REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: “Politics in the World of Art: Representations of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries”

On June 27th, Professor Cadra McDaniel gave a Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled, “Politics in the World of Art: Representations of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.” Professor McDaniel is an Assistant Professor of History and Liberal Studies at Texas A&M University-Central Texas and the author of American-Soviet Cultural Diplomacy: The Bolshoi Ballet’s American Premiere.

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According to Professor McDaniel, the emergence of the World of Art (Mir iskusstva), a Russian art magazine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, heralded a new and innovative phase in the world of Russian art. Artists associated with the World of Art, the Miriskusniki, became known for their avant-garde works and for their appreciation of Western European aesthetics and cultural trends. The name World of Art was meant to highlight their cosmopolitan proclivities and to build a bridge between Russian art and Western European art. While many scholars have acknowledged the World of Art for its cultural achievements and contributions to European art as a whole, few have considered how the World of Art interacted with Russian politics. Although the World of Art is commonly seen as having been apolitical, Professor McDaniel argues that the World of Art and the Miriskusniki often expressed political and nationalist themes through their art, many of which have continued to feature in 20th century and contemporary Russian art.

In the late 19th century, nationalism became a powerful force in Europe and Russia. Amidst ongoing nationalist debates in the country, the Miriskusniki sought to illustrate national identity not through politics, but through what they saw as authentic Russian art. In their search for national identity, the Miriskusniki looked to the past, finding inspiration in ancient Russian myths and folklore, as well as 18th century Russia and France.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

The artist Viktor Vasnetsov and his painting Knight at the Crossroads became a source of nationalist discussions among the Miriskusniki. Knight at the Crossroads, which celebrates Russia’s glorious past and the Slavic soul, depicts a Russian bogatyr, and draws heavily on Russian folklore. Sergei Diaghilev, one of the founders of the World of Art, believed that nationalists such as Vasnetsov would help Russia transition into Western European culture. In Europe at the time there was a widespread interest in myths and folklore, so Diaghilev believed that works like Knight at the Crossroads would integrate Russia into larger European artistic trends. Following the ideological traditions of Viktor Vasnetsov was Mikhail Nesterov, who was seen as representative of Russian national romanticism. Many of Nesterov’s works focused on religious themes, such as his Holy Trinity from 1895. Holy Trinity is a direct imitation of Anton Rublev’s icon, The Trinity. McDaniel argues that Nesterov’s imitation of the famed icon painter shows the continued importance of Orthodoxy in Russian nationalism. By harkening back to the Middle Ages, both Vasnetsov and Nesterov highlight the medieval period as a formative and glorious time in Russian history and as a central part of Russian identity.

Alexandre Benois, The King's Walk, 1906

Alexandre Benois, The King’s Walk, 1906

Moving forward in time, the World of Art also exhibited a great love and appreciation for the 18th century. Artists like Alexandre Benois, Valentin Serov, and Konstantin Somov, who were not interested in the medieval period, devoted their work to glorifying 18th century Russian culture. Benois’s painting, The King’s Walk, shows a stylization of the period that evokes a longing for a bygone era. The glorification of the 18th century by the Miriskusniki could be interpreted as a rebellion against bourgeois practicality, but it could also be seen as a celebration of Russia’s integration into European culture. As Professor McDaniel notes, “for the Miriskusniki, a Russia fully integrated Europe should serve as a basis for contemporary political and national identity.”

The ideologies of the Miriskusniki were not shared by everyone in Russia and even proved to be contentious in some circles. Vladimir Stasov, a supporter of the Peredvizhniki, often shared his contempt for the Miriskusniki in his journal, Art and Art Industry. He found the Miriskusniki and their works “anti-artistic,” “repulsive,” and derivative of their Western counterparts. McDaniel claims that Stasov’s distaste for the World of Art was rooted in his love for realism and his inability to appreciate new trends in Russian art, and she further argues that these tensions between the Miriskusniki and the Peredvizhniki highlight the importance of art in Russian society.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, October Idyll, 1905

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, October Idyll, 1905

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the political landscape in Russia became increasingly volatile. This volatility came to a head on January 22nd, 1905, a date that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Led by Father Georgy Gapon, thousands of workers marched to the Winter Palace with a list of demands for improved working conditions. As the unarmed workers peacefully approached the palace, they were fired upon by the Imperial Guard; countless were killed or gravely wounded. Bloody Sunday sparked a widespread outcry throughout Russian society and many Miriskusniki unabashedly vocalized their disapproval of the event and of the monarchy as a whole.

Some of the Miriskusniki, such as Valentin Serov and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, started a new satirical journal, Zhupel, and used it as a platform to publicly criticize the monarchy. Zhupel included works like Dobuzhinsky’s October Idyll, which depicts a scene of political violence committed by the government. Boris Kustodiev’s Entry illustrates a similarly macabre scene; Kustodiev depicts a battle between soldiers and workers, who are overshadowed by a massive, blood-covered skeleton. Not all artists of Zhupel chose to focus on themes of violence and death. For example, in the third and final edition of Zhupel, Ivan Bilibin published his illustration An Ass (Equus Asinus), which features a donkey accompanied by symbols of the Romanov dynasty. The illustration was an obvious critique of Nicholas II and was not received warmly by the government; Bilibin was sentenced to a brief house arrest and Zhupel was subsequently shut down.

Leonid Nikolayev, Blue Bucket Protests

Leonid Nikolayev, Blue Bucket Protest, 2010

According to McDaniel, the legacies of the World of Art and Zhupel continue to resonate into the 21st century. Government-sponsored art, such as World War I monuments, echo the early nationalist sentiments expressed by the World of Art, while the satirical traditions of Zhupel live on through the works of contemporary dissident artists like Gosha Ostretsov and Leonid Nikolayev. Nikolayev’s performance piece, Blue Bucket Protest, is a commentary on the abuse of political privilege by governmental officials, and mirrors the themes found in Ivan Bilibin’s An Ass. In contemporary Russia, as citizens grapple with concepts of national identity and struggle to wade through the political mire, the World of Art continues to serve as a source of inspiration and discussion.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, including issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

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