Objects of their Time

Svetlana Usacheva

Magazine issue: 
#3 2012 (36)

The genre presenting "motionless nature" has always been alien to the concept of haste. It attunes us to unhurried communication, making us admire details and seek hidden meanings and significance in simple things. A still-life turns real items created by nature or the human hand into an artistic image reflecting the signs of its time and art's style and character. These characteristics of the genre defined the content of the exhibition "Still-life. Metamorphoses. A Dialogue between the Classic and the Modern", that will open at the Tretyakov Gallery in November 2012. The curators have brought together works from the 18th and 19th centuries, set alongside those of the late 20th-early 21st century in a common space, offering the viewer the opportunity to witness an unusual creative dialogue between past masters and modern artists.

In the Russian fine arts of the 18th-19th centuries, the still-life was placed among the "minor" genres of painting. Such a situation was grounded, first of all, in the specific character of the work of artists whose main task was to "copy" real life. Gradually, however, "minor" assumed a perjorative character, and the 18th and the 19th centuries started to be seen as a prehistory of the still-life's brilliant blossoming in the early 20th century. The exhibition challenges this deep-rooted prejudice by acquainting viewers in detail with this least-known period in the history of the genre. While the development of still-life from the time of the earlier Russian masters cannot be defined as consecutive, works from that period nevertheless show both thematic variety and artistic originality. Compositions featuring academic and artistic activities, flowers-and-fruit pieces and kitchenware-and-tableware scenes express the fullness of the objects' "quiet life", their external beauty and meaningful significance.

The early-to-mid 18th century was a period when the "academic" still-life flourished. Its predominance was due largely to Peter the Great's enlightenment, his passion for academic studies and collecting rare artefacts, including exotic objects and curios. Under the guidance of Dutch artists Georg and Dorothea Maria Gsell, invited to Russia by Peter, Russian sketch artists created an illustrated catalogue of natural "curios" and hand-made rarities in the Kunst-kamera. These drawings of separate items can hardly be labelled "still-lifes" in the full sense of the word. Quite ingenuously, these images delight by the exactness of their rendering of the objects' authentic look and size and their thorough reproduction of the characteristics of natural and artificial materials. The Kunstkamera drawings can be called one of the first attempts to understand the nature of things, where academic depiction is inseparable from artistic objectives.

Allegoric vanitas paintings, typical of European art, rarely appear in the Russian fine arts. A few examples representing this trend of the genre, very naive in their manner, are kept in the Historical Museum collection in Moscow. Much more attractive for Russian art-lovers were still-lifes with tokens of everyday life. In the 1730s and 1740s trompes-l'oeil with an "academic" content were especially popular. Seeing a wall-rack in a study, with engravings, letters, images and, perhaps, a watch hanging down, or bookshelves with glass doors, the viewer could believe for a while that all these objects were real. Most such works come from the estate collections of the Kuskovo and Ostankino museums. Unlike the Kunstkamera drawings depicting rare artefacts, the trompes-l'oeil, imitating curio cabinets that displayed everyday objects, defined the field of intellectual studies of their owners. They are immersed in the flow of their time and attract us by their "captivating everydayness", according to the description of such paintings by the famous Italian writer Umberto Eco. It is their everyday nature that allows us to attach more than one layer of meaning to dusty cabinet trifles, worn-out engravings or partly torn letters with inscriptions — in particular, it allows us to see symbols of vanitas in familiar objects.

Metamorphoses of illusion and reality, characteristic of the Baroque period, are represented by trompes-l'oeil that often include figures. The Hermitage collection contains depictions of the edges of books with metallic clasps that used to belong to Peter the Great; however, most of the surviving trompes-l'oeil represent human figures. Such "still-lifes" created theatrical effects in the space of estate interiors and parks, taking visitors by surprise. They were also used for perfectly practical purposes — for instance, a Kalmyk servant boy on a painting of Ivan Shuvalov's study interior, standing by the fireplace, turns out to be not only an artistic character but also a fireplace screen.

Still-life paintings and graphic still-lifes depicting attributes of an academic study or an artistic studio can still be found in 19th-century art, but are already extremely rare. The best-known work portraying the world of the fine arts is a trompe-l'oeil by the amateur artist Alexander Mordvinov, entitled "Still-life: Canvas-stretcher, Drawing Folder and Bas-relief", which is done in such a masterly way that the viewer always feels like turning the canvas around to see the non-existent painting.

For two centuries, "flowers and fruit" painting was the leader in the thematic structure of the Russian still-life. Floral motives can be found in many types of images — from botanical drawings to decorative dessus-de-porte. Flowers and their usual companions — insects — were an important theme in Baroque art which attached deep metaphorical meaning to the phenomena of the surrounding world. The blossoming and fading plants and insects' metamorphoses were seen as attributes of vanitas symbolizing the ephemeral nature of human life and the hope of the resurrection of the soul. At the same time, great importance was attached to the academic studies of all sorts of naturalia. These various characteristics were represented in botanical drawings of plants, closely connected with decorative floral painting. In 1717, Peter bought a number of drawings by the Dutch artist Maria Sybilla Merian, now kept in the St. Petersburg branch of the Academy of Sciences archives. Merian reproduced the look and structure of plants and insects in minute detail, striving for an academic depiction, and even used a microscope in her work. At the same time, her watercolours still strike a viewer with their perfection of compositional and colour structure, "an extraordinary preciseness and finesse in their detail rendering"1. Goethe ranked Merian among the best Dutch painters of flowers2.

Floral and fruit compositions were an indispensable decoration for palaces and private interiors in the 18th century. Only a few examples of such paintings have survived in Russian art collections, like the figured dessus-de-porte, in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum, painted by Alexei Belsky and Ivan Firsov for the Yekateringof palace. In the second half of the century the depictions of flowers attained the status of a separate genre at the Academy of Fine Arts, where in the mid-1760s a floral painting class appeared. Its essence was defined in a treatise by the teacher Ivan Urvanov: " Subjects used in the floral genre are: flowers, fruit and insects, which can be sometimes complemented by vases, glasses, dishes, knives and the like"3. At the Academy, the naturalistic approach to rendering the appearance of still models received its theoretical grounding. In the course of real-life studies, students drew and painted individual flowers, fruit and vegetables, examining the characteristic features of each object. They also copied works, mainly contemporary, by Western European masters: paintings by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry, bought for the Hermitage by Empress Catherine I and works by the Dutchman Jan Brueghel the Younger, were most popular among students. But more often, paintings created by the class teachers, the German artists Heinrich von der Minte (Vonderminte) and Christian Friedrich Hossenfelder, were used as the standard. A private collection painting by von der Minte "Still-life with Flowers" (1764), the only surviving work by that artist known today, will be displayed at the exhibition in the Tretyakov Gallery for the first time. A luxuriant bunch of flowers in a vase, surrounded by shells, flowers and fruit, is depicted against the background of a landscape. Students were often advised to depict a still-life in a framework of a landscape. In the 1770s-1780s the class had more than 20 students, but so far no such paintings by Russian artists of that period have been discovered.

At the end of the 18th century the floral painting class was closed down. Nevertheless, over the century to come, "flowers and fruit" became a leading theme in still-life painting, reflecting leading stylistic trends. Floral and fruit compositions achieved an important place in Biedermeier art, a style embodying urban middle-class values in European culture of the 1820s-1840s. According to art historian Dmitry Sarabyanov, "among the style trends of the 19th century, the Biedermeier period was the most still-life oriented", because one of its most important qualities was its "concentration on an object"4. In Russia, many came to admire the genre. While remaining attractive for cultivated connoisseurs of the fine arts, it became popular with the urban middle-class — merchants, civil servants and other similar figures. Developing in the European context, Russian "flowers-and-fruit" painting was considerably influenced by the works of European masters, like the Austrians Ferdinand Georg Waldmiiller and Josef Nigg, the French artists Jean-Frangois Van Da8l and Simon Saint-Jean, and the Germans Gabriel Haller-Fion and Leopold Stoll. Still-life paintings by these and other artists of the Biedermeier period strike the viewer with their, sometimes excessive, opulence; one picture would bring together flowers and fruit of different seasons and rare greenhouse specimens. Bright, unnaturally saturated colouring gave their paintings a picturesque decora-tiveness, and a comprehensive accuracy in representing every minute detail made Goethe compare such artists to "educated botanists"5.

The botanical focus of still-life paintings in the early- to mid-19th century contributed to a new wave of interest in drawing flowers from real life: Fyodor Tolstoy became one of the recognized masters of graphic works of this kind. He recalled that his interest in floral drawings had been aroused by illustrations by a foreign artist, shown to him by Empress Elisabeth Alexievna6. Acting like an "educated botanist", Tolstoy represented a "copied flower the way it is, in all its minute detail..." At the same time, each plant in his works is represented "at its best moment"7. A combination of such different characteristics was an organic expression of the classical traditions then dominant at the Academy of Fine Arts, and marked the works of the representatives of Russian "flowers-and-fruit" school. In particular, this approach can be found in graphic works of students, unknown today, of the School of Drawing in Regard to the Arts and Crafts, founded in Moscow by Count Sergei Stroganov (the "Stroganov School"). The school had a flower life-drawing class, where students perfected their skills in rendering a plant's appearance realistically. At the same time, the drawings served as a basis for decorative paintings and ornaments. Some students successfully combined their activity in decorative applied arts and easel painting. Mikhail Vasiliev, a graduate of and teacher at the school, and the creator of many model watercolours of flowers made for his students, was granted the title of academician for his easel still-life painting8.

The works that survive, as well as literary evidence and archive materials, attest to the fact that many Russian artists have contributed to the genre, primarily academic students who obtained the title of what was termed a "non-class" (free) artist for their paintings, including: Pyotr Titov, Vasily Pototuev, Vladimir Sadovnikov and Ivan Mikhailov. Other artists did not limit their work to still-life only but worked simultaneously in several genres: Wilhelm August Golicke, Anton Legashov and Foma Toropov created not just still-lifes but also portraits, landscapes and genre paintings. The names of these and other artists who worked in the "flowers-and-fruit" genre are little-known today, not only to art lovers but even experts. The only exception is Ivan Khrutsky, whose works, from museum collections in Russia and Belarus, combine the genre's academic traditions and signs of the Biedermeier style with its emphasized love for the object-oriented, material side of life. The master's works also stand out because of their original content — their tone is set not by exotic, festive motives but by modest objects of daily use. Some such items (a ceramic jug with embossed animal figures, a glass carafe, a gilded bowl with fruit, a bast-fibre hamper, a basket with berries) travel from one Khrutsky painting to another and have become something of an original attribute of his work. Thanks to the popularity of the artist's works, similar motives appeared in the paintings of his contemporaries, with democratic and even "rustic" themes becoming dominant towards mid-century. A rough basket with vegetables became one of the main "characters" of a still-life by Mikhailov, while a bast hamper is part of a Toropov composition. Even the programmes given as study tasks at the Academy were called "fruit and vegetables", not "flowers and fruit" at that time.

In the mid- to late-19th century, artists working in this genre started attaching value primarily to its decorative properties. Works by Vladimir Sverchkov show solemn, almost affected splendour; the artist was obviously concentrating on showy, visual motives, paying less attention to the objects' texture. New art tendencies of the late 19th century, and, most of all, plein-air painting traits, can be seen in works by Yevdokim Voloshinov. At the same time, the oeuvre of this artist, who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-19th century, can be considered a kind of completion of the classical "flowers-and-fruit" tradition. Several large-scale paintings by Voloshinov are to be found in the museums of the Ukrainian towns Sumy and Lebedin, and will be exhibited in Moscow for the first time. All strike the viewer for their splendid excess of natural motives. Apples, watermelons, onions, painted from a close-up perspective, appear so monumental that they seem to be a symbolic expression of nature's abundance. The painting "Life in the Rye" by Voloshinov gives the viewer a chance to contemplate the life at the roots of enormous thistles. Here, still-life appears "in the framework of a landscape", reminding us of 18th-century compositions.

Examples of "kitchen scenes", "breakfast pieces" or genre paintings in Russian art of the 18th-19th centuries are found less often than "flowers-and-fruit" subjects. Despite having originated from Dutch and Flemish prototypes, such compositions almost completely lack an allegorical message, typical of European paintings, and are more of a picturesque story about the life of objects and their invisible owners. Sometimes, the content of such paintings is very simple and their main attraction lies in their picturesque properties — first of all, the loving thoroughness of detail, which is quite remarkable in a "breakfast piece" by Volkov from the Tretyakov Gallery collection. "Still-life with Herring" from the Yaroslavl Art Museum offers an expressive image of an ascetic table scene.

Most still-lifes with everyday objects were painted in the early- to mid-19th century. Alexei Venetsianov encouraged his students to address "objects that can be found in each and every room"9. By drawing close attention to the "material difference" of objects, he taught how to show their spatial interconnection, striving to incorporate still-lifes in paintings in other genres — most of all, interiors, thus destroying the academic norms of still-life perception. From this point of view, the painting "Reflection in the Looking Glass" from the Russian Museum, where the world of objects adjoins an unreal space behind the looking glass, is one of the most unusual paintings of its time.

While developing as a separate artistic "genre", the still-life often played a considerable role in portraits and genre paintings of the classical period. 18th-century portraits typically used a set of accessories indicating a character's social status or occupation. What are termed "figures with fruit" became a noteworthy phenomenon in 19th-century Russian painting. In the early-to mid-19th century such "figures" were often children or well-dressed beauties offering the viewer a basket of fruit. Khrutsky used this motive quite often; it also appears in the work of Alexei Tyranov. Gradually, this romantic image gained a more democratic and even social connotation. In 1859, an exhibition of the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture included two such "figures with fruit" — a watercolour entitled "A Peasant Woman with Vegetables" by Alexei Strelkovsky and "A Fruit Pedlar" by Valery Yakobi, where a roguish pedlar replaced a beautiful saleswoman. Everyday objects characterising various aspects of human life add a particular "objectiveness" to portraits linked to Biedermeier art. Carefully painted toys emphasize the doll-like attractiveness of children in portraits, elegant trinkets reveal a lady's boudoir secrets, and needlework tells us about the working life of an urban craftswoman. All such details outline the character of a century that valued unhurried occupations, treasuring objects surrounding a person, and seeing them as a reflection of not only everyday life but existence itself.

The idea of including contemporary artists' works in an exhibition of classical paintings might seem ambiguous, even provocative. However, such an approach is the key to the development of museum collections, bringing together long-recognized masterpieces and works with a claim to become such. Contemporary art, represented by Igor Makarevich, Tatiana Nazarenko, Ilya Kabakov, Mikhail Roginsky, Maxim Kantor and other modern masters, reconsiders traditional types of images, giving them a new, sometimes paradoxical sense and meaning. Is a dialogue between distant periods possible in such a conservative genre as the still-life? What is the image of the objects of our time? The exhibition organisers invite visitors to answer these complex questions for themselves.

  1. Kopaneva, Natalya. Watercolours by Maria Sybilla Merian in the St. Petersburg Branch of the Academy of Sciences Archives // "The Bulletin of History, Literature and Art: Almanac". V. 3. Moscow, 2006. P. 471.
  2. See: Lukina, Tatiana. "Maria Sybilla Merian". Leningrad, 1980. P. 42
  3. "A Brief Guide to the Knowledge of Drawing and Painting of the History Genre, Based on Reflection and Experience / Composed for Students by the Artist I.U". St. Petersburg, 1793. P.38
  4. Sarabyanov, Dmitry. "Biedermeier: A Style Without Names or Masterpieces" // Pinacoteca. 1998. No 4. P. 10
  5. Quote from: Bolotina. Irina. "Still-life Graphics of EP. Tolstoy" // Problems of Russian and Soviet Still-life. Moscow, 1989. P. 79
  6. Bolotina, Irina. Idem. P. 86
  7. Bolotina, Irina. Idem. P. 80-81
  8. "Collection of Materials for the History of the St. Petersburg Academy of Eine Arts over 100 Years of its Existence" / edited by P.N. Petrov. In 3 v. V. 3. St. Petersburg. 1864-1866. P. 280
  9. Bolotina, Irina. The Material World of Venetsianov and His Students // Problems of Russian and Soviet Still-life. Moscow, 1986. P. 68





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