"I am forever — alone! — I am forever — for everyone!"[1]

Vladimir Lenyashin

Magazine issue: 
#3 2021 (72)

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”[2] that enveloped and nourished culture at the beginning of the 20th century.

Mikhail VRUBEL. Bogatyr. 1898
Mikhail VRUBEL. Bogatyr. 1898
Oil on canvas. 321.5 × 222 cm (rectangle with the top side cut in the form of a triangle).
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Detail

That which was hidden in the innermost recesses of realism in the compositions of many artists - from Vasily Perov to Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and Viktor Vasnetsov - and which inspired realism with universal meanings (related to music, philosophy, poetry) became fully visible and ubiquitous. The convoluted paths of Symbolism were taken both by those leaning towards Vyacheslav Ivanov’s “realist symbolism” - “when what the artist sees as reality is revealed in the crystal of lowermost reality”, the artistic and intuitive approximation to the symbol as a goal - as well as by others attracted to intellectual “contemplation in colour” - “idealistic symbolism,” which “did not want to, and could not, be only art” and for which the symbol was “a poetic means of people’s cross-contamination by a single subjective emotion”[3].

Prior to Symbolism acquiring an organisational form at the “Blue Rose” exhibition in 1907, the synthetic impulses of the new style were realised in the “Mir Iskusstva” (“World of Art”)’s creations. Practically every Symbolist painter - from Mikhail Vrubel and Viktor Borisov-Musatov to Pavel Kuznetsov and Sergei Sudeikin, Nikolai Sapunov and Pyotr Utkin, Nikolai Kalmakov and Nikolai Feofilaktov - exhibited at one or another time at the “World of Art” shows. These shows featured Vrubel’s “Demon Downcast” and Kuznetsov’s “Blue Fountain,” Fyodor Malyavin’s “Gale” and Nikolai Milioti’s “The Birth of Venus.”

One would think that Vrubel, who used to say “art is our religion” and “truth is in beauty”[4], should have become the leader of a generation yearning for beauty. Everything he touched would become “classically good” and a “purely and stylishly beautiful”[5] object, Aleksander Golovin enthused: a little pitcher and a vase, a fireplace and a sketch of a stage costume, a stained- glass panel and a mosaic, an illustration and magnificent majolica pottery. Vrubel’s panels and sculptures fitted in smoothly with the polyphonic expressiveness of the “Morozovian” interiors designed by Fyodor Schechtel. Overflowing, swelling, filled to the brim from inside, the imagery of the “Bogatyr” (“The Knight”) is cognate to the heavyset robustness of Yaroslavl Station’s portal, another creation by Schechtel, or the architectural and sculptural Borromini-esque energy of the main staircase in Sergei Ryabushinsky’s mansion.

As for the exceptionally crafted “Morning”, sure enough, Vladimir Stasov did not find in it anything besides madness and deformity. Although it was featured at a show of Russian and Finnish artists (1898), the first event organised by the “Mir Iskusstva” (“World of Art”), it was not appreciated by Alexander Benois and his associates either: “We’ve been told that Vrubel is a faultless master of the drawing, that he draws ‘like Ingres’, whereas, here, we have barely discernible and fairly banal females wallowing amid some aquatic plants. We have heard ample praise of his unmatched colours, his superb colour scheme, whereas this panel is one unalleviated murky- green colour.”[6]

No matter how hard Benois tried, especially in his obituary of Vrubel (“Rech” newspaper, April 3, 1910), to work himself up into excitement, to tune in to an irrational wavelength, and to accept
“the beautiful fallen angel for whom the world was an endless joy and endless pain”, he was alien and even hostile to the “Dionysian” inebriating myth that was hidden in Vrubel’s palette. Vrubel was appreciated by “theurgists” - Symbolists of the second wave, first of all by Alexander Blok, who was regarded by his contemporaries as an heir to the “knight monk” Vladimir Solovyov[7]. In the painter’s pantheist insights (“Pan”, “Lilac”, “At Nightfall”), he saw something kindred to his muse - “the meadow with flowers and the firmament with stars - the entire curse of one’s own beauty”; in the pearly shine of the wings of “The Swan Princess,” he heard the rustle of the silks of “The Unknown Lady” and, in the “Demons”, a tragic message about the death.

The “Demons” made such a striking impression on the poet that he admitted humbly: “If I possessed Vrubel’s talents, I would create a “Demon”, but everyone does what they are destined to do”[8]. Their uncompromisingly mournful visages, scorching and weary gaze, “whips from twisted arms”, their chromatic “thesis” and “antithesis” - “the diabolical amalgam of many worlds, mostly blue and violet” and “the gold of an ancient evening” - appeared as an absolute embodiment of the secret precepts of Symbolism. As Vladimir Solovyov had prophesied, “all that is seen to us is just a reflex, just shadows of things unseen to eyes”.

Literature with romantic sensibilities was responsive to, and the keeper of, the dictatorial charm of things unseen to the eye, of “the invisible” and “the unutterable” (the name of a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky). From the limpi dly inaccessible transcendence of Pushkin, crazed by the thirst of his soul, from Lermontov’s “omniscience of a prophet” and Gogol’s clearly visible mysticism, there is a connecting thread to Dostoevsky’s fantastic realism and Afanasy Fet’s two equal worlds: “One [of the worlds] encompasses a man, another one is my soul and thought”, and to Fyodor Tyutchev’s “the prophetic soul” “living in the two worlds”. Blok characterised Fet as “a guiding star”[9] and used many of his lines as epigraphs. The name of the collection, “Beyond the Bygone Days”, is taken from one of Fet’s poems. Dissolved in the literary process, the symbolism of the Gold Age quite naturally became the essence of the Silver Age.

Things were different in painting. Alexander Ivanov’s religious mysticism, kindred to Gogol’s, is barely visible in his main composition. Only glimpses of it in can be caught in his drawings and sketches. The other dimensions are evoked in Fedotov’s “Gamblers”, especially in the “blue” sketches made in preparation for the finished piece; in Arkhip Kuindzhi’s anthropomorphic imagery of nature (Vrubel called Kuindzhi his “teacher of colour design”[10]); in the ghostliness of Nikolai Ge’s scenes from life (Vrubel admired the way the moonlight is rendered in Ge’s “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane”)[11]; in the visual chaosol- ogy of Vasily Surikov (who called Vrubel “an artist with a great inner strength”[12]). All this rocked the “realism of actual life” (which the devil mentions in conversation with Ivan Karamazov), hinting at a Symbolist potential hidden therein.

Choked by positivism, for a long time, this potential could not be realised. Its inherent worth was not appreciated, and did not change the artistic vision of the world. This vision was changed by Vrubel. It was Vrubel - and only Vrubel - who reached the summit of the Romantic tradition. It was he who proved to be a devotee creating “upon the threshold of a twofold existence”, at “the line that separates insanity from reason”; “an artist practicing the art that does not yet exist, that is neither poetry nor music nor painting”[13]. Vrubel’s “insanity” was regarded by poets and philosophers as a mark of authenticity, reminiscent of the image of a true poet originating from Plato’s writings - a “maniac”, “divine soothsayer” “who can create only when he is inspired and frantic and has reason no more”[14], when “the chronic haziness of thinking that we call normality”[15] gives way to clarity of vision.

Much of what Blok said about Vrubel as the symbol of Symbolism will remain true forever. Blok’s poetic intuition revealed in the artist something that existed not “for the eye”, as Wackenroder put it (not for “the daytime eye”, as Alexander Meyer would have put it), it revealed reverberations and reflexes of other worlds. The “Six-Winged Seraph” in theosophical interpretation became a Symbolist icon: “I await the beautiful angel with his sword of glad tidings”, that is, with a secret message to initiates.

Vrubel’s evolution from “Angel with Incense Burner and Candle” through to the “Demons” and to the “SixWinged Seraph” warrants such ecstatic speculations. Sure enough, this is a culmination of his ideas, aligned with Pushkin, about the prophet artist. Sure enough, this is a “self-portrait” of Vrubel, a visionary creator: “I am a madman! My heart has been stabbed by the red coal of the prophet!” Sure enough, his paintings have a glimmer of the “sacred colours” of poetic symbolism: the mystical meeting of Andrei Bely’s “red amber and blue horizons”, “the azure of cold eyes”, and the “opaque pearls” with Alexander Blok’s “coloured mist” and “violet worlds”; of the “black-blue fire” of Innokenty Annensky with the reddishly shining blackness of the diamond and “green-pale water, airy colour of green eyes” of Konstantin Balmont. Balmont categorised nearly the entire range of Vrubel’s colours: “In a white light, in a bright red light, in blue and in yellow-golden, he was sanctified with Fire and Ice in the rainbows of the universe”.

However, you forget all of this at the Russian Museum, where, having absorbed the colouristic richness of “Venice”, the impeccable fresco-like laconicism of the “Demon Flying”, the enthralling swampy melancholy of “Morning”, you finally stop at the “Six-Winged Seraph”. This is a splash of genius, an outburst, a blast of spiritual energy in which everything shines and sparkles “like a single immense diamond of life”[16], where forms – barely born, fresh out of the stream of precious mistily lilaceous crystal-like dabs - immediately dematerialise, split up, dissolve into the space, into a flatness, in such a way that the canvas literally vibrates and buzzes with exertion.

“What flame-coloured horizons unfolded before your eyes?” Blok enquired. Things unseen were revealed to Vrubel’s “Lady in Violet Dress” (along with other mysteriously beautiful portraits of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel). Originating from the darkness of the past, her elusive image - “here’s the visage emerges from lace” - blends with its painted prototype, where “the music of the all-in-one- piece man” is heard, where eternity, occasionally looking into chronological time, only sketches out portraits on it.

Just as it was for Blok, when he wrote “Verses About a Beautiful Lady”, for Vrubel, the “macrocosm (world), like the microcosm (individual), is closer than all the links in between”[17]. “The individual soul should seek an intimate union with the soul of the universe”[18], argued Novalis. The world and the individual are inseparable in Vrubel’s art as well. “Demon means soul,” he reasoned - the world’s soul and the soul of Vrubel himself banging against the bars of freedom: “he himself was the demon, the beautiful fallen angel”[19] - Vrubel flying, Vrubel prostrate.

Mikhail VRUBEL. Six-Winged Seraph. 1904. Detail
Mikhail VRUBEL. Six-Winged Seraph. 1904
Oil on canvas. 131 × 155 cm. © Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Detail

In 1901, in Kyiv, while looking at his ecclesiastical works, he said: “This is essentially what I should have come back to”[20]. At the same time, he was haunted by the thought that a demonic element was sneaking into his paintings against his will, as a punishment for “painting the Mother of God and Christ while being unworthy of the honour”[21]. This was his tragic road to self-knowledge - the road without which, as Carl Jung noted, it is impossible to understand “what good [a person] is capable of and what evil things he can do (...), so that the former would become a reality and the rest would remain a fruit of imagination”[22].

In his ecstatic “Gogolian” self-condemnation, Vrubel is strangely similar to Pavel Florensky, who, identifying himself in his intellectual conceit with the “ecumenical mind of the Church”, asked the question “could the artist have told an untruth with his brush about the Mother of God?”[23] This was a question that neither Leonardo nor El Greco would answer, just as Truth did not answer the question “what is truth?”. Whereas, for Florensky, who saw in Rublev’s “Trinity” “a new revelation”, “a new canon”, Vrubel was one of the artists who “bore testimony to things doubtful”, who “misrepresented themselves and even gave false evidence,” Andrei Bely, arguing with the “platitudinous ideas of the venerable old men,” put Rublev and Vrubel on the same level[24].

Vrubel’s “Mother of God with Infant” is an inspired piece of work, yet “large walls and audacious frescoes” were not something he chose himself. Dogmas, even of the most sublime kind, constrain those who, for the first time, have “added to the realm of art... things that [have] hitherto seemed inexpressible and even unworthy of art”[25]. Even the image of Lermontov’s Demon, with whom Vrubel felt a strong affinity, would not allow him to perpetuate it in art. The endless reworkings of “Demon Prostrate” were a result of this, and not only by his over-excitement or the fact that, as many believe, it was the process, rather than the result, that mattered to him.

Vrubel would rework and paint over his old compositions for a reason that is probably hard to understand due to its simplicity: they did not satisfy him. When Viktor Vasnetsov expressed his astonishment at the image of a female circus performer in what he thought of as a fine composition for “Mother of God”, Vrubel answered with the simple-mindedness of a mythological hero: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter! I shall paint another, even better than this one!”[26] This should be understood literally, as the right of a creator’s judgement. He did not rework “The Swan Princess” or the “Six-Winged Seraph”. There is a far greater distance between incredulity and wisdom than between the naive credulity of a talent and wisdom.

Unlike Maitre Frenhofer, who lost the ability to see his works, Vrubel was aware of and saw what he was producing. Vrubel was the epitome of the creator described by Arthur Rimbaud in one of his letters: “If what he brings back from over there has a form, he shows it formed; if it is formless, he shows it unformed”[27]. In “A Dead Man’s Memoir: A Theatrical Novel,” Mikhail Bulgakov expressed a similar idea: “Write what you see; and you should not write about what you do not see”. In his artistic wanderings guided by a visionary’s instinct, Vrubel used to go very far - “a poet is carried far away by speech”. Coming back from there, he would paint his visions with the visual definiteness, with “assurance about what we do not see,” as mentioned by Apostle Paul. This is something that only “beholders of things unseen” (the way in which Aleksei Kruchenykh characterised Pavel Filonov) are capable of - the beholders who saw these things unseen and painted them from nature, accuracy being their sole preoccupation.

The artist depends on creative endeavour. At an ordi nary, professional stage, the artist is quite rational and aware of what (s)he’s doing - Pyotr Tchaikovsky called this stage chronic. At an acute, affective stage, the artist is irrational in the sense that (s)he cannot control him/herself or commit certain acts - (s)he is driven by that to which (s)he is doomed to give material form. Whether it is formed or formless, a fantasy or a miracle, that has inadvertently seeped into the mind, naturalism or signs of another world, this is a detached view. To the visionary artist, all that he has created appears obvious and irrefutable - I saw it. This artist, to use Robert Musil’s phrase, is a “possibilist... inhabiting]... a medium of... the subjunctive mood” - the type of person for whom daily experiences are no more important than experiences that could have been.

The reality one can see is just one of the possibilities. This reality is realised, but this does not change anything for the Symbolist creative spirit. Its over-concentration (unlike that of the Impressionists) is directed not at visual experiences, but at internal spiritual practices. All that has manifested itself is accomplished; all that has been accomplished has manifested itself. This is why “Sitting Demon” or “Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel” (in Empire clothes) are as captivating as pieces considered unfinished, such as “Flying Demon”, “Lady in Violet Dress” and “After a Concert”, as well as the numerous “Lilacs” and “Pearls”. All that reflects the understanding of art as self-embodiment of a symbol - “the form created by nature to last forever”.

In order to attain this form, Vrubel, with his “mania” of “I’ll say something new by any means”, is willing to go far, even so far as to “disown my individuality” and “let nature speak for itself”. The mystical faith in hidden meanings that only an artist can, to a dregree, reveal, as well as the seemingly strange words that “the Demon should be painted from nature”, make the over-eagerness and gift “to see fantastic in things real, like photography, like Dostoevsky” a little clearer. This is Vrubel’s perception of form - “the most important element of visuals”: form as acquisition of the upward road destined for him: “drawn image - nature - heaven - God”[28].

In the beginning, there were drawings: noble academic compositions - the “Wedding of Maria and Joseph” and “Feasting Romans”. They left no doubt that their creator was a student of Chistyakov aligned with the classic tradition, as well as with the art of Alexander Ivanov, and that, at another historical period, “he would become a Raphael”[29]. At the end, another drawing - and what a drawing it is! - “The Vision of Prophet Ezekiel”, a prophetic vision of the artist losing his eyesight and deafened by a “din of inner anxiety”. Then there is a series of pencil images, “Insomnia” (1904), an astonishing coda to a human life composed during a sleepless night.

Already in the remarkable “Flowers” series[30] (1886-1887), in the cups of “Orchid” and “White Iris”, of “Rose” and “Red Azalea,” Vrubel’s “heaven” can be seen shining - “the law of stars and formula of the flower” revealed in a dream.

Most of the works from the 1890s, however, give you the sense that he lost his bearings. The connecting thread of creativity is fragmented into separate compositions. They can be beautiful and even brilliant, like decorative panels “Spain” and “Venice”, like portraits of Maria Artsybusheva and Savva Mamontov. Yet in these pieces, Vrubel is undoubtedly a contemporary of Valentin Serov, Vasily Surikov and Konstantin Korovin, addressing common artistic problems, albeit in an absolutely original manner. He had not yet become fully aware of and felt deeply enough what should be done with his personal “measurelessness in a world of measures” and was leaving behind the elements of self-portrait, mystery and timelessness, glimpses of which he believed he caught in “Flowers”, in the watercolour “Hamlet and Ophelia”, in “Girl and Persian Rug”.

Even those who see do not always see, and a genius is a person who can become one for several seconds. It was only with “Morning”, the last “Demons” and the portraits of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel (in clothes of a “nocturnal colour”) that Vrubel returned to the once lost “weed-strewn path leading back to oneself”[31]. What could have been done, if the path took fanciful turns, with bends “where a man starts disappearing”[32], in the frightening soundless homelessness of hospital/ prison cells, where “heaven” is reflected in the facets of slightly dented glasses, in the headboards of beds screwed to the floor (a glimpse of something similar can be caught in the hospital scenes of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”).

The analytical intensity of the gaze adopting the language of its object, which is so captivating in “Flowers”, is replaced in “Insomnia” with the painter’s immersion, in another person’s grief. This not a melodramatic immersion but one made even stronger by this total lack of melodrama: “and on the threshold of being no more, I succeed in being another”[33]. Psychologically identifying himself with those unfortunate people who lie crouched under crumpled sheets and blankets (as in versions of the image of a person sleeping on a bed), Vrubel looks at them as “souls look from up high at the body they abandoned” (“separation of the ethereal body” is how anthroposophists called it). The body matters for Vrubel as much as the soul: “So where is he? - Down there. - Exactly where? - We don’t know”.

Should you juxtapose “Silence” (1883) with any piece from the “Insomnia” series, you see an immense difference between the mundane, albeit fraught with tension, wordlessness and the metaphysical silence of objects, the silence of the sheet, its existential limpid quietness, when form becomes “the carrier of the soul which will open up only to you and tell you about your soul. Do you understand?”[34]. This is question Vrubel asks almost as if in prayer: lonely people are inclined to lower their voices to a whisper.

Valery Bryusov, who wrote an unsparingly detailed essay describing Vrubel’s decline, noted: “The creative power in him survived everything. The human being was dying, going to ruin, the master continued to live.”[35] The medical aspects of Vrubel’s illness can be discussed by specialists, if they wish to do so. Lovers of art would probably totally agree with Foucault’s statement “Where there is an reuwe, there is no madness”[36], and with the idea that insanity was created in the 19th century, when people became unwilling to live with those who deviated from “the norm” and called these deviants lunatics. Plato would almost certainly have expelled Vrubel from his ideal state, but it would not have occurred to him to put him in an asylum.

“In a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have an extraordinary distinctiveness, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality”, “the dreamer... could never have invented them in the waking state”[37], Dostoevsky remarked. The unseen lives in the visionary’s creative dreams, his reveries, intuitive insights into the unutterable and becomes an “incarnated dream”[38]. This is “not the frozen slumber of the grave”, but a lively and creative dream resembling immortality. “Just as the ocean curls around Earth’s shores, our earthly life’s embraced by dreams”, wrote Fyodor Tyutchev in his verse “Dreams”, nourishing Russian soil with the valedictory self-analysis of Shakespeare’s Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

“Your rudderless one - rudderless in everything but art” was how young Vrubel signed one of his letters to his sister - art created, to use his own words, “not with the trembling hands of a hysteric, but with the calm hands of an artisan”[39]. This art “isn’t a demigod’s whim”, but “a geometrician’s permanence”, “an ordinary carpenter’s predatory eye”. The word “calm” somehow does not go together well with Vrubel’s electrified personality, although the “Six-Winged Seraph”, created in an infirmary, astonishes its viewers precisely with visual concentration, and discipline. This is a somnab- ulant artist’s “deadly calmness”[40] about which Nietzsche wrote. This is the state of the instantaneous wholeness of revelation, of extreme exertion of the creative powers, when everything becomes unbelievably clear, an object imaged becomes one with its image, denotatum becomes one with the one who denotes, and the painting becomes one with the painter, and there is nothing left but the soul and form.

“The main shortcoming of modern artists who revive the Byzantine style is that they take a bed sheet to replace the folds of clothes in which Byzantines display so much humour”[41]. Vrubel turns bed sheets into “folds”. Although he seemed not to care much about traditions and regarded Raphael and Fortuny as equals, he was deeply rooted in mediaeval mosaics and stained glass, considering them the foundation of a disciplined architectonic craftsmanship bringing together the spirit and the material.

This was noticed and articulated by Petrov-Vodkin, an artist, to use his own words, of “the Vrubel age” Vrubel, according to Petrov-Vodkin, was not only “a knight who struggled against all of the world’s banality” but also “a mediaeval craftsman in tune with the Gothic”, “entirely preoccupied with the problem of form and rebelling against the laws of gravitation”[42]. He understood the “fold” (almost like Gilles Deleuze, who made this notion central to postmodernist nomadology) not as an elementary re-creation of textile protuberances and cavities, but as an appeal by the author of “The Gay Science” “to stop courageously at the surface, the fold... to adore appearance. to believe in forms”[43].

Through the straightforward nature of the “folds” of the Kyiv murals, the sharp crystallinity of “Sitting Demon” and the illustrations to Lermontov’s “Demon”, Vrubel was progressing towards the fantastic simplicity in which folds and facets exist on the verge of extinction, like a memory of elusive archetypes. Jettisoning preconceived notions of form, but living for the sake of it and bearing in his artistic subconscious mind its archetypes and structures, he was gaining humanised form.

On the verge of extinction, exiled and homeless (“monads have no windows”[44], noted Leibniz), the creative spirit became united with its progenitor and sensed the kinship of everything with everything. It finally acquired that coveted absolute freedom, “this close connection between one’s own inspiration and another’s external will” about which the improviser in Pushkin’s “Egyptian Nights” talked deliriously - when “a thought emerge[s] from a poet’s head already armed with four rhymes, measured out in regular harmonious metre”, when sounds “may be truer than reason” and become form and rule the world.

Vrubel attained his heaven amid the monotony of hatching brushstrokes - as enthralling as sounds produced by plucking the same string again and again. Something that bears and is born by space and is guided only by the internal voice of a hearing hand, in the perpetual tonal weave - the crafting of textures: “Bed” and “Marcella Bedspread”, “Decanter” and “Plaid on a Chair”, - from the meditative “dull whisper”, from the divine inarticulateness of pencil touches emerges the “trembling of the sleeping night”, inaccessible to reason, the trembling in which Pushkin found the meaning of life. The sleep of reason produced a miracle.

Vrubel’s social life was marked by a lack of understanding (and, sometimes, spiteful envy) on the part of his contemporaries. Andrei Bely, to whom Vrubel’s Demon (“my nameless brothers, my genius”) “descended in his dreams and during waking hours”, said about his enemies that “the highest level of beauty produced an effect on them as well; but they reacted to this beauty as if it was the drivel of a lunatic”[45]. It did not make life easier for Vrubel. Although he often said that he would feel bad if his works were met with approval, carrying on without hearing a sympathetic word of support was unbearably difficult. Cognizant of his genius, Vrubel concealed it but, doomed to secret greatness, was still hoping that his greatness would be noticed by someone - first of all, by Serov (whose power he was aware of) - but this never happened (to be fair, Vrubel’s reaction to Serov’s art can hardly be called enthusiastic as well). It was only to Korovin, who loved him inexplicably, unaccountably, that he whispered: “I’m Mozart”[46].

“Aversion to life, as well as insane love for it” (the same as for Blok and Baudelaire) filled the soul albeit defenceless in the face of its own talent, with incredible delight. Sometimes, “the cup of creative elation” would overflow, in which case he would sing “in a fiery delirium”. He would become lost “in the intoxicating fumes of disorderly, wondrous dreams” and skyrocket into the heavenly abyss, where he would see, where he would meet his deity, the gorgeous shining Demon. He is “resting. lounging”[47], said the master dreamily and smilingly, looking at “Demon Prostrate”, at what everyone thought was a tragedy. That was the “desolation of the most profound happiness”.

Romantic consciousness found its artist when the time of Historical Romanticism was long over. The drawn-out autumn of Realist Romanticism became the spring of Blok’s and Vrubel’s Symbolism, a “spring without end and without edge” - yet another perennial return of eternal symbolism. The “demonical” art was in keeping with the widely circulating ideas about art paid for with a life (the subject matter of Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” [“Le Chef-d’reuvre inconnu”], Gogol’s “Portrait”, Po’s “The Oval Portrait”).

When “the opinion that Vrubel was a lone genius gained currency”, and later, when “the belief of Vrubel’s artistic uniqueness was shaken” and that “his art was more often evaluated in the context of the artistic style that came to be known as Art Nouveau”[48], Vrubel remained a symbol of the artist in the most sublime sense of the word - a carrier and guardian angel of creative spirit. The visionary gift lent to nebulous poetic reveries a visual obviousness and responded to the mystical anticipation of the reality of the unreal. Timeless - that what “belong[s] to any century” - recalled itself in the forms of time.

“I’m forever - alone! I’m forever - for everyone!” - once an alchemist, he was turning into a prophet. If not for everyone, then certainly for Blok and Valery Bryusov, Bely and Maximilian Voloshin - for those esoterically minded Symbolist and post-Symbolist poets who, fancifully combining the ontological ideas of Her- metism and Gnosticism, Rudolf Steiner’s new Rosicrucian- ism with an anthroposophical bent and Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, could see in Vrubel a clairvoyant artist “with an insane but blissful face. He is a messenger”[49].

Vrubel’s confession seemed like a sermon precisely in the same way as Wackenroder’s “Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar” [“Herzensergleßungen elnes kunstlieb-enden Klosterbruders”] was an aesthetic programme of German Romanticism. This was no accident. Russian Symbolism made an attempt to be Romanticism in its pure form - “the spirit that flows under any coagulating form and finally blows it up”[50], in order to break through, relying on the “sixth sense”, to the sole reality - the reality of other ontological worlds. They alone are what fills life, art and the world with meaning.

Whereas the mainstream Symbolism in painting was oriented towards the Symbolist poetry "inexpressible in words” - “the more poetic, the more authentic”[51] - Vrubel’s art became the paradigm and one of the pillars of this poetry. The tragic and luciferous symbols born from painting and which acquired their inexhaustible fullness in it alone, not only reflected esoteric philosophemes and discourses, but also pre-dated them. They bore unique non-verbal meanings that cannot be deciphered, carrying that which discovers itself. Only a thought unuttered is what is genuine in the absolute sense: “what we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence”[52].


  1. A. Blok. Noli tangere circulos meos. March 19, 1903 (March 16, 1918)
  2. Nikolai Berdyaev, Self-knowledge [Samopoznaniye], (Moscow, 1990), p. 152.
  3. V. Ivanov, Matters Native and Universal [Rodnoye i vselenskoye], (Moscow, 1994), pp. 155, 159.
  4. Vrubel. Correspondence. Memories of the Artist [Vrubel. Perepiska. Vospominaniya o khudozhnike], (Leningrad, 1976), p. 154.
  5. Ibid, p. 254.
  6. Alexandre Benois, My Memoirs [Moi vospominaniya], book 4, (Moscow, 1980), p. 190.
  7. Many aspects of the dialogue between A. Blok and M. Vrubel are highlighted in A. Rusakova’s book Symbolism in Russian Painting [Simvolizm v russkoy zhivopisi], (Moscow, 1995).
  8. Alexander Blok, On the Present Condition of Russian Symbolism [O sovremennom sostoyanii russ- kogo simvolizma], collected works in 6 volumes, vol. 4, (Leningrad, 1982), p. 145.
  9. A. Blok, Outline of an Article About Russian Poetry [Nabrosok stat'I o russkoy poezii], collected works, vol. 1, p. 469, vol. 5, p. 88.
  10. Vrubel. Correspondence [Vrubel. Perepiska], p. 259.
  11. Ibid, p. 167.
  12. Vasily Surikov, Letters. Memoirs About the Artist [Pis'ma. Vospomi- naniya o khudozhnike], (Leningrad, 1972), p. 268.
  13. V.F. Odoyevsky, The Sylph [Si'fida], collected works in 2 vol., vol. 2, (Moscow, 1981), p. 125.
  14. Plato, Ion, collected works in 4 vol., vol. 1, (Moscow, 1990), p. 377.
  15. Carl Jung, Synchronicity [Sinkhronistichnost'], (Moscow, 1997). p. 110.
  16. Vrubel, op. cit., p. 351.
  17. A. Blok, A. Bely, Correspondence [Perepiska], (Moscow, 1940), p. 35.
  18. Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, (St. Petersburg, 1995), p. 157.
  19. Vrubel, op. cit., pp. 135, 195; A. Benois, “Vrubel” in: Rech, 1910, Apr. 3.
  20. S.P. Yaremich, Opinions and Memoirs of His Contemporaries [Otsenki i vospominaniya sovre- mennikov], (St. Petersburg, 2005), p. 291.
  21. Vrubel, op. cit., p. 299.
  22. Carl Jung, The Phenomenon of Spirit in Art and Science [Fenomen dukha v iskusstve i nauke], (Moscow, 1992), p. 275.
  23. P. Florensky, Iconostasis. Selected Works on Art [Ikonostas. Izbrannye trudypo iskusstvu], (St. Petersburg, 1993), p. 65.
  24. A. Bely, At the Turn of the Century [Na rubezhe vekov], (Moscow, 1989), p. 38.
  25. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Gay Science [Vesyolaya nauka], collected works in 2 vol., vol. 1, (Moscow, 1990), p. 567.
  26. Vrubel, op. cit., p. 132.
  27. A. Rimbaud, Verses [Stikhi], (Moscow, 1982), p. 240.
  28. Vrubel, op. cit., pp. 37, 47, 55, 58, 134, 251, 294.
  29. N. Dmitrieva, Vrubel, (Leningrad, 1984), p. 26.
  30. This series was meaningfully analysed in the context of Vrubel’s understanding of art (including “silence as Vrubel’s element”), in M. Allenov’s article “Sketches of Vrubel’s Flower Pieces (18861887)” [“Etyudy tsvetov Vrubelya (1886-1887)”] in: Soviet Art Scholarship [Sovetskoye iskusstvoznaniye], 77, issue 2, (Moscow, 1978).
  31. Vrubel. Correspondence [Vrubel. Perepiska], p. 42.
  32. S. Beckett, The Trilogy[Trilogia], (St. Petersburg, 1994), p. 212.
  33. Ibid, p. 322.
  34. Vrubel, op. cit., p. 75.
  35. Ibid, p. 297.
  36. M. Foucault, History of Madness / Folie et Deraison: Histoire de la Folie a l'age Classique [Istoriya bezumiya v klassicheskuyu epokhu], (St. Petersburg, 1997), p. 524.
  37. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment [Prestupleniye i nakazaniye] in: Collected Works, 10 volumes, vol. 5, (Moscow, 1957), p. 59.
  38. P. Florensky, Iconostasis [Ikonostas], (St. Petersburg, 1993), p. 16.
  39. Vrubel. Correspondence [Vrubel. Perepiska], pp. 36, 66.
  40. F. Nietzsche, op. cit., pp. 551-552.
  41. S. Yaremich, op. cit., p. 289.
  42. Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Khlynovsk. A Euclidean Space. Samarkand [Khlynovsk. Prostranstvo Evklida. Samarkand], (Leningrad, 1982), pp. 361-362.
  43. F. Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 497.
  44. See: Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy [Istoriya zapadnoy filosofii], (St. Petersburg, 2001), p. 686.
  45. A. Bely, At the Turn of the Century [Na rubezhe vekov], p. 274.
  46. Vrubel, op. cit., p. 230.
  47. S. Yaremich, op. cit., p. 344.
  48. N. Dmitrieva, op. cit., p. 9.
  49. A. Blok, In Memory of Vrubel [Pamyati Vrubelya], ibid, p. 154.
  50. A. Blok, On Romanticism [O romantizme], op. cit., p. 360.
  51. F. Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 609.
  52. L. Wittgenstein, Selected Works [Izbrannye raboty], (Moscow, 2005), pp. 217, 219.
Main staircase in Savva and Zinaida Morozovs’ mansion
Main staircase in Savva and Zinaida Morozovs’ mansion. In the background: a sculptural group “Robert and the Nuns” with the stained glass “Meeting of the Warrior-Knight” behind. Photo: I.N. Aleksandrov 1890s. From Fyodor Schechtel’s album.
© Tretyаkov Gallery Photo Archive
Mikhail VRUBEL. Morning. 1897
Mikhail VRUBEL. Morning. 1897
Oil on canvas. 261 × 447 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Hamlet and Ophelia. Late 1883 - early 1894
Mikhail VRUBEL. Hamlet and Ophelia. Late 1883 - early 1894
Initial version of the painting with the same name (1884, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). Watercolour on paper mounted on cardboard. 24.4 × 16.7 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Portrait of Maria Artsybusheva. 1897
Mikhail VRUBEL. Portrait of Maria Artsybusheva. 1897
Unfinished. Oil on canvas. 124.9 × 80.2 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. Betrothal of Mary and Joseph. 1881
Mikhail VRUBEL. Betrothal of Mary and Joseph. 1881.
Sketch made within the academic programme. Ink, sepia, feather on paper mounted on cardboard. 69.7 × 61.7 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Mother of God with Infant. 1884–1885
Mikhail VRUBEL. Mother of God with Infant. 1884–1885.
Icon sketch (life-size) for iconostasis of St. Cyril’s Church in Kyiv. Charcoal, whitewash on paper. 193.2 × 73 cm.
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. Mother of God with Infant. 1885
Mikhail VRUBEL. Mother of God with Infant. 1885
Image from iconostasis in St. Cyril’s Church in Kyiv. Oil on zinc plate, gilding. 192.9 × 79.8 cm. Photograph
Mikhail VRUBEL. The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. Early 1906
Mikhail VRUBEL. The Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. Early 1906
Charcoal, watercolour, gouache, coloured pencil on cardboard. 102.3 × 55.1 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Scenes from the Life of Romans (Feasting Romans). 1883
Mikhail VRUBEL. Scenes from the Life of Romans (Feasting Romans). 1883
Watercolour, whitewash, Italian and lead pencil on paper. 44.7 × 53.9 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. White Iris. 1886–1888
Mikhail VRUBEL. White Iris. 1886–1888
Watercolour, lead pencil on paper. 24.1 × 16 cm
Kyiv Picture Gallery National Museum, Ukraine
Mikhail VRUBEL. Red Azalea. Two Flowers. 1886–1888
Mikhail VRUBEL. Red Azalea. Two Flowers. 1886-1888
Watercolour, lead pencil on paper. 24 × 15.9 cm
© Kyiv Picture Gallery National Museum, Ukraine
Mikhail VRUBEL. Roses. Sketch. Circa 1886
Mikhail VRUBEL. Roses. Sketch. Circa 1886
Watercolour on paper. 18.7 × 20.7 cm.
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. Orchid. 1886–1887
Mikhail VRUBEL. Orchid. 1886–1887
Watercolour, lead pencil on paper. 24 × 15.8 cm
© Kyiv Picture Gallery National Museum, Ukraine
Mikhail VRUBEL. Spain. 1894
Mikhail VRUBEL. Spain. 1894
Oil on canvas. 248 × 89 cm.
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. Venice. 1893
Mikhail VRUBEL. Venice. 1893.
Decorative panel designed for the house of Konstantin and Yelizaveta Dunker. Oil on canvas. 319 × 134 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Girl and Persian Rug. 1886
Mikhail VRUBEL. Girl and Persian Rug. 1886.
Oil on canvas. 104.5 × 68.4 cm.
© Kyiv Picture Gallery National Museum, Ukraine
Mikhail VRUBEL. Silence. 1883
Mikhail VRUBEL. Silence. 1883.
Watercolour on paper. 27.6 × 24 cm
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Still Life (Candlestick, Decanter and Glass)
Mikhail VRUBEL. Still Life (Candlestick, Decanter and Glass)
Lead pencil on paper. 24.9 × 17.7 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Portrait of Savva Mamontov. 1897
Mikhail VRUBEL. Portrait of Savva Mamontov. 1897
Oil on canvas. 187 × 142.5 cm.
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. A Person Sleeping on a Bed
Mikhail VRUBEL. A Person Sleeping on a Bed
Lead pencil on paper. 11.2 × 17.7 cm. On the reverse: Pillow. Sketch
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Bed
Mikhail VRUBEL. Bed
Lead pencil on paper. 23 х 33 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Tamara and the Demon. 1890-1891
Mikhail VRUBEL. Tamara and the Demon. 1890-1891
Black watercolour, whitewash, scratching on paper mounted on cardboard. 96 × 65 cm.
© Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Mikhail VRUBEL. Marcella Bedspread. (Bed with a Sleeping Person)
Mikhail VRUBEL. Marcella Bedspread. (Bed with a Sleeping Person).
Lead pencil on paper. 18.5 × 26 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Mikhail VRUBEL. Throw on a Chair
Mikhail VRUBEL. Throw on a Chair
Lead pencil on paper. 22 × 17.5 cm.
© Russian Museum, St. Petersburg





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