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Modern Russian Pioneers IV: Kazimir Malevich (see 15/3/13)

Posted on February 3, 2014 at 11:10 AM Comments comments (1)
The Blue Rose Exhibition in 1907 was one of the first Russian avant-garde events. A departure from a naturalist style, a symbolist tendency and an interest in the spiritual characterised the exposition. Although Kazimir Malevich did not participate in the show, he clearly took an interest in symbolist aesthetics and the exhibited works. This can be seen in several studies for a fresco also known as the Yellow Series, shown at the exhibition "The Great Change" in the Bonnefantemuseum in Maastricht (Spring 2013) and the exhibition "Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde’’ in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (19.10.2013-02.02.14).

In one of these pieces, Study for a Fresco. Self-Portrait (1908, RM), Malevich depicts himself as a self-conscious artist with piercing eyes. Symbolists placed great importance on the role of the artist as a kind of prophet, a person who points the way. It seems to me, that Malevich took this idea to heart in his almost messianic self depiction. The French symbolist writer Joséphin Péladan stated in 1894: ‘Artist thou art priest ..., Artist thou art king,..., Artist thou art magician ...' Malevich called his most significant work of art, Black Square (1915), his 'royal infant'. Some specialists in the field today regard him as a true mystic.[1]


At the same time, Malevich reveres 'the other world' or 'heaven' in another study in this series, Triumph of Heaven. What the title signifies may be read in another study in the Yellow Series: Assumption of a saint. 

In it, we see the corpse of a deceased person on earth surrounded by holy beings (see nimbi) and an imposing figure with out-stretched arms guiding him in the transition between life and death. It reminds me of a beloved icon of the Dormition from Malevich's homeland, Russia. Yet, in contrast to the icon where only the soul is carried to the heavens, Malevich's central figure significantly bears both body and soul. This difference need not surprise us, as it reflects Malevich's Catholic background.

Malevich soon leaves the subdued monotone tonality, the multiple forms and the mysticism of symbolist aesthetics behind. He shifts his attention to the pastoral life of peasants employing a different artistic language. In a vein similar to his neo-primitivist colleagues, he simplified forms, utilised bright colours and drew bold, contoured lines. 

Like Goncharova, Malevich idealised the labour of peasants and brought their religious piety to the fore. He depicts Peasant Women in Church (1909, SMA) as holy people with icon-like faces, or if you like, masks. As outlined in blogposts Modern Russian Pioneers I, II, this glorification of the peasantry was the result of complex feelings of guilt and compassion in post-reform, 19th century Russia and gave expression to the nostalgia migrants to the city such as Malevich and Goncharova, felt in the early 20th century.

In post-reform Russia, Repin and Kramskoy gave common people a face with their beautiful, realist portraits of peasants, whilst early 20th century avant-gardists such as Goncharova and Malevich were less occupied with a photographic imitation of reality and more intrigued by its essence and their own artistic experiments. This can be seen in Head of a Peasant Girl (1912-13, SMA), Red Square and Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions (1915, RM). Clearly, the plight and portrayal of the peasant had become subordinate to Malevich's pursuance of ideas such as the fourth dimension, alogism and cosmic consciousness in his artistic cubo-futurist and suprematist endeavours.
In retrospect, Malevich was convinced that in Black Square, he managed to depict the 'other world', a world normally only - in his words - 'sensed' not seen. Further he felt his suprematist works revealed an infinite, cosmic reality in which form, colour and humans experience free-floating freedom.


To Kazimir Malevich it must have been a liberating experience to discover his 'royal infant', Black Square. For a brief moment in time, as he explains, he transformed himself into the 'zero of forms'. His 'search for God within himself' led to the discovery of a suprematist world where the veil of the world of appearance was lifted and heaven or the infinite white 'triumphed' on a flat canvas. 

Curiously, an undated peasant drawing from Malevich in the Chardzjiev Collection demonstrates an amazing resemblance to his symbolist Self Portrait of 1908, whilst his post-suprematist Head of a Peasant (1928-29, RM) placed against the background of a cross, glorifies the peasant once again. In this way he held onto a mixture of symbolist, Catholic and suprematist ideals rather than the socialist-realist values which were the norm in Communist Russia at this time.[2]

In the Modern Age, revolutionaries and artists including Malevich passionately sought to break from the ideologies and traditions of the past in favour of freedom, equality and brotherhood. These modernists together with their peasant - icon and hero of modernity – ultimately faced the grim reality of 1930s Russia where there was little to hold on to except oneself.

Perhaps Malevich, as he himself acknowledged, was 'a step' on 'a path' leading to a 'world of sensations' where the above three values are respected. As well as the symbolists, the Russian painter was assuredly inspired by his contemporary, Ouspensky who wrote in the foreword to the Russian translation of Du Cubisme (1911): 'Art is a path to cosmic consciousness'. There is only the lightness of being.

1. During an International Symposium linked to the exhibition "Kazimir Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde" at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Malevich expert Alexandra Shatskikh stated that, based on his writings and abstract art, the Russian painter should be regarded as a mystic of relevance for the coming five hundred years.

2. For a description of Head of a PeasantBlack Square and other paintings by Kazimir Malevich, see Inge Wierda, Art and Religion in Russia, exh. cat. The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, 2002-03, pp. 83-85, 106-114.

3. Quotes from Malevich can be found in: Malevich. The Artist, Infinity, Suprematism. Vol. IV (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1978) ed. by Troels Andersen, K.S.

This blogpost is dedicated to Erik (+2014)

Modern Russian Pioneers III: Natalya Goncharova (see 15/3/13)

Posted on January 25, 2014 at 9:31 AM Comments comments (0)
In December 1909, a group of artists around Goncharova launched neo-primitivist art at the third exhibition of the ‘Golden Fleece’, in which they affirmed a national identity in a similar vein to the artists of Abramtsevo. They explored Russian roots as found in the country’s ‘primitive’ pagan, as well as medieval, Orthodox past and continued to propagate the rural myth of ‘obshchina’, as well as the spiritual notion of ‘sobornost’. In line with the Slavophiles and Abramtsevo artists’ circle, the neo-primitivists cherished their peasants and saints, their land and their religion as symbols of a national identity. Their art was another, twentieth-century attempt to put Russia on the map, and promote Russian cultural memory in its symbolic folk and religious images both ‘at home’ and abroad. 

Russian Folk and Religious Identity in Goncharova's Neo-Primitivism 
In the footsteps of Polenova, and in an attempt to escape and neutralise the enormous influence of French art, Goncharova called for a domestic preservation of Old Russian art and Russian arts and crafts, and the articulation of a distinct national art, as formulated in the following excerpts from her Press Statement of 24 December 1911:   

'As concerns the preservation of ancient art (icons, broadsheets) and artistic industry, it is essential that some measures be taken. These things are too valuable. […]'    

'Great and serious art cannot help but to be national. By depriving ourselves of the achievements of the past, Russian art is cutting itself off at the roots. […]'    

To this end, Goncharova and Larionov organised a major exhibition entitled Original Icons and Lubki in 1913 in Moscow, promoting these indigenous sources for modern Russian art. In her own work, Goncharova widely incorporated peasant and Russian Orthodox imagery. On one hand, she presents peasants as the rural ‘primitive’ other in her paintings, whilst they also operate as an expression and construction of a national identity. They are seen as representatives of a common past, still unspoiled by the influences of the capitalist and industrialized West. Living and working with Mother Nature, they were regarded as closer to the Russian soil and thus considered more authentic Russians than urbanites.

Goncharova’s artistic practice was not only informed by prevalent philosophical conceptions surrounding peasant and orthodox culture, but also by her own observations of the agricultural life cycle as well as church life. During her studies in the city, she suffered nostalgia for the countryside and its seasonal rituals which she witnessed in her youth. In reaction to modern urban life, she stressed the self-evident religiosity as well as a sense of community in the countryside in her images of rural labour. Although she perhaps idealized peasant life, she can not be regarded as a reactionary modernist peasant painter, as she almost simultaneously responded to modern technology and industrialization by depicting airplanes, trains, electric light and factories, the increasing speed and dynamism of her age in the modern idiom of Futurism.    

In her modern neo-primitivist works, Goncharova fused a folkloristic idiom as naturally as ancient mythical and religious imagery and transgressed the traditional techniques and pictorial qualities associated with them. This will be demonstrated in some examples of her oeuvre:

First, in the depiction of her Grape Gathering/Vintage: Dancing Peasants (1911), the artist not only referred to folk dances, but suggested notions of purity and tradition by imitating peasant woodcuts in paint. She further portrayed the peasants with faces like in icons, which produced the effect of a saintly status.              
Another marvellous picture in the Grape Gathering/Vintage series, Men carrying Grapes, can now be seen in the Bonnefantemuseum in Maastricht (See image above). 

Secondly, the entourage of the seated naked woman with dark eyes Rusalka (1908-09) testifies to Goncharova’s familiarity with pagan folk beliefs. The fishes underline the woman’s personification of a water spirit (rusalka) who had just come ashore, and the young branch decoration her hiding place in the woods at the end of winter. Traditionally feared and revered by peasants who tried to win Rusalka’s favour for the fertilization of their soil with new crops, she is depicted in a modern idiom of a fusion of cubist and fauvist elements. 

Thirdly, in Goncharova’s costume of The Mother of God (1915), she portrays the Mother of God Orans, (whilst another depiction of Mary, Madonna with Child (1905-07, TGM) demonstrates her familiarity with the Hodigitria icon type.  

The above excerpt is based upon my PhD thesis "Abramtsevo: Multiple Cultural Expressions of a Russian Folk and Religious Identity", 2008.

These quotations are taken from a letter Antokolsky sent to Mamontov inMarch 1874, cited in Э.В. Пастон, Абрамцево, 2003, c. 383.  В.M. лoбанов, Виктор Васнецовв Абрамцеве, 1928, с. 44. Although it is outside the scope of this thesis, it can be questioned as to whether the early twentieth century Russian modernists should be called avant-garde at all. Did their style not emerge as a continuation of the historically specific emancipatory waves of the nineteenth century, the political failure to deal with them adequately, and the short-lived seemingly liberating political breakthrough of the October Revolution of 1917? John E. Bowlt, ‘Neo-primitivism and Russian painting’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 116, no. 852, Modern Art (1908-25), March, 1974, p. 140, note 14. Griselda Pollock, ‘Van Gogh and the poor slaves: Images of rural labour as modern art’, Art History, Vol. 11, No. 3, September 1988, pp. 404-432. For an illustration, see Camilla Gray, Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922 (1962), rev. and enl. by Marian Burleigh-Motley (London: Thames & Hudson, 1986), p. 98.         

Modern Russian Pioneers II: Breaking with the Past

Posted on January 22, 2014 at 5:01 PM Comments comments (0)
Breaking with the past
Russia certainly was not the only country with a feudal system in 19th century Europe. It is not a coincidence that a critical realist current in art emerged in mid 19th century in France also. Like Russian realists after the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, French artists sympathised with the so-called 'lower' classes after their 1848 revolution and the abolishment of slavery in French colonies a year later. This can be demonstrated in Gustave Courbet's famous painting of the 'Stone Breakers' (1849) and Francois Miller's 'Sower' (1950). Vincent van Gogh famously followed in Millet's footsteps in the 1880s wishing to become a peasant painter whilst Ilya Repin painted his 'Head of a Shy Peasant' (1876) on his return to Russia from Paris, where he had familiarised himself with the French art world.

Repin took lessons from the academic rebel Kramskoy in order to prepare for his admission exam to the Academy in 1864. This meant that Repin was introduced to current debates about art, as well as left-wing politics upon his arrival in St. Petersburg and before his years in Paris. Kramskoy, convinced Repin and his mates, that art should not exist in a separate elitist realm, apart from everyday life. Inspired by contemporary politics and literature, he encouraged the artists to portray not only the Russian courtly and imperial elite, but the ‘common people’ also. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 had brought the Russian people to the fore; artists were now challenged to portray all subjects of the nation. In fact, artists were pushed into the role of ethnographers who were supposed to study and present the Russian people to the nation in their paintings. 

The question of the peasant was indeed the topic of the day, as Fyodor Buslayev, a friend of the Mamontovs’, revealed in 1868: ‘The study of the people is the science of our times’. This is corroborated by Repin some years later also, as a letter to Stasov reveals: ‘Now it is the peasant who counts. It is necessary to represent his interests.’

The task was challenging indeed. As artists had traditionally been largely dependant on commissions to produce portraits of members of the court, and the upper or monied classes, the ‘narod’ had hardly ever been a subject of study for artists before. Kramskoy therefore asserted that artists needed to collect material to acquainten themselves with the characteristics of the Russian people. As hinted at above, the authority with which Kramskoy tackled the problem of unfamiliarity with ‘the other’ lower classes can be questioned. Yet, the search for a national identity in the arts in Russia had begun with the ‘discovery’ of its people, the vast majority of Russians who so long had been neglected and suppressed by a minority of the court circle, aristocrats and the clergy. 

Unlike Alexei Venetsianov in the 1820s and contemporary French painters like Jean-Francois Millet, who painted labouring peasants in the field, Kramskoy and Repin portrayed peasants as individual human beings against a plain background. The two artists provided psychological insight into their world by concentrating on the peasant’s face, from which troubled eyes gaze at the viewer. By making portraits of the peasantry in a similar vein to society portraits, art could overcome class division and forge national union. Yet, whilst the change in portraiture and genre pieces aimed at humanising the peasant, perhaps even sanctifying them as faces on icons, one may wonder how peasant-sitters conceived their finished portraits. Were they not still painted as a sort of curiosa or ‘the other’, newly discovered class, rather than as one, together with the others, of the nation?

It can be stated that Natalya Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich continued the newly established realist peasant painting tradition, romanticising and modernizing it in the 20th century. Raised in the countryside themselves, they shared the awakened socialist concern with the plight of the peasant in the modern age.

The women of Abramtsevo
This concern manifested itself most clearly in the humane and artistic efforts of two women of late 19th century Abramtsevo: Elizaveta Mamontova and Elena Polenova. They tackled the following questions: Why should education be for the priveleged only, and children of the impoverished be deprived of it? Why should families be split up between cities and villages for survival (employment) sake? Why should medical and pastoral care not be easy accessible to all?

Mamontova set up a peasant school on her estate in Abramtsevo, provided its pupils with kustar tools, jobs and a library, and sold their artifacts in town. Her pupils were no longer forced to migrate to the metropolis. She and her husband furthermore provided peasants in the vicinity with the necessary health care, - setting up a hospital and hiring doctors during the cholera epidemics of 1871- and with pastoral care, - constructing an easy-to-reach church on their estate (1881-82) during Easter 'floods'.

The artist Elena Polenova assisted Mamontova with the establishment and management of a museum of folk art, kustar workshops and the dissemination of Abramtsevo furniture through commerce and exhibitions.

In addition, the Mamontov couple provided their peasant neighbours access to theater and opera performances by setting up a private Theatre and Opera House on their estate. Attendance of such performances had previously been the exclusive domain of state officlals and the 'upper' classes. The Mamontovs opened their doors to all to enjoy!

The Significance and Reception of Abramtsevo’s Stage Designs
Vasnetsov’s designs can be considered as having extraordinary significance for the history of Russian theatre design, as they were among the first to be created by a fine artist. Along with Polenov’s designs, they gave impetus to many prospective painters to work beyond the confines of the fine arts. In Mamontov’s Theatre and Opera House alone, their spontaneous theatrical experiments were soon followed by Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, Mikhail Vrubel and Apollinariy Vasnetsov, the younger brother of Viktor. The artists of Abramtsevo not only elevated the status of theatre design in a similar vein as they had raised the level of the Russian arts and crafts, but also challenged the contemporary stage design of the Imperial Opera.
The latter not only indolently reused the same sets in various plays, but the sets usually indicated solely the setting and period of the scene. The artists of Abramtsevo, by contrast, were involved in production as a whole, and delved deeply into the content of each individually painted set, attempting to create the right atmosphere for the scene.

For his costume designs, Vasnetsov painstakingly researched peasant garments and embroidered ornaments in order to evoke the illusion of a real life experience of traditional Russian rustic ways of life. This attitude changed the significance, purpose and quality of theatre design altogether; it ‘allowed the Abramtsevo artists to influence the evolution of Russian stage design and paved the way for the splendid scenic achievements of artists such as Lev Bakst and Ivan Bilibin’, and in the longer run the extraordinary sets of twentieth century avant-gardists such as Lyubov Popova and Alexandra Exter. Since stage designers, actors and musicians collaborated closely in Mamontov’s Opera House and tried to convey a story in one style, their performances can be considered as ‘Gesamtkunstwerke’.

According to Stanislavsky the public was overwhelmed:
'We saw for the first time, instead of the conventional crude sets, amazing creations of Vasnetsov, Polenov, Serov and Korovin, who together with Repin, Antokolsky and other first class Russian artists of the time literally grew up and lived in Mamontov’s house as members of his family.'
Korovin and Goncharova
Konstantin Korovin was involved with Abramtsevo's Private Opera company from 1885-1891 and continued to work in the Imperial theatres in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 20th century. He was encouraged by the Mamontovs to explore Russian artistic culture in the North and was Goncharova's teacher at the Art Academy in Moscow (MUZhVZ) at beginning of the 20th century. 
The latter, famous Russian avant-gardist, undoubtedly familiarised herself with the multiple innovative late-nineteenth century practices of Abramtsevo artists’ circle, holding a key to a more profound understanding of her own prominent role in ‘the Russian avant-garde’.

Abramtsevo’s ample and inventive artistic practices following the nineteenth-century paradigm shift in Russian consciousness and the socio-political Age of Reforms, can indeed be regarded as constituting a real ‘avant-garde moment’, without which the early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde would not have evolved in the same format. This will be demonstrated in three case studies: firstly Natalya Goncharova and secondly Kazimir Malevich, thirdly Vasily Kandinsky. All of them are linked by intermediaries to the Abramtsevo circle and have been chosen because of their continuation of emancipatory initiatives and activities in multiple disciplines. 

To be continued...

E.В. Kузнецова, M.M. Aнтокольский: Жизнь и работа (Moсква: Искусствоо, 1989), cc. 30-31. Repin made a portrait of Kramskoy in 1882. Федор Буслаев, Этнографические статьи о России и странах, ей принадлежащих (Москва: Изд. неизв.,  1868), с. 95.  With thanks to Prof. Orlando Figes for his brilliant paper ‘The Image of the People in Modern Russian Art’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 8 February 2008. Surely, not all peasants negotiated difficult living conditions in the same way. The peasant named Mina Moiseyev, for example, painted twice by Kramskoy, glances at the viewer with a big smile.  John E. Bowlt, The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the “World of Art” Group (Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1982), p. 38.  Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 81. 

Modern Russian Pioneers I: Introduction (see blogpost 15/03/13)

Posted on January 20, 2014 at 4:53 PM Comments comments (0)
Various group and solo exhibitions of early twentieth-century Russian avant-gardist art shown in the late 1980s and 1990s in Western Europe, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’, aroused my professional interest in Russian art history. The renewed acquaintance first led to research in preparation for the design of courses about Russian art, secondly to a PhD-research project on the late nineteenth-century Russian art practices of Abramtsevo artists’ circle, and the hypothesis that this circle holds a key to a more profound understanding of ‘the Russian avant-garde’, and to Russian culture as a whole. 

In Europe, the University of Leeds was the place par excellence to explore this subject beyond the formalist critical frame, as it encompasses fine art, history of art and cultural studies in one School, having a long history of allowing art historians to look at ‘art’ and ‘history’ in a broader cultural context. Consequently, a considerable amount of space of my PhD-project at Leeds was devoted to examining the nineteenth century in its philosophical, socio-historical, political and artistic contexts. This examination enabled me to identify a change of consciousness taking place amongst the Russian Intelligentsia, which caused a paradigm shift in Russian culture and shaped the activities of the Abramtsevo artists’ circle. It relocated its predominantly elite orientation on European culture (particularly French, German and Italian) to the introspection of its own shared cultural heritage: Russian history, Russian folklore and Russian religion. 

Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55), weary of the implementation of revolutionary political as well as of religious ideas from the West, started to promote the ideology of ‘official “nationality”’. Using the despotic slogan ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Narodnost’, he violently suppressed any resistance, and kept the long exploited lower classes under control. The Russian Intelligentsia in contrast wanted to liberate the ‘narod’. At the same time women and Jewish participants amongst them fought for the freedom of the Russian people as well as their own rights. 

Since the show in Maastricht encompasses primarily works from before the artistic revolution in 1915, and a number of works of the artist of Abramtsevo from the late-19th century, I want to offer an account of the artists’ negotiation of the changing world following the Age of Reforms in the 1860s, in which serfdom was ended and eyes were opened to the plight of the peasantry. 
I will argue here, that the activities of Russian modernists should be read as closely engaged with the new socio-economical conditions of life of the peasantry on the one hand, and the new social values and aspirations of the intelligentsia on the other. Late nineteenth century artists promoted and explored peasant arts and crafts, Russian folk tales, epics and folk music as well as Russian religious heritage. Boundaries of fine and folk arts were crossed and related projects undertaken in, what was for artists, unusual disciplines, ranging from icons, architecture, stage design, ceramics and illustrative work. They not only produced fabulous paintings, drawings, sculptures at Abramtsevo, but initiated theatre and opera productions also. 

These innovative experiments of the 1870s-1890s in Abramtsevo constitute the genuine avant-gardist moment, from which much, so-called Russian avant-gardist activity of the beginning of the twentieth century, became the better known product in the West. One only need to think of the Ballet Russes, Goncharova’s neo-primitivism, and the folk and religious idiom in the oeuvre of Malevich and Kandinsky. 
The exploration of Russian folk and religious culture provided nineteenth century artist with tools to articulate a Russian identity in their art, and inspired future generations of artists and artisans to continue the use of a religious and folk idiom, and to explore Russian folk and religious culture further in similar projects, in the same variety of disciplines as the artists of Abramtsevo. 

The early 20 century Russian modernists Natalya Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky moved however beyond the national in the 1910s in their abstract art. Before looking at their work, I would like to go back in history to understand the 19th century debate about the necessity of a national identity in the arts.    

From Classicist to Russian Aesthetics  
The academies which in the eighteenth century had played a considerable role in establishing a system of education and in defining relations between artists and the state were gradually emerging as citadels of conservatism and as obstacles to artistic revolution. (Sarabyanov)   

For centuries, the artistic language of classical antiquity attracted the attention of the art world. It was regarded as worthy of imitation and appropriation in the Italian Renaissance, whilst the first generation of art historians in the eighteenth century, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) in particular, claimed it to be the most perfect language that had ever existed and newly established art academies and art museums conformed to his view. They communicated the classical ideal in their educational system and the presentation of their collections respectively.  

The Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg was no exception in this respect. It was established in 1757 by Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in Count Shuvalov’s Palace, and its neo-classicist building on the Neva embankment, newly commissioned by her successor, reflects its idiom. 
It was designed by a collective of a French trained architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe and the Russian architect Alexander F. Kokorinov and was radically reorganised and remodelled on the French Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture. Staffed mainly by French teachers, academic classicism and a restricted range of subjects were promoted from the start. The established education system left little or no space for artistic derivations or innovations. Prospective artists were subjected to a hierarchy of genres, were trained by drawing plaster casts of antique statues and copying engravings and paintings and were dependent on commissions from the imperial family, aristocrats and a handful of wealthy merchants.  

In other words, art had become the handmaiden of courtly circles and a sign of status and civilization. It had little to do with the lived reality on Russian soil, let alone the Russian ‘narod’, who lived in a world apart from the powerful elite who literally ‘patronized’ artists, dictating what they should paint in terms of content and style.
As a consequence of a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Russian intelligentsia in the first half of the nineteenth century, and emancipatory movements within the art world and society at large, Classical aesthetics were found to be out of date and heavily questioned in the revolutionary 1860s. The challenge to articulate a Russian aesthetic had begun, not in the least instance among the artists of Abramtsevo, during time spent with the Artel (1860s), and alongside the Peredvizhniki (1870s-). Was there no Russian culture on Russian soil? None worthy of showing to the world?   

As early as 1826, Russian intellectuals asked provoking questions to awaken the Russian people: What have we Russians ever invented or created?’ ‘Why have we become strangers to ourselves?’ Pyotr Chaadaev, who posed these questions, was clearly frustrated about the backward state of Russia in comparison with the West, where according to him ‘the Kingdom of God was already realized to a certain degree’. According to Chaadaev, the unconscious state of the Russian spirit was due to Russia’s isolation, being ‘neither of the West nor of the East’. It was deprived of ‘the universal education of mankind’, was disconnected from its soul, and lacked the social responsibility to actually realise ‘paradise on earth’. He explains in his ‘Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady’, published in 1836:   

It is one of the most deplorable traits of our strange civilization that we are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we. […] That is but a natural consequence of a culture that consists entirely of imports and imitation. Among us there is no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but tumble down upon us from who knows where. We absorb all our ideas ready-made, and therefore the indelible trace left in the mind by a progressive movement of ideas, which gives it strength, does not shape our intellect. We grow, but we do not mature; we move, but along a crooked path, that is, one that does not lead to the desired goal. We are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their own. All their knowledge is on the surface of their being; their soul is not within them. That is precisely our situation.’ 

Chaadaev’s voice was silenced by the government declaring him a madman, but his concerns were picked up by the Russian intelligentsia. According to the political journalist, Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), the publication of the letter was a ‘shot ringing out in a dark night’. It was followed by a never-ending debate among the intelligentsia about how to change Russia’s historical fate, which split into two camps: the Slavophiles and Westernizers.  

The Sweeping Sixties  
Chaadaev’s call for introspection and change, as sketched above, and the following debate among the Slavophiles and Westernizers largely brought about the changing socio-political conditions of the 1860s under which the nascent artists of Abramtsevo came to study at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg. Their Tsar, Alexander II, also sometimes called ‘the Tsar Liberator’ not only finally abolished serfdom (1861), but also initiated reforms in the judicial, educational, military (1855) and local political realms (1864) during the first decade of his reign (1855-1881). He further lifted restrictions on settlement and travel in the Pale of Settlement for so-called ‘useful’ Jews, attempted to reform the Imperial Academy (1859) and relaxed censorship (1865). 

The prospective first circle of Abramtsevo (Repin, Vasnetsov, Polenov, Antokolsky) was thus confronted with a world in which change had become an imperative. People tasting the spirit of freedom had become more assertive, and debates more heated, whilst there were new opportunities, new experiences, and artistic challenges for themselves. Being in the same boat, as students, but from different walks of life, the artists enjoyed meeting each other outside the Academy. Taken under the wing of the rebel artist Ivan Kramskoy shortly after their arrival in St. Petersburg, they were the progressive artists of their time, who were able to question the Academic tradition and its classical aesthetics. They were eager to formulate a new, modern aesthetic, in which the focus was on contemporary Russian life in its diversity, from its rich cultural heritage to its social ills. 

National Identity in Hegelian Terms 
The focus on Russian reality and the formulation of a national identity in the arts saw different phases in Russia, and the future artists of Abramtsevo were in the centre of almost all of them. It is however illustrative of the position of these artists in general, that they became acquainted with the Mamontovs in Rome, and renewed this contact with them shortly after in Paris. Rome was the old classicist stronghold which the artists-students visited but with reluctance, whilst Paris was the new modernist artistic centre of Europe, where they settled down to continue their study. 

The artists tasted the modernist spirit in Paris and hesitantly enjoyed and experimented with it in their art practice, in style as well as subject, as can be seen in Repin’s Parisian Café (1875, p.c.) and Polenov’s sketch Barge (1874-87, TGM). However, the power which the Academy, as well as Kramskoy and the influential critic Vladimir Stasov exercised on the artists abroad, as well as their own attachment to their country - they were often homesick - were such that the artists were forced to ‘take a step back’ when they returned to Russia. There they dealt in a more careful way with modernism, in a Russian realist style, appropriate to the Russian situation. 

Whilst still in Rome and Paris, the artists were attracted by the relatively free and cosmopolitan spirit of the Mamontovs, who like them travelled widely in Europe and enjoyed discovering other cultures as well as delving into their own, without becoming ideological nationalists, as Kramskoy was at times and Stasov throughout his entire life. Although the latter two supported them at an earlier stage in Russia, they sent reprimanding letters to Paris reminding them of the essence of the ‘national strain’in art, whilst the Mamontovs, it should be acknowledged, later tended to Slavophilism, but never became dogmatic adherents of it. They were befriended by the famous writer and moderate Westernizer Turgenev, read classics of both European and Russian drama and staged both types of drama and operas in their homes in Abramtsevo and Moscow. Like the artists, the Mamontovs could not escape Stasov’s biting criticism either. The ideologue of nationalism accused Savva Ivanovich of a ‘too large dose of Italian trifles’ because of Savva Ivanovich’s love for Italian opera.     

Rather than adherence to Stasov’s dogmatic nationalism, a romantic tendency aimed at transcending the national in order to contribute to Hegel’s concept of the universal Spirit can be noticed among Abramtsevo’s circle. In Vasnetsov’s words: 

We must contribute to the treasures of world art by fully concentrating ourselves on the development of our national art, that is to say, that we with all perfection and wholeheartedness of which we are capable, must portray the beauty, power and meaning of our national life: our Russian landscape and the men of Russia, our present and past life, our dreams and our belief, and if we succeed, reflect the eternal and universal through our national reality

Narodnost is often wrongly translated as nationality, whilst it means that which concerns the ‘narod’, the nation or the people. It could be described as representing a unique national spirit, identity and self-expression of a nation. For more information, see Maureen Perrie, ‘Narodnost′: Notions of National Identity’, Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881-1940, ed. by Catriona Kelly and David Shepherd, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 28-30. The first museum buildings ‘deliberately recalled past ceremonial architecture (…) of the ancient world’. ‘They make visible the idea of the state’ whilst their collections are displayed like ‘Roman displays of war trophies.’ See Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach, Art History, 3:2, 1980, pp. 449, 451. Rosalind P. Gray, Russian Genre Painting in the Nineteenth-century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 2. Andrey Sinyavsky describes the Russian Intelligentsia as critically and independently thinking personalities. Often referred to as ‘the conscience of the nation’, in the late nineteenth century they observed but were restrained from power, whilst eager to serve the people. See Andrey Sinayevsky, The Russian Intelligentsia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 1-25. V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), p. 165. Chaadaev was a ‘catholicophile’, a sympathizer with Catholicism. See Wil van den Bercken, Holy Russia and Christian Europe: East and West in the Religious Ideology of Russia, trans.John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1999), p. 192. V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, 1953, p. 133, nn. 2 - 3. These excerpts are taken from the First Philosophical Letter. See in translation in: Marc Raeff, ed., Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 160-173 (162, 164). After the publication of Chaadaev’s article in the journal ‘Teleskop’, Chaadaev was subjected to house arrest with compulsory medical supervision daily for one and a half years. The journal was suspended, the editor, N. I. Nadezhdin, banished from Moscow, and the censor dismissed. See V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, 1953, pp. 148, 150. Chaadaev was further supposed not to venture to write anything after the period of house arrest was over. Ibid, p. 150. For the 1840s controversy, see my PhD-thesis. The term ‘Sweeping 1860s’ is introduced here as an equivalent to the Age of Reforms. Sweeping refers to first its reforms, secondly to its meaning as wide in range and effect. It is chosen because it alliterates nicely. Jewish merchants from the First Guild, university graduates and incorporated artisans were notably considered ‘useful’ Jews. See J.N. Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour. Russian History 1812-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 128. There is a newer edition of this book from 2002.  David Jackson, ‘Western Aesthetics and Russian Ethics: Repin in Paris 1873-76’, Russian Review, 57, No. 3, July 1998, 394-409.  In Russia modernization took a slower pace, and autocracy was still in place. Alarmed by the French revolutions, the tsars anxiously suppressed revolutionary forces within Russia, holding their country back from modernisation.  The first circle of artists all studied and lived abroad, whilst Antokolsky emigrated to Paris in 1878 and Yakunchikova lived in Paris most of her life. Kramskoy was not as dogmatic as Stasov in his ideal of a national art. See Elizabeth Kridl Valkenier, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp.  22, 62-63, 65.  B. Chaliapin, An Autobiography as Told to Maxim Gorky, trans. compiled and ed. by Nina Froud and James Hanley (New York, 1967), pp. 132-35 cited in: Yuri Olkhovsky, Vladimir Stasov and Russian National Culture (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1983), p. 130.  For Vasnetsov’s letter to Stasov, see В.M. Loбанов, Виктор Васнецов в Абрамцеве (Mocква: Изд. Oйру, 1928), с. 44.

Symposium Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Posted on January 20, 2014 at 9:29 AM Comments comments (0)
Symposium "Aftermath and Afterlife of the Russian Avant-Garde", Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 16-17 January 2014

Malevich, 1915: "The artist of colour, the artist of sound and the artist of volume - these are the people who open the hidden world and reincarnate it into the real".

Malevich, 1927: "..the suprematist square appeared at the time, naked: the shell fell away".


Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915
The most significant art work of the 
20th century, according to Rudy Fuchs
(former director of the Stedelijk Museum)

Some of the papers were pieces of art themselves. Truly beautiful!
Click here for information.

Franse 'profeten' in de Hermitage: De 'Nabis'

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (0)

De Nabis, twee lezingen op 't Plein van Siena, Amsterdam (25 okt en 8 nov) & rondleiding 

Deze herfst kunt u in de Hermitage nader kennismaken met het werk van Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis en Pierre Bonnard. Dit waren moderne kunstenaars, die christelijke thema’s en decoratieve kunst niet schuwden. Hun werk was zeer geliefd in zowel Parijs als Moskou. In twee lezingen nemen we hun werk onder de loep en daarna bekijken we de schilderijen in onze eigen Hermitage aan de Amstel.

2e Lezing: 8 november, 10.30-12.00 uur, Rijnstraat 109hs, Amsterdam (lezingen ook los te volgen)

Rondleiding: Vrijdag 22 november, 10.30-11.30 uur, Hermitage Amsterdam
Opgeven bij Jose Huijberts via tel. 020-4422009 of [email protected]

De Russische collectioneur Ivan Morozov gaf Maurice Denis de opdracht om vijf panelen te schilderen voor zijn herenhuis in Moskou. Denis vroeg om volledige vrijheid en koos "De geschiedenis van Psyche" als onderwerp. Nadat hij de werken op hun plek in Moskou gezien had, voegde hij nog een aantal panelen toe voor een mooier geheel. Hiernaast een schets voor het zevende paneel: Amor brengt Psyche naar de hemel, 1909. 

Voor informatie over Morozov, zie Inge Wierda, ‘Twee Russische verzamelaars. Hoe de Franse meesters in de collectie van het Pushkin Museum terechtkwamen’, Peredatsja UvA, (1996), pp. 12-14. Dit artikel wordt uitgedeeld tijdens de cursus. Bij deze tentoonstelling "Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis. Een Russische liefde voor Franse kunst" is een fraaie catalogus te koop in de Hermitage. 

Exhibition "Moscow School: Tradition and Today", Ikonenmuseum, Kampen

Posted on November 4, 2013 at 1:36 PM Comments comments (0)
For more information, see the following sites:

Extended due to success to 29/03/2014!

Bij de tentoonstelling is een boekje verschenen, verkrijgbaar bij Boekhandel Kirchner en natuurlijk in het Ikonenmuseum in Kampen.

Expositie "Moskouse School" geopend in het Ikonenmuseum!

Posted on October 25, 2013 at 9:16 AM Comments comments (0)

               De expositie "Moskouse School. Traditie en Heden" is op zaterdag 
19 oktober 2013 geopend in het Ikonenmuseum in Kampen! 

Er zijn 60 hedendaagse ikonen uit Moskou te zien die ter gelegenheid                van het Nederland-Ruslandjaar 2013 door Russische professionals            geschilderd zijn.

Ikonenmuseum, Buiten Nieuwstraat 2, Kampen
Geopend tot en met 4 januari 2014
Openingstijden: dinsdag en woensdagmiddag
Donderdag t/m zaterdag 10.00-17.00 uur

Elena Preis: Retrospective and Recent Works (2013)

Posted on October 2, 2013 at 2:34 PM Comments comments (0)
The Ignatius Gallery in Amsterdam organised a Preis retrospective as part of the Netherlands-Russia Year 2013 earlier this year. It was a premiere of her oeuvre in the Netherlands, in which the artist made a clear statement. In September 2013 another major exhibition opened in the Otten Kunst Raum, where recent paper reliefs -and sculptures by Preis will be shown along works of her sculptor-friend Vasily Pavlovksy. The exhibition can be seen until 5 December in Hohenems (A).

Elena Preis was born in Stalinist Russia in 1937. In this period of time, both religion and abstract art were ridiculed and banned. Unsurprisingly considering the circumstances, Preis first learned that she was a relative of the ‘formalist’ Vasily Kandinsky during her studies at the Mendeleev Institute in 1962. It was a well-kept secret and her family insisted it remain so. After an inspiring meeting with the renowned artist Vladimir Yakovlev (1934-1998), she took up painting. Preis mastered graphic techniques under master printmaker Valeri Orlov (1946) and soon moved in the unofficial art circuit. She became acquainted with nonconformist artists such as Ilya Kabakov, Michael Grobman and Evgeni Bachurin and she visited exhibitions in private apartments and at other secret locations. Sealed by the Iron Curtain, she was deprived of information on artistic developments in the West. After her first successful solo-exhibition in the Velta Gallery in Moscow in1994, Preis joined the Union of Artists in Moscow, and exhibited regularly at home and abroad. Her work can be seen in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, the Puhskin Museum in Moscow and several private collections in the West.

The retrospective at the Ignatius Gallery consisted of carefully selected works of Preis divided in three parts: covering her early series of wood and lino cuts with biblical motifs; abstract collages and lino cuts, and more recent minimalist paper reliefs.

The prints with biblical motifs, first shown at the exhibition in the Velta Gallery, consist of black and white as well as color images, printed on different types of paper of varying sizes. In 1989, a heart surgery restricted her movements and led her to a careful study of the Bible. These health problems occurred in times in the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika and glasnost opened the way for remarkable changes. The Christianization of Russia in 988 was officially commemorated and church services appeared on state television. Housebound due to continued ill health, Preis gave a modern twist to well-known icon themes. The exhibition of these new works in the Velta Gallery was well received, and the technically perfect execution of the prints, the powerful form-language, and her eye for color were widely noted and praised. Valery Orlov wrote enthusiastically: "In the strong, willful hands of the craftsman, the cutting tool strives toward refinement and ornateness; in the hands of the artist, it strives toward simplicity and expressiveness."
Preis used the laborious high pressure printing technique for her biblical series’ from 1989 to 1996. She accurately carved the non-printing parts in the stiff material of wood and inked the parts remaining level with the surface. This technique forced Preis to outline the composition carefully in advance and restricted her freedom in movement and detail. The process made her focus on the essence of the story as well as the intended composition and became a first step towards an abstract way of working. Gradually lino cuts took precedent over wood cuts because this medium enabled Preis to work faster, and create diagonal and curved lines.

After the successful exhibition in 1994, Preis joined the Union of Artists in Moscow, and gradually moved toward working with and on paper solely. This change was decisive. It enabled her to let go of the visual/phenomenal reality of her earlier works  - landscape watercolors - as well as the narrative and symbolic aspects of the Biblical series and to move towards abstraction. The results of this development were seen on the wall of the Ignatius Gallery. Apart from dynamic and multicolored layered abstract lino cuts, a colored paper collage from the 1990s was displayed. 

Balance with large forms, 1995, lino cut and Samurai, paper mobile, as shown in Hohenems at present

Collage had already proved in the 1910s that the imitation of nature did not have to be the only departure point in art. Collage enabled artists in Paris and Moscow to shift their attention from the phenomenal world and traditional fine art to the invisible reality and the endless possibilities of the painterly elements and materials themselves. These discoveries freed Preis to work abstractly. A return to figurative art of the past was unthinkable. In abstract work she could give free rein to her intuition and explore more subtle realities. 

On the third wall of the show, another collage was shown along with three minimalist paper reliefs and a Black square on paper at the Ignatius Gallery. These more recent works as well as the white paper sculptures which Preis makes at present, recall constructivist works of the early 20th century. Preis undoubtedly familiarised herself with the abstract reliefs of Vladimir Tatlin and Lyubov Popova (1915). In these works unusual materials detached themselves in a cubo-futurist way from the wall or flat canvas, into space. Her works on paper corresponded nicely with the Russian neo-avant-garde art scene of the time and is indeed inspired by the very early 20th century Russian avant-garde art.  

Her co-exhibitor in the show in the Otten Kunstraum, Vasily Pavlovsky (1932-2009), was familiar with Russian constructivism of the 1910-20s in particular. His father graduated from the Vkhutemas, the state art and technical school at that time, and Pavlovsky started to work abstractly in 1992, some years before Preis. 
The oeuvre of both Preis and Pavlovsky developed along similar lines, and it is inspiring to see their works together in one show. 
In their simplicity and superior quality, Pavlovsky’s serene white sculptures recall works by the Russian sculptor Archipenko’, the Dutch sculptor Carel Visser and the playful Danish sculptor Robert Jacobsen. Pavlovsky explains: ‘’Chosen simplicity does not make the abstract work poorer, but rather richer.’’                                
Like Pavlovsky’s sculptures, Preis’ paper reliefs are held in one color or non-color, white on white, and are a homage to life. Once the artist discovered paper as a simple and universal medium, her capacity for innovation knew no boundaries. She adheres paper in all shapes and sizes, directions and rhythm on a white board. Illustrative in this respect are the paper reliefs shown as a triptych in Amsterdam: the left relief with large and small rectangular paper planes, the centre part with a vertical band flanked with smaller ‘torned paper’, and the right part with thin diagonal tubes crossed by smaller rectangular paper planes. Preis makes use of the play of light and shadow on paper, as well as the effect of folds and cracks in the paper and never loses sight of the structure and dynamics of the composition as a whole. The white background of the reliefs work like Malevich's Suprematist paintings, as an infinite space where paper flakes float - unhindered by time and gravity - joyfully and freely.

Ignatius Gallery, Amsterdam, May 2013                               Elena Preis, Amsterdam

In the end, Preis succeeded in creating a simple, pure and optimum result with unprecedented minimal resources. Her paper reliefs are original creations and speak for themselves. These works should not be compared to minimalist works made in the West in the 1970s, as some ill-informed contemporary western artists have tended to do. As stated earlier, Preis had no information about artistic developments in the West; difficult circumstances of production dictated the way she thought, lived and worked. Deprived of costly materials and financial support, Preis as well as Pavlovsky, learned to express themselves with the materials at hand. Preis demonstrates that a creative mind doesn’t need much in order to create beautiful works of art. Her works must be read within the context of the contemporary Russian art scene in which artists rediscovered and rehabilitated the astonishing heritage of abstract Russian artists: Kandinsky to whom she was related, and perhaps most of all Tatlin and Malevich.
In an equally provocative manner, much like Malevich in 1915, Preis insisted on showing her black square at the far left corner of the triptych paper reliefs. Although her biblical prints at the Ignatius Gallery, because of their familiar iconography, appealed to many visitors directly, her abstract work clearly has a deeper meaning. This is often not recognized or appreciated in her native country and to a lesser degree in the West. The fact that no familiar story charged with a spiritual message can be read in this work does not mean that it has not been told. Preis refers to a higher reality as witnessed in icons, a reality where love, harmony and balance prevail. Her black square is, as Malevich's equivalent, a modern icon in which the face of the Infinite can be read: the nothing or everything, present but invisible.

In the Otten Kunstraum in Austria only Preis’ recent abstract works will be shown. The artist arrived shortly before the opening and created some specially designed paper sculptures (1,20 m) on site. Her dynamic personality keeps surprising the public, whilst her serene white paper reliefs and sculptures ‘touch the heart of the beholder’. According to her relative, the famous Kandinsky, this is what art is meant to do.

From 11 September until 5 December the exhibition “Transkription. Part II’ with works by Elena Preis, Vasily Pavlovsky and Oleg Kudryashov can be seen in the Otten Kunstraum, Schwefeldbadstrasse 2, in Hohenems, Austria. A beautifully designed catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

1. The artist, Elena Preis, in the Otten Kunst Raum in Hohenems, 5 September 2013 
2. Last Supper, by Elena Preis, 1992. Woodcut, 23.5 x 36 cm. (P.c.) 
3. Balance with large forms, by Elena Preis, 1995, lino cut, 40.8 x 64.4. (Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg) and Samurai, paper mobile, 115 x 70 x 70 cm (as shown in Hohenems at present)
4. Urbanism III, by Pavel Pavlovsky, 1985, 65 x 15.5 x 12.5 cm
5. Sculpture group in paper, by Elena Preis, 2001, paper/cardboard. (Collection of the artist, Moscow)
6. Paper reliefs, by Elena Preis, 1997-2006, as shown during the “Retrospective of Elena Preis” in the Ignatius Gallery, Amsterdam, May-June 2013
7. The artist, Elena Preis, her Black Square (2006) in the background during her opening speech in Amsterdam, 28 April 2013. 
8. Paper sculptures, by Elena Preis, made at Hohenems in September 2013. 

Mikhail Nesterov, Artist of Abramtsevo in Search of Holy Russia

Posted on July 27, 2013 at 1:11 PM Comments comments (0)
Until 18 August 2013 the Nesterov-retrospective ‘Mikhail Nesterov. In search of his own Russia.To the 150 anniversary’ can be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. An hommage to Nesterov and the Abramtsevo Artists' Circle (1870s-1890s).
Although memoirs, letters and chronicles, have been sidelined in academic art history to some extent, primary texts such as Elizaveta Mamontova’s personal memoirs, the chronicle of Abramtsevo’s circle and countless letters written by participants in the artists’ circle proved to be central to the entire literature on both Abramtsevo, Academic, and Realist art history. In combination with research conducted in situ and secondary readings, they not only gave me an insight into how this artistic community in Abramtsevo functioned and what the specific contribution of the different members consisted of but they also reveal the cultural significance of the choice of this site and its Slavophile legacy in relation to the circle’s artistic productions. With the aid of this material it can be demonstrated that Mamontov’s purchase of Aksakov’s Abramtsevo contained the germ for the circle’s articulation of a Russian folk, mythic and religious aesthetic. In this context, Russian religious aesthetic will be investigated in relation to the interaction with the geographical site itself, and its Slavophile legacy.
Purchase Because of Location and Legacy  
The Mamontovs purchased the estate of Abramtsevo on 24 March 1870 from Sophia Sergeyevna Aksakova. The Aksakov family had owned the land for almost a quarter of a century, but it had become impossible to maintain the estate after both Sergey Aksakov and his eldest son Konstantin died in 1859 and 1860 respectively. When the estate fell into decline, Olga Aksakova, the writer’s widow, turned to Fyodor Chizhov, who as a family friend of th knew of their plan to buy an estate and advised the couple to opt for Abramtsevo. Although they had other, nearer and more affordable offers – Elizaveta Grigorevna reveals in her memoirs that they had almost bought an estate along the Kursk road to Stolbovo – the Mamontovs did not hesitate to purchase Abramtsevo for 15000 roubles – then a large sum of money.The primary sources show that they cherished both the legacy of the former owner and its location. Now the following questions will be addressed: What was so special about Aksakov and this particular site, why Abramtsevo? To answer these questions, I will examine the significance of Aksakov’s legacy and scrutinize why the Mamontovs cherished the particular location of Abramtsevo, and how this location impacted upon the production of various landscapes with a religious connotation. Both legacy and location explain the circle’s organic development of a Russian religious aesthetic. 

Two days before the purchase of Abramtsevo’s estate, the Mamontovs visited the place for the first time. After an early morning train ride to Khotkovo – Abramtsevo’s train station did not exist at the time – they enjoyed a sleigh ride through the dense and snowy forest to the estate. Noticing Abramtsevo’s manor house on a hill, they were enchanted. When they arrived, Efim Maksimovich, the house servant of the previous owner, who was still residing in Abramtsevo, guided them around the ramshackled house, where artefacts of his former landlord, Sergey Aksakov, were still in place. The Mamontovs were touched by Maksimovich’ stories about the famous novelist and his guests, and became determined to buy Aksakov’s estate and preserve his remaining artifacts – books, engravings and furniture – in the house. These can still be seen in the current museum of Abramtsevo, where one part of the manor house is devoted to Aksakov’s time and the other to the Mamontov era.
‘загоpoдный’, ‘подмоcковный’ and ‘nearwater’  
Like Aksakov in 1843, the Mamontovs twenty seven years later, wished to buy an estate загоpoдный’ (exurban) and ‘подмоcковный’ (near Moscow), at which to spend their summers. Mamontov further specifies his wishes in the Letopis: ‘We […] wanted to buy some ten hectares of land with a modestly furnished house and most importantly near a river, or at least near a place with water.’Abramtsevo’s country estate is indeed situated in a beautiful natural setting in the woods, where the rivers Vorya and Yanushke pass its south-eastern borders. It was an ideal place for a family to withdraw from the city and enjoy the long Russian summers at their country-seat.

On Mamontov’s Trinity Railroad to Sergiev Posad (lit. settlement of St. Sergey) 

Beside the overwhelming experience of the first visit to Abramtsevo and its wished for rural location near a river, accessibility by train was another factor that determined the Mamontov’s choice to buy the estate. Abramtsevo is located 35 miles north east of Moscow on the railroad to Sergiev Posad, called the Trinity railroad. As Mamontov had partially witnessed the Trinity railroad coming into being, it was this exact connection via the Yaroslavl railroad, to which Mamontov related in a special way. 
In his youth Savva Ivanovich listened attentively to conversations about the idea to build the Trinity railroad, between his father and the historian Mikhail Pogodin (1800-75), who was writing a series of articles about the necessity of the railroad while staying on his father’s summer estate in Kireyevo.To Pogodin, a specialist in medieval Russian history and a professor in history and literature at the Moscow State University, the Trinity railroad was to be of tremendous importance, because it stretched from Moscow to Russia’s national religious centre in Sergiev Posad: the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergey, established in the late fourteenth century. According to Pogodin the accessibility of this Lavra or major monastery needed to be increased for the many pilgrims who wanted to undertake their compulsory once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Sergiev Posad. 
The Society of the Moscow-Yaroslavl Railroad was established and Savva’s father Ivan, together with Fyodor Chizhov, Baron Delvig, the Shipov brothers and Nikolai Riumin, were among the directors. By July 1859, the Society received permission from the Tsar and the old Metropolitan Filaret of the Trinity Monastery - who objected at first - and the Trinity railroad of 43.8 miles was constructed with a combination of high quality English girders, German locomotives and hard Russian labour, within a period of two years, 1860-62. When Savva Ivanovich was in Persia on business, he followed its construction, enquiring about progress during the last phase of its completion. He was obviously interested in its development, not least because he had become a stockholder. Because of this special association with the Trinity railroad, Savva Ivanovich was eager to use this particular connection to his summer estate, and sought and found an estate in the vicinity of this track. 
Moreover, the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergey, hereafter referred to as the Trinity or Trinity Lavra, at the end of the Trinity railroad in Sergiev Posad, was not only of great interest to befriended historians and medievalists, but to all religious practitioners who respected their Russian Orthodox Christian faith and the regulations of the Church. As the Mamontovs were practicing Christians, the location of Abramtsevo’s estate must have appealed to them even more so, because of this proximity to the Trinity, to which they became frequent visitors. For many visiting artists Abramtsevo’s nearness to Sergiev Posad was just as attractive and inspiring. 
For example, Ilya Repin valued Abramtsevo’s location, precisely because it enabled him to observe and portray pilgrims passing by on their way to Sergiev Posad. In a frequently quoted letter to the arts critic Vladimir Stasov that he wrote in the summer of 1878: ‘Most important there are hamlets nearby where the peasants, from young to old, men and women, are not afraid of me and pose readily. So I have done a lot of studies and drawings for several pictures.’ His famous painting Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (1880-83) was indeed mainly the result of these observations of pilgrims going to the Trinity.

Whilst undertaking these preparatory studies, Repin stayed in a dacha in Khotkovo, near Abramtsevo, from which he left daily for the station and the surrounding villages in search of subjects and types of people to sketch from life.The artist purposely used the condition of living in close proximity to villagers in order to create authentic figures for his paintings. He sketched the village policeman, praying people, a peasant woman and a boy walking along the station begging for bread and money. This boy can be clearly identified as the model for the hunchback in the foreground of Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk. Repin, who had been working on the concept of this painting since his stay in his native town Chuguev, on his return from Paris in 1876, and again in Kursk, empowered this young boy.He posed him in a telling posture in his final painting, just as he had done with the young protesting boy in his Barge Haulers (1872, RM).                            

In the Religious Procession (1880-83), the young hunchback seems to be a passionate believer, eager to go on pilgrimage out of religious fervor, whereas the corpulent land-owning lady flanked by a bodyguard in the centre of the picture was there to flaunt her piety and wealth with the miracle-working icon in her hand. As Sarabyanov has noticed, with this detail Repin criticizes the hypocrisy of the rich, the nobility and corrupt clergy, contrasting them to the deeply religious Russian people, the exploited and impoverished Russian peasants: ‘that all these privileged people walking in the centre of the procession […] regard the procession as an everyday rite; they are devoid of piety [...] Their pompous hypocritical faces express base instincts and all manner of vices.’ According to Sarabyanov Repin, ‘not only showed the contradictions of the time and the hard lot of the peasants, but also asserted the splendour of the people and brought home to the spectator the necessity of changing life radically and of basing it on new laws.’

Another artist who was inspired by the Trinity, though in a different way, was Mikhail Nesterov(1862-1942), the neo-romantic religious painter of the late-nineteenth century. After his failure as a history painter and the death of his beloved wife in 1886, he found consolation and inspiration in what really mattered to him: religion, his native land and the religious practices of the Russian people, past and present. When he met Elena Polenova, Elizaveta Mamontova and their friends in the Trinity Lavra in the summer of 1888, he was at a turning point in his life. They invited him to visit Abramtsevo, where he found his own lyrical or what he himself called ‘poetic realist’ style. Here he painted a whole series of works about the life of St. Sergey of Radonezh, the founder of the Trinity.
On Radonezh Soil  
Beside the closeness to Russia’s religious centre in Sergiev Posad, the whole area in which Abramtsevo was located, was considered sacred as it was the place where Russia’s most revered saint, St. Sergey of Radonezh once lived. It is telling that when the Mamontovs resided in Abramtsevo, they not only attended services in the churches of the Trinity, but also in neighbouring villages. They went to celebrate Easter in the Mother of God Pokrov church in the Pokrov Convent in Khotkovo.According to St. Sergey of Radonezh’s will, all pilgrims to the Trinity were recommended to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of his parents St. Cyril and St. Mary in this place, where their mortal remains are kept, extremely close to Abramtsevo. It is believed that St. Sergey of Radonezh himself, then still called Bartholomew, took his vows in the Pokrov monastery and that his parents entered the monastery in their old age. They are now revered as saints and exemplary parents who taught their children the virtues of a Christian life.   
Abramtsevo’s estate then was situated on Radonezh’ soil: the soil on which the ‘holy feet’ of St. Sergey of Radonezh walked, his parents were buried in adjacent Khotkovo, and the Trinity Lavra was founded in Sergiev Posad. Since members of the Abramtsevo circle sought to formulate a Russian identity in the arts by affirming Russian culture, including its dominant religion, the whole area was of significance to them.    

These connections are perhaps illustrated most clearly in the work of Mikhail Nesterov, who upon Viktor Vasnetsov’s advice began to work on a second version of The Youth of Sergey of Radonezh (1892-97, TGM) in June 1892 in Khotkovo, where he noticed the ‘unhealthy fragile girl’ who served as one of the models for this painting. Apollinary Vasnetsov was the other and earlier model, another boy, praying was the third model. A curious synthesis of an innocent, sincere religious and feminine youth was the result. The question arises as to why Nesterov made all these changes, why this feminine outlook? 
Nesterov changed his picture, because his contemporaries (colleagues and Tretyakov in Moscow) did not approve of his first version. Vasnetsov even advised him not to exhibit his painting during the twentieth exhibition of the Peredvizhniki in 1892. Nesterov followed his advice, made some alterations, and postponed its exhibition. He reduced the proportions of the landscape to enhance the figure and kept searching for the right facial expression for his St. Sergey. It is fascinating that he found it in the look of the Khotkovo girl, whose facial expression shows a striking similarity to that of Mary in his Mother of God with Child, a sketch he simultaneously produced for the iconostasis in Kiev’s St. Vladimir cathredal. Nesterov was thus primarily looking for a facial expression of innocence and piety in his Youth. The fact that he also asked both Viktor Vasnetsov and Elizaveta Grigorevna to pose for the final version, seems to point to the insignificance of gender in this search, as well as his need for their approval. Luckily this time, his friends, Polenov in particular, approved of his work, although Polenov gave some hints to further improve it, which were followed up.   
In the final painting, we see the adolescent Bartholomew in a simple white monk’s robe standing in front of the wooden Trinity Chapel, which he and his brother Stephan had built in the depth of the forest which consisted of mixed trees (fir trees, a blossoming tree, etc.) and a little river. His companion, the bear, is lying at his feet. Bartholomew has entered the monastic order, as the title of the work and the monk’s dress suggests. When Bartholomew received his new name Sergey, he was then twenty three years old.         
Nesterov worked on this iconic representation in different places. He introduced alterations to the picture up to 1897. He succeeded in fulfilling his intentions to convey saint, bear and landscape as a harmonious, tranquil and sacred entity. When he began the project he wrote: ‘everything that is miraculous, everything that is peaceful in our northern nature must be in my landscape, it will be transfigured into a holy quiet, unearthly joy (…) with my flowers, woods, with the quiet little stream, I’m already launched on such a landscape.’ In the painting, the youth is surrounded by an air of saintliness. This effect was created by means of inserting a nimbus, a device derived from icons. His pious posture reflects Russian religious attitudes, where a passive submission to the Church and a humble openness to God are stressed. He is at one with the landscape, which is constructed through a series of almost decorative elements - single birch and fur trees, flowers, forest, and stream - rather than painted in a naturalistic manner, in order to make it look both sacred as well as Russian. The painting is of Radonezh’s soil: the same ground as viewed from Abramtsevo’s manor house!  
Source for this blog text
Excerpts from my doctoral thesis 'Abramtsevo. Multiple Cultural Expressions of a Russian Folk and Religious Identity' (2008, available in the UK, NL and Russia)