A Many-sided Genre: The Nude in Russian Graphic Art in the 20th Century

Irina Leytes

Magazine issue: 
#1 2015 (46)


For a long time, almost until the end of the 19th century, drawing nude models, to use the archaic terminology, was mostly dedicated to the "description of the proportions of the human body" and the ability "to draw academic figures". The expression "academic figure" meant a human figure stylized to look like works of classical art. To teach students the art of drawing the nude human form, the Russian Academy of Fine Arts engaged exclusively male models, and consequently almost all nude representations were of male figures, often drawn from stocky Russian peasants "in classical poses". This resulted in what has been ironically dubbed "Russified antique". Drawings of nude female figures, even when stylized to look "antique", are rare in Russian art of the 17th-19th centuries, and almost always represent small-scale works created for utilitarian purposes.

The tide changed in 1893, when the Academy underwent reforms and began to offer a class in drawing female nudes. Soon after that, thanks to Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, who had begun teaching at the Moscow School of painting, Sculpture and Architecture, drawing female nudes became a set part of the curriculum there, too. They were drawn to the natural and the lyrical, to all that inspired joyful human emotions. So the fact that the female nude reacted to light much more than the male one, was far more luciferous and compositionally difficult became a decisive factor in their preference for it.

Serov's student Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, an artist who from the start of his career adopted an analytical approach to everything that interested him, also engaged with the nude. Later in his life, he remembered: "I do not think there was a single movement of the human body that I would not have drawn a thousand times - in pencil, with pastels or watercolours."1 Petrov-Vodkin based his early paintings on those sculptural and precise drawings. He would, however, turn more and more to depicting the male nude. He came to believe that it was the youthful male form, not the female one that allowed him to fully express his ideas: the ambiguous and disguised nature of life, and the affirmation of the male perception of life's imperfection. Notably, his female nudes, with their angular shapes, often look masculine.

The artists who formed the "Mir Iskusstva" (World of Art) circle were inspired by their vision of beauty, and many of them realized that vision in painting beautiful female nudes. Konstantin Somov, a brilliant master of stylized paintings reminiscent of the 18th century fete galante, chose to include his nude models in genre scenes, most often those of bathing in mysterious evening waters, where the shadows conceal the details and the bathers look like exquisite, delicate Rococo nymphs. In contrast, Zinaida Serebryakova preferred to paint her strikingly beautiful, robust models in ample light. The artist's depiction of these young women's bodies reveals her interest in the perfect and monumental images of the High Renaissance, while the faces of her models closely resemble her own expressive, beautiful face. A little later, Serebryakova's interest in the nude genre found its expression in a series of masterfully executed studies for allegoric round tempera panels for the Kazan Railway Station, which was being designed by the Alexei Shchusev. The evocative details, poses and gestures of Serebryakova's nude models clearly symbolize "The Orient", since the trains leaving the Kazan station headed eastwards, towards exotic and mysterious lands; thus the artist created original images, characteristic of their time, of Siam, Turkey, India and Japan.

In contrast, there are no allegories in Nikolai Tyrsa's drawings. He was interested in the human body as a complex shape that an artist creates anew, rather than painting it from nature, by stripping it of any kind of naturalism, chiaroscuro or anything from the everyday, transient or fleeting. According to Tyrsa's idea, the artist "makes" a work just as a good craftsman makes a useful object from a tough material. Thus, it is no coincidence that the critic Nikolai punin articulated this distinctive description of Tyrsa's ascetic and sober drawings: "Art carved out in space, a style of metal and bronze." 2

Even with all their "metal and bronze" attributes, Tyrsa's drawings have the elegance that was characteristic of the St. petersburg artists, especially members of "Mir Iskusstva" - it was not for nothing that he briefly studied under Leon Bakst and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. In contrast, the Moscow artists who were members of the "Bubnovy Valet" (Jack of Diamonds) artistic circle gravitated towards ostensibly crude and vibrant art; they mostly associated the very notion of the corporeal with ideas of the dominance of physical strength, power, and weight (Ilya Mashkov, Alexander Osmerkin, pyotr Konchalovsky), as well as sharpness and brightness (Aristarkh Lentulov.) These concepts gained popularity before and during World War I, but became widespread, for obvious reasons, in the 1920s. The young artists (like the members of the Society of Easel painters3 such as Alexander Deineka and Yury pimenov, and the Revolutionary Russia Artists Association4 such as Pavel Sokolov-Skalya) did not just readily absorb these ideas in their work, but combined them, each one in his unique way, with the minimalism and severity so characteristic of the time. It is worth noting that the heavy, big-boned, pushy (sometimes even quite ill-natured) models that appear in the works of the "Jack of Diamonds" artists and those of the 1920s are painted with exceptional technical and compositional virtuosity, in various styles and media, and even with a particular effortlessness, as if attempting to compensate for their crude themes and lowly models.

Those artists who split from the "Jack of Diamonds" and formed a new group, "Osliniy khvost" (Donkey's Tail), were not in the business of idealizing, either. On the contrary, they went even further in their rejection of ideals by following the direction of primitive art and the culture of the lower classes, unlike the "Jack of Diamonds", a group that found inspiration in the most modern trends of European art. This approach liberated them from an obsessively serious attitude towards the subject matter of their art, and gave their works, including their nudes, a touch of lightness and "wild" irony (at times, the nude would become a prevailing theme in Mikhail Larionov's work; Alexander Shevchenko also gave the genre plentiful attention). Later in life, after emigration from Russia, Larionov returned to nude motifs, which became especially pronounced in his drawings of the late 1920s. For various reasons, he virtually stopped painting and clearly preferred graphic arts. With his interest in the old themes of "Venuses", "Turkish women", "nudes with birds", "nudes on the beach" renewed, Larionov drew a great many of them on different kinds of paper, and different in terms of quality, colour and texture. The same motif acquired a different meaning with each new interpretation, but never lost Larionov's characteristic ironic overtones. For all his irony and artistic "unruliness", Larionov possessed a remarkable gift of plasticity and an exquisite sense of colour and composition. When he outlines the contours of a body with what seems to be intentional roughness, what emerges is a surprisingly soft shape. The artist found a way to reveal a particular figure's unique plasticity; by placing the figure in this or that manner against a certain texture or background colour, the artist conveys his mood to the canvas, almost always with irony, but never with indifference or coldness.

It would seem that at the time of and in the years after the Revolution, the tender genre of the nude, whether it appeared in its purely realistic, romantic, primitivist or decadently naughty incarnation, should have gone into hiding, lying low in an attempt to be forgotten. After all, according to the accepted definition of the time, the nude was a purely bourgeois genre, a reflection of the decadent and corrupt interests of the "exploitative class", and of no use to the masses. "The masses" were indeed indifferent to it, but the majority of the artists, apparently, could not do without it, and drawing, as the visual art that required the least resources, came to the rescue. Furthermore, many artists still had some supplies of paper, pencils, charcoal and other tools, a significant aid in times of civil war and the consequent total shortages. In addition, depictions of the nude human body (at a time when all the covers that civilization had thrown over "the old horse of history" were being stripped from it on a massive scale like a kind of false disguise) served as a succinct metaphor. It did not happen immediately, but over time it turned out that this metaphor rang true for many cultural figures.

Members of "Makovets", the first artist's society to be formed after the Revolution, proclaimed their aim to preserve the old masters' traditions, a desire that may have been considered a lost cause at a time when it was being declared that a total destruction of "all things past" was necessary. Despite that, in the minds of many people such ideas of destruction, inconceivably, co-existed with thoughts of a certain transformation that life was to inevitably undergo after the unfolding catastrophe. Members of "Makovets" (first and foremost, one of its founders, Vasily Chekrygin) were inspired by the ideas of the philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, which presented a highly flammable mixture of the destructive thinking of the 20th century, the previous century's materialism and a medieval-era mysticism. According to this philosophy, having endured unspeakable suffering, humanity has to realize that its goal lies in a transformation of life so profound that it is capable of not only changing the reality of the living, but actually bringing about the so-called "resurrection of the dead", which is to happen literally, in the flesh.

Thus, the contrast of light and darkness that would accompany such an incredible event achieves unprecedented intensity in the numerous charcoal drawings by the visionary Chekrygin, reminding the viewer of the graphic works of Rembrandt and Goya. Often his representations of nude and semi-nude bodies of people at the moment of resurrection are filled with rapture and tension, which in his mind would accompany the turmoil they were going through. At the same time, many of his images, especially those of women, appear to be in an odd trance, which is emphasized by the mysterious glowing light which their bodies emanate.

An artist closely associated with "Makovets", Lev Bruni placed his beautiful nude model in an imaginary landscape, as he built on the idea of bringing together people and nature as a source of harmony and goodness. Bruni, who came from an artistic milieu with a long history, had, as the saying goes, "a God-given gift" for watercolour: he would often say that in his veins it was "not blood that was flowing, but watercolour". Using few colours, he would create a world filled with the freshness of the first days of Creation - indeed, it is no coincidence that the trees he painted in his famous "On a Branch over the Water" seem to be growing in Eden, and the nude young woman hiding in their leaves reminds us of Eve, the first woman.

The artists who formed the short-lived group "Thirteen", which owed its name to the number of exhibitors and ended up quite influential in Russian graphic arts, rejected prophesying, aestheticism, and mythology. More than anything, they valued the ability to draw quickly, since they thought it matched the fast pace of modern life. They stayed away from the political turmoil, something that earned them the scorn of the critics, who were growing more and more orthodox5 and pro-Soviet; nonetheless, they watched the ever-changing circumstances of urban life with a childlike curiosity. They were equally interested in trying to combine fast drawing techniques with the measured pulse of nature itself, not just the hectic rhythms of a city; they placed their "characters" in nature. Often these were nude young women who seem to have shed their urban personas along with their clothes, and become one with nature. More often than not they are simply resting, sometimes reading; most often they are taking the traditional Russian banya, or steam bath-house, swimming in a lake or lounging on a beach. Milashevsky, Mavrina, Sofronova, Daran, and Kuzmin - all these artists used patterns of quick, supple strokes to outline the nude bodies of bathers and beach-goers, only to be slowed down by the odd rhythm of both subtle and thick watercolour washes. Watercolour covered moist sheets of paper freely and naturally as these artists portrayed their nude models, charming young ladies of various ages, cute and touching, naughty and childishly innocent.

The art of Robert Falk (a senior contemporary of the "Thirteen" artists, and something of a kindred spirit to them) was shaped by his unrelenting quest for harmony. A former member of the "Jack of Diamonds" group, he returned to the nude genre when he found himself in France at the end of the 1920s.6 Falk outlined the elongated figures of his exquisite models, which resemble Modigliani's nudes, with black intermittent contours over a brownish-golden "lining", most often executed with pastels and sometimes misaligned.

It appears that the purpose of those areas of pastel colour was to have the wonderful light soak the space around and within the contour unevenly, creating the impression of a soft haze that seems to envelop the nude figure. The white paper edges and the partially washed-out areas within the contour did not let the human form drown in the golden haze. In contrast, that remarkable master of watercolour technique Artur Fonvizin presents his nudes bathed in splashes of colour, experiencing pleasure that is almost sensuous. It is no accident that the artist invokes the image of the Biblical Salome.

The nude plays a significant role in the oeuvre of Vladimir Lebedev and Sarra Lebedeva. In their numerous drawings, "dancers and cooks, athletes and bathers appear without any attributes of their time, without any 'talking' details; they represent the mood of the time as reflected in art, tired of romantic fervour, conceptual designs, literariness, and high-brow rationalizations."7 Often, the two artists drew the same model. Vladimir Lebedev, brilliant at both drawing and painting, seems to be "molding" the bodies of his exquisite models by using the most delicate gradations of light and colour. The outstanding sculptor Sarra Lebedeva uses precise form-defining fanciful lines that barely hint at volume; she occasionally adds really delicate tonal stumping, all without lifting the drawing from the plane of the paper. Amazing images that create the feeling of joyful tranquility and fullness of life emerge as a result - they have much more in common with images of antiquity and those of Henry Matisse, so beloved by many artists, than with Soviet reality.

Boris Chernyshov, an artist of the next generation, had an infallible sense of form. He mainly focused on large-scale art forms; however, at the time the constraints of the genre were so severe that Chernyshov had to turn to the landscape and the nude, the two genres unaffected by any ideology, to fulfill his desire for unaffectedness. Along with a few other Moscow artists, in the 1950s he organized a rare open art studio dedicated to drawing the nude. All sketches and studies, according to the original rule, were to be drawn very quickly, to help "capture" the distinctive make-up of the human body. Chernyshov's own manner, to use his own words, was based on his innate "practice of quickly sculpting the paints" and called for a special technique. All his life he primarily painted with homemade tempera, often on newspaper. The artist made his paints himself, using egg yolk and natural dye. In the 1950s, his nudes are characteristically formal and reserved, while the ones he painted in the next decade (a vast number) are much more vibrant, uninhibited and even edgy. The feeling of freedom often turns into rapture, that human state where an irrational power takes one over and is visually expressed either in the movement of the figures or, in complete contrast, in their hieratical and sculptural stillness and hyper-decorativeness, reminiscent of Ancient art.

Beginning from around the 1960s, many visual art genres gradually grew beyond the boundaries of their defining features and purpose. As for the nude, it mainly stayed within the confines of an almost exclusively private experience and private life - that is, within boundaries that in Soviet times were narrowed as much as possible. However, some basic concepts were preserved within the very limited sphere of private life, even perhaps at the level of the collective unconscious; one, in particular, was the idea of the wholeness and sanctity of the human body as the foundation of life.

The winds of change swept through the world of art and changed attitudes towards the human form - it was no longer the focus of artists' attention. For Pavel Zaltsman, a writer and artist fond of philosophical generalization, the human body remained the symbol of goodness and beauty. Zaltsman, who had studied at pavel Filonov's studio as a young man, later had some very personal experience of being a pariah in his own country. A man of independent convictions - and an ethnic German to boot - he found shelter in Kazakhstan, far away from the capital and other big cities; even there he was unable to get work for a very long time. Zaltsman's nudes are, in a way, allegories of a "Golden Age": as though whisked away from their beautiful timelessness and put into a complex and phantasmagoric symbolic space, they appear defenseless in the face of horrifying mechanical monster beasts, allegoric embodiments of evil and violence.

A short time later, the graphic works of Marina Kastalskaya and Vladimir Orlov present a complete "dematerialization" of the model - right in front of the viewer's eyes it seems to dissolve into the thin air. It would seem that these masters began their artistic careers developing themes that were quite traditional, including that of"a nude model in an artist's studio".

Gradually, representations of models in these works are taken to the point of its complete dematerialization, deconstruction and departure from the realm of figurative art.

At first glance, it would seem that Vladimir Veisberg took a more traditional approach to painting the nude human body. Captivated by the idea of "invisible" (meaning deeply felt and spiritual) visual art, a personal and profoundly experienced conviction, Veisberg in the 1970s-1980s continuously turned to the motif of the "sleeping nude". To emphasize the metaphysical essence of sleep as a borderline state between two worlds, the artist painted his canvases by applying layer upon layer of transparent, almost "invisible" paint, every time changing the canvas just a little; as a result, it seems that his nudes are frozen in a kind of perfectly constructed world, almost ethereal in their fineness and destined to remain there forever.

* Collection of the Tretyakov Gallery

  1. Tamruchi, V.A."Petrov-Vodkin", Leningrad, 1977, p. 13.
  2. Punin, N.N.'Drawings by Some Young Artists' in "Russian and Soviet Art", Moscow, 1976, p.153.
  3. Society of Easel painters, Russian acronym OST (OCT).
  4. Revolutionary Russia Artists Association, Russian acronym AKhRR (AXPP).
  5. Here is what the "Art for the proletariat" magazine (#6, 1931) wrote about an exhibition of the"Thirteen", in particular Tatiana Mavrina's nudes: "... looking at [the work of] all these Daranovs, Drevins and Mavrinas, etc, one cannot help but ask: why Glaviskusstvo [Russian abbreviation for the Chief Administration of Literature and Art] funds such art? Why do these people get their bread from the Soviet state? [Work by] Mavrina is pale, talentless, full of unashamed and blatant bourgeois eroticism and rotten bourgeois aestheticism." Quoted from: Mavrina, T.A. "Glorious Colour. Diaries. Essays on Art", Moscow, 2006, p. 16.
  6. Here is what Falk thought of the much more favourable working conditions for an artist in paris, as compared to Soviet Russia, retold by his widow Angelina Shchekin-Krotova: in paris"it was very easy to paint nudes - there are studios one can go to, pay a few francs, choose a model and paint peacefully for two or three hours. Usually there were several models at these studios, standing or lying down next to easels and chairs." Quoted from: Shchekin-Krotova, A.V. "Commentary on the Works of R.R. Falk". Typewritten copy, private archive, Moscow.
  7. Vershinina, A."Drawings by Sarra Lebedeva in the Collection of T.L. Krasina-Tarasova"// Russian Art, 2013, #4, p. 126.





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