Back to Saint Petersburg – exploring Russian art history in the Russian museum – late 19th and 20th century until present

The Russian Museum (Государственный Русский музей) of Saint Petersburg has been initiated by Tsar Alexander III. Valentin Serov painted this rather strong man – his painting takes up impressionistic trends in 1900.

Serov: Portrait of Alexander III, 1900

It then was Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, that inaugurated the museum in March 1898.

Serov’s portrait of Alexander hangs in the Benois Wing that hosts the Russian paintings of the late 19th and the 20th century until present. Let us explore this period now. My primary source for the background information is the book “Russisches Museum: Museumsführer”, Palace Editions, Sankt Petersburg 2014 as well as the detailed explanations in the museum.


Suprematism – the ultimate Avant-Garde

“Avant-Garde” – this is what the art trends before and shortly after the revolution of 1917 are called in Russia. The culmination was marked by Malevich’s and Rodchenko’s radically abstract geometric forms – their squares and circles. We talk about “Suprematism” here.

Malevich: Black square, black circle and black cross, 1915

Rodchenko: White circle, 1918

Malevich gave up painting after having reduced it to the minimum and only returned to it in the late 1920’s combining abstract forms with real objects. I like his Red Cavalry.

Source: Russisches Museum: Museumsführer – Red Cavalry, 1932

The Red Cavalry reminds me of this line of giraffes that Ernst captured at the horizon of the yellow steppe in the Etosha park in Namibia in 2008.

May be we are all trying to understand eternity beyond our horizon.


In addition to Suprematism, the Russian Avant-Garde has many more facets

The Benois Wing. presents many more sides of the Russian Avant-Garde that I have not been aware of so far.  In addition to “Suprematism”, “Avant-garde” materializes in various trends that are called “Abstract”, “Luchism” or “Rayonism”, “Neo-primitivism”, “Cubofuturism”, “Constructivism” and “Analytical”. Before the revolution, society was breaking up and looking for new horizons and so were painting and literature.

Famous is Nathan Altmann that painted the poet Akhmatova in cubist style.

Altman: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914

Pavel Filonov presented the Masleniza, a very Russian scene – celebrating shrovetide or fasnacht and the exit from winter. The painting counts as analytical style.

Filonov: Shrovetide and exit from winter into summer, 1913-14

A representation of the neo-primitive style is Natalja Goncharova with her evangelists.

Goncharova: Evangelists in blue, 1911

Boris Grigoriev painted in expressionist manner. This portrait of Vsyevolod Meyerhold reminds me of the devil Voland in Bulgakow’s “Master and Margerita” (Voland stirred up Moscow where Master and Margarita lived their adventures; written in 1928 and completed in 1940). However, Meyerhold was not a devil, but a very courageous theatre director and producer that was executed in 1940. I do not know, whether Grigoriev had the intention to make him look like a devil, but this is what he seemed to look like for Ursula and me.

Grigoriev: Portrait of Vsyevolod Meyerhold, 1916

One of the artists that stood at the beginning of the Avant-Garde was Michail Vrubel. Some of his paintings reflect Art Modern. He became famous with painting demons. In addition Vrubel took up the tradition of central Russia to make majolicas.

Vrubel: Sadko Dish, Abrametsewo Ceramics Workshop, Majolica relief and coloured enamels 

I read about the majolica production in Russia in “the Mikula and Volga fireplace” by Peter Stupples. Vrubel and other artists had the idea to decorate buildings using majolicas. In Abrametsewo an old oven was restored. Piotr Vaulin was the technically trained ceramist that enabled Vrubel to produce majolicas in good quality. No majolicas by Vrubel without Vaulin. Vrubel has taken the reputation for everything without sharing it – not a nice practice by my opinion. Today Piotr Vaulin has been almost forgotten. I was fascinated to meet him again, as he is the grand-father of my friend Anna Vaulina. He has decorated the mosque of St. Petersburg with blue ceramic tiles and, when staying in the apartment of Anna’s cousin in 2002, I noticed a blue plate decorated with a swinging relief of flowers. Vaulin’s majolica plate resembled Vrubel’s majolica plate – or the other way round.


The 1920’s and the 1930’s

After the revolution in the 1920′ and 30’s work and sports became predominant. Two examples are Sergei Luchishkin’s “skiers” and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkins “spring”.

Luchishkin: Skiers, 1926

Being a skier myself, I like the joyful atmosphere of the painting “skiers”. And – I admire my friends from Petersburg that are proud to be горнолыжники or skiers – and they have learnt skiing well, even dynamic carving, though the hills are very, very small around Saint Petersburg – by Swiss standards.

Petrov-Vodkin: Spring, 1935.

The couple enjoying spring reminds me of socialist heroes, but the bright and friendly colours attract me.


Present time: Paintings and sculpture of contemporary artists

Last, the Benois Wing shows sculptures and paintings of contemporary artists. The styles vary. Some remind me of the socialist style and others are more individualistic art interpretations.  I like this queue painted by Alexej Sundokov that seems to have no beginning and no end. The beginning disappears in the lower right corner. And the end must be somewhere far behind me (the spectator). I am standing in line looking at the back of the woman with the brown bag just in front of me.  The painting reminds me of this joke: There is a queue here? There must be something you can buy here! Let me stand in line as well! The spectators are invited to join the queue.

Alexej Sundukov: Queue, 1986

Adelaide Pologova’s sculpture shows a woman that is trying to get everything done – work, household, raising a child… much stress.

Pologova: Keeper of a hearth, 1983

Yevsei Mioseyenko paints a boy with his grand-father in a typical Russian village.

Mioseyenko: Sergei Yessenin with his grand-father, 1963-64

This is what the room looks like in which Andrej Jakowlew thinks about participation. What participation? Perhaps collaboration between the two men at the table?

Jakowlew: Participation, 1968


The Benois Wing motivates us to buy some souvernirs

There is a beautiful museum shop where I buy pretty shopping bags to present to friends, when back at home. The bag that I buy for me shows the painting “Churches. New Jerusalem” by Aristarch Lentulow.

Source: Russisches Museum: Museumsführer – Lentulow: Churches. New Jerusalem, 1917

Lentulow’s churches are very, very Russian and charming.

In the museum shop we also buy the Guidebook to the Russian Museum, in order to recapitulate later what we have seen. I wish that one of our museums in Switzerland would exchange with the Russian museum to make the latest Russian paintings and sculptures more known in Europe.


One thought on “Back to Saint Petersburg – exploring Russian art history in the Russian museum – late 19th and 20th century until present

  1. […] in Saint Petersburg (here, I studied Russian painting from the 19th back to the 11th century and from the late 19th century until present in detail). The Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg had been initiated by Tsar Alexander III and […]

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