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Artistic Connections between the Russian Empire and Europe in the Early 20th Century

These essays originally appeared in Chagall et l'avant-garde Russe, edited by Angela Lampe, and published by the Centre Pompidou. The complete French catalogue is available for purchase at shopAGO.

Transated by: Rose B. Champagne

In 1900, the most important event in the French-Russian artistic relationship was the Paris International Exhibition, where Russia enjoyed an unprecedented place of prominence. Russia was represented by a total of five buildings, of which the Siberian Palace alone measured 4,900 square metres.1 The realism in the paintings of travelling artists was highly successful, particularly those of Apollinari and Viktor Vasnetsov, Isaac Lévitan and Léonide Pasternak. The most original contribution to the new art stemmed from the applied arts, the koustari (artisans), organized by the painter Maria Yakunchikova.2

Between 1906 and 1917, a whole host of artists and personalities linked Russia to Europe. Thanks to the inspirational work of Sergei Diaghilev, Europe discovered dance, music and the audacious paintings from Russia. The retrospective fall show that he organized in 1906, which encompassed 750 paintings representing Russian art from the 15th to the 20th century, exhibited the work of young painters such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Alexei Jawlensky, Pavel Kuznetsov and Léon Bakst, as well as “tapestries (naboïka) and carpets, the handiwork of Russian peasants.”3

The Russian artists were familiar with the most modern currents in modern European art thanks to exhibitions in the big cities of the Russian Empire and interactions with their European contemporaries on several occasions. In early 1909, the second Salon exhibit in Moscow called La Toison d’Or (Golden Fleece) displayed works from Georges Braque, including the famous Standing Nude, André Derain, Kees Van Dongen, Henri Le Fauconnier, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault and Maurice de Vlaminck alongside works from Goncharova, Larionov and Martiros Sarian. The first Izdebski Salon, which opened in Odessa in 1909 and then travelled throughout the Russian Empire, highlighted Russian artists such as Nathan Altman, Aristarkh Lentulov, Ilia Machkov, Mikhail Matiouchine and Alexandra Exter, in addition to “Russians from Munich” like Marianne von Werefkin, Wassily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky and some European artists, namely Pierre Bonnard, Giacomo Balla, Edouard Vuillard, Albert Gleizes, Maurice Denis, Jean Metzinger, Henri Rousseau and Paul Signac.

First-class artists from the Russian Empire who moved to Paris or Munich to study art enriched the heritage of international art: in Paris, Marc Chagall, Alexander Archipenko, Ossip Zadkine, Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné, Léopold Survage; and in Munich, Kandinsky, von Werefkin, Jawlensky, Vladimir Bekhterev and Moise Kogan. Several of them made connections between Paris and St. Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev – Marie Vassilieff, baroness of Oettingen (alias François Angiboult), Sergei Yastrebtsov (alias Serge Férat), Sara Stern (alias Sonia Delaunay) and Jean Lébédeff – or brought back with them Parisian artistic novelties (cubist and futurist) – Exter, Yakulov, Altman, Lyubov Popova, Nadejda Oudaltsova and Véra Pestel in particular.

The renaissance of Russian art began to transition early in the 20th century into popular art, especially Slavic, one of the most varied and polymorphic in the world. Rare were the works from avant-garde Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Armenian or Georgian painters in the context of the Russian Empire, but then came Soviet Russia, which wasn’t exempt from the Primitivist movement and also encompassed Fauvist, Cubo-Futurist and Constructivist works.

In contrast to the refinement of symbolism, to the eclecticism of the modern style (which Russians called Art Nouveau), and to the realism of the travelling artists, what began to appear around 1907 – at the Stephanos4 Exhibition in Moscow – were forms and themes that were consciously and deliberately primitive, even vulgar, on the canvases of Larionov, Goncharova and the Burliuk brothers, David and Vladimir. Referred to as Neo-primitivism, this style of art drew its inspiration from children’s drawings, pastry tins, plates, stoneware squares, embroidery, secular and religious imagery, Izba wood sculptures, and elements that revitalized all concepts of art – laconism, non-conformism to scientific perspectives or to proportions, total freedom of drawing, the deconstruction of objects according to multiple points of view, simultaneity, an emphasis on expressiveness and humour, and on trivial and crude themes. The return to the “collective tradition” and the “national myth” started at the end of the 19th century, when they started studying the “treasures of popular creation sown in the depths of the Russian countryside.”5

It was in December 1909, at the third Salon exhibition of the Symbolist La Toison d’Or, where the Neo-primitivism of Larionov and Goncharova received a tremendous reception, amid popular works such as lace designs, lubki, Russian icons and Arabesque cakes. At that same time, Nikolai Koulbine was comparing the beauty in the art of prehistoric children and men to the creations of nature (flowers and crystals). That year Bakst, who had been Chagall’s teacher in St. Petersburg, also attracted attention with children’s drawings. Referring to the “new taste”, he observed that it “shows a primitive, uncommon form…a gross style, lapidary, the country table…a big chunk of bread seasoned with salt.”6 Children’s drawings were presented among works of art at the Izdebski Salon, which opened in Odessa in 1909, and would travel through numerous cities of the Russian Empire.

In 1912, Kandinsky organized the first lubki exhibition in Munich, at the Hanz Goltz Gallery.7 Presenting reprints of eight ancient xylographies (wood engravings) from his collection, he wrote: “These designs were made in Moscow, mainly in the first half of the 19th century (of course the origin of this tradition goes way back). Transient booksellers sold them even in remote villages. We can see them today on farms, even though they were often superseded by lithographs, chromolithographs, etc…”8 Der Blaue Reiter’s almanac shows a lot of children’s art and popular images from around the world – Russian, Bavarian, German, Chinese, African, Japanese, Brazilian, pre-Columbian, Egyptian, Polynesian. Kandinsky was very impressed with its discovery in 1888–1889, and how it reflected the artistic beauty of the Russian countryside and the Christian-pagan folklore of the Vologda region.9

It is therefore no coincidence that the author of Du Spirituel dans l’art (Spiritualism in Art), who resided in Moscow in the second half of 1910 and had contacts with the leaders of the art revival in Russia – and was also featured with German and Russian artists of the Munich Neue Künstlervereinigung at the first two Valet de Carreau (Jack of Diamonds) exhibitions in 1910 and 1912, asked David Burliuk to write an article for the Der Blaue Reiter almanac. The article would be titled “Die Wilden Russlands” (The Wild Beasts of Russia), in which Burliuk declared: “The law that Russian artists have recently discovered is only the re-establishment of a tradition that originates in the ‘barbaric’ works of art: those of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Scythians, etc… This rediscovered tradition is the two-edged sword that broke the chains of academic convention and set art free.”10

It was therefore logical that, following the publication of this article in Der Blaue Reiter, certain members of neo-primitivism would be invited to the second exhibition at the Goltz Gallery in Munich, held from February to April 1912. Invitees included the likes of Goncharova, Larionov and Malevich, members of a group of painters known as Donkey’s Tail who were becoming very successful in Moscow at that time thanks to an exhibition of their works. Some of these works of art ended up in the Kandinsky collection and can be found today in Paris at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM): the gouache Lumberjacks (1911) of Goncharova, Larionov’s Soldier’s Head (1911) and Malevich’s Study of Countrymen (1911), as well as Goncharova’s charcoal drawings of The Grape Harvest. These works are typical of the Russian neo-primitivism style in their over-simplicity of expression and their basic structure, borrowed from the lubok tradition rather than from “civilized” works. The Donkey’s Tail exhibition in Moscow was the first to feature a Chagall work – La Mort (The Dead Man) – in an avant-garde context. It was also in 1912 that Chagall’s work was exhibited at the Autumn Salon, and Yakov Tugendhold, a writer for the modernist publication St. Petersburg Apollon12, praised the young Chagall, saying his works are filled with “rich fire colours like the Russian countryside images, expressed to the grotesque, fantastic, to the limits of the irrational.”

It is thus not surprising that, in 1913, the Autumn Salon welcomed “Russian Popular Art in the image, the toy and the spice bread, an exhibition organized by Miss Nathalie Ehrenbourg.” These objects came mainly from the collections of members of the art world (Ivan Bilibine, Sergei Soudieikine, Nikolai Roerich, Sergei Tchekhonine), but also from the collections of avant-garde artists such as Koulbine, Exter and primarily Larionov. The catalogue cover for this exhibit was written by Tugendhold himself, reaffirming that “the contemporary cult of the primitive is different from the one of the romantic era and the orientalism era…. This archaic art, strong, expressive, forever young, brings hope of renewal, ‘rejuvenation’ to use Paul Gauguin’s word.”13

That same year Larionov organized an impressive exhibition of popular icons and images of Moscow. I. Ehrenburg (Ilia Lazarevich, a cousin of future Soviet author Ilya Grigoryevich Ehrenburg) quoted in a Paris-based Russian newspaper an article written by Alexandre Benois, which maintained that, to understand cubism, one must experience Russian icons and to understand the icons, one must experience cubism. He adds: “Our young Russian painters are not pure cubists. They have a lot of lubok and icon in them.”14

Thus, in the very early stages of the 20th century, primitivism made an indelible mark on Fauvism, Cézannism and Cubo-Futurism. The picturesque scenes of small-town life or religious rituals are transformed by conciseness, freshness, liveliness and the energy of age-old secular popular art. Chagall is particularly concerned by this. Tugendhold demonstrated in 1915 the importance of primitive art in Russia in his writings: “Chagall senses the imperceptible but terrible mystique of life. Those are the images of Vitebsk – a sullen, dull province, a modest hair salon, a lovers’ rendezvous a bit awkward under a misty moon and street sweepers, a dusty illusion of life on the streets of small villages. Chagall creates beautiful legends by capturing glimpses of the simple and common life.”15

  1. Exposition Universelle: Russia at the 1900 World Fair. Parijskaya gaziéta 9, 17 (4) (April 1900), 3.
  2. The Koustari of the Russian Section. Parijskaya gaziéta 10 (1900), 2–3.
  3. The Autumn Salon: Russian Art Exhibition. Exh. cat. with texts by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois (Paris, 1906).
  4. The exhibition title was in Greek and referred to a collection of poems by Valéri Brioussov, also in Greek.
  5. Yakov Tugendhold, preface to Russian Popular Art in the image, the toy and the spice bread, an exhibition organized by Miss Nathalie Ehrenbourg. Autumn Salon 1913, exh. cat. (Paris: Kugelmann), 310.
  6. Léon Bakst, The Paths of Classicism in Art (Apollon 3, 1909).
  7. Lubok: Der russische Volksbilderbogen 1900–1930, exh. cat. (Munich: Münchner Stadtmuseum, 1985), 6–7.
  8. Cited in Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac) with notes by Klaus Lankheit (Paris: Klincksieck, 1981).
  9. See the original work, despite some extrapolations and minor errors, by Pegg Weiss, Kandinsky and Old Russia, The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).
  10. David Burliuk, The Russian Fauvists (1912), reproduced in Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (The Blue Rider Almanac), 105–106.
  11. It consists of the cubist version of the painting The Dead Man (La Mort). Chagall’s first initial is erroneous in the exhibition catalogue (I.), which shows that the Vitebsk artist was not yet well known.
  12. Apollon 1, 1913.
  13. Yakov Tugendhold, preface to Popular Russian Art, 308.
  14. I. Ehrenburg, “Popular Russian Art in Paris,” The Parisian Messenger 20 (May 17, 1913).
  15. Yakov Tugendhold, “A New Talent,” The New Russians (Moscow, March 29, 1915), also cited in Marc Chagall, The Russian Years 1907–1922 (Paris: MAMVP, 1995), 242.

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