Art Revolutions in the Nineteenth Century

Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University

Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-73. Ilya Repin, oil on canvas. State Russian Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This post relates to some research to which I return regularly, wondering where it will lead me. I’m interested in the ways in which ideas move, between people, across continents, and manifest themselves in art and literature as well as political ideology. Related to this, I am organising a conference on ‘Cultural Cross-Currents between Russia and Britain in the nineteenth century’, co-hosted by Birmingham City University and the State University of Tomsk.

The cultural situation in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century was both extremely political and highly restricted. As Elizabeth Valkenier points out in Russian Realist Art (1989), the art world was highly regulated by the state, particularly under the rule of Tsar Nicholas I, who would visit the Academy of Art in St Petersburg, drop in on classes and make suggestions to the students. While this level of interest in art might sound positive, in fact it served to stifle creativity and caused considerable amounts of tension. Moreover, for Nicholas, art was primarily an exercise in morality. He also instituted an extremely complicated range of awards and ranks, in which the role of a state artist was the lowest rank in the civil service, requiring a range of complex examinations and medals to achieve. Students were required to follow a demanding schedule of training in the neo-classical style which allowed little or no room for creativity or independent work, although some more promising students were permitted to travel to Europe to further their study. Although some reforms to the system were attempted after the death of Nicholas, these were slow-moving and ineffective in an entrenched system with the weight of history and political motivation behind it.

These constrictions, unsurprisingly, led to a group of students, entered for the Big Gold Medal which would have permitted them to become state artists, rebelling against the Academy in 1863. These students chose to walk out of the Academy, rejecting its standards, its medals and its imposition of the classical style. They set up an artel, a kind of co-operative workshop, which, as Valkenier suggests, ‘seemed like the organization of a counter-Academy, an independent art center to rally the opposition.’ She goes on to argue, however, that it is probable that these artists were not motivated purely – if at all – by political reasons, or a desire to

Unconsolable Grief, 1884, oil on canvas, Ivan Kramskoy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 substantially undermine the Academy, but rather, that they ‘belonged with the other trend of the “sixties,” that of individual liberation and a diffuse dedication to the moral regeneration of society’ (17-18). This spirit of freedom, running counter to the political modus operandi, is the motivating force for art revolutionaries across the globe – including the Pre-Raphaelites.

So far, it is easy to see a few parallels with the Pre-Raphaelites. In a restrictive artistic environment that seems too controlled from above, a group of young men wish to develop their own style and ideas about art. The Pre-Raphaelites were, of course, keen to rebel against the precepts laid down by ‘Sir Sloshua’, set out in his Discourses. Like William Blake before them, who argued against ‘the Opression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves’, the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to begin anew, painting from nature rather than copying the great masters, and I think this demonstrates a similar artistic spirit to that of the group that broke away from the Russian Academy some fifteen years later. Quentin Bell writes of the Royal Academy as ‘the black beast, the perpetual monster, the enemy’, describing students’ views of all academies as being ‘the forcing houses of mediocrity, the strongholds of privileged incompetence, the enemies of young genius and all kinds of originality’ (1982, 18). This is as applicable to the students of the Russian Imperial Academy as it is to the Pre-Raphaelites. Moreover, as we know, 1848, the year of the founding of the PRB, was a dramatic one in Europe, in which authority was undermined and civil unrest was rife. Although these revolutions did not themselves reach either Britain or Russia, it is probable that the shockwaves were felt, and that politically-interested young artists were among those who were affected by these events. 

The group of students who walked out of the Russian Academy in 1863, then, were only the first wave of revolutionaries in Russian art. Valkenier says that these students who formed the artel were ‘simply reflect[ing] current notions’ in society, in their regard for education, their desire for political and artistic freedom, and their revolutionary spirit (16). These students became known as first-generation Peredvizhniki, a term which the artists adopted for themselves in 1870, meaning the Wanderers. They staged exhibitions throughout Russia in an attempt to take art from the cities – and thus state control – into the towns and rural villages, thus democratising the art world in a way previously unknown in Russia, and it was this apparently overtly political approach which characterised the Wanderers at first. The members produced a clear outline of the purpose of their group, which makes it clear that democracy was at the centre of their work. Compared with the stated aims of the PRB, for example, the Wanderers begin to seem less concerned with art and more with politics, and indeed Lenin, for example, was later to use their art to promote his political agenda. Yet there is no doubt that the Wanderers were progressive and radical not only in their politics but also in their art. Camilla Gray, in The Russian Experiment in Art 1863 – 1922 (1962) describes this period in Russian artistic history as one with ‘the idea of a renewal of art as a socially active force’ (6). For the Wanderers, as for William Morris, art and politics were indivisible.

The Wanderers’ stated aims may have been political, but this is due in part to their desire for art to be useful to society, rather than for art’s sake alone. It was therefore necessary for art to be accessible to all, both physically and culturally. Their artistic revolution therefore seems to have concentrated on two aspects: firstly, the subject matter, and secondly, the style of painting. The painting against which they were rebelling was that of the neoclassical, highly traditional Academy. Although the Wanderers’ manifesto seems only to relate to the formation of their group and its exhibiting functions, then, there was also a synthesis of stylistic issues. The Wanderers were keen to democratise art by depicting life in Russia as it really was, and in a realist manner. A later member of the group, Ilya Repin, (1844 – 1930) demonstrates this in his work. In the early 1870s Repin spent some time in France and Italy, learning about light and colour from European artists including the Impressionists. Paintings such as Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870 – 73) shows the influence of these painters, I think, but at the same time he remains very much a realist painter, using clear, bright colours which suggest the extent to which the aesthetics of the group were moving on from the Academy style.

By the mid-1870s, the Wanderers were part of a revolutionary movement of which the Pre-Raphaelites might have dreamed, and the work of the Peredvizhniki found a surprising popularity. Their work was very Russian, focussing on Russian landscapes, subjects and politics, whilst becoming increasingly open to international influences. It was important to the artists to be seen as patriotic,

Russian artistic silver of the end of 19th century – the beginning of 20th century. Items from the collection of All-Russian Decorative-Applied and Folk Art Museum.
Russian artistic silver of the end of 19th century – the beginning of 20th century. Items from the collection of All-Russian Decorative-Applied and Folk Art Museum.

however, and artists such as Shishkin and Kramskoy were meticulous in their recording of the detail of Russian landscapes exactly as they saw them, without changing details, and painting directly from life wherever possible; in fact, one could say that they went ‘to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk[ed] with her laboriously and trustingly . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’ Certainly Ruskin was a considerable influence on the later craftsmen of the Wanderers, and Ruskin’s works were translated and read widely in Russia towards the end of the nineteenth century.

I plan to explore how the Wanderers’ later affiliates took their ideals a step further, establishing themselves as master-craftsmen and preaching social equality, taking very seriously Tolstoy’s novels with their enthusiasm for a return to the land and the cultural importance of the simple life. They formed an arts and crafts community, encouraging the development of peasant crafts, and additionally reconnected with the ancient mysticism of the Orthodox Church. In this later development of the Wanderers, with an emphasis on handcrafted, beautiful objects which both connect with simple, rural traditions whilst producing labour-intensive and thus often expensive objects, there are clear parallels with the later aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism as it moved further into the Arts and Crafts.

Serena Trowbridge is Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Research interests include Victorian poetry and novels; nineteenth century cultures of faith; Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic. She blogs at Culture and Anarchy and tweets @serena_t.

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