Mitrofan Rukavishnikov: THE FORERUNNER
Founder of one of the most prominent dynasties of Russian sculptors, Mitrofan Rukavishnikov was born on May 24 1887 in Nizhny Novgorod, into the family of Sergei (Mikhailovich) Rukavishnikov, son of the well-known Nizhny Novgorod merchant Mikhail (Grigorievich) Rukavishnikov. In 1901, at the age of 14, Mitrofan enrolled in the Emperor Alexander II Nizhegorodsky Institute for Noblemen’s Children, where he studied for six years, until 1907. After graduation the young man was still undecided about his future. He explained in his autobiography: “In the years of my initial awakening to the realities of life, in the years of my youth, in my school years, when I came to love all forms of art and especially the synthesizing forms, I, anticipating the colossus of art as a whole, began to consider my first attempts at creation as amateurish and decided to choose the path of ‘hard’ science.”
With this in mind, Rukavishnikov went to Moscow. Completely unexpectedly for himself, in the capital he met and became friends with Edward Gordon Craig, the English actor and theatre director who was the greatest exponent of Symbolism on the European stage at the turn of the 20th century. This encounter happened around the end of 1908 and the beginning of 1909, when Craig was invited to the Moscow Art Theatre to direct Shakespeare's “Hamlet". Craig's opinions about art were in harmony with the ambitions of the young Mitrofan Rukavishnikov: influenced by Craig's larger-than-life artistic personality Rukavishnikov left the law faculty of Moscow University and took an abrupt new direction in his life.
In autumn 1909 Mitrofan became an apprentice to one of the leading Russian sculptors, Sergei Konenkov: it would give him an artistic training typical for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one characterized by flexibility and with the options of an independent choice of mentors and apprenticeships at different artistic studios. Rukavishnikov's own testimony shows that this choice was a deliberate one: “At the period of the decline of the Imperial Academy, which reviled Konenkov's ‘Samson', I was then totally, as only a youth can be, enthralled by the idea of the student and the teacher." The names of Konenkov's other students, it should be noted, remain unknown to Russian art historians: Mitrofan Rukavishnikov is the only individual who is known to have definitely been the great artist's student.
Under Konenkov's guidance, in 1909-1911 Mitrofan Rukavishnikov accomplished several wood and marble pieces on themes from Russian folklore. Rukavishnikov started studying under Konenkov when he was 22: he was a very young beginner who had, however, already demonstrated an outstanding talent for sculpture. Rukavishnikov's treatment of wood was quite original, like that of his teacher: he would wax redwood pieces with turpentine and then polish them. The chisels that the young sculptor used have survived, and the excellent quality of Rukavishnikov's tools is apparent. Like Konenkov, when creating wooden objects Rukavishnikov set about working with wood directly, without producing plaster models or even sketches: it was a method that enabled him to follow the material, using its distinctive features to lend character to the figures he created.
During his stay in Moscow Rukavishnikov also studied history of art - the talented youth was helped in this endeavour by Ivan Tsvetaev, the founder of the Alexander III Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). Tsvetaev was familiar with the Rukavishnikovs because Mitrofan's uncle, Ivan (Mikhailovich) Rukavishnikov, who continued the family tradition of business entrepreneurship, was one of the donors who had supported the construction of exhibition rooms for Tsvetaev's museum.
After this period of study in Konenkov's studio, in 1911 Mitrofan travelled abroad to familiarize himself with the museums of Europe. Italy's artistic treasures stunned the artist, and the architecture and museums of Rome and Naples gave Rukavishnikov a shot of inspiration which freed his inner self and put him on his own path of artistic self-fulfilment, away from the influence of even so great a master as Konenkov. The interest in Symbolism, to which Rukavishnikov had been thoroughly exposed while studying under Konenkov and creating statues of mythical heroes, was gradually replaced by classicist trends.
In spring 1912 he returned to his native Nizhny Novgorod where, by his own account, he spent two years studying the lives of dockhands on the Volga, and sketching them. This period produced two full-size statues, “Dockhand with a Barrel" and “Dockhand with a Sack" (both made in 1912-1913, plaster, present location unknown), as well as a piece titled “Head of a Dockhand" (1912, bronze, present location unknown) and several images created on cardboard, in watercolour.
As it turned out later, the “Dockhands" were preparatory work for a more serious and high-profile monumental project, as Rukavishnikov wrote in his “Autobiography": “When I completed my first monumental sculptures, I felt drawn to large murals and, naturally, was faced first of all with technical difficulties. But after six months of searching in this direction I discovered quite satisfactory technical methods for working on large murals and displaying them, that is for creating movable frescoes." In 1913 the sculptor began a unique experiment creating a movable fresco “Dockhands Resting", then suspended the project, and only resumed it after he had settled in Moscow permanently together with his brother Ivan.
Rukavishnikov's life was rich in events: he visited Italy once more; during World War I he went to the south-western front in the Provisional Government army, before returning to his native Nizhny Novgorod. It was the middle of the year 1917: Rukavishnikov was in his home town when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, an event which radically changed the life of the emerging young sculptor whose career had begun so propitiously. Almost immediately after the revolution the Rukavishnikov family home, which the brothers Mitrofan and Ivan had inherited, was requisitioned by the state; by Spring 1918 it was already accommodating an institution known as the “People's Museum of History". The contents of Mitrofan's studio, as well as objects there that belonged to his brother Ivan, such as paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, and a library with its furniture and fixtures, were protected from seizure by documents personally issued by the People's Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. It was perhaps thanks to that intervention that Mitrofan Rukavishnikov was able to preserve many of his works, and later to take them from Nizhny Novgorod.
Although the brothers began to work actively in the field of preservation of the cultural heritage of the Nizhny Novgorod region, they did not feel secure. Regional archives record: “On their return to their ancestral home, the poet and the sculptor could do nothing but think about how to stay safe in this meat-grinder: the new authorities were far from fond of owners of opulent mansions and could sentence them to capital punishment on any pretext, or sometimes even without one." Ivan and Mitrofan, expecting to be arrested any minute, settled permanently in Moscow in 1919; it was at this time that the project to set up the Palace of Arts on Povarskaya Street was underway, and Ivan Rukavishnikov became that institution's director. After his arrival in Moscow, Mitrofan Rukavishnikov resumed his contacts with his mentor Sergei Konenkov, who was also closely involved with the Palace.
In the 1920s Mitrofan Rukavishnikov led quite a busy life, handling “propaganda and culture" responsibilities at the political management board of the Revolutionary Military Council, the army enlistment office of Moscow, and a provincial political education office. At that time he lived with his family - his first wife and his son, Volodya - at Krasnaya Presnya, 12 apartment 1.
It was in those years that Rukavishnikov resumed his experimentation with large murals, which he had begun in Nizhny Novgorod. The idea of a “movable fresco", or a composition not linked to a particular exhibition space, was truly revolutionary when he set about making it a reality. In 1913-1920 Rukavishnikov created his “movable fresco" “Dockhands Resting" (2 x 2.5 meters), a copy of which was printed in 1925 in “Ekho" magazine; it was accompanied by an article written by Rukavishnikov himself, in which he talked about the distinctive professional community of the dockhands. A year earlier, “Rupor" (Mouthpiece) magazine had run an article “Dockhands of the Volga" written by a professor A. Toporkov, a story which introduced the general public to the sculptor Rukavishnikov's unique experience for the first time. However, the sculptor did not have an opportunity to continue working in this direction because of a lack of a suitable studio environment.
In the first half of the 1920s Mitrofan Rukavishnikov tried his hand at monumental theatrical projects for the first time: in 1923 he finished the first “choreo-performance", titled “Exodus", which was immediately produced at the academic theatres in Petrograd, followed in 1924 by “A Ballet on Ice", and in 1924-1925 a production of Alexander Remizov's play “Tsar Maximilian". In 1926 Rukavishnikov completed his second monumental theatrical production on the theme of that work “Maximilian", with action set during the French Revolution.
Rukavishnikov's theatrical experiments, unlike many others of the period, were not outdoor performances, and not for folk festivals - they were intended strictly for interior productions. Although his projects were absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the times, he effortlessly assimilated the ideas, widely supported in post-revolutionary Russia, of synthetic arts, including popular festivals. For him, the revolution was a momentous event which, inter alia, had propelled the development of utterly new art forms, based, first of all, on the idea of extensive synthesis, as he wrote in his autobiography: “Our era, being very much in tune with monumental and synthetic art forms, draws nearer to them with every step..."
From 1925 onwards Mitrofan Rukavishnikov made several attempts to organize artists' groups, but without much success. At that period he was invited by the museum of the Institute of Marx and Engels, “to work. as a specialist in architecture, to help build, and design the interior of, the Institute's new building, as well as to design exhibitions organized by the Institute's museum - in a word, to be in charge of the entire creative department." For many years these responsibilities would be central to his professional life. In addition to his main professional activities, Mitrofan Rukavishnikov also won acclaim for his free-standing sculptures. His colleague Nikolai Kuznetsov described this period in his memoirs: “There [at the museum of the Institute of Marx and Engels - I.S.] we tried to realize our idea: creating paintings and sculptures drawing on the Institute's rich material centred on revolutionary themes."
Rukavishnikov produced the first group of sculpted images in 1925-1930, mostly depicting revolutionary leaders, initially those connected with the French Revolution, such as Jean-Paul Marat (1925-1930, marble, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History), Danton (1925, plaster, present location unknown), and Louis Auguste Blanqui (1926, marble, present location unknown). Distinguished by their consummate artistry, these portraits were immediately assigned a fitting place at relevant thematic shows, as the main newspapers of the period relate. Rukavishnikov's statue of Karl Marx (1926, marble, present location unknown), from the same series of images of revolutionary leaders created before 1930, deserves special attention: he accomplished a plaster model of the statue in 1926, producing the marble version in the same year. The piece is distinguished by its free and expressive style: the revolutionary's rebellious image seems to emerge from its block of raw material. The sculptor would have hardly been able to produce an object conveying the same sense of unbridled artistic exploration in such a way at a later date: in the 1930s, as critics have noted, “experiments with hyperbole, expressiveness, abstraction, textures were no longer welcome," and sculptors were told to work within a fairly rigid stylistic idiom. With the statue of Marx, Rukavishnikov appeared to resume his symbolist experimentation, which had previously produced an object in a similar style, titled “The Moon". But there is no doubt that in terms of its inner power the Marx statue was far superior to all other objects created by the sculptor in his earlier career. Rukavishnikov's works created before 1930 also include a series of images of scholars and thinkers: “Spinoza" (1929, plaster, present location unknown), “Hegel" (1928, marble, collection of the Rukavishnikov family), and “Adam Smith" (1930, marble, present location unknown).
Rukavishnikov produced many of his works as a member of “Vsekokhudozhnik" - the Russian National Cooperative Union of Fine Artists, which existed from 1928 to 1953. An organization of some power and authority, it not only had an ideological mission but also pursued other goals important for artists (especially sculptors) working at that time, including providing its members with the necessary materials and working environment, as well as searching for opportunities to market its members' finished works.
Towards the end of this period Rukavishnikov created a Mobile Prize for the Special Red Banner Far Eastern Red Army, as an entry for a contest conducted by Vsekokhudozhnik for this formation of the Red Army. The famous art scholar Anatoly Bakushinsky wrote the landmark phrase in his foreword to the catalogue “The Vsekokhudozhnik Sculptures: 1929-1932", a review of the organization's activities over three years: “The prizes for units of the Special Far Eastern Red Army are entries for the contest submitted by the best modern sculptors - creators of small-size statues of special operations." That is, in the acclaimed art critic's opinion, Rukavishnikov was one of the “best modern sculptors", along with other notables of the professional community who also took part in the competition - Vyacheslav Andreev, Ivan Efimov, Boris Korolev, Nadezhda Krandievskaya, Georgy Motovilov, Iosif Chaikov and Ivan Shadr.
Analyzing Rukavishnikov's free-standing statues, one comes to the conclusion that some of them (such as “Hegel" and “Marat") were produced by him to be exhibited indoors, while others were created as sketches for future monumental pieces (“Blanqui", “Franz Liszt"). That can be inferred from the specific sculptural techniques the artist used, among them his enhancing of the depths of the model's face, which amplified the facial features, facilitating their future enlargement to monumental proportions. This method allowed the artist to produce free-standing statues which could be scaled up to be suitable for exhibition outdoors.
In the 1920s-1930s Mitrofan Rukavishnikov showed his works regularly at many different exhibitions. One of the most significant in which he participated was “Works of Artists of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Created During the Last 15 Years", which was held first in Leningrad and then in Moscow. In Leningrad the exhibition occupied 35 rooms at the Russian Museum, whereas in Moscow it was hosted by three different venues: painting was displayed at the Historical Museum, sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, and posters and caricatures at the Tretyakov Gallery. Rukavishnikov displayed seven works in the exhibition: “Marat," “Blanqui", “Hegel", “The Communards", “Spinoza", “Adam Smith" and “Woman Gardener" (a small-size statue, plaster, created prior to 1930, present location unknown).
Although Rukavishnikov was already fairly famous in artistic circles, he remained without a studio, and did not receive important commissions. He lived with his family in a room (in a communal apartment, it appears), which made it difficult for him to work on his sculpture to his full abilities. However, gradually the artist was beginning to put into practice the ideas related to synthesis of the arts which he had long been contemplating. He made one attempt in this direction in the early 1930s, when architectural studios were being set up in Moscow and he proposed to open one where artists could experiment with synthesis of the arts. Though the idea was not realized, another landmark event did take place in this period: Mitrofan Rukavishnikov met the great architect Ivan Zholtovsky, one of the brightest individuals of his time, who would play a crucial role in fostering Rukavishnikov's talent as a muralist.
Unfortunately, many of Rukavishnikov's architectural and sculptural ideas survive only on paper, although he did succeed in realizing some of them. Such projects include “The Column Capital" in the Hermitage garden, built in 1936, and the decorated fountains “Peacock" and “Flora". Regrettably, relevant details such as when and where these objects were mounted remain unknown.
Rukavishnikov secured another important assignment, a decorative composition devoted to Russian aviators, shortly before the war. It was mounted on the roof of the Club of Civil Aviation, a building that had previously housed the “Detfilm" children's film studio, and before that the “Yar" hotel. In a bold stroke of artistic daring, the artist replaced the traditional quadriga with the imagery of the new “heavenly vehicle": a sculptural group created by Rukavishnikov, featuring an airplane and pilots, was mounted on the hotel's roof. According to one version, the artist created the da Vinci bas-relief for the fapade and hired other sculptors to produce the pilots' figures. However, documents found in the Rukavishnikov private archive indicate that the artist himself produced all 12 bas-reliefs. Most unfortunately, the composition was completely destroyed during an air raid on Moscow, and the medallions were removed after the war and replaced with figures of female dancers created by Matvei Manizer.
In 1937 the Union of Artists granted Mitrofan Rukavishnikov “a studio on Mayakovka [near Mayakovsky Square]" with a floor size of 80 square meters, on the second floor of the building with the “no-good apartment" described in Bulgakov's novel “Master and Margarita"; in old Moscow it had been known as the Pigit House. The Mayakovka building was home to a “smart set" of artists: one studio on its third floor was occupied by Georgy Yakulov, another on the fourth by Pyotr Konchalovsky. Although this at last provided the artist with a perfect environment for work, Rukavishnikov was increasingly experiencing health problems, particularly with his heart. Nevertheless, the sculptor continued to produce both free-standing statues and large sculptural forms. In 1945 he created a piece titled “Muse with a Tambourine" (limestone, height 3.5 m), to replace a similar sculpture which had crowned the fapade of the Bolshoi Theatre for more than 65 years until it was destroyed during an air raid in 1941. However, when the Bolshoi was renovated, it was decided to restore the fapade to its initial appearance, remove the muses' figures (the second muse was created by the sculptor Sergei Koltsov), and replace them with replicas of the earlier statues. “Muse with a Tambourine" was the prominent sculptor's last work. Mitrofan Rukavishnikov died in 1946, at the age of 59, and was buried at Moscow's Vagankovo Cemetery (where his brother Ivan is also buried).
In the period from 1909 to 1940 Mitrofan Rukavishnikov was one of the Soviet Union's leading sculptors, a specialist in architecture and monumental sculptural forms, as well as a stage designer - a striking example of a combination of different creative talents, in spite of the fact that he was also one of those artists of that era who had few chances to realize their artistic potential. Yet it is difficult to overestimate his contribution to Russian and Soviet art. And finally, Mitrofan Rukavishnikov's reputation was cemented not only by his specific artistic achievements and pioneering vision but also by the fact that he founded the first dynasty of sculptors in the Moscow school of sculpture, laying the groundwork for the tradition of passing down sculptural skills to future generations.
- “Mitrofan Rukavishnikov”. For the IZOGIZ (Fine Arts Publishing House) publication. An artistic autobiography of Soviet artists. The Sculptor Mitrofan Rukavishnikov. P. 2. Hereinafter - Autobiography. |
- Obraztsova, Anna. “The Creative Legacy of Edward Gordon Craig”. URL: http://teatr-lib.ru/Library/Craig/vosp/#_Toc336608704 (Accessed on August 15 2016). |
- For more about artistic training in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, see: Kalugina, O.V. “Russian Sculpture of the Silver Age”. Part I. Pp. 24-37. |
- Autobiography. P. 3. |
- Mitrofan Rukavishnikov may have created other sculptures or works on this or similar themes, but we are not aware of this. Only those works whose existence is verified by documents are included here. |
- Ibid. |
- Central Archive of Nizhny Novgorod Region. Fund 120, catalogue 2, item 38, sheets 9, 10. |
- Ibid. |
- Autobiography. P. 12. |
- Catalogue of the 1st Exhibition of the Union of Soviet Artists Society, which opened on April 15 1931. Moscow, undated. P. 112. |
- Rukavishnikov, Mitrofan. “Strongmen of the Volga” in: “Ekho” (Echo). 1925, No. 18. |
- Toporkov, A. “Dockhands of the Volga” in “Rupor” (Mouthpiece). 1924, No. 4. |
- This fact is related in Rukavishnikov’s autobiography. No documentary evidence has been found to confirm it. |
- Op. cit. P. 17. |
- The Rukavishnikov archive includes an interior design sketch for one of the halls of the Institute of Marx and Engels museum. |
- Kuznetsov, Nikolai. “Mitrofan Sergeyevich Rukavishnikov”. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 122, item 160. P. 4. Hereinafter - Kuznetsov. |
- Judging by the photograph which the author found in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts, featuring employees of the Institute of Marx and Engels, Nikolai Kuznetsov worked at that Institute alongside Mitrofan Rukavishnikov. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 2442. File 49. Catalogue 1. Nikolai Yefimovich Kuznetsov. Nikolai Kuznetsov in group photos. |
- Kuznetsov. P. 5. |
- The author has used reviews of the Marx statue in the press of the period to find out the precise dates when Rukavishnikov created his statue of Marx and when he reproduced it in marble. |
- Bedretdinova, L.M. “Sculpture at the Soviet National Exhibitions in the 1930 s”. Paper presented at the Tretyakov Conference-2016 at the Tretyakov Gallery, March 2016. Hereinafter - Bedretdinova. |
- Mitrofan Rukavishnkov had membership card No. 0472. Sculptor Mitrofan Rukavishnikov. P. 9. Rukavishnikov archive. |
- For more information, see Yankovskaya, G.A. ‘Vsekokhudozhnik in the Grip of the Soviet Economy’ in “Artists between the Authorities of the State and Market”. Studies in Culture: 14. Moscow, 2013. |
- Bakushinsky, A. ‘Sculptures Produced under the Aegis of Vsekokhudozhnik’ in “Sculptures Produced Under the Aegis of Vsekokhudozhnik. 1929-1932”. Moscow, 1932. P.23 |
- The exhibition in Moscow opened on June 27 1933, with 500 artists in all participating. |
- For more information about this show, see: Bedretdinova. |
- The information that all three fountains (the third one was called “The Column Capital”) were designed by Rukavishnikov was found in the Rukavishnikov archive: “Mitrofan Rukavishnikov’s Works. Scuptures”. P. 7. |
- Kuznetsov. P. 6. |
- “Mitrofan Rukavishnikov’s Works. Sculptures”. P. 7. Rukavishnikov archive. |
- Kuznetsov. P. 6 |
- Designed by the architect Edmund Yuditsky, the apartment house at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street was built in 1903-1904 in Art Nouveau style. It was commissioned by the famous Karaim merchant, tobacco trader and philanthropist Ilya Pigit. In 1891 Pigit opened the Dukat cigarette factory, as a branch of the Ilya Pigit and Co. Trading House. See the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum website “The House on Bolshaya Sadovaya”. URL: http://dom10.bulgakovmuseum.ru/. |
- Both sculptures from the Bolshoi’s facade in Moscow were given to the Rukavishnikov family and are in the family collection.
Plaster. 1.5 times life size. Location unknown
Bust. Plaster. Location unknown. Granite replica by Alexander Rukavishnikov. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family. Date unknown
Plaster. 1.5 times life size. Location unknown
Marble. Location unknown
Lead pencil on paper. 70 × 47 cm. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family
Lead pencil on paper. 70 × 47 cm. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family
Marble. Location unknown
Watercolour and lead pencil on paper. 52 × 70 cm
Pastel and wax pencil on paper. 45 × 35 cm
Movable fresco. 200 × 250 cm. Location unknown
High relief. Painted plaster. Location unknown
Plaster, mirror, inlay work. Location unknown
Wood. 28 × 42 × 23 cm. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family
Wood. 42 × 82 × 49 cm. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family
Limestone. Height 350 cm. Decorating the facade of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Currently the sculpture is dismantled and is located in the collection of the Rukavishnikov family.
Awarded a prize in 1932
The model was commissioned by the All-Russian Union of Artists, won the USSR-wide contest, but the project was not implemented. Location unknown
Plaster. Location unknown. Bronze casting. 14 × 32 × 10 cm. Collection of the Rukavishnikov family. A detail is missing - a bird over the girl’s head
Relief. Plaster. Location unknown