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by Alexey Makhrov

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

The images, database and timeline

During the nineteenth century the rapidly growing press, including literary and scholarly journals, illustrated magazines and daily newspapers, gave a significant impetus to the development of Russian art criticism by publishing reviews of current exhibitions in Russia and abroad as well as articles on the aesthetic and political aspects of art. This relationship between art criticism and the press is illuminated in the bibliographical database, which lists articles published in specific journals and newspapers. However, Russian periodicals devoted specifically to visual arts require careful examination. Indeed, one of the purposes of the project was to investigate Russian art journals published at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and kept in the Slavonic collection of the British Library. The Messenger of Fine Arts (St. Petersburg, 1883-1890), although financed by the Academy of Arts, preached impartiality in its coverage of Russian art. Artist (Moscow, 1889-1895) attempted to appeal to a wide audience by covering music, theatre, literature as well as visual arts. The lavishly published journals The World of Art (St Petersburg, 1898-1904), Art and Industry (St Petersburg, 1898-1902), Vesy (Moscow, 1904-1909) and The Golden Fleece (Moscow, 1906-1909, last issues printed in 1910) provide a fascinating insight into the Silver Age of Russian culture at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These publications were approached from several different perspectives: bibliographical information on the articles devoted to Russian art is contained in the research database; their visual appearance is represented by a selection of digital images; and significant articles were republished in translation. These include 'Complicated Questions', the editorial for the first issues of The World of Art signed by Diagilev, and Benua's 'Heresies in Art', which prompted a debate on the role of individualism in art in The Golden Fleece in 1906. It was also possible to digitise a number of other relevant articles published in The Golden Fleece and to represent them in their original version.

The images included in the web site provide the context for the art critical debates and illustrate the types of visual information made available to the Russian public by contemporaneous periodicals. For example, the exhibition reviews of the Academy are complemented by a collection of caricatures published in the satirical journals The Spark and The Alarm-Clock during the 1860s. The appearance and organisation of the exhibitions is represented by the plans of the Academy's exhibition halls, and an illustration of an exhibition in 1851 reveals the manner in which the works of art were displayed and represents the public visiting the exhibition. Reproductions of works by the Academy's artists published in the press add to the reconstruction of the ambience of which art critical texts were an essential feature. The available images are arranged into galleries by various criteria: by major artistic movements, by artists' names and by different reproduction techniques used in art periodicals, which is intended to facilitate the orientation of the user in the considerable amount of visual information.

The interdisciplinary nature of the project is embodied in the timeline, which brings together diverse events in the art world, culture and politics and provides the background against which the texts of the art critics regain their relevance. The timeline represents an overview of the contexts which shaped Russian attitudes to art from the foundation of the Academy of Arts in 1757 to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. Moreover, the timeline serves both as a reference source and a starting point for the exploration of other parts of the web site, such as the texts and the images, many of which are mentioned in the timeline and linked to from it.

The word 'timeline' is, however, somewhat misleading, since it gives too much emphasis to the idea of a single line of progress, the steady evolution from a less developed form to a more sophisticated state. In fact, this arrangement of facts and comments also represents 'a kaleidoscope' or a 'jigsaw puzzle' of Russian nineteenth- century culture. Art criticism responds to and comments on not only works of art, but also to a variety of events and influences, frequently unrelated to aesthetics, but connected to politics, economics and social change. For example, the introduction of the first censorship statute in 1804 may well have had a direct impact on the emergence of art criticism in Russia: it encouraged discussions of topical issues in society thereby opening up possibilities for journalists to comment on contemporary art. The result of this was the publication of a number of articles on art in the journal Northern Bulletin (Severnyi vestnik) in 1804, among which one finds the first exhibition review published in Russia. However, the timeline also demonstrates how the censorship of the second half of the nineteenth century hindered the publication of the writings of art critics, such as Vladimir Stasov, whose attacks on the Academy were considered as criticisms of the authorities.

Not only political, but also social changes profoundly influenced Russian art criticism. In the middle of the nineteenth century Russia developed a middle class, first recorded by Maksim von Vock, the director of the Tsar's secret police, in 1827. This emergent group formed a large segment of the public at the exhibitions, became buyers of works by Russian artists and comprised the audience which art critics addressed. The changes in the economic status of art during the last decades of the nineteenth century, which accompanied the rapid transformation of Russia into a capitalist society, was also crucial for art criticism: in addition to the state-sponsored Academy exhibitions, reviewers concentrated on the commercial exhibitions of the Peredvizhniki and those of Vasilii Vereshchagin, which attracted both the public and the big buyers, such as the Moscow merchant and industrialist Pavel Tret'iakov.

The research database contains bibliographical information on all primary and the most important secondary sources used for the project. It allows specific searches which may combine different criteria, such as author, type of publication, year span, texts included in a specific periodical, and texts devoted to a particular exhibition. It incorporates information about pseudonyms, and records not only the details of the original publication of a text, but also subsequent republications which may be more accessible. Currently the database includes c.1900 primary sources, of which c.1500 are articles published in the periodical press.

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