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by Alexey Makhrov

An expanded and revised version of this essay is published by Carol Adlam and Alexey Makhrov as 'A Russian Kaleidoscope: Shifting Visions of the Emergence and Development of Art Criticism in the Electronic Archive Russian Visual Arts, 1800-1913', Art On the Line, 1 (2004) (ISSN 1478-6818).

Russian writings on visual arts in the ninenteenth and early twentieth centuries (1814-1909) (page 1 of 3) (Go to p. 2, p. 3)


The purpose of this web site is to make available to scholars and students of Russian culture around the world a significant number of texts pertaining to Russian art criticism and to encourage a re-examination of the role which art played in Russian society in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It also aims further to integrate previously separated areas of European cultural history by opening up possibilities for analysis of the interchange of ideas in art criticism between Western and Eastern Europe. The web site includes a selection of texts devoted to Russian visual arts and written between 1814 and 1909, covering therefore the period from the emergence of Russian art criticism as a distinct genre of writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the early manifestations of modernism. A number of essential sources which are translated into English for the first time highlight the work of major writers on art and the nature of discussions on contemporary art in Russia.

The texts are accompanied by an extensive scholarly apparatus which comprises a research bibliographic database of the publications used for the project, a timeline designed in order to locate writings on art in the context of political and cultural life as well as events in the art world, and biographical notes on major art critics of the period under consideration. This material is complemented by a collection of digital images taken from contemporaneous publications which contribute to the reconstruction of the ambience in which art critical texts were produced.

This web site attempts to demonstrate both the variety of forms and the continuity in the development of art critical discourse in Russia. The project applied established academic standards to the republication of primary sources combined with the flexibility and vast opportunities to relate pieces of information offered by the Internet. Perhaps the most surprising result of such a combination is that the end product seems to have acquired certain characteristics of the primary material: the web site has gained that complex and all-embracing quality that confronts researchers into art criticism and at the same time it reveals an almost infinite network of relationships between art and society.

The web site is intended to demonstrate some of the opportunities for research into Russian culture offered by the extensive Slavonic collection of the British Library which was the chief resource provider for the project. However, the project went beyond the investigation of the material located in the British Library. A comprehensive survey of primary texts was undertaken in the National Library of Russia, formerly the Imperial Public Library, St Petersburg, one of the most complete holdings of Russian periodicals. More than seven hundred documents have been obtained from these libraries in the form of photocopies which, together with a selection of books on Russian art, now form the foundation of a hard-copy archive of Russian art criticism based in the University of Exeter. The texts represented on the project web site are drawn from this archive and indicate the scope of material uncovered by the project.

The on-line archive of primary sources is the core element of the web site. The selection and the presentation of texts took into account several considerations. Several publications which affected the development of discussions on art were not included in the on-line archive on account of their considerable length and because they are already well known and widely available in the West. Those texts included, for example, Nikolai Chernyshevskii's dissertation The Aesthetic Relationships of Art to Reality published in 1855, which provided critics with new criteria for judging works of art by placing reality above the ideal, and Lev Tolstoi's treatise What is Art?, which accused both professionalised art and art criticism of being harmful to society and advocated the revival of the spiritual mission of art.

Existing work by Russian scholars was drawn upon by the project. For example, a thorough compilation of documents including sources indispensable for the history of Russian art criticism by authors ranging from Vladimir Stasov to Aleksandr Benua is contained in Russkaia progressivnaia khudozhestvennaia kritika vtoroi poloviny xix-nachala xx veka (Progressive Russian Art Criticism of the Second Half of the Nineteenth to the Start of the Twentieth Centuries) edited by V.V. Vanslov (Moscow, 1977). A number of the articles reprinted in that book have been used for the on-line archive. The anthology, however, may now be seen to place excessive emphasis on texts of a certain type, namely those of Marxist writers condemning 'bourgeois' culture, resulting in an overemphasis on the importance of those texts which supported realist art and the exclusion of articles published in the journals The World of Art and The Golden Fleece at the turn of the century. On occasion reprinted texts are truncated so as to remove sections which do not conform to the 'progressive' image of the author. An article written by the artist Vasilii Vereshchagin was so affected: the text was given the title 'O realizme' ('On Realism') and abridged to such an extent that the author's ideas on art became entirely separated from his political beliefs, which were excluded, thereby distorting the meaning of the text. In the present project it has not always been possible to obtain complete versions of all the texts represented on the web-site, but we have attempted to represent the sources objectively: thus the full version of Vereshchagin's article is reproduced under its original title 'Realism'.

A comprehensive survey and an in-depth investigation of primary sources related to Russian art criticism is essential, since a history of this subject is yet to be written. The approach to the selection of the original documents aimed therefore to create a balanced overview of the discussions on art by including texts regardless of whether or not their authors have been previously designated as 'progressive', 'retrograde', 'modernist', 'conservative', 'decadent', etc. Instead, the task of the editors was rather to represent the texts as much as possible in the context of their time, bearing in mind that the public debates, particularly those in the periodical press, reflected the views of significant segments of Russian society. It is the way Russian people thought about art, notwithstanding their political persuasions and ideological commitments, that the project attempted to represent.

However, a strategy had to be devised in order to guide the user through a largely unknown and extensive body of writing made available by the project both in English translation and in original Russian versions. A number of texts fall into broad categories which reflect peculiarities of Russian culture and its chronological development, such as exhibition reviews, the relationship between literature and art criticism, professional art criticism and the Russian art press. For instance, the focus on the reviews of exhibitions of Russian art makes it possible to establish the grounds for research into the evolution of art criticism. Two main exhibiting organisations dominated the Russian art world during the greater part of the nineteenth century: the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg (founded in 1757) and the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions (the Peredvizhniki) established in 1870. Their periodic exhibitions were representative of the state of art in Russia and attracted the attention of major art critics.

These categories, however, did not mean the exclusion of other types of writing pertaining to visual arts. Such a limitation would not only have left the texts themselves without sufficient context, but also have impoverished our understanding of the variety of ways in which art was interpreted. Essays on individual paintings, reflections on the meaning and function of art criticism, editorials of art journals, lectures on aesthetics, public recriminations between supporters of opposing ideologies, statutes, petitions, published documents and private correspondence - all of these sources contribute to the reconstruction of the atmosphere in which art existed in nineteenth century Russia.

The texts
The images, database and timeline