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Russian painting, in general, has the look and feel of European painting since it has been broadly shaped by European influence.
Early Russian Painting
The artistic discoveries of the Renaissance came late to Russia. Until the eighteenth century a tradition of icon painting based on stylistic principles imported from Bysantium in the Middle Ages dominated the Russian art. Despite many restraints on creative freedom (for example, only certain colors were to be used in icon painting) the artists produced some of the greatest masterpieces ever created. Icons were meant to express the fullest spiritual ideals of the people and therefore they played a significant, if not decisive, role in the development of Russian art.
Russian Imperial Academy
Founded in early eighteenth century by Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, the Academy's purpose was to bring the finest European art traditions to Russia. In 1758 the Academy, later known as the Russian Imperial Academy opened to its first thirty-six students. In 1760, the young painter Anton Losenko became the first Academy student to be sent abroad (to Italy and France) to complete his training. In the nineteenth century the Russian Academy maintained its own campus in a historic building in Rome. The school was modeled on the Academy in Paris, and was created some time after those in Vienna and Berlin; but it was established a few years before the Royal Academy in London, illustrating the great cultural strides Russia was making in the eighteenth century.
Academy in the 19th Century
It was the example of Italian art and also the history, architecture and landscape of Italy itself that exerted the greater influence over Russian artists in the first half of the century. The artists composed subjects from classical history, legend and myth, which they executed in a highly finished neo-classical style. Big, multi-figure history paintings were emphasized as the peak of the artist's ambition. The influence of these principles may be seen in the paintings of Karl Bryullov and Alexander Ivanov.
In 1863, a number of brilliant artists seceded from the St. Petersburg's Academy of Fine Arts and became the first Russia's artistic dissidents. The Wanderers circulated their exhibitions from town to town. Rivaling the Academy these painters launched the most brilliant artistic movement, and over the time of its existence attracted most of the young painting talent. As opposed to the Academy, the Wanderers were strongly committed to individual psychological drama, apparent in portraiture and thematic compositions. They preferred scenes of Russian history to the legends of classical Greece and Rome and had a profound interest in contemporary life. Russia itself - its history, its inhabitants, its crises and its landscape became the subject of their work. By the end of the 1870s, the Wanderers were established as the most vital force in Russian art. Ilya Repin, Vasili Surikov and Valentin Serov were some of the most brilliant of the group.
Russian Art in the Twentieth Century
After the Russian Revolution, the Communist powers stroke a blow against visual arts by proclaiming Socialist Realism as the single artistic direction. Ironically, by solely focusing on the virtues of realism the Soviet government helped to save the school from destruction, while in the West realism was greatly undermined by competing contemporary art. Aside from propaganda paintings, much of the art created at the time was not political. If not for those beautiful landscapes, portraits and still life paintings, the public would not have attended official art exhibits. Artists did not accept censorship without putting up a fight.
Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the state of fine arts in Russia has changed. Artists are facing a whole new environment, ruled mostly by the free market. However, the Russian classical tradition is still very strong. Recently it came in full glory during the re-building of the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This legendary temple of Christianity was demolished by Stalin. For many years the site was used as a huge open air swimming pool. The re-birth of the Cathedral became possible due to the immense talent and excellent training of the hundreds of Russian architects, painters and sculptors gathered from all over Russia. Bridgeview is proud to have one of them, Anna Rochegova, on its faculty.