It takes an impresario to found a Russian movement.
But for a moment’s continued interest in the present, a queer and inexplicable slavophilia must appear to have its dance with history. And now, 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, with access to loans of prestigious paintings, Princeton’s University Art Museum plays host to “Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance.”
Cast Sergei Diaghilev as impresario. Let him in 1899 found a prestigious literary and arts journal “Mir Iskusstva” (literally “World of Art”) so that literature, music, and the visual arts could coalesce to elicit pointed criticism and commentary. Make the journal epitomize the movement that set the trends in European art in the first decade of the twentieth century. Here stands the foundation for staging success in an artistic movement.
But Princeton takes a risk in displaying the art of such a little-known movement.
Indeed, this show has been an excavation – almost more of archaeology than artistic finesse – to uncover, stratify, and demonstrate the influences of the “World of Art” movement, which itself faced pressure to gain popularity.
It is simply because Russia remained in the nether-sphere of Asia and Europe – holding allegiance to neither – that the movement’s leaders had to think of ways to rectify misconceptions of Russian art.
“I want to nurse Russian painting, cleanse it and bring it to the notice of the West,” Diaghilev famously said in 1897. He organized the first “World of Art” show the same year with English and German artists included and brought together the next year with Finnish and Russian artists.
Even Tsar Nicholas II contributed 10,000 rubles a year to support the journal’s continuation. The magazine forwent publication in 1905 with the economy thirsty for sustenance during the Russo-Japanese war. But for the six years it ran, the journal broached conversation about the who’s hot and who’s not of Russian and European art. And discourse of the most pretentious kind inspires.
In Princeton’s exhibit showing most clearly the sophistication of Diaghilev’s milieu, Boris Kustodiev’s Group Portrait of the Members of the “World of Art” (1920) depicts men in the drawing room of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky opulently dressed in three-piece suits with hands placed round their chins in thought, or a glass stem in saturnine merriment.
Catalyzed by symbolist authors such as Andrei Beliy, most famous for his tour de force Petersburg, those of the movement often lathered the pages of “World of Art” with pages of criticism and about the merging of life and art – for art to invoke civil change. But critics of the movement, such as Leo Tolstoy, threw backhanded insults against the lack of moralization in art. In a response within the pages of “World of Art,” Diaghilev said he saw the author’s criticism as a “slap in the face delivered to art by its ungrateful servant Leo Tolstoy, who rejects the art of all ages, lowering it to the level of a Christian virtue.” Instead of for morality, this movement came of art for art’s sake. Against the social realism of the late-19th century’s “The Wanderers” (“Peredvizhniki”), lofty-browed art connoisseurs with Alexander Benois and Leon Bakst sought a new expression in art – including Diaghilev.
With the “World of Art” neglected at the Guggenheim’s “RUSSIA!” exhibit, one may consider the movement less worthy of investigation. Yet, the little known nature of its philosophy as “art for beauty” strikes a chord of poignancy for the movement.
Boris Kustodiev’s Portrait of Ivan Bilibin (1901) commands the show in undeniable beauty. The young, dignified man wears a ruffled, immaculately white shirt under his long-coat tuxedo. His eyes are piercing as he gazes just past you as if to emphasize his superiority.
His counterpart would inevitably be the subject pictured in Konstantin Somov’s Portrait of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. Despite the fact that the girl is clothed and rendered in paint, she still managed to – shall we say – allow things to arise for even the most mature of teenage males. She’s intellectual and coquettish – an effect accomplished in the one tenuous brush stroke for each eyebrow. The shadow on the wall hints at her diabolical nature, her id emerging from the slight pout in her rose-petal lips that will make any straight male feel a bit funny inside. Her blouse of black hints at her inner darkness, and the maroon bow around the neck her playfulness.
Dilettantes who claim their disgust for portraiture will hold their tongues at this exhibition, because the figures are so compelling that they demand time from the audience to stand before the canvas and look even at the minutia. Sergei Sudeikin’s Portrait of Nina Schick, for example, presents a woman so angular and feline, with eyes so dark and cheekbones so high, I can almost place her home at Sevastopol on the Black Sea.
The poster piece for the show, Léon Bakst’s Supper, shows the opulence of this “World of Art” culture with a woman leaning a champagne flute toward a bowl of oranges. Like many of the works in the show, the precarious balances remain unsettling as the oranges seem to be dropping – the one that has fallen to the table could roll more. The flowing table cloth has hints of the orange champagne combination – an inevitable utilization of what was available on the palette. The woman herself is amorous – at once busty and waistless – with a shapeless black hat and curving dress. We are led to her eyes and from her eyes to the empty chair next to her at a table set for one. This, perhaps, remains the perfect message for the “World of Art” – with a manifesto to consign more people as followers of Russian art. “Welcome,” the painting beacons, allowing us into its uneven, yet stunning, artistic house.
Bakst’s rendering of the movement’s impresario in Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev and his Nanny also sings in litany the message of the “World of Art” by showing the nanny of old Russia dark and decrepit in the corner, as Diaghilev of new culture stands robustly with gold cufflinks and pocket watch – toting a smug expression of aristocracy.
Not only did the “World of Art” rebel against the past of “The Wanderers’” social realism, but its leaders also shunned the avant-garde of the future. The “World of Art” refused to accept such artistic rebels as Kazimir Malevish, whose Black Square (presented exactly as it sounds) hit the word in 1915. The deconstruction and minimalism of such a painting would not embrace the ethos of the “World of Art” – to love art for arts’ sake. The avant-garde – fully of complex geometry and flashy colors – seems more popular to the typical student of art, but one must look away from the anti-art to embrace the true expression Diaghilev’s school.
Petersburg remains the showcase city of Benois’s illustrations to Alexander Pushkin’s famous poem The Bronze Horseman, and in the work, Pushkin notes that Peter the Great had broken a “window to Europe.” This seems poetic justice in the “World of Art” as part of a movement trying to inseminate its ideals into western culture. With such a mindset, Russia could flaunt its cultural heritage for an international community.
Dobuzhinsky’s rendering of the city in 1914 presents starving trees, slanted houses, and Yevgeny Lanceray’s St. Petersburg. Old St. Nicholas’ Market (1901) shows the gloom of lumber exchange; however, despite the enervation, the wreckage, there exists beauty in decay—in the nature of Russia as it was and is.
The most haunting painting of the show remains Somov’s Sorcery, depicting a ravishing witch surrounded by innocent topiaries and flowers who renders flames to burn two naked lovers, caught in carnal embrace. In the same disturbing vein, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in Thirsting Warrior and Boys, unnaturally-colored, androgynous figures with hardly indiscernible genitalia stalk the canvas to the tune of a shudder from onlookers.
To counter the horror we have the beauty. Valentin Serov’s Ida Rubenstein (1910) presents us with a bejeweled woman perhaps post-coital on midnight blue sheets, and her body appears rough, speckled with the texture of the paper. The chiaroscuro lavishing Zinaida Serebryakova’s Bath House stands as beautiful as the naked women in the scene – with their cone-shaped breasts, backsides, and toned stomachs accentuated by this masterful light play. One can lose himself in the bodies of this image coming to life in their cleansing at the bath.
There is the element of the Bakhtin carnivalesque in this school – with the festive scenes, theatrical stages, accordion-bustling snow days with temperatures so cold, shadows have a blue hue. In Boris Grigoriev’s Portrait of Vsyevolod Meyerhold (1916), a comical, breathless theater director (more circus master in this rendering) poses with flamboyant hands raised and his left arm – covered in a mask – reaches to his top hat. Behind, a menacing man in red Eastern garb – with a face the combination of contempt and constipation – raises a threatening bow to the sky. All decorum – social, artistic, religious – seems inverted in a way so twisted that the two figures, almost in a dance, intrigue more than scare in this swift flip of values.
And though resistance to the past and present remained with this theory, some artists were looking for trends in the future in formal practice.
Nathan Altman’s Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1915) and Portrait of E.V. Dzubinskaya-Adamova (1915) in addition to Yuri Annenkov’s Portrait of the Photographer (1918) begin to show the elements of cubism with geometric shapes emphasizing color contrasts such as the canary yellow of Akhmatova’s scarf and her blue dress – given texture and movement to a new ideal.
Here Princeton has a gem little known to the world, consumed with classics and avant-garde. It is here for the taking. And the movement itself – only the interest in it – did not last, because of the constructing times under USSR.
A second “World of Art” culture began in 1924 with many of the founding members still organizing exhibitions in Moscow and Petersburg. But communist culture had grabbed society by the (Faberge) eggs, and the environment no longer stood conducive to art for art’s sake.
And for God’s sake, help the preservation of such beauty; see this exhibit.