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by Alexey Makhrov

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

The texts

Art criticism in the form of exhibition reviews emerged in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This early period is represented by Konstantin Batiushkov's essay 'A Stroll to the Academy of Arts' published in the journal Son of the Fatherland (Syn Otechestva) in 1814. Written by a well-known Romantic poet, this review includes the first published criticism of an Academic painting, The Scourging of Christ by Aleksei Egorov.

A selection of reports on the Academy exhibitions published in the middle of the nineteenth century in the journal The Contemporary (Sovremennik), the organ of the radical intelligentsia, demonstrates a rapid change of attitude towards the official art which occurred after the death of the Emperor Nicholas I in February 1855. The accession to the throne of Alexander II brought with it the relaxation of censorship and a period of glasnost' which allowed art critics to turn the genre of exhibition review into a highly polemical discourse. For example, a review of the Academy exhibition of 1855 by Vasilii Botkin, although not openly critical of the Academy, aims to limit its influence and commends the development of a national character in art, which is linked to the progress of society. Mikhail Mikhailov's 'Art Exhibition in St Petersburg of 1859' applies ideas evolved in literary criticism to the visual arts and finds the majority of the displayed works irrelevant to the needs of his contemporaries. Pavel Kovalevskii in 1860 used the pretext of reporting about the Academy exhibition in order to publish a highly critical investigation of the relationship between art and society entitled 'On Art and Artists in Russia'.

The attacks of radical art critics on the Academy culminated in 1863 when Ivan Dmitriev produced a damning report on its annual exhibition under the title 'Art which Bows and Scrapes'. Its publication preceded the 'Revolt of the Fourteen' Academy students headed by Ivan Kramskoi. The students wrote petitions to the Academic Council asking to grant them free choice of subjects for their Major Gold Medal examination. Having received no positive response the students demonstratively left the Academy to form an independent community of artists called the Artel', the precursor of the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions. Vladimir Stasov's and other critics' assaults on the exhibition of 1865 prompted the rector of the Academy, Fedor Bruni, to appear in print with a refutation entitled 'To the Antagonists of the Academy of Arts'. This was one of the few attempts by the Academy openly to confront its opponents in the press rather than silencing them by means of censorship.

One of the characteristic features of Russian culture of the nineteenth century was that the visual arts were frequently perceived as following in the footsteps of rapid developments in Russian literature. It is therefore important to reflect upon the perspectives on art taken by famous Russian writers and literary critics, such as Nikolai Gogol' and Fedor Dostoevskii, whose essays are included in the archive. Gogol's contribution to the discussions on contemporary Russian art is represented by his article entitled 'The Last Day of Pompeii (Briullov's Painting)' published in 1834 appraising Briullov's spectacular canvas; the article 'The Historical Painter Ivanov', published in 1846, draws the attention of the authorities to the tragic fate of Aleksandr Ivanov and explains the significance of his momentous The Appearance of Christ to the People.

Articles by literary critics, such as Vissarion Belinskii, Nikolai Dobroliubov and Apollon Grigor'ev, reverberated strongly in Russian society and were instrumental in forming the attitudes of their readers to art in general and visual arts in particular. A selection from their writings included in the archive is therefore essential for an understanding of art critical discussions in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century. Vissarion Belinskii, the influential journalist and literary critic of the 1840s and the ardent propagandist of the natural school in literature, created in Russian intellectual life an atmosphere of intense questioning of the established views approved by the authorities. His article 'A speech on criticism' is an eloquent testimony to his belief in reason and progress which influenced Russian intellectuals during his lifetime and in the following decades. His insistence on broadening the appeal of art to include a wide audience is manifest in the excerpt entitled 'On Book Illustration'. Although Belinskii himself did not focus specifically on the visual arts, his ideas ultimately reverberated strongly in the writings of the art critics of the next generation who matured in the atmosphere of a greater intellectual freedom during the early years of the reign of Alexander II, a period known as 'the Sixties' ('shestidesiatye gody'). Indeed, essays by Belinskii and Dobroliubov provided the ideological foundations for the radical criticism of the Academy by the critics of the 1860s and particularly Vladimir Stasov, who undertook the task of applying Belinskii's ideas to Russian art.

One of the aims of the project is to highlight the development of what may be called 'professional art criticism', i.e. the emergence of a type of author who regularly contributed articles on contemporary Russian art to the periodical press and assumed an active role in the art world. An example of this type of critic is Vladimir Stasov, who, together with Ivan Kramskoi, became the chief ideologues and advocates of the Peredvizhniki. The formation of the Association of Itinerant Art Exhibitions was a turning point in the history of Russian art. The Statutes of the Association is an important document which explains the Association's mission to disseminate interest in art among Russian people and to assist artists in marketing their works. Stasov enthusiastically praised and passionately defended the Peredvizhniki against their opponents, primarily affiliated with the Academy of Arts. Il'ia Repin was one of the artists promoted by Stasov in such articles, as 'Repin's painting "The Volga Barge Haulers"' and 'Deplorable aestheticians'. Moreover, Stasov firmly believed that Russian realism was the truly national art, liberated from the foreign influence of the Academy. He attempted to analyse the history of Russian culture in this conceptual framework by proclaiming Aleksandr Ivanov the harbinger of Russian realist art in the article 'On Ivanov's Significance in Russian Art.' He also traced the parallel development of realism and nationality in painting and music in the article 'Perov and Musorgskii'. Stasov incessantly attacked supporters of the concept of 'art for art's sake', as in the article devoted to 'Mr Prakhov's inaugural lecture' in 1874 (the lecture itself has also been translated for the on-line archive in order to present the user with the opportunity to assess Stasov's argument). His bitter disappointment with young artists of the turn of the century who discarded what he believed to be the right path for Russian art is expressed in his furious attacks on the 'decadents', primarily artists of the World of Art group, for instance, in the article entitled 'False Art and False Artists'.

However, Stasov's classification as a 'professional art critic' has to be used with caution. In fact, none of the Russian art critics who could be called 'professionals', such as Stasov, Adrian Prakhov, Aleksandr Benua or Sergei Diagilev, were able fully to support themselves by publishing art criticism: Stasov was a librarian, Prakhov an academic, Benua a practising artist, while Diagilev found his true vocation as an impresario and manager of celebrated cultural projects, such as the World of Art journal, exhibitions of Russian art, and the theatrical and ballet productions which culminated in the organisation of the Russian Seasons by the Ballet russe in Paris.

In addition to the texts produced by writers, literary critics, art critics and journalists, the project also illustrates ideas on art formulated by artists themselves, such as Ivan Kramskoi and Vasilii Vereshchagin. The latter's 'Realism' and 'On Progress in Art', based on his public lectures delivered during the exhibitions of his works in Europe and America, and Kramskoi's thoughts on 'tendentsiia' (tendentiousness) in painting provide an insight into how these crucial concepts, hotly debated in educated society, were interpreted by the people who actually put them into practice.

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