CURRENT ISSUE - #3 2021 (72)
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) holds a unique place in the history of Russian art. On the one hand, he belonged to the legendary cohort of Russian Art Nouveau artists. According to his contemporaries, it was in his oeuvre that “we find the saddest and most beautiful artistic expression of the time” In a newspaper article on the occasion of Vrubel’s funeral, the celebrated Russian artist and art historian Alexandre Benois predicted: “Future generations, should true enlightenment shine upon the Russian public, will look back at the last decades of the 19th century as ‘the era of Vrubel’.” Nevertheless, there is clearly a great gap between Vrubel and his artistic milieu: he seems to be much more in touch with the future than with the world around him. “Here is what I do know: I can only stand in awe of the mysteries that Vrubel and others like him begin to reveal to mankind once in 100 years. We are unable to see the worlds that were open to them, and so all we can do is utter this feeble, indifferent word: ‘genius’.
Vrubel’s path from “Demon Seated” to “Demon Flying” and “Demon Downcast” coincided with the period in which Symbolism, as an all-encompassing philosophical and aesthetic movement, along with its stylistic offshoot, Art Nouveau, were taking shape. Vrubel’s creative endeavour proved to be the highest point of “spiritual exertion, religious excitement” and “the sense of mysteriousness of the world” that enveloped and nourished culture at the beginning of the 20th century.
POINT OF VIEW
“Painting, like music, like a poet’s verses, should always inspire enjoyment in the viewer. Beauty alone is what artists gift their viewers.” This phrase belongs to Konstantin Korovin, but many artists working at the turn of the 20th century would have been willing to put their names to it, and none more so than his friend, Mikhail Vrubel, bewitched as he was by the music of an “entire person”, by that national, intimate note which he strove to “capture on canvas and in ornament.”
HISTORY OF A MASTERPIECE
The composition “The Swan Princess” (Tretyakov Gallery) was produced by Mikhail Vrubel in 1900, when he was designing sets for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas at Savva Mamontov’s Russian Private Opera. Like the images from the “Demon” series, this painting projects an inscrutable magnetism. Many mysteries remain about both the history of the creation of the painting and the image of the enchanting bird maiden from the fairy tale. Among the most important of these is the identity of the model for the fair Swan Princess. Does the composition indeed feature Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela-Vrubel - the artist’s wife and muse, as well as a splendid opera diva who performed the Swan Princess in Rimsky- Korsakov’s opera - or is it a composite image born of the artist’s imagination?
The composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and the painter Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) were among the greatest Russian artists of the Silver Age. They did, however, belong to different generations - Vrubel’s entire career fit into this exceptional period in Russian cultural life, whereas Rimsky-Korsakov began writing music as early as the 1860s. Nonetheless, the composer reached his prime and created his best work in exactly that era, the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.
MUSEUMS OF RUSSIA
Mikhail Vrubel’s creative fascination with ceramics began in 1890, soon after his arrival in Moscow in autumn 1889. There, thanks to his old friends Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, he became close with Savva Mamontov, a vivid and multifaceted character, someone who was possessed of a special sensitivity to new trends in art along with an ability to recognise talented people and understand the essence of their gift. A major entrepreneur and patron of the arts, in the 1870s and 1890s, he collected a circle of artists, later known as the Abramtsevo Circle, which spanned the generations: Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov, Viktor Vasnetsov and the sculptor Mark Antokolsky from the older generation; Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin, Yelena Polenova, Apollinary Vasnetsov, Mikhail Vrubel, Mikhail Nesterov and Ilya Ostroukhov, among others, from the younger generation.
“GRANY” FOUNDATION PRESENTS
There are certain quintessential artistic phenomena associated with the name Savva Mamontov that, to a great extent, defined cultural life in Russia in the 1880s and 1890s. These include the Abramtsevo (Mamontov) Artistic Circle, which made significant advances in set design, architecture, painting and decorative and applied art; the Russian Private Opera, the birthplace of the leading school of national set design and home to brilliant performers headed by Feodor Chaliapin; and the carpentry and ceramics workshops linked to Yelena Polenova and Mikhail Vrubel, which, in many ways, set the tone for Russian Art Nouveau.