Books: ‘The Russian Experiment in Art 1863 – 1922″ by Camilla Gray

Research: ‘The Russian Experiment in Art 1863 – 1922” – Camilla Gray, Thames & Hudson 2012


An excellent book! I came to this read knowing nothing about the period in Russian art covering 1863 to 1922 and have found it most interesting and accessible. Camilla Gray writes in an easy straightforward way and, although covering a very dense period in terms of artistic activity, maintains a clarity and conciseness. My overall impression from reading the book is that this was an extraordinary 60 years in the development of the modern movement in Russian art. Starting from the gathering together of a small colony of artists by Savva Mamontov, a Russian railway tycoon – composers, singers, art historians, archeologists, writer and actors – and the determination to create a new Russian culture, there developed a dynamic movement which would have a lasting influence throughout the world and pave the way for the development of abstract art.

A significant aspect of the experiments of art during this period was the overlap with theatre design, music and magazines. The influence of theatre design can be see in innovative thinking in pictorial composition, finding new ways of rendering space without relying on perspective. “An emphasis on the ‘felt’ rather than the ‘explicit’ sense of distance between the spectator and the world of the picture…” (page 58)

International aspect – influence of mainstream Western culture. Interesting to read about Sergei Shchukin and his contribution in this respect. I had already read about his extraordinary collection of Matisse and Picasso in the book, “Matisse, the Life” by Hilary Spurling. The collection was begun in 1897 and by the outbreak of the First World Way in 1914 contained 221 works of Impressionists and Post Impressionists. Matisse made a major impression on the your Russian artists – ideas of reducing the picture to its essentials and in the decorative flat style of painting.


Mikhail Vrubel (1856 – 1910) use of the space and surface of the painting. Because of his firsthand familiarity with Byzantine art, he used ornamental rhythms to emphasise the flat surface of the canvas. He had a direct interest in nature – most of his drawings are studies of flowers “penetrating close-ups of the tangled interplay of forms, giving them in their artificial isolation a peculiar dramatic rhythm.” (Page 36)

Mikhail Vrubel: Six-winged Seraph 1904

Mikhail Vrubel: Six-winged Seraph 1904

Pavel Kusnetsov (Blue Rose group) – atmosphere is the prevailing element and geometric perspective and individual characterization of forms in volume are entirely absent. The picture plane is flat and the figures hard against the surface – strong lyrical sense. Many paintings are not frames but panels (rejection of the Renaissance idea of a painting as something which was about an ideal world different from everyday life.)

Pavel Kusnetsov - Blue Fountain

Pavel Kusnetsov – Blue Fountain

Mikhail Larionov and Goncharova 1909 emerge as the new leaders in the modern movement in Russian Art…paved the way for Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. Launch of new primitivist style “ Fauve-like boldness of line and abstract use of colour as expressive entities in their own right” page 97 Turned once again to folk-art traditions for simplicity and directness. Individual objects and geometric perspective dismissed – omission of sky – dominance of the horizontal – distortion of anatomy

Soldier on a Horse c.1911 Michel Larionov 1881-1964 Presented by Mme Alexandra Larionov, the artist's widow 1965

Soldier on a Horse c.1911 Michel Larionov 1881-1964 Presented by Mme Alexandra Larionov, the artist’s widow 1965

Goncharova - Peasants Dancing

Goncharova – Peasants Dancing

Kasimir Malevich – figures symbols of mankind – fat against the surface of the painting. 1913 began working on his Suprematist system. 1915 Black Square see page 165 “This painting of ‘pure sensation’, as Malevich himself defines Suprematism, culminated in the famous ‘White on White’ series 1917-18.” Elimination of all colour and form in the purest shape of the square.

malevich - Black Square

malevich – Black Square

malevich - The Woodcutter

malevich – The Woodcutter



Rayonnism ‘ The painting is revealed as a skimmed impression. It is perceived out of time and in space ….sensation of what one might call the ‘fourth dimension’, that is the length, width and thickness of the colour layers…” page 140 – 1911 to 1914. The pioneer abstract school of painting from which Malevich went on to found Suprematism, the first systematic school of abstract painting in the modern movement.

Tatlin – concerned not with new pictorial space but with real space ‘Real materials in real space’



1914 – 17 abstract painting developed and became dominant in the Russian modern movement – headed by Malevich

Alexandra Exter (beautiful colours)

Alexandra Exter - The City at Night

Alexandra Exter – The City at Night

Alexandra Exter Cityscape

Alexandra Exter Cityscape

Alexandra Exter - Venice

Alexandra Exter – Venice


Vassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky - Red Yellow Blue

Kandinsky – Red Yellow Blue

Alexander Rodchenko

Rodchenko - LIne and Compass

Rodchenko – LIne and Compass

Olga Rosanova

Olga Rosanova - Composition 1918

Olga Rosanova – Composition 1918

Constructivism – dismissal of ‘easel art and ‘pure art’ towards the idea of Constructivism and ‘production art’. Art was no longer remote but life itself…. a world transformed by mechanization. The artist must become a technician. Page 268 “The theory of Constructivism was not only an aesthetic but a philosophy of life. It affected not only man’s environment but man himself…This Utopia envisaged a world in which art was no longer a dream- world to which the working man retired for relaxation and to regain his balance, but became the very stuff of his life.”

Russia the first country to exhibit abstract art officially.


It seems to me that becoming the precursors of abstract art was almost inevitable for Russian artists. From the start of this period the interest in Byzantine art with its flat surfaces and inclusion of decoration led naturally to a move away from traditional perspective and emphasis on form. The events happening in the country during this time also resulted in a concentration on practical everyday living and away from art as a thing apart and only to be hallowed and enjoyed by the few. My interest has been in seeing how the picture plane was being used and I’ve noted how the design of figures and shapes has resulted in powerful and immediate images. For many of the artists there was a move away from nature, in fact for the Suprematists it was a conviction of depicting man in control of the natural world. It also fascinates me to read about people and events coming together at a certain time and how this results in extraordinary developments and creative energy. I feel to have learnt a great deal from this book.




About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
This entry was posted in Exhibitions & Books. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s