|Russia Table of Contents
Early Slavic tribes created handsome jewelry, wall hangings, and decorated leather items that have been recovered from burial mounds. The folk-art motifs made liberal use of animal forms and representations of natural forces. Subsequently, the strongest single influence on Russian art was the acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 988. Transmitting the idea that the beauty of the church's physical attributes reflects the glory of God, Byzantine religious art and architecture penetrated Kiev, which was the capital of the early Russian state until about 1100 (see The Golden Age of Kiev, ch. 1). The northern cities of Novgorod and Vladimir developed distinctive architectural styles, and the tradition of painting icons, religious images usually painted on wooden panels, spread as more churches were built. The Mongol occupation (1240-1480) cut Muscovy's ties with the Byzantine Empire, fostering the development of original artistic styles. Among the innovations of this period was the iconostasis, a carved choir screen on which icons are hung. In the early fifteenth century, the master icon painter Andrey Rublev created some of Russia's most treasured religious art.
As the Mongols were driven out and Moscow became the center of Russian civilization in the late fifteenth century, a new wave of building began in Russia's cities. Italian architects brought a West European influence, especially in the reconstruction of Moscow's Kremlin, the city's twelfth-century wooden fortress. St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, however, combined earlier church architecture with styles from the Tatar east. In the 1500s and 1600s, the tsars supported icon painting, metalwork, and manuscript illumination; as contact with Western Europe increased, those forms began to reflect techniques of the West. Meanwhile, folk art preserved the forms of the earlier Slavic tribes in house decorations, clothing, and tools.
Under Peter the Great, Russia experienced a much stronger dose of Western influence. Many of the buildings in Peter's new capital, St. Petersburg, were designed by the Italian architects Domenico Trezzini and Bartolomeo Rastrelli under the direction of Peter and his daughter, Elizabeth. The most productive Russian architects of the eighteenth century, Vasiliy Bazhenov, Matvey Kazakov, and Ivan Starov, created lasting monuments in Moscow and St. Petersburg and established a base for the more Russian forms that followed.
The Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Elizabeth in 1757 to train Russia's artists, brought Western techniques of secular painting to Russia, which until that time had been dominated by icon painting. Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96), another energetic patron of the arts, began collecting European art objects that formed the basis of the collections for which Russia now is famous. Aleksey Venetsianov, the first graduate of the academy to fully embrace realistic subject matter such as peasant life, is acknowledged as the founder of Russia's realistic school of painting, which blossomed in the second half of the 1800s.
In the 1860s, a group of critical realists, led by Ivan Kramskoy, Il'ya Repin, and Vasiliy Perov, portrayed aspects of Russian life with the aim of making social commentary. Repin's Barge Haulers on the Volga is one of the most famous products of this school. In the late 1800s, a new generation of painters emphasized technique over subject, producing a more impressionistic body of work. The leaders of that school were Valentin Serov, Isaak Levitan, and Mikhail Vrubel'. In 1898 the theatrical designer Alexandre Benois and the dance impresario Sergey Diaghilev founded the World of Art group, which extended the innovation of the previous generation, played a central role in introducing the contemporary modern art of Western Europe to Russia, and acquainted West Europeans with Russia's art through exhibitions and publications.
In the nineteenth century, Russia's architecture and decorative arts combined European techniques and influences with the forms of early Russia, producing the so-called Russian Revival seen in churches, public buildings, and homes of that period. The European-trained goldsmith, jeweler, and designer Karl Fabergé, the most notable member of a brilliant artistic family, established workshops in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London. His work, including jeweled enamel Easter eggs produced for the Russian royal family, is an important example of the decorative art of the period.
The Russian artists of the early twentieth century were exposed to a wide variety of Russian and European movements. Among the most innovative and influential of that generation were the painters Marc Chagall, Natal'ya Goncharova, Vasiliy Kandinskiy, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich. The constructivists of the 1920s found parallels between their architectural and sculptural work and the precepts of the Bolshevik Revolution. By the 1930s, the government was limiting all forms of artistic expression to the themes of socialist realism, forbidding abstract forms and the exhibition of foreign art for more than thirty years. An "unofficial" art movement appeared in the 1960s under the leadership of sculptor Ernest Neizvestnyy and painters Mikhail Chemyakhin, Oskar Rabin, and Yevgeniy Rukhin. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, informal art exhibits were held in parks and social clubs. Like the other arts, painting and sculpture benefited from the policy of glasnost of the late 1980s, which encouraged artistic innovation and the exhibition of works abroad.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress