Essay: Developments in Russian Painting

The situation in the Russian painting at the beginning of the past century was similar to that in many European nations, marked by vigorous artistic activity and passion for experimentation. Like in most European countries, in Russia painters did not merely copycat foreign styles. Instead, they viewed innovative ideas through the prism of their own, unique view of the world and developed unique styles and movements.

The Russian painting in 1905-1920 was revolved around “the idea of abstract, non-objective (non-representational) art” (Rollins College). The ultimate expression of this idea was the work of the leading abstract painter Kazimir Malevich and his Suprematist experiments. In Malevich’s own words, Suprematism means that “the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling” (Malevich). This is an idea that laid the foundation for abstract art de-emphasizing reality and giving itself to the expression of the artist’s inner feelings. Malevich’s work of that period includes “The Woodcutter” (1912), “The Aviator” (1914), “An Englishman in Moscow” (1914), and other paintings demonstrating the re-conceptualisation of the relationship between reality and artistic imagination.

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Other, perhaps less radical experiments included “Neo-primitivism, Rayonism (Rayism, Rayonnism), Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism, and Constructivism” (Boguslawski). Although some of them are closely connected with similar styles developing in Europe, Russian artists often reworked foreign ideas, drawing on their own cultural legacy. Thus, the artists enthusiastically responded to Cubism and Cezanne’s art, including Ilya Mashkov, Peter Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, reinterpreted this tradition based on “their strong involvement with old Russian architecture, folk toys, painted trays and spinning-wheels, the lubok and amateur shop advertisement signs” (Petrova). Cubo-futurim also included ideas of Italian futurism represented by Marinetti and Boccioni. This movement with its dynamic rhythm is exemplified in Malevich’s “The Knife-Grinder” (1912) and Goncharova’s “The Cyclist” (1912-13).

Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov broke the traditional naturalistic stance of Russian painting school and incorporated elements of foreign cultures to create a unique Primitivist style, proclaimed first at the 3rd Golden Fleece Exhibition in 1909. While in the West neo-Primitivism developed out of fascination with native art of Australia, Africa, and Oceania, Russian primitivists borrowed their ideas from lubok, Russian folk painting, and peasant folk art.

Art historians have also found “impressionistic traits” in the art of Viktor Borisov-Musatov and his Blue Rose group (Petrova). Another movement that is also described as Impressionist in nature is Rayism, or Rayonism. The style proved to be short-lived, invented and practiced mostly by Larionov and Goncharova, and focused on “crossing of reflected rays from various objects” (Boguslawski). Using color and line as the main instruments, Rayonism, introduced in 1913, existed for only one year, but left an imprint on the development of Russian abstract painting. Larionov’s “Blue Rayonism” is an example of the style.

Many painters in that period never really fit into any particular movement. Thus, Pavel Filonov, Marc Chagall, and Vasilii Kandinskii all created specific styles of their own. Kandinskii, inspired by Russian folk art and “German medieval manuscript illustration and stained glass”, created a deeply spiritual style in painting. Returning to Moscow from Germany in 1914, he proceeded to build the foundation for Russian non-representational art. Marc Chagall, although he spent most of his life in France, painting his fascinating ‘naïve’ works, received an artistic education in St. Petersburg and started his work in Russia prior to emigration in 1910. Pavel Filonov, an important figure in the evolution of Russian avant-garde art, won international acclaim only lately. His artistic views that led to the clash with St. Petersburg Art Academy in 1910, were grounded in the desire “to observe and understand the forces that comprise the human existence, both the internal and external factors” (Boguslawski).

One cannot but mention the group or artists who contributed greatly to the development of the Russian stage decorations, World of Art. The group included Benois, Bakst, Dobuzhinsky and some others and was famous for cooperation with an important theatrical figure Sergey Dyagilev in designing the setting for the latter’s stage productions.
Thus, Russian painting at the time was a diverse and chequered landscape that offered artists numerous opportunities for self-expression. Too soon, unfortunately, with the installation of the Communist regime and in particular Stalin’s rule, the method of social realism became the rigid doctrine and suppressed diversity of styles.

Works Cited
Boguslawski, Alexander. Russian Painting: 20th Century. Rollins College, 1998-2005. 3 December 2005 <>.
Malevich, Kasimir. Suprematism. 3 December 2005 <>.
Petrova, Evgeniya. The Avant-Garde and Russian Painting 1900-1930s from the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. 3 December 2005 <>.
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