New Narratives of Russian and East European Art
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New Narratives of Russian and East European Art

Between Traditions and Revolutions

Galina Mardilovich, Maria Taroutina, Galina Mardilovich, Maria Taroutina

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eBook - ePub

New Narratives of Russian and East European Art

Between Traditions and Revolutions

Galina Mardilovich, Maria Taroutina, Galina Mardilovich, Maria Taroutina

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About This Book

This book brings together thirteen scholars to introduce the newest and most cutting-edge research in the field of Russian and East European art history. Reconsidering canonical figures, re-examining prevalent debates, and revisiting aesthetic developments, the book challenges accepted histories and entrenched dichotomies in art and architecture from the nineteenth century to the present. In doing so, it resituates the artistic production of this region within broader socio-cultural currents and analyzes its interconnections with international discourse, competing political and aesthetic ideologies, and continuous discussions over identity.

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Part I

Mobile Margins

Artists, Artworks, and Institutions

1 Blood, Skin, and Paint

Karl Briullov in 1832

Allison Leigh

Out of love of art, Briullov left his native land and went under an unfamiliar sky to seek not inspiration, but improvements.
The Northern Bee (1835)1
At some point in 1832, the Russian painter Karl Briullov (1799–1852) abandoned a work he had been struggling with for about four years (Plate 1). The picture, known only as Bathsheba, contains two figures set amidst an abundance of green foliage in a lush grotto. One of the two figures is a large female nude with her legs crossed demurely away from the viewer as she reaches up to adjust her headdress. Her gaze is directed out of the painting as a faint smile breaks across her lips. Years later, having seen the work in Briullov’s studio in Rome, the art critic Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906) described the effect this nude had on him:
[…] amidst dense greenery flashes a bright sunbeam and bathed in this ray sits a beautiful Bathsheba, naked, straightening a loose, thick braid; she sits ready to go into the water, to swim. Her face is surrounded by light and shadow and is framed by her raised hands; her body, like a young Venus, is exactly like a shining lily, blossoming and fragrant, against the dark green background of the thicket […]2
The other figure in the painting, a young black servant, sits crouched in the pool of water at Bathsheba’s feet, gazing adoringly up at her face. Behind and around these two figures are the clothes they have ostensibly just discarded. A large dragonfly hangs poised in the air floating above them.
Briullov kept this painting in his Rome studio for the remaining two decades of his life, but there is no evidence that he worked on it again after 1832. It lingered in the same unfinished state for many years; only finally selling to a collector just before his death. Again, it was Stasov who recorded the details of the sale:
In the spring of this year, three Russian travelers, having seen Bathsheba, came one after the other to beg Briullov to sell it. But it was Mr. Soldatenkov, a Moscow merchant who had also visited Briullov’s studio, who, barely having seen Bathsheba, immediately bought the work. That very same day he took her to his place […]3
Years later, Soldatenkov reported that when he bought the picture the hands were unfinished and the canvas was punched through in this area.4 Apparently Briullov, in a fit of exasperation, had thrown his boot at the face of his heroine with enough force to break the canvas.5
What was it about the process of bringing this particular picture about that could have caused Briullov such fury? Several of the artist’s contemporaries described his temperament as choleric in nature, and he was known for reworking his pictures to some large extent—his 1821 painting of the appearance of the three angels to Abraham was reworked eight times before it satisfied the demanding painter.6 But only Bathsheba vexed him to the point of such an outburst. This work was singular in the artist’s oeuvre for receiving this kind of violent treatment and understanding why this particular painting caused Briullov exasperation provides insight into the problems he faced while working abroad in these years. For, Bathsheba is a testament to the fact that from a certain moment (and this moment is debatable), the artistic traditions of Russia began to profoundly merge with those of Western Europe in unprecedented ways. Hybrid styles were created as Russian artists studied and worked in foreign centers like Rome, and artworks like Bathsheba demonstrate the blurring of demarcations between cultures and movements which occurred as a result. This painting reveals the singularity of Briullov’s position as a Russian artist and sheds light on issues of cultural hybridity that he experienced in this period. In this sense, Bathsheba is but one example of the ways Russian artists operating in foreign centers negotiated their indebtedness to the Academic training they had received while simultaneously absorbing the avant-garde practices they encountered abroad.
In Briullov’s case, this meant bridging the growing gap between classicism and romanticism, and also finding an identity for himself as an artist that would bring him success both at home and abroad. Perhaps nowhere is this admixture of influences and negotiations more apparent than in his unfinished Bathsheba. Analysis of the circumstances under which the work came about force us to operate in a refreshing realm beyond the normalizing binaries of difference that have come to characterize investigations of Russia and Western Europe. An exploration of this work allows for a recognition of the shifting, multi-layered messiness that was and is contained in such binaries as East vs. West, real vs. ideal, and even male vs. female (as we shall see). This case study demonstrates that what is so often called East and West or orient and occident was actually the site of vibration between mutual displacements and contingent interests. At the heart of Briullov’s painting project was a fundamental instability, one that grew from his attempts at cultural and personal self-definition in this moment.

The Land of Depravity

Aside from what was reported by Stasov and Soldatenkov, we know very little about the early conception and development of Bathsheba. Briullov probably began the work sometime in 1828, amidst a flurry of activity which typified his late twenties. It was but one project among many which took shape while the artist was a pensioner in Rome, where he had been sent by the Society for the Encouragement of Artists after completing his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in 1822.7 His letters from these years attest to the industriousness that characterized this period in his life. He wrote to his brother in March of 1825 enumerating the many commissions he was beginning: “[…] I am very busy here: Mr. Samarin ordered five pictures in different sizes, Mrs. Nesselrode ordered another three paintings (“National Scenes”), like Samarin […] Tomorrow I begin a portrait of Samarin in oil and a watercolor of Mishenka Samarin.”8 Three months later he described even more works in progress in his letter to the Society:
[…] on the urgent request of Countess Pototskaya, I had to make her portrait; then Prince Meklenburgskii also commissioned his portrait. Now, besides the above-mentioned copy I am working on in the Vatican [of Raphael’s School of Athens], I have started several paintings in the Flemish genre (quadri di genere) and at the request of her Highness the Countess (M. D.) Nesselrode I am painting five pictures representing different national and characteristic scenes of Rome. His Highness Prince Golitsyn also wished to have two paintings in this style and his Excellency (F. V.) Samarin ordered from me five such paintings. His Excellency K. A. Naryshkin ordered two of the same picture, the subjects of which I am free to choose at will.9
The following year all this work would begin to garner him some success. His first serious undertaking in Rome, a picture called Italian Morning, had been completed in 1823 and sent back to Russia where it was exhibited by the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St. Petersburg before being presented to Tsar Nicholas I.10 Critics were enraptured. Pavel Svinin wrote in the February 1826 issue of the Petersburg literary journal Notes of the Fatherland (Otechestvennye zapiski):
This painting has been sent by [Briullov] from Rome and provides new testimony of the first-class talent of this young artist who is travelling at the Society’s expense […] The picture demonstrates some truly magical painting […] It’s a complete delight.11
Likewise, the Society itself was pleased with his effort in this work:
The charming work [Italian Morning] captivated equally all members of the Society […] your first work outside the country proves clearly those great hopes that the Society has for you and which you will surely justify our having without any doubt. The committee found in your work beauty of the highest degree […]12
This was encouraging praise for a young artist, and he tried to repeat and prolong it. But he also admitted that his style was going through a change under the influence of the foreign capital. He wrote home describing Italian Morning as his effort “to make an experiment” (“сделать опыт”) in a new kind of painting.13 He tried to replicate the success in a pendant entitled Italian Midday, a work he hoped to finish more quickly than Italian Morning while using his new experimental mode: “For the most faithful arrangement of shadows and light, I am working on this painting in a real garden vineyard.”14 Both this and other letters from the time attest to his growing focus on light effects. He took to working more and more outside and directly from nature.15 His initial triumph proved somewhat elusive though. The Society was concerned that his model for Midday had proportions that were “more enjoyable [приятных] rather than graceful,” and they indicated their expectation that Briullov would return to the traditional goal of art centered on “the most elegant forms.”16
Concerns like these highlight apprehension over the effects that foreign travel would have on Russian artists. The members of the Society feared Briullov was beginning to deviate from the classical norms that had characterized his training at the Russian Academy. They warned him in 1825 that he should avoid “the French style that one unfortunately now sees in almost all the works of young artists.”17 They similarly warned his brother Aleksandr, who was also a pensioner in Italy at the time, to be wary as he travelled to Paris the following year: “Now you find yourself in the land of depravity, be careful not to let yourself become corrupted without realizing it.”18 Even Tsar Alexander I expressed frustration toward the end of his reign over the effects that foreign travel had on Russia’s native sons: “I swear never to send another one to complete his studies abroad, because they leave as piglets and return as swine.”19
Somewhere amidst all this rhetoric and Briullov’s own desire to experiment with new styles and forms, he began painting Bathsheba.20 The subject was certainly a safe choice. From the beginning of his time in Italy, he had shown an interest in these kinds of Biblical scenes. Letters from 1823 indicate that he had intended to produce a painting on the story of Judith and Holofernes, but abandoned the idea a few months later due to “the difficulty of lighting.”21 The night scene required by the subject matter diverged too far from his interest in bodies “illuminated by the sun.”22 His mentor, the Danish sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen, suggested bathing the scene in light, but this seemed an alteration too great for Briullov and he sought other subjects.
Bathsheba struck the perfect balance. It brought together the two elements that had granted him the most success thus far. It allowed him to pair a Biblical subject of the kind that had earned him the gold medal at the Academy in 1821 with the light effects and frothy genre fare that had gained him such commendation in Italian Morning. The biblical narrative purportedly shown in the painting was the story of how King David, upon seeing the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, co-opted another man’s wife, sending her husband to his death so that he could possess her. But Briullov’s work is a complete deviation from traditional iconography. Earlier paintings of the subject by other artists consistently contained either King David spying on Bathsheba from afar or a letter indicating his request for her to visit him.23 Briullov painted neither—making his abandonment of the earlier Judith and Holofernes theme all the more ironic considering it was the divergence from history that proved unacceptable to the painter. Bathsheba certainly stemmed from his earlier Italian paintings stylistically—it contained the same confla...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Contents
  7. List of Figures
  8. List of Plates
  9. List of Contributors
  10. Note on Stylistic Conventions and Transliteration
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. Introduction
  13. PART I Mobile Margins: Artists, Artworks, and Institutions
  14. PART II Visualizing Ideology: New Systems, Cold War Aesthetics, and Post-Socialist Memory
  15. Selected Bibliography
  16. Index
Citation styles for New Narratives of Russian and East European Art

APA 6 Citation

Mardilovich, G., & Taroutina, M. (2019). New Narratives of Russian and East European Art (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)

Chicago Citation

Mardilovich, Galina, and Maria Taroutina. (2019) 2019. New Narratives of Russian and East European Art. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Mardilovich, G. and Taroutina, M. (2019) New Narratives of Russian and East European Art. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Mardilovich, Galina, and Maria Taroutina. New Narratives of Russian and East European Art. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.