Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review – The Russian Canvas : Painting in Imperial Russia 1757-1881 by Rosalind P. Blakesley ( Yale University Press )

Book Review – The Russian Canvas : Painting in Imperial Russia 1757-1881 by Rosalind P. Blakesley ( Yale University Press )

russcanvas

The Russian Canvas explores the rise of Russian painting in the 18th and 19th centuries, the author of the book is Dr Rosalind Blakesley who is also the curator for the current exhibition, Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery.

The author states in the introduction that ” In the first half of the eighteenth century, there was no such thing as a Russian school of painting”. This lack of artistic infrastructure led to wealthy Russians  building up collections of foreign art and Russian artists struggled to make a living by selling their paintings. However, by the late 19th century, according to the author ” cultural commentators in Russia largely agreed that a national school of painting had appeared’, even if they disputed its future direction.”

This transformation was the subject of a number of factors which the book investigates in considerable detail, in many ways the foundation of the Imperial Academy of the Arts in 1757 provided the basis of the professionalization of Russian artists against the backdrop of social, political and cultural change. Whilst, this period 1757 to 1881 has not been totally neglected by art historians, the author makes the important point that little work has been done about “precisely how professional painters emerged in Russia, or unravelled the curious ways in which pan-European engagement operated alongside local and national peculiarities to create a body of painting that Russians could claim as their own.”

The first half of the book explores the often uneasy relationship between educators who attempted to create a Russian Imperial Academy but were dependant on professors from other European countries especially France and Germany. The artists themselves were encouraged to travel to Italy and France to develop their skills with the Academy occasionally providing funds for artists. Some of the first Academy artists who made an impact included Anton Losenko, Dmitry Levitsky and Vladamir Borovikovsky who had developed their skill studying French, English and Italian painting which were reflected in their approach to  society portraits of the Russian elites.

In the early 19th century, tensions between the European and Russian models were exacerbated by conflicts between Napoleonic France and Russia. Tsar Nicholas I began to take an active interest in the Academy which provided support for some artists whilst alienating others. The creation of the Imperial Academy of the Arts had slowly created interest in professional painting in other parts of Russia, most notably with the creation of the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture which opened in 1843 and  began to produce artists who created paintings of critical realism and naturalistic landscape.

Against a rather unsettled administrative structure, the role of the artists themselves played a major part in the development of the Russian school of painting. The second half of the book considers the careers of some of these artists within domestic and international contexts.

One of the paradoxes of the development of the Russian school of painting was that Russian artists like Bruni, Briullov and Ivanov who went to Paris and Rome to hone their talents began to adapt the methods they had learnt to paint subject matter that paid tribute to the French and Italian landscapes rather than painting their homeland. This was to cause considerable animosity from the Russian state who believed many artists were enjoying a bohemian lifestyle at their expense. On the other hand, artists wished to develop their career and talent without political interference. Adding more fire to this discontent was that many of the Russian elite would commission foreign artists to carry out highly lucrative work.

A number of foreign artists travelled around Russia and began to paint scenes that many Russians believed their own artists should be painting. There were a number of native artists who generally came from the serf class who began to document everyday day life in Russia to considerable acclaim. One artist who turned his back on his St Petersburg lifestyle was Aleksei Venetsianov who ran an art school on his estate and looked to the Russian countryside for inspiration. However, the artists that began to look beyond the usual subject matters could find themselves embroiled in the political uncertainties of the mid to late 19th century. Pavel Fedotov’s satires exposed many of the absurdities of Russian society but the artist suffered ill health and died tragically young aged only thirty seven.

In the 1860s, many of the underlying tensions of the Academy and artists came to conflict on the eve of the Academy’s centenary in 1864. Some of the artists rebelled against the Academy in the Revolt of the Fourteen which became politicised by various groups, although much was made politically of the revolt, the author suggests “the antagonism between the Academy and its secessionists has been greatly overstated.” One of the ringleaders of the Revolt of the Fourteen was Ivan Kramskoi who with Ilia Repin were considered leaders of the Russian realist movement. However for Kramskoi the promotion of a Russian national cultural identity was paramount and Repin’s interest in French Impressionist painting was considered a betrayal. For all of Kramskoi’s angst, Repin’s reputation was enhanced with his ‘impressionist’ paintings and Russian collectors began to collect  French impressionist paintings in considerable numbers. Eventually, these artistic differences paled into insignificance in 1881 when the assassination of Tsar Alexander II began a cycle of tension and conflict that led to the Revolution of 1917.

Because of the massive changes in Russia in the twentieth century, this period of Russian art has been consigned to the shadows of European art history. This well researched, authoritative and intriguing book with a large number of stunning illustrations brings the period back into the spotlight and explores the complex developments of the time and provides some insights into the work of major Russian artists of the period, many who have been neglected in Russia and beyond. The book also provides evidence that many of the seeds of future movements were sown in this period, although the irony was that although a Russian school was developed to further the cultural status of the Imperial dynasty, it was actually after the Revolution of 1917 that Russian art really began to find its own distinctive voice.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the Yale University Press website here

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