did much to promote their ideas and imagery.
Reference to the Symbolist heritage helps to explain a number of subsequent developments in Russian art, especially the abstract investigations of Kandinsky and Malevich, for in many respects they expanded ideas supported by the Russian intelligentsia of the Silver Age. As Kandinsky explained in his major tract On the Spiritual in Art, the intuitive and the occult, not science, were the path to true illumination. Like the Symbolists, Kandinsky also felt that music could undermine the cult of objects and that the inner sound could be apprehended at moments of supersensitory or deviant perception. Similarly, Kandinsky was fascinated with the synthetic aspect of the esthetic experience and aspired to reintegrate the individual arts into a Gesamtkunstwerk. Reasons for this approach differed from person to person, although Benois, Diaghilev, and V. Ivanov agreed that Wagner was to be admired for the way in which he had combined narrative, musical, and visual forces in the operatic drama so as to produce an expressive whole. For Kandinsky, Wagner was a source of visual inspiration and, similarly, Skryabin's efforts to draw distinct parallels between the seven colors of the spectrum and the seven notes of the diatonic scale prompted him to investigate the possibility of a total art.
Even as he was writing On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky also pointed the way toward new esthetic criteria, for he emphasized the value of the primitive, the ethnographic, and the popular, establishing a fragile alliance with a new generation of Moscow artists such as Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964). Praising the color and simplicity of Gauguin and Matisse, on the one hand, and the vitality of indigenous art forms, on the other, the "new barbarians" rejected Symbolist mystery in favor of the concrete and the material. Their first major exhibition, "The Jack of Diamonds" of 1910–1911, signaled the tarnishing of the Silver Age, for it showed the vulgar and the ugly, promoting graffiti, children's drawings, and store signboards as genuine works of art instead of the impalpable visions of the astral plane and religious ecstasy.
The destiny of the Russian Silver Age was both full and empty. On the one hand, the Symbolists left a positive construction, because some of their ideas and artifacts prefigured the linguistic and visual experiments of the avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s, including the geometric reductions of Malevich known as Suprematism. Even the notion of a single and cohesive style joining architecture and the applied arts, promoted by the Constructivists in the wake of the October Revolution, can be viewed as outgrowths of the Symbolists' concern with the total, organic work of art. On the other hand, if the Russian Symbolist poets and painters glimpsed beyond the veil, they rarely completed the voyage to the other shore. As they journeyed, they erred in bold transgressions and called for synthesis and synaesthesia as they sought a spiritual equilibrium for their uneasy era. Ultimately, if their fine antennae did pick up the celestial signals, the sound was so powerful that it caused a "dérèglement de tous les sens"—and not just metaphorically, but in the literal meaning of that phrase.
See also: diagilev, sergei pavlovich; futurism; golden age of russian literature; kandinsky, vasily vasilievich
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John E. Bowlt